The Best Rewards Credit Card for the 99% — and for the 1%

I receive compensation for many links on this blog. You don’t have to use these links, but I am grateful to you if you do. American Express, Citibank, Chase, and other banks are advertising partners of this site. I do not write about all credit cards that are available — instead focusing on miles, points, and cash back (and currencies that can be converted into the same).

The most lucrative thing you can do to earns points is sign up for credit cards and earn the signup bonuses. That’s great as far as it goes, and I do quite a bit of it myself (4-6 cards quarterly most of the time). But even I don’t do it all the time, right now I’m in the midst of refinancing property and until that closes I’m hands-off. There are plenty of people who aren’t going to sign up for cards as aggressively as I will.

Certainly most of the people I come across, and work with, fall into that category. What they want, one of the most frequent questions I get, is what’s the best credit card that I should get?

There’s a simple answer for most people. The best generic, all-purpose credit card advice that I have is to get two cards: the Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa and the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express.

  • I’ve had the Starwood Amex for more than a decade, and it still has a place top of wallet, Starwood points remain the most valuable.

    One Starpoint is worth more than 1 point of any other currency. They’re great to redeem for hotel stays, and they transfer to the largest number of airline frequent flyer programs. Those transfers are 1-to-1, and when you move Starpoints into 20,000 miles you earn a 5,000 mile bonus. That’s like earning 1.25 miles per dollar in most airline frequent flyer programs, you get to decide which program you want points in later, and he $65 annual fee (waived the first year) is even lower than most airline mile card fees.

    The card offers 10,000 Starpoints after first purchase and an additional 15,000 points when you spend $5,000 within 6 months. This is also the best card for purchasing appliances and electronics thanks to the strong purchase protections.

  • That card should be supplemented by the Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa which offers 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining. I need a Visa, there are plenty of merchants still that don’t take American Express. And I travel outside the U.S. so I want a card that has no foreign currency transaction fees.

    Chase Ultimate Rewards is the other major currency with the greatest value, points transfer to several airlines (United, British Airways, Korean, Southwest) and hotels (Hyatt, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, Priority Club) as well as Amtrak.

    The card offers 40,000 points after $4000 spend within 3 months, and waives the annual fee the first year.

The true answer to ‘which card is best for spending?’ (when that spending isn’t being used to meet the requirements of a signup bonus) is ‘it depends’. It depends on your personal circumstance and what you spend the most money on. So while the advice above probably works best for 99% of consumers, I wanted to address some specific cases that alter the advice for the other 1%.

If you rent a lot of cars: While the Sapphire Preferred offers double points on travel, including car rentals, if you rent a lot then I like the primary collision damage waiver offered by the Diners Club card (which I use, but is not currently open for new applications) and the United Explorer card. That protects you against the expenses of damaging a rental vehicle, but is not liability coverage — it doesn’t cover what you hit..

If you book a lot of revenue airline tickets online: Travelocity American Express can earn up to 10% cash back on purchases made at Me, I’m just not a huge fan of using Travelocity so I don’t go that route.

If you spend a lot on telecommunications — cable TV, cell phones, internet access: The Chase Ink Plus Credit Card earn 5 points per dollar on those categories of spending.

If you make a lot of small purchases in unbonused categories: The Chase Freedom earns 1 point per dollar (more in bonused categories which change each quarter) plus a 10% bonus and an extra 10 points per transaction if you also have a Chase checking account. (A $1 purchase earns 12 points.) (Update: Extra 10% bonus + 10 points may no longer be available to new customers.) And if you have a Chase Sapphire Preferred, or Ink Plus card you can transfer the points earned over to those card programs and the points become transferrable to airline miles and hotel points.

If one of the above ‘if you’ exceptions applies to you, then a specific strategy will suit you best. But for the 99% of folks, the one-two punch of Chase Sapphire Preferred and Starwood American Express is a hard to beat combination.

Editorial note: any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer. Comments made in response to this post are not provided or commissioned nor have they been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any bank. It is not the responsibility of any advertiser to ensure that questions are answered, either.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary, it’s strange as to how the Freedom + checking account works. I closed my Chase checking account in July but I’m still getting the 10% bonus and the 10 points per transaction bonus. still good when it lasts!

  2. Gary,

    The Vanilla reload cards seems to be disappearing from Office Depot, at least in North Carolina. There’s no mention of them on the Office Depot website. Could it be that OD has pulled the plug on these. Note: AMEX prepaid cards still readily available.

  3. Very nice and concise analysis except I would disagree on one point. Although Starwood amex is an excellant card for all the reasons you mentioned above but I favor million mile secrets opinion that it is not a keeper. You apply personal card and after a year replace this with the business card and keep this cycle. This way you take advantage of the sign on bonus and avoid the annual fee which is due next year. I beleive this card is churnable every year.

