April 21, 2021

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It’s Time to Fly

The Best Rewards Credit Cards for January 2021

17 min read

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Living through a pandemic has been strange. Even our credit cards are feeling it. 

Travel rewards and perks have been a major aspect of credit card rewards for years. But with COVID-19 preventing Americans from traveling over the last year, there’s been a shift toward rewards on everyday purchases like groceries, takeout, and even streaming services.

This pivot to increased everyday spending rewards may have started as a temporary way for credit card issuers to better reflect people’s changing spending habits, but it’s evolved into long-term offers and even permanent strategies on some of the most popular rewards credit cards.

The good news for you is there are more choices than ever on what rewards cards make the most sense. Many of our picks reflect the changing rewards landscape and showcase offers for earning rewards across a range of categories that can unlock serious value today and when travel picks up again in the future. Here are NextAdvisor’s top picks for the best rewards credit cards to help you begin: 

Rewards credit cards are great tools for savings and benefits on purchases you were already going to make, but any high-interest credit card can also lead to debt. Make sure you pay down any existing high-interest debt before you open a new credit card, and establish healthy credit habits like paying your full balance on time each month.

Our Picks for the Best Rewards Credits Card 

Citi® Double Cash Card

Good For Flat Cash Back

Citi® Double Cash Card

Rewards rate:

Earn 2% on every purchase with unlimited 1% cash back when you buy, plus an additional 1% as you pay for those purchases.

  • Intro bonus: No current offer
  • Annual fee: $0
  • Regular APR: 13.99% – 23.99% (Variable)
  • Recommended credit score: 740-850 (Excellent)

The Citi Double Cash Card* is a straightforward, no annual fee cash back card that offers up to 2% cash back on every purchase. You’ll get 1% when you make a purchase and another 1% when you pay it off. The card has no annual fee and a 0% introductory APR period for balance transfers for 18 months. After the introductory period you’ll be subject to a variable 13.99%-23.99% APR. 

Other Citi Double Cash benefits include purchase protection, damage and theft protection, and a free concierge service.

Read our full review of the Citi Double Cash Card.

This card has one of the highest flat back cash rewards offerings on the market and charges no annual fee. We like flat cash back for its simplicity, and unlimited 2% cash back is a great way to maximize rewards on every purchase you make. 

To get the most out of your rewards, make sure you pay down your balances on time and in full every month so you get the full 2% back. Based on average consumer spending, we’ve estimated that the Citi Double Cash Card has an annual rewards value of $265.16.

And if you have some debt to pay down before you start collecting rewards, you can also use this card’s 18-month 0% introductory rate for balance transfers. But make sure you have a plan in place to pay off any balance transfers you make during that intro period, because you’ll be subject to a variable 13.99%-23.99% APR after. 

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

Good For Gas and Groceries

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

Rewards rate:

6% Cash Back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%). 6% Cash Back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions. 3% Cash Back on transit including taxis/rideshare, parking, tolls, trains, buses and more. 3% Cash Back at U.S. gas stations. 1% Cash Back on other purchases.

  • Intro bonus: $250
  • Annual fee: $95
  • Regular APR: 13.99%-23.99% Variable
  • Recommended credit score: 670-850 (Good to Excellent)

With the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express you’ll get 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%), 6% cash back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions, 3% cash back on transit, 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations, and 1% cash back on other purchases. 

You can earn a $250 statement credit after spending $1,000 within the first three months and enjoy a 0% introductory APR on purchases for the first 12 months from account opening (variable 13.99%-23.99% variable APR after that). There’s a $95 annual fee.

While this card doesn’t earn Amex Membership Rewards, you’ll have access to a host of American Express premium perks like early ticket access and preferred seating through American Express Experiences

Read our full review of the Blue Cash Preferred Card.

The Blue Cash Preferred offers serious cash back value in some of the categories Americans spend most. Though the rate is capped after $6,000 in purchases, 6% back at U.S. supermarkets is one of the highest cash back rates for this category available across any rewards card. 

