15 Credit Cards With Good Rewards Programs

The financial columnist at MSN Money quizzed five credit card industry experts and a frequent flyer expert to find the best cards when it comes to travel programs, cash back programs, and savings programs. She narrowed it down to a top six—two in each category—and a bunch of near misses.

Travel Programs

  • First place: Starwood American Express
  • Runner up: Diners Club MasterCard
  • Other good ones: American Airlines AAdvantage MasterCard, United Mileage Plus Visa, Choice Privileges Visa, Citi PremierPass Elite MasterCard

Cash-Back Programs

  • First place: American Express Blue Cash
  • Runner up: Chase Freedom Visa
  • Other good ones: Citi Professional Cash MasterCard, Discover Motiva

Savings Programs

  • First place: Fidelity Investments 529 College Rewards American Express
  • Runner up: Citi UPromise MasterCard
  • Other good ones: Citi Home Rebate Platinum Select MasterCard, GM Flexible Earnings MasterCard, NestEggz Visa

One caveat about the top pick for travel, the Starwood card: “This is not the card to use for flying United. That airline requires you to give up two Starpoints for every frequent-flier mile, which makes the airline’s own co-branded card a better bet for dedicated United fliers.”

“The 15 most rewarding credit cards” [MSN Money]
(Photo: Getty)

Comments

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  1. TechnoDestructo says:

    This woman considers flying on American or (bleh) United a REWARD?

    Her opinion on all things is instantly worthless.

  2. Skiffer says:

    One notable point that Consumerist should have included from the article:

    They’re for “deadbeats.” “Deadbeat” is the credit card industry’s code word for people who pay their balances in full every month. If you carry a balance, you need to bypass rewards cards, which typically have high interest rates, and seek out the lowest-rate card you can find. Once you’re in the habit of paying off your balance every month, you can switch to a rewards card.

    Also, don’t expect to get any late fees/etc. reversed.

    The article also mentions how the rewards programs typically change all the time (to maximize the CC company’s profits) – so don’t be surprised if some of the more elaborate programs are no longer on this list in 6 months.

  3. chrisgoh says:

    This list ignores rewards cards. For example, I buy a bunch of stuff from Amazon.com so I have the Amazon.com Visa. They give 3% back to you in GC for everything you spend on their site. Cards like this can be a good deal if you use the particular business a lot.

  4. GitEmSteveDave says:

    @chrisgoh: I do this with my WaWa Chase card for gas, and my ShopRite card for my groceries. Since I’m a “Deadbeat” or according to Chase, “non-profit”, I make out like gangbusters. I usually sell the $50 card from WaWa to a friend for like $40, so I make out. I even got out of a overlimit fee from Chase, so I am soooo non-profit.

  5. erica.blog says:

    More motivation for me to get the American Express card I have already been planning to get :-) Hooray for deadbeatness!

    Only reason I have not switched yet is our current card is tied to our mortgage, and we basically get 1% cash back but it dumps directly into our mortgage principal instead into our bank account. Once that condo sells, I’m ditching them.

  6. DAK says:

    We’re thrilled with our Costco AmEx. 1% back on purchases, 2% back on Costco purchases, and 3% back on dining. No fee, etc. Great card all around.

  7. DAK says:

    @erica.blog: That kicks ass beyond words. Even if you don’t use your card much, it’s free money in one of the places it can do the most good.

  8. vitonfluorcarbon says:

    @Skiffer:

    I have the Fidelity 529 Rewards Mastercard and have for many years now. I still get TWO percent back on anything for my son’s 529 even though the card has been replaced by the AMEX version which only pays 1 1/2%. MBNA/FIA has been very cool to keep the Mastercard version alive for those of us who are “grandfathered.”

