Bankrate's Cards Madness Semi-Finals
Pen Cristobal/Bankrate

Advertiser Disclosure: The credit card offers that appear on the website are from companies from which this site receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). This site does not include all credit card companies or available credit card offers. Information about credit cards and card offers is accurate as of the date of publication.

*Editor’s note: Information about credit cards and card offers is accurate as of the date of publication. Some of the offers on this page may no longer be available. 

In Round 1 of Bankrate Cards Madness, we saw which cards had the goods to separate themselves from the pack. This week, in the regional semi-finals, we’ll find out which ones have real staying power.

The new matchups across our four card categories will reveal new pros and cons, and provide perspective on how lower-level features add value. Tip-off starts now!

Go to live action

Business Region:

(#1) Capital One Spark Cash for Business vs. (#6) CitiBusiness/AAdvantage Platinum Select World Mastercard

Rewards Rate 2% cash back on all purchases 2 AAdvantage miles per dollar on qualifying American Airlines purchases. 2 AAdvantage miles on telecommunications, car rentals, cable and satellite providers and gas stations. 1 AAdvantage mile per dollar spent on other purchases
Intro Bonus $500 after spending $4,500 in the first 3 months of account opening 60,000 bonus miles after $3,000 in purchases during first 3 months.
Annual Fee $95,waived first year $99, waived the first year
Regular APR 19.24% variable 17.99% – 25.99% variable
Regular Season Title Best for cash back with no annual fee during the first year Best for business travelers who fly American

After the CitiBusiness/AAdvantage Platinum Select World Mastercard pulled off the first round upset over the number three ranked card in the business region, it’s rewarded with a face-off against the region’s top-ranked card. Though the Capital One Spark Cash for Business rides a wave of momentum into the semi-finals, it’s not taking the Platinum Select lightly. Both cards look to raise their game as the field tightens.

1st Half

The Platinum Select sizes up nicely with the Spark Cash for Business. They both present similar welcome offers on paper – and early on, the Spark Cash for Business offers $500 after spending $4,500 in the first three months– which doesn’t look to be as big of an advantage in this matchup. It’s apparent that the Spark Cash for Business needs to adjust to the aggressive approach of its travel card opponent.

The Spark Cash for Business spreads the ball around with its 2% cash back on all purchases, hoping to pick up the pace. The Platinum Select doesn’t back down, matching with its 2-2-2 offense. As the first half winds to a close, both cards trade a flurry of fast breaks, highlighting no foreign transaction fees, purchase security benefits, premium travel benefits and waived annual fees during the first year.

2nd Half

Even after a hard-fought first half, the high earning rates on both cards give them fresh legs coming out of the locker room. Neither want to give any ground. After nailing a few outside jump shots, the Platinum Select goes to its bench for a mileage rebate worth 10% of your miles back every calendar year, for up to 10,000 miles (benefit removed effective May 1, 2019). The Spark Cash for Business is momentarily jarred, but stays the course with fundamentals – no bonus categories and no redemption threshold. In the end, those fundamentals, along with a little more flexibility, prove to outlast the gutsy showing from the Citi card. The Spark Cash for Business punches its ticket to the regional finals.

Moving on:

Capital One Spark Cash for Business

(#2) Bank of America® Business Advantage Cash Rewards Mastercard® credit card vs. (#5) Capital One Spark Miles for Business

Rewards Rate Earn 3% cash back on your choice of one of the following six categories: gas stations (default), office supply stores, travel, TV/telecom & wireless, computer services or business consulting services, 2% cash back on dining (for the first $50,000 in combined choice category/dining purchases each calendar year, 1% thereafter) and 1% cash back on all other purchases Unlimited 2 miles per dollar on every purchase.
Intro Bonus $300 statement credit when you make at least $3,000 in net purchases within 90 days of your account opening 50,000 miles after $4,500 spent in the first 3 months.
Annual Fee $0 $95, waived the first year
Regular APR 14.49% – 24.49% variable 19.24% variable
Regular Season Title Best cash back for Bank of America customers Best for simple business travel rewards

The Bank of America® Business Advantage Cash Rewards Mastercard® – a heavy-hitter in the region – faces off against the talented Capital One® Spark® Miles for Business. Both cards have eyes for the regional finals, but only one has the rewards stamina to get there. Will it be cash back, or miles that win out?

1st Half

Just as it did in the previous round, the Spark Miles for Business comes out hot with its big lineup of 50,000 bonus miles after spending $4,500 in the first three months. The experience of the Business Advantage shows at it counters by going small but quick with its $300 statement credit when you make at least $3,000 in net purchases within 90 days of your account opening. The chess match is underway.

The 3-2-1 cash back offense of the Business Advantage proves formidable again from beyond the arc. As the Spark Miles for Business tries to roll defenders outside to combat it, they’re left vulnerable in the paint by not allowing remote account management or the ability to track employee spending. The first half ends with the Business Advantage protecting a slight lead and the Spark Miles for Business looking a little gassed.

