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Best rewards credit cards – Top Picks for 2016

By Mitch Strohm · Bankrate.com
Monday, October 17, 2016
Posted: 9 am ET


This editorial content is not provided or commissioned by any of the referenced financial institutions or companies. Opinions, analysis, reviews or recommendations expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any financial institutions or companies, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any such entity. All products or services are presented without warranty.

Best cash back credit cards

Photo Credit: John Cumming/Getty Images

The best rewards credit cards boast attractive cash back percentages, travel rewards, appealing sign-up bonuses and simple redemption models.

Rewards credit cards can be divided into 2 general categories: travel and cash back cards. Some rewards cards offer a combo of those and points instead of straight cash back. The card that's best for you depends on your lifestyle and personal financial goals.

Travel rewards cards typically offer perks and bonuses for spending on items such as airline purchases, dining, restaurants and hotels.

Cash back cards generally offer a percentage back for daily spending, cash back on specific categories and bonus cash for spending a specific amount within a certain time frame.

In October 2016, CreditCards.com rounded up some of the best credit cards from its partners, including the best rewards credit cards.

Here are the some of the best rewards credit cards, according to the October 2016 roundup from CreditCards.com:

The best rewards credit cards
Credit Card Variable APR Category
Chase Freedom Unlimited 14.24% to 23.24% Top all-around rewards card
Citi® Double Cash Credit Card 13.24% and 23.24% Top no annual fee rewards card
Blue Cash Preferred® Card 13.24% and 23.24% Top cash-back rewards card
Chase Sapphire Reserve 16.24% and 23.24% Top travel and airline rewards card
Chase Sapphire Preferred® 16.24% to 23.24% Top points rewards card

1. Top all-around rewards credit card: Chase Freedom Unlimited

CreditCards.com rated the Chase Freedom Unlimited credit card as one of the best for all-around rewards. With multiple redemption options, it offers unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase made. This card also boasts a $150 statement credit after spending $500 within 3 months of opening the account.

Highlights:

  • The Chase Freedom Unlimited card pays 1.5% cash back on every purchase.
  • Chase Freedom Unlimited cardholders earn a solid $150 bonus statement credit for spending $500 purchases within the first 3 months of opening an account.
  • This card allows you to redeem rewards for cash in any amount at any time. Those cash back rewards don't expire as long as the account is open.
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards® points, worth 1 cent, can be transferred to other Chase cards that earn Chase Ultimate Rewards® points. Points can be redeemed for gift cards and trips booked through Chase.

Fees and APR:

  • The Chase Freedom Unlimited card has no annual fee.
  • This card offers a 0% intro APR for 15 months on purchases and balance transfers.
  • After the initial introductory period, the Chase Freedom Unlimited card offers a variable APR of 14.24% to 23.24%.
  • There's a balance transfer fee of 5% of the amount transferred with a $5 minimum on the Chase Freedom Unlimited Card.

Who should get this card:

  • The Chase Freedom Unlimited is ideal for the consumer who wants a straightforward card for everyday purchases.
  • Anyone looking for a wide range of redemption options will enjoy this card's versatility.
  • The Chase Freedom Unlimited is especially useful for those who already hold other high-end Chase cards – like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or the Ink Plus Business Card -- since Chase Ultimate Rewards® can be transferred to other Chase cards.

Disadvantages: While the Chase Freedom Unlimited has its perks – like unlimited rewards points – it has its limitations as well.

  • Its cash-back rewards are middle of the road. The Chase Freedom Unlimited card's rate on cash back is good, but it's not the highest flat-rate available. The Citi® Double Dash Card offers 1% cash back on every dollar spent plus an additional 1% on every dollar that's paid off.
  • There are no bonus categories. Perhaps the biggest downside to the Chase Freedom Unlimited is that it doesn't offer bonus categories. Those who spend frequently in one area may find that a card with bonus categories offers more value.

Bottom line:

The Chase Freedom Unlimited card is a solid all around choice as a flat-rate card for rewards on everyday spending. It might be best utilized alongside another Chase card or bonus category card that offers higher percentages on spending in specific categories.

2. Top no annual fee rewards card: Citi® Double Cash Credit Card

The Citi® Double Cash Credit Card recently took 1st place in CreditCard.com's cash back credit card competition for its industry-leading cash back on everyday purchases. But it also made the site's October 2016 list as the top no annual fee credit card. It has a simple rewards structure with no categories to track, no caps on cash back and no annual fee.

