Editorial disclosure: All reviews are prepared by Bankrate.com staff. Opinions expressed therein are solely those of the reviewer and have not been reviewed or approved by any advertiser. The information, including card rates and fees, presented in the review is accurate as of the date of the review. Check the data at the top of this page and the bank’s website for the most current information.
Author: Bankrate Staff | Last Updated: November 12, 2018
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Table of contents:
Bankrate’s picks for the best rewards credit cards of 2018
||Bankrate Review Score
|Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card
||2X miles on every purchase, every day
|Discover it® Cash Back
||First year rewards
||5% back on up to $1,500 each quarter, in rotating categories, enrollment required; 1% on everything else
|Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card
||Dining and entertainment
||4% cash back on dining and entertainment, 2% at grocery stores, and 1% on all other purchases
|Chase Freedom Unlimited®
||Your first rewards credit card
||1.5% cash back on all purchases
|Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card
||1.25x miles on every purchase, every day
|Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
||2X points on travel and dining at restaurants; 1X points per dollar on other purchases
|Capital One® Quicksilver® Card
||Flat-rate cash back
||1.5% cash back on every purchase, every day
|Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card
||3X points on eating out, travel, and gas stations
||Rotating cash back
||5% cash back on rotating categories, 1% cash back on other purchases
|Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express
||Gas and groceries
||3% back at US supermarkets (up to $6,000 a year, 1% thereafter) 2% back at US gas stations and dept stores (Terms Apply)
Why you should trust Bankrate
For many years now Bankrate’s team has been providing expert advice on many aspects of personal finances: From mortgages to loans, to CD’s, credit cards and more, our team offers thoughtful and thorough guidance for every stage of life. When it comes to credit cards we know it can be confusing, there are so many great cards to chose from. The hard part is finding the card that suits your lifestyle, that gives you maximum rewards on your spending and offers perks and benefits that you will make the most of.
A great rewards card offers flexible redemption, high-value rewards, and useful perks and benefits. The team at Bankrate scores each card out of 100 against Bankrate’s proprietary scoring matrix, and for rewards cards, we have weighted the following factors more heavily. You should treat the scoring system as a guide, there are some cards that look great on paper but if they don’t suit your lifestyle, your budget, or you can’t redeem your rewards when and how you want, they’re not the best cards for you.
- Rewards value: Rewards can seem complicated, they can come in the form of cash, miles, or points. We cut through the jargon and lay out the rewards rates, how rewards are earned, how they are redeemed, and how to maximize your returns.
- Annual fee: Some rewards cards charge a fee every year but many offer promotional discounts on the annual fee for the first year. We determine when the annual fee is worth the expense, how much you would need to use your card to make up for it, and what type of cardholder would best benefit.
- Sign-up bonus: There are some generous sign-up bonuses available in the rewards credit card space. Sometimes these introductory offers can be incredibly lucrative. We make sure to include the value the of the bonus in our scoring methodology, and also detail the bonus and what you have to do to get it
- Extras and discounts: Many extra perks offered by credit card companies often slip under the radar. Extras such as social security number monitoring, access to airport lounges, and travel insurance can really increase the value of the card.
“A good rewards credit card is not the one featuring just an excellent welcome bonus, or just excellent earning rates, or just excellent perks. A really good credit card is a card that gives the members good enough reasons to use it for years to come (and pay the annual fee if any).”
— Andy Shuman, Credit and Travel Writer at The Lazy Traveler’s Handbook
What is a rewards credit card?
Simply put, a rewards card is a credit card that gives you something in exchange for making a purchase. The amount you’ll be rewarded varies greatly from card to card but it’s nearly always based on a percentage of what you just spent. For example, if you charge $100 on a rewards card that has a flat 2% rewards rate, you’ll get 2 points, 2 miles or 2 units of whatever the reward is that’s offered by your card.
For the most part, rewards cards fall into two categories: flat-rate rewards and category bonus rewards. Flat-rate rewards cards have a set rate at which you will earn rewards points on all of your spending. Category bonus rewards cards offer higher rewards rates, but only on certain purchases. For example, many category bonus cards give between 2-3X points on categories like dining or travel. Additionally, there are some credit cards that give bonuses when you make purchases from particular brands. The most common example of these, outside of store credit cards, are airline credit cards that offer bonus miles on airline-specific spending.
Another feature commonly found on rewards credit cards is a sign-up bonus or welcome offer, which can net you rewards points that are worth up to thousands of dollars. Typically, you have to spend a set amount of money within the first few months of opening your account to earn the bonus. If there is a rewards card with a sign-up bonus that stands out to you, make sure to read the terms and be ready to hit a spend goal. We recommend that you don’t spend more than you have in order to hit a sign-up bonus, so make sure you save up if it is going to be a close call!
