American Express defended its crown in the annual J.D. Power U.S. Credit Card Satisfaction Study, claiming the top spot for the fourth year in a row and the 13th time in the 17-year history of the report. Discover tied for second, continuing its string of finishing first or second every year since the study’s inception in 2007. Bank of America joined Discover in that second-place dead heat, marking the first time that a card issuer other than Amex or Discover earned a first- or second-place designation (including ties).

In a new twist, J.D. Power awarded honors to specific credit cards as well. Among cards that charge annual fees, the Bank of America® Premium Rewards® Elite Credit Card* set the pace with a 712 score, the highest in any market segment. The American ExpressⓇ Gold Card was second (693) and The Platinum CardⓇ from American Express was third (687).

In the no-annual-fee category, the blue ribbon went to the Capital One SavorOne Cash Rewards Credit Card (666). The Discover itⓇ Student Cash Back card (658) was next, followed by the Blue Cash EverydayⓇ Card from American Express (655).

There were also winners for co-branded credit cards with no annual fee (Apple Card*, 655), airline co-branded credit cards (the JetBlue Plus Card*, 643) and bank credit cards with no rewards or annual fee (the Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card, 620).

Rewards take a hit

“Despite continual efforts by card issuers to build ever more competitive rewards programs, rewards earning has the lowest level of overall satisfaction of the seven factors evaluated in the study,” J.D. Power researchers wrote. “This is driven by less favorable ratings on the amount of rewards earned per dollar spent, especially among cash back cardholders.”

I’m surprised by this. Given how high inflation has been the past couple of years, I’d argue that rewards are more valuable than ever.

For example, let’s say you used to pay for groceries with cash or a debit card that didn’t earn any rewards. Moving that routine spending to the Blue Cash PreferredⓇ Card from American Express would give you 6 percent cash back at U.S. supermarkets (up to $6,000 in annual purchases, then 1 percent cash back after that). That’s a nice inflation-busting strategy which is akin to a 6 percent discount on everything in the store. If you max out the $6,000 annual threshold, you’ll earn $360 in rewards each year. That’s a meaningful return on things you would have bought anyway.

The one big caveat, of course, is that you need to pay in full and avoid interest in order for any rewards strategy to be worth it. In other words, it doesn’t make sense to pay 20.65 percent in interest (the average credit card rate) just to earn a few percentage points in cash back or travel rewards. We recently found that just over half of rewards cardholders typically pay in full each month, which makes them good candidates for rewards programs.

I’m especially surprised that cash back received a lower satisfaction rating than travel rewards. Since everything seems to cost more these days, cash back should be especially welcome, right?

I posed this theory to John Cabell, the managing director of payments intelligence at J.D. Power. He replied, “Cash back cards tend to be used more for everyday purchases and rewards are redeemed more often as statement credit. [These] factors make the cards generally more mundane and less engaging than points/miles cards, which have higher scores on perception of improving cardholders’ lifestyles. For these reasons, we think the cash back card rewards are perceived as less valuable. Further, cash back cards also more often have no annual fee, so the benefits and rewards package is generally perceived as being less valuable by cardholders.”

I find all of that very interesting, particularly the perceptions that annual fees are worth it and travel rewards are superior. Both can be true, but I believe these are more advanced credit card strategies and not as applicable to the masses. Our research has found that cash back is Americans’ favorite credit card feature by a wide margin. And an earlier Bankrate survey indicated that fewer than half of credit cardholders pay annual fees.

Choosing the right card

The best credit card is a very subjective decision. What works well for one person may not be the optimal choice for another. That’s why it’s important to think through your individual circumstances. For example, are you able to pay your credit card balances in full each month? If so, you’re a good candidate for a rewards card. If not, seek the lowest interest rate possible — some 0 percent interest cards have introductory terms lasting as long as 21 months for balance transfers and new purchases.

Assuming you’re pursuing rewards, would you prefer cash back or travel? Travel rewards can be more lucrative, but they’re also more complicated, and not everyone likes to travel or has the flexibility to travel on the dates with the best deals.

What are your top spending categories? This is important since different cards emphasize different types of spending.

How much complexity are you willing to take on? Some people treat credit card rewards like a game and happily juggle many different cards with various benefits. Others would rather keep it simple and use just one or two cards as widely as possible.

The bottom line

Like I said, the best credit card is a very individual calculation. But I’ll close by saying that my recommendation for the widest range of people is a no-annual-fee cash back card that gives 2 percent back on everything you buy. Examples include the Wells Fargo Active CashⓇ Card and the CitiⓇ Double Cash Card (which technically gives 1 percent back when you make a purchase and another 1 percent when you pay it off).

I think those cards appeal to the widest range of circumstances and are surprisingly hard to beat, even though they’re not particularly flashy. But that’s the point — most people don’t want to spend a lot of time or effort deciding which credit card to use. And who couldn’t use more cash?

Have a question about credit cards? E-mail me at and I’d be happy to help.

*The information about the Bank of America® Premium Rewards® Elite Credit Card, Apple Card and the JetBlue Plus Card here has been collected independently by Bankrate. The card details have not been reviewed or approved by the issuer.