If groceries, gas, and streaming make up a bulk of your monthly budget, you should consider this rewards card. Based on average consumer spending, you could earn $302.96 each year in cash back with this card (more if you spend heavily in rewards categories), after accounting for the $95 annual fee. 

Chase Freedom Flex℠

Good For Maximum Everyday Cash Back

Chase Freedom Flex℠

Rewards rate:

Earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in bonus categories each quarter you activate. Enjoy new 5% categories each quarter! Earn 5% on travel purchased through Chase. Earn 3% on dining at restaurants and drugstores. Earn 1% on all other purchases.

  • Intro bonus: $200
  • Annual fee: $0
  • Regular APR: 14.99 – 23.74% Variable
  • Recommended credit score: 670-850 (Good to Excellent)

With the Chase Freedom Flex, you’ll get 5% cash back in rotating bonus categories each quarter, 5% cash back on travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards, 3% cash back on dining at restaurants, 3% cash back at drugstores, and 1% cash back on all other purchases, all for no annual fee. 

If you spend $500 within the first three months of account opening, you’ll qualify for an additional $200 bonus. You can also benefit from a 0% introductory APR for 15 months on purchases. After the 15 months you’ll be subject to a variable 14.99%-23.74% APR.

Read our full review of the Chase Freedom Flex.

With a unique structure of rotating cash back rewards plus additional tiered bonus categories, the Freedom Flex is a powerful spending tool across everyday categories, and can easily help you reap maximum rewards on nearly everything you buy. It’ll take a bit more work than flat cash back rewards, but you can also earn higher cash back percentages if you’re willing to do a bit of planning to maximize categories.  

Freedom Flex is also a bit of a hybrid between a points-earning and straightforward cash back option, increasing your flexibility even further when it comes to redemptions. You’ll earn points that you can redeem for cash, but you can also choose other options available through Chase. You’ll get the most value for your points by booking travel directly through Chase Ultimate Rewards

This card becomes even more valuable when you combine it with a Chase Sapphire Card (The Preferred or Reserve). The Preferred and Reserve cards let you redeem your points for 25% or 50% more value, and you can transfer your points from your Freedom Flex account to your Sapphire account, and make those points worth more as well.

The Platinum Card® from American Express

Good For Exclusive Travel Benefits

The Platinum Card® from American Express

Rewards rate:

Earn 10x points on eligible purchases on your new Card at U.S. Gas Stations and U.S. Supermarkets, on up to $15,000 in combined purchases, during your first 6 months of Card Membership. That’s an additional 9 points on top of the 1 point you earn for these purchases. Earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel. Starting January 1, 2021, earn 5X points on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year. 5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com.

  • Intro bonus: 75,000 points
  • Annual fee: $550
  • Regular APR: See Pay Over Time APR
  • Recommended credit score: 670-850 (Good to Excellent)

The Platinum Card from American Express earns 10x points at gas stations and supermarkets in the first six months (up to $15,000 in purchase), 5x points on flights and prepaid hotels booked through American Express Travel, 2x points on all other travel booked through amextravel.com, and 1x point on all other purchases. 

But its real value comes from the luxe perks and benefits that come in exchange for the Platinum Card’s $550 annual fee. You’ll get up to $200 in airline fee credits, up to $200 in annual Uber Cash, up to $100 toward purchases at Saks Fifth Avenue, fee credits for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, American Express Global Lounge Collection access, Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite status, Hilton Honors Gold status, concierge service, event access, and more. 

You can also earn 75,000 bonus points after spending $5,000 in the first six months from account opening. 

Read our full review of The Platinum Card from American Express.

If you’re on the hunt for a card that can elevate your next travel experience, this is a good option. The Platinum Card from American Express can give you access to a next-level vacation and unmatched convenience, if you’re willing to spend on a pretty steep annual fee. You’ll get the most from this card if travel is one of your top expenses, and you’re not only looking to cash in rewards for more travel but also want to upgrade those experiences.

If your normal spending (and budget) aligns with the Platinum Card’s rewards, you can quickly offset the $550 fee with all the credits and other travel perks you get with it. Just make sure you don’t let the flashy rewards and credits become an excuse to overspend on things you wouldn’t purchase otherwise.