    We charge everything – $2000-$2500 a month typically. And we pay it off every month. There have been a couple of times in the last few years where I have forgotten to pay the bill by the due date due to my business travel, but when I call them just a couple of days after the payment was due, they waive the late fee, and do NOT charge me any interest. My FICO score is something like 900, so I don’t know what that does for you… It could be a helpful thing to have a score like that. (I can’t remember what my actual score was, but I remember that it was only 50 points away from the max in case I’m stating this wrong.)

    I’ve overall been very impressed with FIA/MBNA customer service. Would recommend to anyone…. but I’m sure someone has a horror story on this site.

  9. forgottenpassword says:

    @erica.blog:

    Make sure to read the fine print for each rewards card. I was thinking about switching to the american express card , but found out that you had to spend something like $6,500 on it a year to be eligible to get 5% cashback. I found this on another site other than american express’s site because theur site only seemed to offer the signup link & no details.

    I dont spend enough on a credit card to qualify for AMEX’s 5% cashback, so looks like I will be sticking with my citicard dividend platinum select card.

  10. ludwigk says:

    I don’t understand why some of these are good. My credit card is just a visa with 1% back on every dollar. Its not optimal, but its quite brainless. This to me is strictly better than the mortgage one.

  11. mikelotus says:

    @chrisgoh: Yea, great card through Chase. Our number was stolen, even though the card was only used on Amazon, and by the time the new card got to us, Chase called us to tell us that one had also been stolen. We told them not to send a third one. Chase managed to keep this quiet though several people I know had the same thing happen to them (through a Chase card, not just Amazon’s Chase card).

  12. TeraGram says:

    @Skiffer:

    Also, don’t expect to get any late fees/etc. reversed.

    I have a Citi Diamond Rewards card. About once a year I screw up some how. Every time, every single time, they’ve reversed the charges for me.

    They’re a great company as far as I’m concerned.

    I’m looking to taking the family to Europe or So. America in a few years and the airfare will all be paid by points. A-yup. That’s the plan. We went to Chicago once already on Citi.

    And I’ve not paid one thin dime in interest nor fees.

  13. FLConsumer says:

    I’ve heard good things about the Costco/Amex card as well.

    Forgottenpassword: It’s actually worse than that. It’s 1% on US gas/grocery/drugstores, 0.5% on everything else until you reach $6500, THEN it’s 5% on gas/grocery/drugstores, 1.5% back on everything else, again only US purchases count. Also, they’ll give you the cash reward once a year, on the anniversary date of your Amex card.

    Personally, my main card is a Wachovia Visa Signature card, 1.5% back on everything, no limit, can cash out for cash, gift certificates, etc.

    Remember kids, as long as you can cover it or be reimbursed in time, run all of those company reimbursable expenses on your own card! It adds up. Just bought a few new laptops for work on my card, $30/pop in rewards back to my pocket for each laptop.

  14. forgottenpassword says:

    One thing I have noticed over the years…. is that all the credit card companies have been increasingly stingy with the rewards they offer. I guess too many “deadbeats” (nonprofits) have been taking advantage.

  15. privatejoker75 says:

    I got my Chase Freedom card last year when they were giving away $250 for free just for signing up. I’ve been more than pleased with them ever since.

  16. privatejoker75 says:

    I forgot to mention i use my chase card for EVERYTHING…i even autopay other bills with it like Sprint and Dish network. It’s a free 3% refund, so why not? And it’s easier to pay one $1500 bill per month than 8 seperate bills.

  17. doctor_cos wants you to remain calm says:

    @forgottenpassword: The $6500 thing is in the linked article, although when I was scoping out a possible new card a few months ago, I saw this about the Blue Cash card (and it made me change that plan).
    I had also looked at the Discover More and Motiva cards, then decided I didn’t really need another card after all.

    Also, isn’t it kind of funny how the definition of ‘deadbeat’ has changed now to be the opposite of what it used to be? Is George Costanza in charge of the credit bureaus now?

