Credit cards are like cars. Which credit card is best for you depends as much on your lifestyle as on the specific interest rates and signup bonuses it offers.
To illustrate, the 2-door coupé Bugatti Veyron’s 8.0 liter and 1,001 horsepower engine, 0 to 63 mph in 2.7 seconds acceleration, and top speed of 270 mph: the fastest street-legal production car in the world, make it a dream car for any driver with a pulse. However, it’s not of much use if you need to take your kids to soccer practice; enjoy going off-roading on the weekends; or want to take more than a toothbrush as luggage on your next road trip.
Similarly, the best travel or dining card in the world may be a waste of space in your wallet, if you hate flying or never eat out. That’s why this list only has five categories to choose from. Whether you’re a family man, an air-miles-junkie, or just your regular plain Jane, we have the best card for your lifestyle.
Best Sign-Up Bonus Card: The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
If you want to pile up rewards quickly, this is your category. Our Best Sign-Up Bonus Card winner is Chase’s Sapphire Preferred Card but it was a close contest.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card* allows you to earn 40,000 after you spend just $3,000 in the first three months. That’s the equivalent of $500 in travel if you redeem your rewards through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program. If you add an authorized user to your account and make a purchase within the first 3 months, you can rack up an additional 5,000 points.
The Barclaycard Arrival World Elite Mastercard offers a generous sign-up bonus but doesn’t offer the 5,000 point bonus for an additional user. More details on the Barclaycard Arrival Card in the Best Travel Rewards Card category.
Best Cashback Card: U.S. Bank Cash+ Visa Signature® Card
Determining which cash back card is best for you is complicated because there are so many variables to consider. We crunched the numbers and made some educated guesses and the U.S. Bank Cash+ Visa Signature® Card came on top.
The U.S. Bank Cash Card allows you to earn 5% cash back on your first $2,000 on two categories of your choice, such as restaurants and gas, or groceries and department stores. You also get 2% cash back on a third category of your choice and 1% back on everything else. This is a card for credit card nerds who don’t mind investing a little time planning their purchases around credit card cash back rewards. The downside is you don’t get a sign-up bonus, which means you need to keep the card for at least two years to stay ahead of the competition, and you need excellent credit (720 to 850) to qualify.
Deciding between the U.S. Bank Cash+*, the BankAmericard*, and the Amex Blue Cash Preferred was a hard call.
The BankAmericard gives you a $100 sign-up bonus, if you spend $500 within the first 90 days; a straight 2% cash back on groceries and 3% on gas for the first $1,500 you spend every quarter; and 1% for every other purchase, every time. If you only plan to keep your cash back card for a year it actually beats the U.S. Bank Cash Card and you’ll save yourself the headache of selecting spending categories. For more details on the Amex Blue Cash Preferred, see the Best Gas and Groceries Card category.
Best Gas and Groceries Card: Amex Blue Cash Preferred
Strictly speaking, gas and groceries cards are just a type of cash back card, but these are such common purchases they deserve a category of their own.
The hands-down winner in this group is the Amex Blue Cash Preferred*. It gives you 6% cash back at US supermarkets up to $6,000 a year (a $360 value), 3% cash back at US gas stations and select department stores, such as Belk, J.C. Penney, Nordstrom and Sears. You also get a $100 sign-up bonus and a complimentary year of Amazon Prime ($99 value), if you spend $1,000 within the first three months.
Super Tip: Notice that the 3% cash back does not apply for gas stations that are part of supermarkets and warehouse clubs, such as Costco and Target.
The only downside is you have to pay an annual fee of $75. The no-annual-fee version of this card is the Blue Cash Everyday, but you only get 3% on groceries, 2% on gas and department stores, and a $50 sign-up bonus. Even if you only plan to spend $50 a week in groceries, you’re better off with the Amex Blue Cash Preferred.
Best Travel Rewards Card: BarclayCard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard
This award goes to the BarclayCard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard. It has a generous signup bonus. The top rewards are a 40,000 sign-up bonus after you spend $3,000 within the first three months ($400 value), double points on every purchase (no limits, no categories), 10% back when you redeem points for travel and complimentary access to your FICO score. An added bonus, which is not offered by the other top rewards cards, is an introductory 0% APR on purchases and balance transfers for the first 12 months.
The other rewards cards to look out for are Chase’s Sapphire Preferred Card and Capital One’s Venture Rewards Card. The virtues of the Sapphire Preferred are explained in the Best Sign-Up Bonus Card category above. The Venture Rewards Credit Card has a lower but still attractive 20,000 points sign-up bonus, a cheaper annual fee ($59 instead of $89 for the Barclaycard Arrival and $95 for the Chase Sapphire Preferred) and a no-nonsense double points on all purchases.
Best No-Annual-Fee Card: Capital One’s Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card
Although most cards with annual fees easily pay for themselves in perks, cash-back bonuses and other rewards, annual fees quickly add up. Credit cards without an annual fee usually have more modest rewards but they help with your credit score, credit score algorithms reward having accounts open for a long time, and they keep you in business when you’re in between cards with big sign-up bonuses.
We’ve chosen the Capital One’s Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card. It offers a $100 bonus, if you spend $500 within the first 90 days and you earn 1.5% on every purchase, every day. The runner-ups were close but the Quicksilver manages to combine generous rewards with unmatched simplicity and a 0% APR on purchases and balance transfers until the end of 2014.
The BankAmerican Travel Rewards* Credit Card is practically a clone of the Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card. The only downside is you can only redeem your points for travel expenses and its introductory 0% APR is only good for purchases not balance transfers. On the positive side, the 0% APR is good for 12 billing cycles, instead of just till the end of 2014.
Another serious contender is the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card, which offers a higher sign-up bonus, 20,000 points, if you spend $2,000 within the first three months. It loses to the other Capital One card because it offers 1.25 points for every dollar you spend instead of 1.5% cash back and it doesn’t include a 0% APR on purchases and balance transfers.