The biggest thing to be aware of when using a rewards credit card is that the interest rates on these cards are typically higher than average. Make sure that the attractive rewards points don’t lead you to spending more than you normally would. The cost of interest from carrying a balance will oftentimes negate the value of your rewards, so it is in your best interest to pay your balance in full each month.
Deeper analysis on the best rewards credit cards of 2018
Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card
Using the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card will allow you to earn miles without paying an annual fee. The Venture card earns 2 miles for every $1 spent. The Venture card is a great starter travel card for simple earning and predictable rewards.
- Best for: Travel
- Bankrate score:94/100
- Rewards rate: 2 miles per dollar spent
- Welcome offer: 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months of card ownership
This card isn’t for you if: You like a rewards program that has more redemption options than a statement credit.
Read Bankrate’s full Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card review.
Discover it® Cash Back
The Discover it® Cash Back credit card is a rotating category cash back card that allows you to enroll every quarter to earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases made in various categories throughout the year, enrollment required. Additionally, Discover will match your first year cash back rewards at the end of the year. This means that if you earned $300 in cash back throughout the year, Discover will give you another $300 after your one year anniversary of card ownership.
- Best for: First year rewards
- Bankrate score: 93/100
- Rewards rate: Enroll every quarter to earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases made in various categories, 1% back on all other purchases
- Welcome offer: Discover will match all the cash back earned at the end of your first year, automatically.
This card isn’t for you if: You don’t like keeping up with rotating bonus categories each quarter.
Read Bankrate’s full Discover it Cash Back review.
Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card
The Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card is a foodie’s dream. This card offers an unlimited 4% back on dining and entertainment, 2% at grocery stores and 1% on everything else. This makes for a pretty compelling card choice for people who dine out frequently. The card has an introductory offer of $500 cash back when you spend $3,000 within the first 3 months of opening the card, which is easily achievable for most cardholders and makes for a sizeable bonus rewards perk. Despite the $95 annual fee (waived for the first year), heavy spenders on dining and entertainment will most definitely feel the value of this card.
- Best for: Dining and entertainment
- Bankrate score: 97/100
- Rewards rate: 4% on dining and entertainment, 2% at the grocery store, 1% back on all other purchases
- Welcome offer: Capital One offers $500 sign-up bonus when you spend $3,000 in the first three months of opening the card.
This card isn’t for you if: You want a dining and entertainment card that earns you points or miles instead of cash back.
Read Bankrate’s full Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card review.
Chase Freedom Unlimited®
The Chase Freedom Unlimited card is a great option for your first cash back rewards card because the redemption structure is straightforward and automatic. You earn 1.5% on every purchase. This means that you don’t have to sign up for rotating categories and there is no minimum for how much cash back you can redeem. The card’s welcome bonus is generous and easily attainable for an average spender. Overall, this card is a great no-hassle option with a lot of flexibility and all for no annual fee.
- Best for: Your first rewards credit card
- Bankrate score: 92/100
- Rewards rate: Unlimited 1.5% on every purchase
- Welcome offer: Earn $150 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening
”I love my Chase Freedom Unlimited®. The 1.5x cash back rate is, in my opinion, the best rate that you can find among rewards cards.”
— James Duren, Personal Finance Analyst at HighYa
This card isn’t for you if: You like no-fuss cash back and want more than just 1.5%. Go with the Citi Double Cash instead.
Read Bankrate’s full Chase Freedom Unlimited review.
Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card
The Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card comes with a sign-up bonus of 20,000 bonus miles once you spend $1,000 on purchases within the first 3 months. This is the equivalent of around $200 in travel. What’s best about the VentureOne card is the uncomplicated rewards structure and redemption, and all with no annual fee. You earn 1.25x miles on every purchase which can be redeemed for any airline or hotel at any time – which means no annoying blackout dates. If you’re regularly booking hotel rooms, this card is for you with 10x miles on thousands of hotels rooms when purchasing through hotels.com/venture.
- Best for: Low APR
- Bankrate score: 80/100
- Rewards rate: 1.25X miles on every purchase, every day and pay no annual fee. Plus, 10x miles on thousands of hotels when booked and paid for through hotels.com/venture.
- Welcome offer: When you spend $1,000 on purchases within the first 3 months you get 20,000 bonus points, equivalent to $200 in travel.
This card isn’t for you if: You’re willing to pay an annual fee to get better rewards.
