If you've ever heard stories from friends or on TV about people getting free trips or a big fat check from their credit card companies, it's not fake news.
Anyone can reap rewards by using their credit cards strategically, but it all starts with choosing the right ones.
If you're not currently carrying a rewards card in your wallet, you are probably leaving cash (and merchandise and fabulous hotel upgrades…) on the table.
There are all types of rewards credit cards, so finding one that aligns with your spending style and lifestyle interests should be no problem.
The more selective you are, the more rewards potential there is for you.
The bottom line is that you're doing a lot of spending anyway, so why not get something for it?
By leaving your cash in the bank and swiping your credit cards instead, you could be building up points, miles, or dollars with every purchase.
You have to choose the card(s) that make sense for you
Are you an avid traveler who books a lot of trips?
Someone who rarely carries cash and puts everyday purchases on plastic?
Or… somewhere in between?
No matter—there is a rewards card for you.
What's common to all rewards cards, however, is they only benefit you if you pay your balance off in full each month.
Once you start paying interest (and rewards cards usually have a higher APR than regular cards), you'll quickly offset anything you earn.
What's more is that with great rewards comes great responsibility.
That's why in order to qualify for the more elite rewards cards, you'll have to have a superior credit score.
Fear not, though—there are also good entry-level rewards cards geared toward those with Fair (630-689) to Good (690-719) credit scores.
To help you navigate the mystifying world of rewards credit cards, we did the research to help identify the best cards for every type of reward seeker.
How We Picked the 5 Best Rewards Cards
When reviewing the benefits and fine print of the most popular rewards credit cards, we dug deeper to find standout options for newbies and advanced users alike.
Beginners and intermediate users, unite! You don't have to be in the top 1% of FICO Score holders or be a globetrotting travel buff to earn rewards.
There are great cards that have uncomplicated rewards and redemption, no (or low) annual fees, and even sign-on and rotating category bonuses.
Advanced rewards hackers—we got you, too.Remember those people earning free trips and glamorous perks?
We saved the last slot on our list for those seeking the VIP rewards credit card treatment.
Ready to start earning rewards?
Take a look at our top five rewards credit cards:
This card offers high rewards value without the strict qualifications or fees
Earning rewards does sometimes take a bit of work.
With the Discover it card, you can choose to put in as much or as little effort as you want.
On the simple side, you'll earn 1% cash back on all purchases.
But if you take the few minutes to log on and activate bonus offers each quarter, you can earn 5% cashback in those categories.
It keeps tabs on your identity. Discover's free Identity Alerts program monitors your account and your identity and notifies you right away if it suspects any fraudulent activity.
Rewards over penalties. We're not saying you should ever pay your bill late, but if life gets the best of you, Discover it grants you a "get out of late fee" pass for your first offense.
Plus, paying late won't raise your APR, something that is common among most issuers.
Top-notch customer service. Discover prides itself on the fact that all of its representatives are U.S.-based, and they will not try to upsell you when you're calling for help.
You'll have to wait for your bonus… but it's coming
Although you don't get a signup bonus with this card (which can seem like a bummer), Discover makes up for it by automatically matching all the cash back you earn during your first year.
You will also enjoy a 0% Intro APR for 14 months on purchases and balance transfers.
Redemption is quick and easy
Some cards make you reach an amount before you can cash in, but Discover it leaves it up to you.
You also have the option of putting your rewards toward Amazon purchases.
"But does everyone accept Discover?"
Don't be surprised if you whip out your Discover card only to find that some merchants simply don't accept it, especially when you're outside the United States.
You don't have to be perfect to be approved
Those in the "good" range of credit can qualify.
Discover it users typically have a 700+ FICO score.
If you're new to rewards cards, Discover it is the perfect introduction to how rotating bonus categories work.
But it's that first-year matching bonus that is the game-changing benefit that sets the card apart.
This card is packed with perks, including a bonus that's not too shabby
Chase Freedom is a great rewards card for newbies, packed with many of the perks and benefits that are usually reserved for big-time plastic swipers.