Highlights:

  • The opportunity to earn generous rewards using the Citi® Double Cash credit card is what makes it stand out from the crowd. It offers 1% cash back on general purchases and an additional 1% when you pay your bill on time.
  • There's no limit on what you can earn in cash back with this card. You can start redeeming for as little as $25. Redemption options include a statement credit, a gift card or a check.
  • As a perk for some, the Citi® Double Cash credit card has no rotating categories requiring cardholders to remember to opt in and score rewards.
  • The Citi® Double Cash card has no annual fee, making it cheaper than some competing cards, such as the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express.
  • Not only does the Citi® Double Cash offer generous cash back rewards, it has perks including purchase protection and trip cancellation protection.
  • Citi® Double Cash cardholders can benefit from the Citi Price Rewind program. The company will automatically search for lower prices on items registered online and refund the difference on better deals.

Fees and APR:

  • There's no annual fee with the Citi® Double Cash credit card.
  • This card comes with a 0% APR on balance transfers for 18 months. That makes it a good option for those interested in consolidating and paying down debt.
  • This card comes with a variable APR between 13.24% and 23.24%.

Who should get this card:

  • The Citi® Double Cash credit card is best for those who would like a flat-rate, everyday cash back card with no limits on rewards and an easy-to-use rewards structure.
  • Those looking for simplicity in a card will also find this card ideal. There's no chasing bonus categories, no rotating categories and no annual fee.

Disadvantages: The opportunity to earn cash back twice and the simplicity of this card make it a very attractive option, but there are some drawbacks.

  • Carrying a balance can eat up rewards with this card. Interest charges can add up quick on this card's 13.24% to 23.24% variable APR.
  • You have to pay on time. In order to earn cash back twice, the card requires you to pay your bill on time each month. If you typically carry a balance, or often fail to pay on time, this may not be the card for you.
  • There's no sign-up bonus. Sign-up bonuses are something you'll find on many competing cards, but not on the Citi® Double Cash.
  • There are no bonus categories. This card certainly has a high rewards rate, but there's no opportunity to earn more for spending in certain categories. If you frequently spend big on a particular category – like groceries – you may want to consider another card.

Bottom line:

The Citi® Double Cash credit card is a great option for straight cash back rewards. It doesn't offer bonus categories, but it’s a great go-to card for earning rewards on daily purchases. Consider using this card alongside another card that offers more for where you spend the most.

3. Top cash back card: Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express tied for 2nd place with the Chase Freedom Unlimited card in CreditCard.com's recent cash back card competition. It earns big kudos for very generous rewards on categories – 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets and 3% cash back on gas stations and select department stores.

Highlights:

  • The Blue Cash Preferred® is a top-notch card for high rewards rates on categories. It offers 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets up to $6,000 per year. It also offers 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations and select department stores.
  • On general purchases, this card pays 1%.
  • For the 1st 6 months, the Blue Cash Preferred® card offers 5% cash back on eligible travel purchases up to $200.
  • The Blue Cash Preferred® offers a $150 statement credit after spending $1,000 within the 1st 3 months of opening an account.
  • Other perks with the Blue Cash Preferred® include a cash back tracker, purchase protection, return protection and roadside assistance.

Fees:

  • The Blue Cash Preferred® credit card has a variable APR between 13.24% and 23.24%, comparable to the other cards on this list.
  • This card has a $95 annual fee, which is on the high side. But the generous rewards program, when used properly, can offset that fee.

Who should get this card:

  • The Blue Cash Preferred® credit card is best for those who spend big on groceries, gas and department stores.
  • Those who already have a card for everyday spending might find this card as a nice supplement. Pair this card with an everyday flat-rate card to get more for your money where you spend the most.
  • The 0% APR on purchases and balance transfers for 12 months make the Blue Cash Preferred® credit card a good option for anyone interested in financing a big purchase or consolidating and paying down debt.

Disadvantages: The outstanding rewards on categories make the Blue Cash Preferred® credit card from American Express an attractive option, but it's not without its limitations.

  • It has a spending cap. The $6,000 annual spending cap on groceries means the most you could earn is $360 at 6% before the relatively low 1% rate kicks in.
  • It's not as widely accepted. American Express isn't as widely used as Visa, MasterCard and Discover. That might make it necessary to keep a backup card, or to use this card strategically with others.
  • The $95 annual fee is higher than other cash-back cards. You'll need to make sure you spend often in this card's bonus categories to get the most value.

Bottom line:

The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express can be used as an everyday card, but it really shines as a bonus category card. It might best be used alongside a card like the Citi® Double Cash or Chase Freedom Unlimited.

CARD SEARCH: Compare the top rewards credit cards.