Read Bankrate’s full Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card.
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Among the best starter cards for collecting points and miles, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card has some great perks. You’ll earn 2X points on dining and travel and 1X points on all other purchases. This card really shines when it comes to redeeming points through Chase’s Web portal, where their value jumps 25%. This means 50,000 points are worth $500 if you use them as a statement credit, but $625 if you use them to book travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards.
- Best for: Points flexibility
- Bankrate score: 95/100
- Rewards rate: 2X on dining and travel, 1X on all other purchases
- Welcome offer: 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first three months
This card isn’t for you if: You aren’t willing to use a rewards portal to cash in on redemptions.
Read Bankrate’s full Chase Sapphire Preferred review.
Capital One® Quicksilver® Card
The Capital One Quicksilver card is great for uncomplicated flat-rate cash back for no annual fee. Earn 1.5% cash back on every purchase with no limit and no expiry on your rewards. The introductory offer of $150 cash bonus is easily attainable, you just have to spend $500 on purchases within the first 3 months of opening the card. For average spenders, this will be an easy limit to hit.
- Best for: Flat-rate cash back
- Bankrate score: 93/100
- Rewards rate: Unlimited 1.5% on every purchase.
- Welcome offer: One-time $150 cash bonus when you spend $500 in your first 3 months of opening the card.
This card isn’t for you if: You already have a flat-rate cash back card in your wallet. There are better options out there to diversify the rewards you earn.
Read Bankrate’s full Capital One Quicksilver review.
Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card
Wells Fargo just relaunched their revamped version of the Propel rewards card. With 3X points earned on dining, travel, gas stations and popular streaming services, this card has a ton of reward-earning potential. What really sets this card apart, though, is that it has no annual fee. While you won’t find some of the luxury perks that cards with high annual fees typically offer, the Propel Card goes toe-to-toe (and in many cases wins) against other cards that carry $95 annual fees.
- Best for: Overall rewards
- Bankrate score: 97/100
- Rewards rate: 3X points on dining, travel, gas, and popular streaming services; 1X on other purchases
- Welcome offer: 30,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months
This card isn’t for you if: You want a card with extremely lucrative transfer partners.
Read Bankrate’s full Wells Fargo Propel American Express Card review.
If you are willing to track it, the Chase Freedom® can net you at least $300 per year with its rotating 5% bonus categories. Further, you may redeem your points as a deposit in your bank account, a statement credit, or transfer them as Chase Ultimate Rewards points to another Chase card with Chase Ultimate Rewards.
- Best for: Rotating cash back
- Bankrate score: 90/100
- Rewards rate: 5% cash back on rotating categories, 1% cash back on other purchases
- Welcome offer: $150 bonus after spending $500 on purchases in your first 3 months after account opening
This card isn’t for you if: You don’t want to keep track of enrolling on bonus categories every quarter, similar to the Discover it Cash Back.
Read Bankrate’s full Chase Freedom®review.
Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express
Much like the Blue Cash Preferred Card, the Blue Cash Everyday Card offers cash back rewards on purchases made at U.S supermarkets, U.S gas stations, and select U.S department stores. The Blue Cash Everyday Card has lower rewards rates but also comes without an annual fee. With a simple earning structure and better cashback rates than a lot of other rewards cards, it’s a great option for families and everyday spending, while avoiding annual fees.
- Best for: Gas and groceries
- Bankrate score: 89/100
- Rewards rate: 3% cash back at U.S supermarkets (on up to $1,000 per year, then 1%), 2% cash back at U.S gas stations and select U.S department stores, 1% cash back on all other purchases.
- Welcome offer: $150
This card isn’t for you if: You don’t spend a lot of money on groceries or gas.
Read Bankrate’s full Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express review.
Why you should have a rewards credit card
If you have good credit and spend responsibly, a rewards credit card is an excellent choice. Rewards points are oftentimes extremely flexible, allowing you to redeem them for flights, hotels, gift cards, or statement credits. Different issuers have different rewards programs, so be sure to check on the specific redemption offers for the cards that you are considering before you apply. Using cash or a debit card means that you are missing out on rewards that you can earn on purchases that you already make.
Additionally, many rewards cards come with extras and perks, such as travel credits, cell phone protection, free checked bags, shopping discounts, and warranty extensions on items purchased with your credit card. The rewards that you will earn and the perks associated with card ownership make having a rewards credit card make sense.
“The main thing we look for [in a rewards credit card] is the rate at which the miles are accumulated and which spending habits the card will work best for. Since we rarely eat out having a card pay 2x points on restaurants is not beneficial to us compared to a card with 1.5x points on everyday purchases.”