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

Good For Maximum Travel Redemptions

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

Rewards rate:

3X points on travel immediately after earning your $300 travel credit. 3X points on dining at restaurants including eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out. Earn 3X total points on up to $1,000 in grocery store purchases per month from November 1, 2020 to April 30, 2021. Includes eligible pick-up and delivery services. 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.

  • Intro bonus: 50,000 points
  • Annual fee: $550
  • Regular APR: 16.99%-23.99% Variable
  • Recommended credit score: 740-850 (Excellent)

With the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you’ll get 3x points on travel worldwide, 3x points on dining at restaurants worldwide, 3x points on up to $1,000 in grocery purchases every month through April 2021, and 1x points on all other purchases. You can also earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first three months from account opening. 

To help offset the $550 annual fee, you’ll also get a $300 annual travel credit, a fee credit toward TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, Priority Pass Select membership for airport lounge access, up to $120 credit toward Peloton purchases, up to $120 credit for DoorDash and a complimentary 12 months DashPass, and 10x points on Lyft purchases and a Lyft Pink membership.

Read our full review of the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

Chase Sapphire Reserve is a premier rewards card with the pricetag and benefits to match. Like comparable rewards cards for frequent travelers, it offers a long list of freebies and additional benefits. Don’t discount the Reserve’s regular rewards-earning potential either: worldwide dining and travel are both far-reaching categories that can help any globetrotter maximize spending. 

But what makes the Chase Sapphire Reserve one of the most valuable travel cards on the market is its rewards currency: you can redeem your points for 50% more value through Chase Ultimate Rewards. 1 point usually equals 1 cent, but with the Reserve, 1 point is equal to 1.5 cents when you redeem for travel. For example, the introductory bonus offer is worth $750 when redeemed for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards — easily a good chunk of your next vacation. 

Plus, you can further maximize your rewards with the card by pairing it with another card from Chase, like the Chase Freedom Unlimited or Chase Freedom Flex. These cards offer rewards on different categories than the Sapphire Reserve, and you can pool your points in one account and still redeem them for that premium 1.5 cents per point value.

American Express® Gold Card

Good For Travel Rewards from Everyday Spending

American Express® Gold Card

Rewards rate:

Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points on Restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery. Earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X). Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.

  • Intro bonus: 60,000 points
  • Annual fee: $250
  • Regular APR: See Pay Over Time APR
  • Recommended credit score: 670-850 (Good to Excellent)

The American Express Gold Card lets you rack up points on everyday spending to put toward major savings on a future trip. You’ll get 4x points at restaurants worldwide, 4x points at U.S. supermarkets, 3x points for flights booked directly with airlines or amextravel.com, and 1x points on other eligible purchases. 

You can earn 60,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 within six months of opening your card, plus up to a $120 dining credit, up to a $100 airline fee credit (through Dec. 2021), and $100 credit toward eligible purchases after booking hotel reservations through the American Express Hotel Collection. The Gold Card has a $250 annual fee. 

Read our full review of the American Express Gold Card

This card gives you the opportunity to maximize travel rewards by earning American Express Membership Rewards points at places you spend the most, like supermarkets. If you’re a relatively frequent traveler, but spend more of your daily budget on everyday items, your points will add up fast with Amex Gold to take down the price of your next trip. 

Plus, the Gold Card comes with a few premium benefits that nearly offset the $250 annual fee in full if you take advantage of them, including up to $100 in airline fee credits (through Dec. 2021) and up to $120 in eligible dining credits. 

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

Good For Earning Flexible Miles

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

Rewards rate:

Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day.

  • Intro bonus: 60,000 miles
  • Annual fee: $95
  • Regular APR: 17.24% – 24.49% (Variable)
  • Recommended credit score: 670-850 (Good to Excellent)

With the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card*, you’ll get two miles per dollar on every purchase you make. Plus, you can earn 60,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 in the first three months. You’ll pay a $95 annual fee, and there’s no blackout dates, expiration dates, or limits on how you can use your miles. 