4. Top travel and airline credit card: Chase Sapphire Reserve

The Chase Sapphire Reserve cards earns high ratings on CreditCards.com's best credit cards for October 2016 list for its travel and airline rewards. It offers generous bonus points, an annual $300 travel credit and a top-notch rewards system.

Highlights:

  • The Chase Sapphire Reserve offers 3 Chase Ultimate Rewards® points per dollar spent on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide. It offers 1 point per dollar spent on other purchases.
  • Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders receive up to $300 in statement credits annually as a reimbursement for travel purchases on things like airfare and hotels charged to the card.
  • As one of its biggest perks, Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders can earn 100,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months after opening the account. Overall, that's a $1,500 travel reward when redeemed through Chase Ultimate Rewards® program.
  • Points can be redeemed for 1.5 cents per point through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
  • This card offers access to more than 900 airport lounges worldwide with complimentary Priority Pass Select membership.
  • Cardholders can get up to a $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre√®.
  • As another perk, there are no blackout dates or travel restrictions with this card. If there's a seat on the flight, it can be booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards.
  • Cardholders can transfer points to one of Chase's partner airline or hotel loyalty programs at a 1:1 rate.

Fees:

  • The Chase Sapphire Reserve card has an annual fee of $450, similar to other cards in its class like the Citi Prestige® Card. But the sign-up bonus alone could pay for the first 3 years of the card, assuming you spend $4,000 within the first 3 months of opening the card to earn 100,000 bonus points.
  • This card comes with a variable APR between 16.24% and 23.24%.

Who should get this card:

  • The Chase Sapphire Reserve card is best for the avid traveler who spends big on travel and dining and is fine with redeeming rewards through Chase Ultimate Rewards® program.

Disadvantages: The Chase Sapphire Reserve offers big rewards to the frequent traveler, but it's not without its downsides.

  • The card's hefty $450 annual fee can certainly eat into rewards if you're not spending heavily on travel and dining related expenses.
  • You'll get the most benefit from this card by redeeming through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® program. If it's not a program you're fond of, it might be best to find another card.

The bottom line

Overall, the Chase Sapphire Reserve card is a solid choice for the frequent traveler. Its points program and bonus can more than make up for the somewhat hefty $450 annual fee. But you'll need to spend big in order to enjoy the benefits of this card.

5. Top points rewards credit card: Chase Sapphire Preferred® card

Generous points, a stellar sign-up bonus and a low annual fee put the Chase Sapphire Preferred® card on the map as the best points rewards card. It made CreditCard.com's list of best credit cards for October 2016. While its points aren't as generous as the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, its annual fee is much lower. The Chase Sapphire Preferred® pays 2 points per dollar on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide. It pays 1 point per dollar on all other purchases.

Highlights:

  • The Chase Sapphire Preferred® offers cardholders 2 points per dollar on travel and restaurants worldwide. All other purchases on this card earn 1 point per dollar.
  • Cardholders can earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 within the first 3 months of opening the account. Notably, that's $625 toward travel when redeemed through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® program.
  • For adding an authorized user within the first 3 months of opening an account, this card offers $5,000 bonus points.
  • Cardholders can transfer points to one of Chase's partner airline or hotel loyalty programs at a 1:1 rate.
  • There are no blackout dates or travel restrictions with this card. If there's a seat on the flight, it can be booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.

Fees:

  • The Chase Sapphire Preferred® credit card has a $0 introductory fee for the first year. After that, the fee is $95 per year, or $355 less than the Chase Sapphire Reserve card.
  • This card has a variable APR from 16.24% to 23.24%.
  • There are no foreign transaction fees with this card.

Who should get this card:

  • The Chase Sapphire Preferred® card is ideal for someone interested in an everyday, low-fee travel card with an outstanding sign-up bonus.
  • Frequent travelers who are comfortable using the Chase Unlimited Rewards will find this card even more useful. When redeemed through the program, points are worth 25% more.

Disadvantages: The generous points and sign-up bonus make the Chase Sapphire Preferred® a go-to for the frequent traveler, but it has a few disadvantages.

  • Those who don't spend enough to earn the sign-up bonus or pay for the annual fee won't benefit much from this card.
  • Travel options are somewhat limited with this card. You'll need to fly on one of Chase's travel partners – like United, Virgin Atlantic or Southwest – to get the most out of it.

The bottom line:

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® credit card is a great choice if you spend big on travel and dining at restaurants. It's also a good option if you typically use Chase's travel partners. But if you're not a big spender and need more flexible traveling options, it's wise to choose a different card.


This editorial content is not provided or commissioned by any of the referenced financial institutions or companies. Opinions, analysis, reviews or recommendations expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any financial institutions or companies, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any such entity. All products or services are presented without warranty.

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