  18. sleze69 says:

    @forgottenpassword:

    @FLConsumer: It’s actually pretty easy to spend $6500 in a year. You just have to be disciplined to pay as much as you can with your CC (and be even more disciplined to pay it off at the end of the month). Cable bills, car insurance, cell phone bills, etc are things that you have to pay every month no matter what.

    Just doing quick math with those bills alone puts me at $4200. Sure you won’t get the 5% until later in the year but it is attainable.

  19. BearTack says:

    Discover passes your name and telephone number on to telemarketers unless you specifically ask them not to.

  20. jeff303 says:

    @vitonfluorcarbon: Just to be nitpicky, the max possible score is 850

    [en.wikipedia.org]

  21. MaxRC says:

    American Express Blue Cash is ideal for people who charges A LOT. This is because its rewards are not capped, unlike other cards that give >1% cash back. Other cards are all capped at a rediculously low annual limit of $300 to $600. So if you charge a lot of money on your credit card, the AmEx Blue Cash is pretty much the only card that is worth your while.

  22. MaxRC says:

    @FLConsumer: Isn’t the Wachovia Visa Signature card only available to wealth managment clients of Wachovia? And Wealth Mangement services are only available to those who keep $1M in accounts with Wachovia, right?

  23. Mr. Gunn says:

    Skiffer: Come on, can we lay this to rest? AMEX cards have annual fees of anywhere from $45 – $199! Everyone who uses their cards is profitable for them!

    It’s the bottom-feeders of the credit industry like Crapital One and BoA who need to make money from service charges and fees. AMEX and Discover do just fine using their rewards programs to steal transactions from crappier cards, thus making more in transaction fees.

    The non-profit stuff may exist, but it’s not industry-wide.

  24. Mr. Gunn says:

    GitEmSteveDave: You sell your $50 credit for $40? How is that making out any kind of good? Even applying it directly to your balance would be better than that! I usually redeem my cashback for a giftcard from a merchant that has an affiliate program with the card issuer(discover – more card) so I get a $50 gift card for $40.

    One thing I have to say about the recommendations above is that they’re not necessarily the best card for all cases, but the best possible card, provided you are able to max out the benefits, which in the case of both the Starwood Amex and the Blue Cash require quite a bit of annual spending. The Starwood doesn’t give you good points unless you stay Westin/Sheraton hotels often, or spend over $15000/year on it. It does give you 1.25 miles/dollar if you redeem your miles in increments of 20000, which is better than any other program, provided you spend enough, which also means you get the free upgrade and perks on the hotel stays. If you’re not doing a lot of travel, or if you always fly southwest and stay in motel 6, it won’t be nearly as good because the benefits only come with higher spending, but they’re super nice if you’re already doing that anyways.

  25. MaxRC says:

    Not all Amex cards have annual fees – most of their best rewards cards do not have one. Those that do can be waived if you ask.

    Even if you pay in full every month, the credit card companies still stand to make good money off of you from the transactions you do.

  26. DXDawg says:

    @Mr. Gunn:

    Not true. The AmEx Blue, Blue Sky, Blue Cash, One, Optima, Clear, Costco, in:NYC, in:LA, in:Chicago, The Knot, The Nest, and Hilton Honors cards are all annual-fee free.

  27. holocron says:

    @Mr. Gunn: I have two AMEX cards that have NO annual fee: AMEX Blue, and AMEX Optima

  28. melmoitzen says:

    @DAK: I think you’ve got it slightly wrong on the Costco Amex. 3% dining out, 2% travel, 1% on everything else (including Costco purchases).

    Got an e-mail from Amex yesterday offering me a Costco Business Amex…the same 3%/2%/1% structure, plus 5% back on gas. Once Chase decides to no longer grandfather the 5% I’m getting back on gas/groceries/drugstores on my current rewards card, I’ll be getting this one.

  29. I use my Household Bank Mastercard for everything now, which has an APR of 13% or something, and 2% cash back on everything. I’m a deadbeat apparently, so I never worry about interest. I also keep it at a low limit ($900) to ensure I pay in full every month.