  4. Great read and i have many of these cards but do agree with the initial two which i tell my newbie friends about

    Just an fyi… I got the 6% amex blue but was told my bene will only go thru jan 15, 2013.

    Not sure how or why but thats what amex said when asked twice and i got the card in sept.

  5. I spend about 100-200 bucks every month at to buy international stamps, any suggestion as to way to maximize the points strategy ?

  6. @gman – hard to get in some places, easy in others, lots of great reports in Texas and Oklahoma… It just varies by place, don’t know what the future holds or if they are just ‘out’ given the very heavy demand

  7. @Joel – very cool, I imagine they just code the account a certain way rather than sweeping it monthly, don’t know if they run it at regular intervals (yearly?) or not, will be interesting to see how long you keep that bonus!

  8. Perhaps. I’ll have to see how long it takes before they clear it out! At least it’s fee free so I don’t have to close it.

  9. Is there a reason to recommend the CSP VISA as opposed to the MC? Or VISA is just the default? The MC has the same offer, and MC hopefully will have some nice bonuses again this holiday season. I’d guess that many of us have multiple Visa Signature cards, so one more doesn’t add to those perks. (Also, getting the MC allows for potentially getting the VISA sign on bonus later, or vice-versa…)

  10. @Mikes – you can get the card as either. When I’ve seen the Mastercard it has been out of standard credit card material with raised numbers, that could be a plus or a minus. Mastercard insurance coverages are slightly different. And occasionally there are visa-specific bonuses and Mastercard-specific bonuses. There are folks with both cards. Sapphire’s standard is a Visa but it’s not exclusively so.

  11. @Nicole – I found it amusing, but perhaps my sense of humor is off 😉 Maybe I should take a lesson from my own chiding over the Ritz-Carlton Charlotte for using the Occupy movement in its marketing. In my case I thought I was being ironic, at least…

  12. Nice CC article! I’d like to add one more thing about the Forward Card: that’s my first every credit card that I grabbed as a college student. It’s one of the few that you can apply to easily and get approved for if you’re just starting out and…if someone is new to the credit card game…this card should be meant for them. Especially due to the food bonus. It’s sad that they don’t have the sign up bonus that I had back then…they gave away at least 15000 points at sign up w/ first purchase.

  13. Hi Gary – your comment about the car rental coverage piqued my interest. Are you saying that the collision damage waiver (whether primary or secondary) only covers damage to the rental car? In other words, if you accidentally hit another car (or object), then you are fully responsible for the damage to that car or object (hopefully covered by your personal insurance). Is that right? Is there a card that covers everything?

  14. You mention the Diners Club credit card not being open for new applications in your initial post. Do you when it will become available again by any chance?

  15. @Erik – that’s right, Collision Damage Waiver takes care of the costs associated with damage to the rental vehicle. It is not insurance cover you against losses you cause to anything but the vehicle — damage to someone else’s car, damage to a structure you hit, injuries to passengers in your vehicle or another vehicle. Generally you would be relying on your own insurance for that. You can purchase liability coverage separately of course. I do not know of any credit cards that come bundled with liability insurance on rental vehicles. Others may correct me…

  16. Thanks, I will now check the fine print a little more closely on my personal insurance and the rental contracts. I had mistakenly thought the CDW covered both sides of a crash but your post clarified it (fortunately, I’ve never been involved with an accident situation on a rental).

  17. Agree with Steelsnow: the CSP MC is identical to the VISA, except for the logo and hologram on the back. The logo is silver on both, so even that doesn’t jump out at you unless you’re looking for it. The MC was issued ~2 months ago, and the VISA is just about a year old.

    I went with the Mastercard to have another one in hopes of Xmas bonuses. Also, to get 1 UR point per dollar, rather than getting a fraction on DISC or going to the hassle of buying Walmart GCs.

  18. @Gary @Mikes – I have the MC version of the Chase SP. It is made of metal and has the embossed numbers on the back.

  19. Hi! I use Citi Forward since we eat out a lot. I think the Thank You program associated with the Forward card is not the “premium” one, where you get discount points on bookings, etc. One way around this is to accumulated TY with Forward, and when you are ready to redeem, sign up for a Premier card and transfer points to the “premier” account for redemption. Be aware, however, that transferred points have a 90 day expiration!

  20. Gary, I will say this. I am amazed (in a good way)in how many ways you can dissect the credit card usage, from the same information. That is quite a management lesson I could learn from you.

  21. I think I fall into the Chase Freedom category but I’m wondering if I should jump on it now.

    I’ve been wanting the CSP for a while but I can’t do the 3,000 spending right now. However, I will be making some purchases for the holidays soon and if I could get some bonuses with the Freedom that would be really nice. And, I could get a start on collecting Ultimate Reward points before getting the CSP down the road.

    Do you think this is a good idea?