The Ventures card also offers up to a $100 fee credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, has no foreign transaction fees, and comes with travel insurance and assistance.

The Venture card is similar to a flat 2% rewards card like Citi Double Cash, but you’ll earn miles rather than cash back. It’s a great choice for earning rewards on your everyday purchases that you can put toward future travel. Capital One miles are a flexible rewards currency, but you’ll get the most value if you redeem them directly for travel. Capital One’s Purchase Eraser makes doing so simple: redeem miles for statement credits toward eligible travel purchases made within the past 90 days. 

You can also transfer your Venture miles to Capital One’s 10 travel partners and, through April 2021, redeem your miles at eligible restaurants or delivery services, for streaming services, or even for wireless phone services through Capital One’s Cover Your Purchases program. 

Best Rewards Credit Cards for 2021 Summary

Card Good For Bonus Earning Rate Annual Fee
Citi Double Cash Card Flat Cash Back N/A Up to 2% cash back on every purchase N/A
Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express Gas and Groceries $250 statement credit after you spend $1,000 within the first three months from account opening 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets, 6% cash back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions, 3% cash back on transit and U.S. gas station, 1% cash back on other purchases $95
Chase Freedom Flex Maximum Everyday Cash Back $200 if you spend $500 in the first three months from account opening  5% cash back on rotating bonus categories, 5% cash back on travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards, 3% cash back on dining, 3% cash back on drugstores, 1% cash back on other purchases N/A
The Platinum Card from American Express Exclusive Travel Benefits 75,000 bonus points if you spend $5,000 in the first six months from account opening  5x flights booked through Amex Travel, 5x on eligible hotels booked through amextravel.com $550
Chase Sapphire Reserve Maximum Travel Redemption 50,000 bonus points if you spend $4,000 in the first three months 3x points on travel and restaurants, 1x points on all other purchases $550
The American Express Gold Card Travel Rewards from Everyday Spending 60,000 bonus points if you spend $4,000 in the first six months from account opening  4x points at restaurants, 4x points at U.S. supermarkets, 3x points on flights booked through amextravel.com, 1x points on other purchases $250
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card Earning Flexible Miles 60,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 in the first three months 2x miles per dollar on every purchase $95

Guide to Cash Back Rewards Cards

How Cash Back Rewards Credit Cards Work

Cash back credit cards can save you hundreds of dollars on the everyday items you purchase regularly. Cash back credit cards are the simplest types of rewards credit cards and can put cash directly back into your wallet based on how you spend. Some cash back cards also allow you to convert rewards into points or miles, giving you extra flexibility in how you redeem. Check what redemption methods your cash back card offers. 

Typically, you’ll earn back a percentage of purchases in qualifying categories, usually through statement credits, checks, or a direct bank deposit — if you opt for the cash back redemption. 

Flat Rate, Tiered, Rotating Categories

Cash back credit cards generally fall into three types: flat rate, tiered, and rotating. You should make sure the type you choose aligns with your own spending habits, and won’t influence you to spend more than you otherwise would. 

A flat cash back credit card is the most straightforward type of rewards card. You’ll get a fixed cash back return on every eligible purchase, usually around 1-2% flat cash back on every dollar spent. 

A tiered cash back card offers different rewards percentages for different spending categories, such as groceries, gas, dining, and travel. Tiered rewards might not be as simple as flat cash back, but can give you even more value with higher rewards where you spend most. Top cash back categories might offer as much as 5-6% back. 

Rotating cash back cards are also tied to specific categories, but these categories regularly change, generally on a quarterly basis. You’ll need to keep up with your spending each quarter and plan so you can make sure you’re getting the most out of your card. Rotating bonus categories typically earn 5% cash back on each qualifying dollar you spend.

How to Redeem Cash Back Rewards

How you redeem your cash back rewards — and how often you can redeem — depends on the card you have. In general, you’ll redeem cash back for a statement credit, check, or a direct bank deposit, but log into your card account to find out exactly how you can redeem your rewards. 

Some issuers allow rewards redemption directly at online retailers, like Amazon, or by shopping through the issuer’s site, and a few will also let you convert your cash back rewards to points, which can unlock even more valuable redemptions, especially for travel. 