— Brittany and Kelan Kline, Co-Founders at The Savvy Couple
“I have [a lot of] credit cards and use each of them for specific reasons: free nights, free flights, upgraded hotel rooms, cash back, etc. Overall, though, the goal is to strategically earn rewards, perks, and cash back to allow my family of four to travel as much as we want for as little money as possible. ”
— Lee Huffman, Travel & Lifestyle Writer at Bald Thoughts
Types of rewards cards
Rewards cards come in many flavors. Here are some of the most common types, along with more detailed recommendations from our team on the best cards in each category.
- Cash back rewards cards. This type of card earns you cash back on every purchase. You typically redeem your earnings as a statement credit towards your bill, or in some cases deposited into your checking or savings account.
- Travel rewards cards. Whether it’s a co-branded card with an airline or a general-purpose travel rewards card that gives you multiple choices for redemption, travel cards are aimed at those who want to earn free or discounted trips, upgrade their airline experience or save up for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
- Hotel rewards cards. Great for road warriors and other frequent travelers, hotel cards give users an opportunity to work towards elite status and enjoy the perks that go along with it, as well as earn free nights for future stays.
- Store rewards cards. These cards are best for loyalists to a particular brand or store. You can earn perks like discounts, free shipping, and members-only access events. Retail store cards often have less-stringent approval requirements, but in turn, charge typically higher-than-average interest rates.
How to redeem credit card rewards
A stash of rewards is only meaningful if you redeem them. Redemption options run the gamut from a simple statement credit, to using rewards to book travel, to transferring rewards from your card to an airline or hotel’s loyalty program often for an increased value. Consider all the ways rewards can be used, but keep in mind that your particular card may only allow you to redeem your rewards in one type of way. Some of the most common methods or redemption are:
- Take your rewards as a cash-back statement credit or have them deposited into your bank account.
- Redeem your rewards for travel through your card’s travel portal.
- Book travel and get a statement credit back for all or a partial credit for the cost of the trip.
- Trade in your rewards for a gift card to select retailers.
- Use your rewards to upgrade your flight or hotel room.
- Transfer your rewards to an authorized user for them to redeem.
- Use your rewards as a credit for purchase at your favorite store.
- Donate your rewards to a partner charity.
“I, like many credit card enthusiasts, am a big fan of Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program for the ease with which you can accumulate points and the ability to transfer them to different hotel and airline partners at a 1:1 rate. ”
— Elizabeth Aldrich, Finance Writer at ElizabethAldrich.com
“Chase Ultimate Rewards points are one of three transferable point currencies, [meaning how you redeem your rewards is extremely flexible.] You can redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards points for hotels, airfare and cash back. This lets you use your points how you want, when you want, with few restrictions.”
— Debra Schroeder, Founder at Traveling Well for Less
How to maximize your rewards
If you are looking for your first rewards credit card, the best way to maximize the rewards that you earn is by selecting a rewards card that matches your spending. If you spend heavily in one category or another, make sure you choose a card that offers higher rewards rates on that spending. If you don’t spend heavily in any particular category, there are multiple flat-rate rewards credit card offers that will net you serious rewards points on the purchases that you are already making.
If you already have a rewards credit card, adding a second card to your wallet can help round out your bonus category profile and maximize how many rewards you earn each month. For example, if you have a card that gives bonus rewards for spending on dining and entertainment, looking for cards that offer bonus rates on gas and groceries would be a good next step.
No matter which phase of credit card ownership you are in, one of the most lucrative ways to maximize your rewards is to hit your sign-up bonus threshold. Make sure you are aware of how much you need to spend and how long you have to spend it, and analyze your budget to make sure that you don’t need to overspend in order to hit the minimum spend amount. If you are concerned that you will not be able to spend enough in purchases within the allotted time, don’t rush. Take the time to set aside some money so that you don’t start your credit card ownership journey out on the wrong foot.
”When looking for a rewards card, the thing most important to me is maximizing the most points per dollar spent. I carry the Premier Rewards Gold Card, Business Platinum Card, and Platinum Card [from American Express] because the points earning structures are different across the cards and all of the points go into the same pot to be redeemed for miles, statement credits and more.”
— Russ Nuata, Owner at CreditCardReviews.com
Finding the right rewards credit card for your credit score
Luxury cards with exclusive perks and bonuses may be restricted to consumers with excellent credit scores, but there are multiple credit cards on the market today that will reward you for spending on, and managing, your credit card responsibly regardless of your credit score. Our experts have identified our top and runner-up rewards cards for each credit band.