Here's what we mean:
Category bonuses. Each quarter, you can earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in bonus categories.
Plus, the 1% cash back you'll get on all other purchases is unlimited.
A long, no-interest cushion. If there's a large purchase you need to make or a debt you're trying to eliminate, the 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers is a super-long 15 months.
A generous sign-up bonus for a no-fee card
Cardholders will earn a $150 bonus if they spend $500 on purchases in the first three months from account opening (which is not hard to do).
It's a great way to get hooked on rewards.
No worrying about redemption challenges here
Not only is there no minimum for redeeming, but points never expire as long as the Chase Freedom card account is open.
"What's the deal with the bonus categories?"
You must activate the bonus categories once per quarter in order to get the 5% bonus.
Then you'll just have to remember to use the card for those types of purchases.
It may seem like a hardcore rewards card, but getting approved isn't that hard
As long as you have a FICO score in the high 600 range, you should be good to go.
Although the Chase Freedom has many of the same qualities as the Discover it, it is more widely accepted.
The decision comes down to if you'd rather get a sign-up bonus, or wait a year for a matching bonus (which may or may not be more than $150).
Amex Blue Cash Preferred
This is the best grocery-focused rewards card ever
If you're ready to level up into a higher-tier of rewards cards and spend a lot of time at the grocery store, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better offer than American Express's Blue Cash Preferred card.
The 6% cash back you can earn on your spend at U.S. supermarkets is unmatched.
You'll also get 3% cash back at gas stations and select department stores, and 1% back on other purchases.
But wait, there's more:
A year of no interest. It's always nice to have a 0% intro APR cushion, and this card gives you 12 months on purchases and balance transfers.
Amex is known for being customer-centric. American Express offers top-notch consumer protections and will back you up should any issues arise.
Be sure to earn your bonus.Just spend $1,000 on purchases within the first three months, and you'll get a $200 statement credit.
If nothing else, it helps takes the sting out of the $95 annual fee.
Redemption options abound.Do you like treating yourself with rewards?
Instead of getting a statement credit, you may also use your Reward Dollars for gift cards and/or merchandise.
"Are there any caps on how much you can earn?"
You'll only earn 6% at supermarkets for the first $6,000 you spend per year; it drops to 1% if you go over.
But still–that means you can earn up to $360 a year by spending $500 per month stocking your pantry and fridge for the fam.
Apply after reading the fine print
You will need to be in the good to excellent range of credit scores to qualify for this card.
Also, if you're applying just for the big supermarket bonus potential, consider where you shop.
The 6% doesn't count if you buy most groceries at wholesale clubs like Costco or big-box retailers like Wal-Mart.
As long as you spend at least $50 a week on groceries at supermarkets using this card (which equates to $156 in rewards), you'll more than cover your annual fee.
Add to that the bonus and the 3% rewards on gas and at department stores, and you'll come out way ahead.
Capital One Venture Rewards
This card is a trusted travel companion, minus the fine print baggage
- Intro APRN/A
- Regular APR14.74% - 24.74% variable APR
- Annual feeSee Terms
- Credit levelExcellent or higher
If you're looking to fund or upgrade a future getaway, the Capital One Venture Rewards card is the perfect introductory product for earning travel-related rewards and perks.
There is a $95 annual fee, but it is waived for the first year so you'll have time for a test flight.
Earn unlimited 2X miles per dollar on every purchase you make.
That means if you spend $1,000 per month, you'll net 24,000 miles for the year, which covers about $240 in travel expenses.
Other jet-setting benefits include:
The Visa Signature treatment. Cardholders have 24/7 access to a Visa Signature Concierge who can help you with your travel bookings.
Plus, you might be eligible for complimentary upgrades and special savings at select hotels, resorts, and spas.
No foreign transaction fees. If you're going abroad, this is an important benefit to pack with you.