Guide to Travel Rewards Cards

How Travel Rewards Credit Cards Work

Travel rewards credit cards can be general purpose or specific to a certain airline or hotel. General travel rewards credit cards earn points or miles that can be redeemed through your issuer’s rewards program, often by booking directly through the issuer site or transferring to a travel partner. 

A co-branded travel rewards credit card earns points or miles you can instead redeem through a specific airline or hotel chain’s rewards program. These cards can be advantageous if you always fly with a specific airline or stay at a certain hotel brand, but otherwise limit your redemption options. 

Keep in mind that you don’t have to redeem your points or miles for travel with travel rewards cards, though this will often result in the best value for your points. Many issuers also offer  points and miles redemptions for cash, statement credits, directly for items when shopping, or gift cards. Check your card account to figure out all the ways you can redeem your rewards currency. 

What Is a Credit Card Point or Mile Worth?

The value of a point or mile varies a lot depending on the card. A general baseline, however, is 1 point or mile equals 1 cent. Certain rewards programs or transfer options can add more value than this for your rewards, and certain redemption strategies can make them worth less. Generally, you’ll get the best value for your points or miles by using them to book travel directly through your issuer. 

How to Redeem Travel Rewards

You’ll get the best value for your points by using them to redeem for travel with your issuer. There are other ways you can redeem your points, though you may lose some value in the process. Most travel rewards credit cards will let you redeem your rewards currency for cash, statement credits, gift cards, or directly for items when shopping. 

Some rewards cards will require you to have a minimum rewards balance before you can redeem. 

How to Choose a Rewards Credit Card

Make sure the card you choose aligns with your existing spending habits. Don’t choose a card that will encourage you to spend outside of your normal patterns, or influence you to spend more than you otherwise would. 

If you find a card that aligns with your normal shopping habits and offers benefits that you can take full advantage of, then rewards cards can be a great way to earn some additional value for things you were already going to buy. Look at past receipts and bank statements to determine where you spend the majority of your money and determine what type of redemptions would be best for your lifestyle, then find a card that aligns with those needs. 

How to Compare Rewards Credit Cards

Rewards cards are all very different. Make sure you consider things like the annual fee, rewards structure, sign-up bonus, ongoing APR, perks, and fees. A lot of rewards credit cards come with an annual fee, so make sure the value you get from the card makes the fee worth it. 

There are plenty of rewards cards with no annual fee as well, and though you may not earn top benefits, these cards can definitely still help maximize your purchases and make a great addition to your wallet. 

Pros and Cons of Rewards Credit Cards

Pros

  • Maximize spending with cash back, points, or miles rewards

  • Additional perks and benefits

  • Welcome bonuses

  • Redemption flexibility

Cons

  • May encourage you to spend in ways you wouldn’t normally or overspending

  • Can charge high annual fees

  • Rewards may not align with your spending

How to Make the Most Out of Your Rewards Card

To maximize your rewards credit card, make sure you nab the sign-up bonus, if there is one. Then use your card every time you spend in the qualifying rewards categories to rack up cash back or rewards currency. 

Lastly, enjoy your rewards! You’ve earned them. Make sure you compare redemption options so you redeem your rewards currency for the highest value, without leaving any of your cash back, points, or miles on the table. 

Methodology

EDITORIAL INDEPENDENCE

As with all of our credit card reviews, our analysis is not influenced by any partnerships or advertising relationships.

To determine our picks for the best rewards credit cards, we evaluate cards earning the three primary types of rewards — points, miles, and cash back. Within these categories, we consider criteria like rewards earning categories, redemption value, annual fee, introductory bonus, and ongoing benefits. 

With all the different types of benefits you can earn with a rewards card, it’s important to consider different types of spenders as well as different ways people are looking to cash in. We evaluate the stated purpose of each card with a mind toward who it would be best-suited for when picking our list of best rewards credit cards.

*All information about the Citi Double Cash Card and the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card has been collected independently by NextAdvisor and has not been reviewed by the issuer.

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