2nd Half

The Business Advantage looks to cement its control in this half by emphasizing its high earning rate for gas station and office supply purchases combined with no annual fee. The Spark Miles for Business, prepared for the attack, gains ground by simplifying the game plan – 2 miles for every dollar, even after the $95 annual fee kicks in. It throws in some added redemption flexibility through a bevy of transfer partners. The Business Advantage commits some late uncharacteristic turnovers by not being as valuable for non-Bank of America customers, and not offering rewards transfer capabilities. It’s forced to start fouling. After knocking down a few high-pressure free throws through a highly-rated customer service package, the Spark Miles for Business pulls off the win in a stunner.

Moving on:

Capital One Spark Miles for Business

Travel Region:

(#1) Citi Prestige vs. (#4) Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

Rewards Rate Unlimited 2x points on dining and travel; 1x points on all other purchases 5x ThankYou Points on air travel and restaurants, 3x on cruise lines and hotels, 1x on all other purchases
Intro Bonus 60,000 points after spending $4,000 within the first three months 50,000 Points after spending $4,000 within the first three months
Annual Fee $95 $495
Regular APR 18.24% – 25.24% variable 17.99% – 25.99% variable
Regular Season Title Best for pairing Best overall rewards structure

A beginner-focused card faces off against a top-tier card in this semi-final matchup. No guarantees here, though. The CSP has experience holding its own against premier credit cards.

1st Half

The Prestige takes the ball at tip-off. 5x ThankYou Points on air travel and restaurants, plus 3x on cruise lines and hotels, is a strong starting lineup. Not to be outdone, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card edges ahead with their 60,000-point intro bonus after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months, worth an impressive $750 when redeemed for travel — the Prestige’s intro bonus is only worth $500.

Later in the half, the Prestige once again edges ahead with its luxury travel perks, including Priority Pass Select membership, Citi Concierge services, a $250 travel credit and more. The CSP tries to match with its travel warranties and insurances, but it just doesn’t have the same depth as the Citi Prestige.

2nd Half

After taking a breather in the locker room, the CSP comes out strong in the second half. With a significantly lower annual fee, they’re able to score a couple of layups to reclaim some momentum. Its ability to pair well with other Chase cards to maximize earning potential across multiple categories gives it some hope.

Despite the late run, the Citi Prestige is able to ride out the rest game on their incredible first-half performance. While the Chase Sapphire Preferred certainly put up an amazing fight, it just couldn’t overtake the myriad of luxury benefits and travel credits that come with the Citi Prestige.

Moving on:

Citi Prestige

(#2) Chase Sapphire Reserve vs. (#3) Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card

Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card
Rewards Rate Unlimited 3x points on travel (after using the $300 travel credit) and dining; 1x points on all other purchases 14x points on eligible Hilton purchases; 7x points at U.S. restaurants, eligible rental car purchases and eligible flights; 3x points on all other eligible purchases
Intro Bonus 50,000 points after spending $4,000 within the first three months 150,000 Hilton Honors Bonus Points after you spend $4,000 within the first 3 months
Annual Fee $450 $450
Regular APR 19.24% – 26.24%variable 17.99% – 26.99% variable
Regular Season Title Best for flexible luxury rewards Best for Hilton loyalists

This is the true test of whether co-branded cards can take on more flexible issuer rewards. While the Hilton Honors Aspire boasts a strong rewards structure, the CSR has a few tricks up its sleeve.

1st Half

Hilton scores a few layups early with their impressive rewards structure and intro-bonus. Between the two, cardholders can earn Hilton Honors Diamond Status, Hilton’s top-tier elite status. However, the Chase Sapphire Reserve refuses to let Hilton get comfortable — hitting a 3-point streak. 3x points on airfare, 3x points on rideshare apps, 3x points on dining in or takeout.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve continues its incredible first-half run with a $300 travel credit, TSA PreCheck/Global Entry application fee credit, Priority Pass Select membership and other luxury perks. Hilton fights back with a $100 on-property credit, $250 airline incidentals credit and two Weekend Night Rewards. The first half ends with Chase in the lead.

2nd Half

Chase comes out in dominant form in this half. The flexibility that the card offers simply can’t be matched by Hilton. Chase Ultimate Rewards points are worth 1.5 cents each when redeemed for travel through the portal with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, while Hilton’s points are typically redeemed for far less value. With the combination of higher-value points and their impressive list of transfer partners that allow you to transfer points at a 1:1 ratio, the Chase Sapphire Reserve sails ahead to capture an easy W.