Cool wallet candy. Once you apply, you can request the ultra-sleek looking metal Venture Card.
Be sure to make it to your sign-up bonus destination
You'll have to spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening, but doing so will earn you 50,000 bonus miles.
That's worth approximately $500 you can use toward travel.
Easy redemption takes the guesswork out of how to use your miles
Some rewards card horror stories include things like black-out dates and lost points, but that doesn't apply here.
Just make a travel purchase with the Venture card for any airline or hotel you'd like, and redeem your miles for a statement credit toward the cost.
"What if I want cash back instead?"
You do have the option to redeem your miles for a check, gift cards, and more.
Just be aware that you will get more value from your miles when they are used for travel.
You don't have to have a high-flying FICO to get approved
With a credit score of 690 or above, you can "venture" into travel rewards card territory.
With its redemption flexibility and impressive bonus, the Venture Rewards card is a worthwhile choice for those who travel at least a couple of times per year.
Chase Sapphire Reserve
This card offers an elite experience for big spenders who want to up their travel game
With "reserve" in its name, it's no surprise that the Chase Sapphire Reserve card is not for just anyone.
This high-fee card ($450 per year) is specifically designed for those seeking VIP travel rewards and benefits–and who can spend enough to earn them.
If you're someone who does the family theme park circuit every other year and not much else, it's not the best card choice for you.
What you'll get:
Earn more enjoying the finer things. Cardholders earn 3x points on all travel and dining purchases worldwide.
A personal assistant who can get you things. Actually, it's the Visa Infinite Concierge who hooks up cardholders with hard-to-get dinner reservations, Broadway tickets, and other entertainment.
The Chase Travel Team is also a call away if you need anything while you're traveling.
First-class airport privileges. You get access to 1,000+ VIP airport lounges, as well as a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre-check to help make the check-in process more bearable.
Book a big trip, and earn your bonus
If you can hit the $4,000 spending minimum in the first three months (which is doable if you have a trip to book), you'll earn 50,000 bonus points.
If you redeem them wisely, that could cover up to $750 in travel expenses.
Learn to master the redemption game
You'll get the most bang for your bonus bucks (about 50% more value) by booking travel via the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal.
But you also have the option of transferring your points to a wide selection of hotel and airline partners.
You may have to crunch some numbers to figure out the best deal.
"Is the high fee really worth it?"
Among the card's best benefits is a $300 travel credit per year, so if you use that, your $450 fee is suddenly looking more like $150.
Then, as long as you spend $5,000 a year on dining and travel (earning 3x points), worth about $220, you'll be ahead of the fee.
Only top-tier credit users need apply
You'll need around a 750 FICO Score to qualify for this elite card, and don't even bother if you've applied for five or more cards in the past 24 months—that's a strict Chase rule.
If you enjoy luxury travel and will take advantage of the fringe benefits, then the Chase Sapphire Reserve should accompany you on all of your trips moving forward.
Try one of these cards, and start getting rewarded every time you spend
Rewards cards are not for balance-carriers, undisciplined spenders, or cash-only types who stow away their plastic for emergencies only.
But if your credit is healthy and you prefer plastic to paper money, you're throwing money away if you don't use a rewards card.
To help you figure out which of the above is best for you, ask yourself:
How good is my credit? Rewards potential is usually proportional to credit score.
And that's fine since they are designed to work best when paid in-full each month.
If you're already doing that, you're halfway there to qualifying for your first rewards card.
What type of rewards do you want? Some people—especially those who don't travel often—get more value out of cash back rewards.
Others relish the vacation extras that travel cards provide.
If you're somewhere in the middle, go with the choice that offers the most flexibility.
Eventually, you can be like expert card users and learn to juggle two or more rewards cards so you can really get the most out of every dollar.
For the most part, the more effort you put into maximizing your rewards cards, the more you can earn.
Read the fine print to make sure you're not missing out on any perks and start earning.
Do you use rewards credit cards?
What card have you gotten the most out of?
Let us know in the comments below.