The best rewards credit card for excellent credit: Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
If you have excellent credit, you will likely get approved for the best credit cards on the market, including credit cards with massive sign-up bonuses, impressive rewards rates, and exclusive member bonuses. The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is perfect for consumers with excellent credit who dine out regularly and travel frequently. This card is also known for its massive sign-up bonus – 50,000 points, worth $625 in travel rewards, if you spend $4,000 within the first three months of card ownership. There is a $95 annual fee for owning this card, but it is waived in the first year and can pay for itself as you collect and redeem your Chase Ultimate Rewards points.
“The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card with its 50,000 point offer is my favorite introductory offer on the market. It’s a great beginner card for someone to gain experience using credit card rewards. Not only is the annual fee waived for the first year but Chase Ultimate Rewards are very flexible.”
— R.J. Weiss, Certified Financial Planner at The Ways To Wealth
Runner-up: The Platinum Card from American Express
American Express is known for its extravagant perks for premium cardholders. The Platinum Card from American Express is the standard in luxury rewards credit cards, especially in the travel category. One of the most enticing perks that this card offers is its access to premium airport lounges across the country. While the Chase Sapphire Preferred card is a great choice for both restaurants and travel, consumers who spend lots of money and travel very frequently may want to give the Platinum Card a second look.
“My favorite [introductory offer] is the 100,000 American Express Platinum offer — cash-wise, that’s $1,000, but obviously, when converted to airline partners, it provides significantly more value.”
— Jamie Larounis, Editor & Owner at TheForwardCabin.com
The best rewards credit card for good credit: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Consumers looking for a straightforward rewards card with a solid sign-up bonus and rewards rate should consider applying for the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. While you will miss out on the premium perks that luxury and branded travel credit cards offer, you won’t have to worry about rotating categories, spending limits, or high annual fees.
Runner-up: The Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express
Consumers with good credit that are looking for a cash back credit card that will reward them for basic everyday spending, the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express is hard to beat. You won’t earn bonus points for travel, but the impressive 6% cash back at U.S supermarkets (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%) and 3% back at U.S gas stations and select U.S department stores, makes this card the leader in cash back rewards. Spending $3,000 a year on groceries (about $250 a month) will net almost double the $95 annual fee in cash back. Add the 3% rewards rate at the pump and this card is well worth the cost of ownership.
The best rewards credit card for fair or average credit: Capital One QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards Credit Card
The Capital One QuicksilverOne credit card offers consumers the opportunity to earn cash-back rewards while building credit. You won’t get the same enticing sign-up bonuses, rewards rates, and perks that reward cards for good and excellent credit offer, but you will earn 1.5% cash back on every purchase that you make. Responsible credit card use is one of the best ways to build or rebuild credit, and this card will give you the opportunity to be rewarded along the way.
Runner-up: Discover it® Student Cash Back
Healthy credit-building behavior is a skill that you should start developing as early as possible. The Discover it® Student Cash Back card has no annual fee, offers up to 5% cash back in rotating categories each quarter, up to the quarterly maximum each time you activate. This card also offers bonus rewards for good grades, and matches all of the cash back that you have earned at the end of your first year. If you are a student in a position where you feel comfortable with your ability to spend responsibly and pay your bill off on time each month, you should consider this rewards credit card.
The best rewards credit card for bad credit: Discover it® Secured
There are still a handful of options that, with good payment behavior, can help you repair your credit and earn rewards. Bankrate’s favorite rewards credit card for bad credit is the Discover it® Secured, which offers 2% cash back at gas stations and restaurants on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter, and 1% back on all other purchases. If you have a credit score lower than 600, you will be hard-pressed to find another card that offers cash back rewards with no annual fee.
Runner-up: Credit One Bank® Unsecured Visa® for Rebuilding Credit
If your heart is set on a cash back credit card, and your credit score is too low to get approved for the Discover it Secured, the Credit One Bank® Unsecured Visa® for Rebuilding Credit is another option. With this card, you will earn 1% cash back on “eligible” gas and grocery purchases. However, this card comes with an annual fee anywhere between $0 and $99 depending on your credit score. In sum, the Credit One Bank® Unsecured Visa® for Rebuilding Credit is a rewards card for bad credit, but not one that we would strongly recommend.
Need to do more rewards research?
Picking the right rewards card for your spending habits is a tough decision. If you want to do some further reading, check out our more extensive reviews section. Here, you can view every single credit card review we have ever written for a variety of rewards categories.