    I started using it regularly when I lost my debit card last year. I needed something for purchases, and had always kept the card around in case of emergencies. I realized that if I use the card for everything and pay it off in full every month, I earn about $18 a month. I can’t argue with that. They also let me redeem it in $25 increments, which appears to be better than a lot of these other programs.

  30. MarkMadsen'sDanceInstructor says:

    The author should really have emphasized that Blue Cash is only good for people who charge way over $6500. For college students and others who barely get to $6500 in a year, AmEx Blue Cash gets you only 1% back, which is much worse than similar rewards cards.

  31. plim says:

    and it should be noted that for the AMEX Starwoods card, you can still trade points into miles at almost 30 other airlines not named United for 1:1 ratios (and in a few cases better).

    Starwoods also lets you redeem points for gift cards at Pottery Barn/Williams & Sonoma, Amazon, Banana Republic/Gap and a couple other place.

    Amazon is the best deal: 1400 point for a $150 card.

  32. FLConsumer says:

    @sleze69: My point is that the 5% only applies to a very small portion of purchases (Gas stations, grocery stores, drug stores) and at least for me, a miniscule portion of my spending. Hitting $6,500 isn’t difficult for me, have had quite a few months where I had charged more than that through, let alone in a year.

    At best, they’re still only paying 1.5% back for everything else, which is what I already get with my Visa card regardless of how much I spend. I also dislike them only paying out once a year. I frequently cash in my points for hotel vouchers and other things throughout the year. Another useful feature of Wachovia’s Visa Signature card is their concierge service, which I’ve used numerous times and they’ve always come through. Restaurant reservations for restaurants which claimed they had no space available, last-minute Broadway tickets, car services, etc, and they’re nowhere near as expensive as Amex’s. Car service from Manhattan to JFK via Amex concierge – $120. With Visa’s concierge – $50.

    @MaxRC: My card is indeed a Wachovia wealth management card, even has that stamped right across the the top of it. The card has a very uncanny appearance to an Amex Centurian card, which I don’t think is accidental. It appears that restaurant & hotel staff in NYC know what a Visa Sig. card is, while in Florida they have no clue. Not sure on Wachovia’s policy for wealth management status, but I do know that it involves having substantial assets with them. They treat me very well, but they still don’t pay much for interest on accounts with them.

  33. vitonfluorcarbon says:

    @jeff303:
    Thanks. I really couldn’t remember the number.

  34. @Mr. Gunn: Since I pay my balance off in full, I get no finance charges. So I am getting a $50 for free when I redeem my points. If I use the $50 card to buy stuff at WaWa, I can’t charge it to the WaWa credit card, so I get no points towards future cards.

    Since I don’t pay for the card, I take the $40, put it in my ING account, and use it for the next months bill.

  35. Mr. Gunn says:

    gitemstevedave: So you’re losing 20% in order to make 1%? Surely there’s some way you can redeem it for at least face value?

    DXDawg, et al.:
    Yes, the blue cash and some of the specialty cards don’t have annual fees, but the standard Gold/Platinum do, and they’ll generally only waive the fee the first year. The point was that even people who don’t carry a balance or get charged penalty fees make plenty of money for the company, so the whole “deadbeat” thing is kinda silly and really only applies to bottom-tier cards like Capital One, and even they waive the annual fee every year on a old very low limit card we haven’t charged a dime to in years. They also recently upgraded another low limit card I haven’t used in years to a rewards card. If they only made money through fees, they’d slap a maintenance fee on there instead of trying to encourage spending.

    Jeff from LA: It’s 1.5% cashback on non-grogeries/gas, but yes, like I said, it’s best for those people with a high annual spend, which makes my point that the rewards programs are to encourage annual spend because that’s very profitable for them. They don’t only make money from interest and penalties.