Moving on:

Chase Sapphire Reserve

*The information for the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card has been collected independently by Bankrate.com. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Cash Back Region:

(#1)Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card vs. (#6)Chase Freedom®

Rewards Rate 4% cash back on dining and entertainment, 2% cash back at grocery stores, 1% cash back on all other purchases. 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in bonus categories each quarter you activate; enjoy new categories each quarter, unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases — it’s automatic!
Intro Bonus $500 after you spend $3,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening. Earn a $150 bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening.
Annual Fee $95, waived first year $0
Regular APR 16.74% – 25.74% variable 17.24% – 25.99% variable
Regular Season Title Best cash back intro bonus Best cash back Chase card

Savor had a strong showing in the first round thanks to its large intro bonus and high rewards rates with unlimited earning potential. Freedom had a signature tournament moment as well by knocking off its little brother, Freedom Unlimited.

Today’s matchup is one of rewards rates and versatility; annual fees and intro bonuses. A duel between the young up-and-comer and the perennial cash back all-star. Here goes nothin’.

1st Half

Both of these cards offer what a lot of cash back cardholders are looking for: high earning potential. Freedom’s 5% cash back (on up to $1,500 per quarter on rotating bonus categories, then 1%) and Savor’s unlimited 4% cash back on dining and entertainment are the big draws. Freedom’s cap on rewards is its biggest disadvantage in this matchup — it’s unlikely that you’ll earn much more than $75 in cash back in a quarter.

Savor’s robust intro bonus is a key differentiator; after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months, you’ll earn $500. Freedom’s $150 bonus (after spending $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening) simply can’t compete.

2nd Half

As the year goes on, you may find that Freedom’s rotating bonus categories don’t necessarily align with your spending habits. Even if they do, the cap on rewards will limit what you earn. Savor supplements its biggest bonus category with unlimited 2% cash back at grocery stores and 1% on all other purchases. While Freedom also offers 1% cash back on non-bonus-category spending, it offers 5% back in only 2-3 tiers per quarter, unlike Savor.

At this point in the game, it’s clear that Savor is in control. In a last-ditch effort to take the lead, Freedom calls attention to its $0 annual fee. Savor does carry a $95 annual fee, but it’s waived the first year. Savor retains the lead and cruises to victory.

Moving on:

Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card

(#7) U.S. Bank Cash+™ Visa Signature® Card vs. (#4) Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card

Rewards Rate 5% cash back on your first $2,000 in eligible net purchases each quarter on the combined two categories you choose, 2% cash back on your choice of one everyday category, like gas stations or grocery stores, 1% cash back on all other eligible net purchases. Earn 3% cash back in your choice category (up to $2,500 in combined choice category/grocery store/wholesale club quarterly purchases), earn 2% cash back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs (up to $2,500 in combined choice category/grocery store/wholesale club quarterly purchases), earn unlimited 1% on all other purchases.
Intro Bonus $150 after you spend $500 in eligible net purchases in the first 90 days of account opening. $200 online cash rewards bonus after you spend at least $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days of account opening.
Annual Fee $0 $0
Regular APR 16.24% 25.74% variable 16.24% – 26.24% variable APR on purchases and balance transfers
Regular Season Title Best for rotating bonus categories Best for personalized rewards

This battle is what Cards Madness is all about. Two underrated cards with their own unique takes on what cash back cards should offer people. Rewards rates worthy of attention, rare earning structures — it’s a matchup that completely reads: “instant classic.”

The U.S. Bank card is coming off its first-round upset of Discover it® Cash Back and the Bank of America card is heading into this round brimming with confidence. Let’s see where this one takes us.

1st Half

U.S. Bank Cash+ keeps the momentum going with a strong start to its second-round matchup. By simply offering 5% cash back (on your first $2,000 in eligible net purchases each quarter on the combined two categories you choose) at all, this card serves people looking to earn rewards that quickly add up. What makes the U.S. Bank card better than most 5% cash back cards is its flexibility and higher cap on rewards. You’ll be able to choose two categories that match your spending habits and you’ll accumulate $100 in cash back each quarter before your rewards rate drops to 1% (with other 5% cash back cards, that number is usually $75).

Bank of America’s cash back card is no slouch, though. It also allows you to pick the category in which you spend the most frequently. Additionally, the cap on earnings only goes into effect after $2,500 in quarterly bonus-category spending. Because of its higher cap, you could potentially earn as much as you would with a card like Discover it Cash Back or Chase Freedom® on a quarterly basis (before rewards rates drop to 1%).

Since both the U.S. Bank card and Bank of America card have supplementary bonus categories, they are an extremely competitive matchup. With identical intro bonuses, they are neck and neck by halftime.

2nd Half

Although you can choose your own top bonus categories with the U.S. Bank card, you may find that not all available categories leave a lot of room for heavy spend (fast food, movie theaters, bookstores, etc.). For a lot of people, only a couple of available bonus categories may be of any use. This restriction injures the U.S. Bank card’s star player – flexible reward categories. Further, this card offers no intro APR on purchases. To avoid interest payments, you’ll have to pay your balance in full every month, right from the start. U.S. Bank falls behind.