    I guess I just worry because it’s my third Chase card of the year. One in June, one in September. So I’m not sure if I should wait or not. Getting antsy 😛

  22. @ed for usps purchases I use an Ink Bold MC that is enrolled in Mastercard Easy Savings. (similar to AX OPEN) I earn points at a normal rate, but also get a 5% rebate.

  23. I recently did some research on the car rental insurance issue because I had the same questions.

    Because all drivers are required to have some amount of liability insurance (exact amount depends on the state), car rental agencies are required to provide some liability insurance to its renters in most states (supposedly CA, TX and a few others do not).

    Therefore, the cost of some liability insurance is built into the cost of your rental in most states. You can buy more liability insurance if you want.

    The collison insurance that is for the rental car itself what is provided by the CC that you use. I use the United Mileage Explorer card for its primary coverage (at least until I cancel before the annual fee becomes due).

  24. Regarding expiration of transferred Thank You points, how does that work?

    I recently combined my Thank You accounts from my Premier and Forward cards in order to get the 1.33 cents/point redemption for travel (on the Premier card).

    I now have only one Thank You account that earns points from spending on both of the Forward card and Premier card. Will the points from only my Forward card spending expire within 90 days of earning, for each purchase (e.g. spend $5 Day 1, spend $7 Day 2, 5 points expire Day 91, 7 points expire Day 92)?

    If this is the case, I will have to call to separate my Thank You accounts again…

  25. I’d also point out that the annual fees are a factor for the SP and SPG. True, it’s hard to beat the return per dollar when using those 2 cards, but another consideration is the marginal return between those cards and slightly inferior returns offered by other cards. For example, my US airways card gives me a lower return per dollar because of the lack of flexibility of the points, but it offers 10k miles when I pay the annual fee along with some small other benefits. Depending on how much you value UR/SPG points and other benefits, e.g. no foreign transaction fees, and how much you spend per year, the 10k annual bonus may actually work out better. A similar argument can be made for no annual fee cards like cash back cards, but I’m totally with you on redeeming only for premium cabin awards.

  26. I know View From The Wing is focused on travel, and for travel focused people this thread is on point, but I respectfully disagree that most people in general (47%, 99%, 1%) should focus on point(s) cards.

    The majority of people are be best off with a cash rebate card, typically a “general” 2% cash back card (there are more than just one). Depending on your spend distribution (as Gary noted above) some other cards may have better cash back (Blue Cash, Freedom, etc).

  27. Any comment on the Capital One Venture Rewards Card? Its basically 2% back which is easily redeemable by offsetting travel purchases, no foreign transaction fee, $59 annual fee, plus you get to put a customized picture on the card =)

  28. Do you keep all your cards after the 1st year and pay all the annual dues starting the 2nd year? If so, do you find that profitable? Or, do you close most of the cards after you’ve received the points? Do you know how it affects your credit if you start closing a bunch of cards after one year?

  29. Some cards I keep (such as US Airways Mastercard, American Airlines cards) because the annual bonuses on the cards just for having them are worth more than the annual fee. Some I ditch. I have a post linked in the left hand side under Advice – Credit Cards on deciding which cards to keep and which to cancel and how to do it most effectively.

  30. I actively research credit cards, and recently added the Priceline 2% Visa card to my card portfolio. 2% on everything, redeem by applying as statement credit once reach 2500 points ($=25). can only be applied to a card charge of 25.00 or higher. Works great. Had Fidelity AmEx 2%, but too many large purchases were at stores that didn’t accept AmEx.

  31. Marukai USA sold to Don Quijote (via Pan Pacific Int’l)

    Possible changes to JCB Marukai Premium card ahead? Considering Don Quijote offers branded CC in Japan (Cedyna (SMFG) Club Donpen V/MC/JCB card (pre 2010: DC (MUFG) MC / GE Visa/JCB)), there shouldn’t be any drastic changes in the near term. FYI: Yaohan USA => Mitsuwa Yaohan => Mitsuwa Marketplace conversion did take a year or two.

    If not already, those that have JCB Marukai Premium card should work on getting the $5k yearly spend for the extra $50 cash back.

    All 11 Marukai Stores to Be Sold — Don Quijote to take over management on Sept. 30.
    Sep 4 2013 Takashi Ishihara (as translated by J.K. Yamamoto)

    Buyout intent by Don Quijote (Jul 26 2013)

  32. Hi, I am focusing on signup bonuses. I got all the cards I could get and now am looking to sign my spouse up for some. If he is an authorized user on my card, will that count against him if he signs up for his own card with the same banking/lending institution? Thanks!

  33. What about the Priority Destinations World Elite Mastercard. You earn 5x points/$ spent on first $6000 of travel. You redeem on Orbitz at 100 points per $. Seems like a no-brainer if you spend money on travel.

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