Sara Rathner, credit card expert for NerdWallet.com, which provides information about and reviews of credit cards and other financial products and topics.
Many credit cards boast about their generous rewards—sometimes climbing as high as 5%—or even 6%—cash back. But choosing the best rewards credit card for your needs depends on how you tend to spend. Do you guzzle gas? Are you a frequent flier or perhaps an even more frequent diner? Or is your family in constant need of new clothes and shoes?
The answers could lead you to a card that generates rewards worth hundreds of dollars in 2020. Best of all, if you are good at keeping track of which piece of plastic is best for each type of spending, you can compose a portfolio of credit cards that further maximizes your rewards, especially if there are sign-up bonuses.
Bottom Line Personal asked NerdWallet credit card expert Sara Rathner for the best rewards credit cards* for 2020 in a variety of spending categories (with no annual fees unless otherwise noted)…
The gas rewards card you choose may depend on which chain of gas stations you frequent, but if you buy gas from various stations, consider the following…
Ducks Unlimited Rewards Platinum Edition Visa offers 5% cash back on gas purchases and has no limits. Cardholders get 5% back at sporting-goods stores, too, and 1% on everything else. Keep in mind that Ducks Unlimited promotes itself as a nonprofit organization dedicated to waterfowl and wetlands conservation as well as hunting and fishing, which may encourage you to get the card—or avoid it. Ducks.org/DUvisa
Sam’s Club Mastercard offers 5% cash back on up to $6,000 a year in gas purchases. It also offers 3% back on restaurant and travel spending and 1% on everything else. One catch: To get the card, you need to have a Sam’s Club membership, which costs $45 per year. SamsClub.com
Wells Fargo Propel American Express provides the equivalent of 3% cash back—in the form of three points per dollar spent—at gas stations and restaurants and on streaming services, rideshare services and many travel purchases including flights, hotels, car rentals and more. Other purchases earn one point per dollar. In addition, new cardholders receive 30,000 bonus points ($300 cash back) for spending at least $3,000 in the first three months. WellsFargo.com
Blue Cash Preferred from American Express offers 6% cash back on up to $6,000 a year in supermarket spending, plus 6% back on 20 streaming subscription services including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and HBO Now…3% for gas stations and certain transit expenses…and 1% on everything else. New cardholders earn $250 by spending $1,000 in the first three months—which helps offset the $95 annual fee. AmericanExpress.com
Alternative: Blue Cash Everyday from American Express, which pays 3% cash back on up to $6,000 a year in supermarket spending and, unlike the Blue Cash Preferred card, does not charge an annual fee. It may be a better choice than Blue Cash Preferred, depending on how much you spend on groceries. Blue Cash Everyday also provides 2% cash back on spending at gas stations and select department stores and 1% on everything else. New cardholders earn an extra $150 bonus by spending $1,000 in the first three months. AmericanExpress.com
Capital One Savor Rewards offers 4% cash back on spending for restaurants and entertainment…plus 2% at grocery stores and 1% on other purchases. It has a $95 annual fee, but that is waived in the first year and is more than offset for the first several years by Savor’s $300 cash bonus for spending $3,000 in the first three months. CapitalOne.com
Alternative: Capital One SavorOne offers 3% cash back at restaurants and has no annual fee. Like Savor, it also offers 2% back at grocery stores and 1% on other purchases. New cardholders earn a $150 bonus by spending $500 in the first three months. CapitalOne.com
Some retailers offer credit cards with very attractive rewards on purchases made at those retailers.
Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature offers 5% back on all Amazon.com and Whole Foods purchases (but only if you have an Amazon Prime membership, which costs $119 per year—otherwise the reward is 3% cash back)…plus 2% back at restaurants, gas stations and drugstores…and 1% on everything else. Amazon.com
Apple Card provides 3% back at Apple Stores, Apple.com, Apple’s App Store and iTunes. That 3% cash-back rate also applies at Walgreens, Duane Reade, T-Mobile stores as well as with Uber and Uber Eats—but only if you use both the Apple Card and Apple Pay. That’s Apple’s digital payment system, which requires that you use your iPhone to pay rather than the physical card. Other Apple Pay purchases earn 2% back, while non-Apple/non-Apple Pay purchases earn 1%. Apple.com
There are many travel rewards credit cards that provide useful travel-related perks, such as no-fee checked luggage, airport lounge access and airline seat or hotel room upgrades. Some of these cards also have attractive rewards programs and up-front bonuses that let cardholders earn miles or points that can be redeemed for flights, hotel stays and other travel benefits.
Example: Chase Sapphire Preferred offers 60,000 bonus points if you spend $4,000 in the first three months, which is worth $750 toward travel costs. It has a $95 annual fee. CreditCards.Chase.com
The travel card that you choose may depend on which airline or hotel chain you frequent. But if your goal is to earn the most cash back—not points or miles—when you make travel-related purchases, then the 3% back offered by Wells Fargo Propel American Express on travel spending is tough to beat. And you often are better off taking the cash rewards and then using the cash to buy airline tickets.
If you don’t mind keeping track of bonus rewards categories that change every three months, the following cards are attractive. The rotating categories—which you activate online in response to e-mail reminders—include purchases at gas stations, supermarkets, restaurants, home-improvement stores, warehouse clubs, department stores and drugstores. The bonuses are capped at $1,500 in spending each quarter.
Discover it Cash Back offers 5% cash back in rotating categories and 1% on other purchases. At the end of your first year, Discover will match all the rewards you’ve earned, boosting the cash back in the rotating categories to 10% for that initial year. DiscoverCard.com
Alternative: Chase Freedom Visa also offers 5% bonus cash-back rewards in rotating categories that may differ in a particular quarter from Discover’s categories, so it may make sense to have both cards in your wallet. Biggest difference: Instead of doubling the rewards for the first year, the Chase card offers a $200 additional bonus for spending $500 in the first three months. CreditCards.Chase.com
Citi Double Cash MasterCard offers 2% cash back on all purchases—1% when cardholders make purchases and another 1% when they pay their bills. This card is best for spending in categories that do not provide at least 2% in cash-back rewards when using your other cards. CitiCards.Citi.com
*Many of these cards, which are available only to consumers with high credit scores, tend to have high interest rates. That means they may not make sense if you don’t pay off your bills every month.