The Bank of America card offers a 12-month intro APR on purchases and balance transfers (then a variable APR of 16.24% – 26.24%). If you’re looking to capitalize on payment flexibility while earning rewards, that particular benefit gives Bank of America an advantage.

Still, this game is ultimately about the rewards. It’s hard to ignore the fact that you can potentially earn $400 per year with the U.S. Bank Cash+ card (in the top-earning bonus categories alone) before rewards rates drop. By the way, earnings on its 2% cash back category are unlimited. Collecting rewards at a steady pace throughout the game, the U.S. Bank card simply can’t be beat. Can you say “Cinderella?”

Moving on:

U.S. Bank Cash+ Visa Signature

No-Annual-Fee Region:

(#1) Citi Rewards+℠ Card vs. (#2) Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card

Wells Fargo Image
Rewards Rate 2x points at gas stations and supermarkets (up to $6,000 in purchases annually, then 1x) Plus, all earned points are rounded to the nearest 10 3X rewards points on dining, travel and gas station purchases
Intro Bonus 15,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 within first 3 months of account opening 30,000 points after spending $3,000 within first 3 months of ownership
Annual Fee $0 $0
Regular APR 15.74% – 25.74% variable 16.24%-28.24% variable
Regular Season Title Best new arrival Best for people on the go

1st Half

The Citi Rewards+ lived up to its lofty expectations as the top seed with a convincing first-round victory. And right at the tip off, it comes out swinging with included rental car insurance that covers up to $50,000 toward the cost of repairs in the event of an accident. But the Wells Fargo Propel American Express slows the attack with up to $600 worth of monthly cell phone protection, meeting the Citi Rewards+ with an unexpected perk of its own.

2nd Half

Coming out of the tunnel, the cards are neck and neck. The Citi Rewards+ continues to pepper the competition with up to $5,000 in yearly trip cancellation ($1,500 per trip), while the Propel counters with its own lost luggage insurance and extended warranties on certain purchases.

Ultimately it’s the Citi Rewards+ that comes out on top, continuing to round up cardholders’ purchases to the nearest ten points. It’s a feature no other card in the tournament can bring to the table (fee or no-fee). It’s just too much for the Propel, which puts up one last gallant effort with 3X reward points on select purchases. The Citi Rewards+ moves on, but the Propel bows out with plenty of promise for next year.

The information related to the Wells Fargo Propel American Express Card has been collected by Bankrate and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer or provider of this product or service.

Moving on:

Citi Rewards+

(#3) Citi® Double Cash Card vs. (#5) Capital One® VentureOne

Rewards Rate 2% cash back on everything (1% at purchase, 1% at payment) 10x miles at eligible hotels purchased through hotels.com/venture through January 2020, 1.25x miles on every purchase
Intro Bonus None 20,000 miles after spending $1,000 in the first 3 months of account opening
Annual Fee $0 $0
Regular APR 15.74% – 25.74% variable 14.24% – 24.24% variable
Regular Season Title Best low maintenance card with general rewards Best all around travel rewards

1st Half

The Citi Double Cash comes charging out of the gate with its marquee feature: 2% cash back on everything. That’s 1% back at the original purchase, and 1% back at bill payment. It’s enough to establish an early lead on the Capital One VentureOne Rewards, but not by much. The VentureOne Rewards tempers the attack with a mileage program boasting no limits, no expiration dates, no blackout dates and 14 airline loyalty programs with reciprocal agreements for fast and easy points transfer. An exciting first half.

2nd Half

Riding its momentum into the 2nd half, the Citi Double Cash continues to play within its game, balancing its free concierge with its trademark Lost Wallet Services — providing emergency cash advances and replacement cards within 24 hours. The Citi Double Cash continues pushes the pace with theft protection and 0% APR on the first 18 months of a balance transfer (followed by a variable APR of 15.74% – 25.74%).

VentureOne Rewards strikes back with its own 24/7 travel assistance services, ready and willing to find customers an emergency card replacement, legal help or transportation while overseas. The Citi Double Cash, however, keeps its foot on the gas, countering again with virtually limitless redemption opportunities and no caps on cash back. The Double Cash moves on and setting the stage for a Citi vs. Citi regional finals matchup that should be a good one.

Moving on:

Citi® Double Cash Card

On to the regional finals!

The table is set for an exciting regional finals. These cards will vie for a coveted spot in the Bankrate Four. Which cards will be crowned? Are there any more upsets on the horizon? See you on March 22!

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. Bankrate.com is an independent, advertising-supported publisher and comparison service. This post contains references to our partners, and Bankrate may be compensated in exchange for featured placement of certain sponsored products and services, or your clicking on certain links posted on this website.