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NerdWallet’s Best Rewards Credit Card Roundup, Fall 2011 Edition

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Some of the best rewards credit card deals of 2011 are going on right now: as banks clamor for your attention and your patronage, they’re offering bonus upon bonus to get you in the door. But you can afford to be choosy: pick the card that best suits your lifestyle, your spending habits, your travel plans and your willingness to pay annual fees. Read on for NerdWallet’s picks of the best rewards credit cards for 2011!

Best rewards credit card for suburbanites

The newly released Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express (signup bonus: Get $150 back after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. You will receive $150 back in the form of a statement credit.) tops our list as the best rewards card for people who spend on food, gas and clothing – the typical purchases for a family. It earns 6% back on groceries up to $6,000 spent per year (then 1%), 3% back on gas and department stores, and 1% back elsewhere. It also pays out in, well, cash, so you can redeem in $25 increments rather than saving 10,000 rewards points or waiting for your once-a-year payout.

Highlights: easy earning and redemption, high rewards rate on family purchases
Downsides: $75 annual fee, fewer heavy-hitting rewards categories

Best rewards credit card for travelers

The Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card (signup bonus: Enjoy a one-time bonus of 40,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months, equal to $400 in travel) is one of the best travel credit cards around, since it gives a flat 2% rewards rate on all purchases and pays out in a statement credit to offset a travel expense rather than miles tied to a specific airline. This means that you can use your miles for anything travel-related. Plus, there’s no foreign transaction fee, so you don’t have to pay 3% of whatever you spend overseas.

Highlights: high base rewards rate, no F/X fee, easy redemption
Downsides: $0 intro for first year; $59 after that, no bonus categories

Best credit card for socialites

The Citi Forward® Card (signup bonus: 10,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after $650 in purchases & paperless statement sign-up in the first 3 months.) is a great card for city dwellers. Though its signup bonus is nothing to write home about, it makes the list because of its high overall rewards rate. It privileges entertainment spending, giving 5 ThankYou Points per $1 spent on dining, books, movies and music (it also counts as a bookstore, no matter what you buy) and 1 point elsewhere. The card also rewards good behavior, giving an APR reduction of up to 2% when you stay under your credit limit and pay on time for three straight billing cycles. Plus, there’s a $0* annual fee. However, overall rewards are capped at 75,000 a year. Redemption is easy – 1,000 ThankYou points gets you a $10 gift card.

Highlights: high rewards in common spending categories, $0* annual fee
Downsides: rewards cap

Best cash back credit card

Those epic bonuses make their splashiest appearance with the Chase Freedom® (signup bonus: Earn a $100 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening). Beyond that, you earn 5% cash back on rotating bonus categories that change quarterly, up to $1,500 in quarterly spending, and an unlimited 1% back on everything else. Finally, there’s a $0 annual fee, so it’s a good card to have around. If you ever stop using it, you can keep the account open and raise your credit score without bleeding annual fees. 

Highlights: Sign-up bonus, $0 annual fee, concierge service
Downsides: $1,500 quarterly rewards cap on bonus categories

Best hotel credit card

The Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express is a much better card than it looks at first glance. The rewards rate initially seems unimpressive: 1 Starpoint on all purchases, and up to 5 when you spend at SPG hotels (2 for the card + 2 for being a preferred guest + 1 for elite status). But we value Starpoints at anywhere from 1 cent to a whopping 5 cents, and 2.4 cents on average. That means you get 2.4% rewards on all purchases, and the bonus is worth $600 on its own. You also get nice perks like accelerated elite status, late checkout, and room upgrades.

Highlights: high rewards rate, perks
Downsides: points lose value if not redeemed for Starwood or affiliates

Best business rewards credit card

The Ink Cash® Business Credit Card (sign-up bonus: Earn $200 bonus cash back after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.) tops our list for the best business credit cards largely because of its sign-up bonus. In addition, you earn 5% cash back on office supplies, cable and telecom services (up to $25k in purchases), 2% back on gas and dining (up to $25k) and an unlimited 1% back on everything else. Plus, rewards don’t expire, and it comes with a No Annual Fee annual fee.

Highlights: No Annual Fee annual fee, sign-up bonus, 5% cash back on business purchases
Downsides: rewards cap on bonus categories

  • Tyler P

    I will be getting engaged in the near future and currently have a SouthWest Visa, but am looking to open a new travel rewards card to help with honeymoon expenses. We will most likely be travelling to the carribean and I want to open a new rewards credit card. What are your recommendations since we do not know what airline or where we are staying?
    Citi Thankyou, Barclay Arrival, Chase Sapphire or Capital 1 Venture.
    Looking for maximum payback on points with the most flexibility.

  • John

    For the flat rate card, I prefer the Fidelity AMEX. Offers the same 2%, but foreign transaction fees are 1% instead of 3%.

    • Spotify

      have the same card, and amazed that it never shows up on these lists. 2% cash back without restrictions on categories…much simpler to manage.

    • Fax

      I hate the Fidelity AMEX card, it is why I am on this site now trying to find a replacement. It is administered by FIA (Bank of America), not AMEX. My card has been compromised 3 times in one year, with one breach adding up to 60k in 3 days while I was traveling. The customer service is really poor, and I am suspicious they have someone on the inside stealing the card numbers.

    • DonThayer

      If you don’t mind using your rewards for travel, there’s also the Capital One Venture card, which also has a 2% reward rate, but 0% foreign transaction fee.

      You can also use the reward calculator at CreditCardTuneUp. com to find cards that will reward you more for your expenses.

  • CalebWashington

    Can you justify the annual fee? Will the rewards of the Barclaycard offset both annual fees? as far as having multiple cards with annual fees, Your FICO report won’t care. The “New Credit” sting will hurt you the most. (Maybe a 20pt drop in your score but that will go away in 12 months)
    If you decide to close your TYPremier, it will still report for 10 years.

  • NerdWallet

    Hey Phil,

    I’d recommend switching to the Arrival if you spend more than $12,700 a year, and the Quicksilver if not. As for canceling the card, you can talk to Citi and ask to downgrade to the Citi ThankYou Preferred, which has no annual fee. Downgrading rather than canceling the card keeps the account and preserves your score. Hope this helps!


  • Rick in MI

    Or better yet, get both but only use the AMEX for first 3 months:
    AMEX —- 6% on first $6,000 = $360
    Cap 1 —- 2% on next $18,000 = $360
    TOTAL = $720 less Cap 1 fee = $720-$59= $661

  • Josh Mondle

    I recommend something with low APR and no annual fee. Maybe the Discover it card, because I believe you can add your FICO score onto your monthly report so you can keep track of your credit score.

  • Michael Chiasson

    I also use my Fidelity AMEX for 2% cashback (and 14% cashback on Godaddy – nice). Nothing stinks as bad as sitting on a a bunch of points (or miles) and then finding out when you go to redeem them that the credit card companies have just reduced what those points buy. Let that happen a few times and see if you still want to wave the mileage banner. It also sucks having a bunch of miles and not needing to go where they will take you (or points and not wanting what they buy). Give me cash any day. That’s why my personal fav is the CapOne Spark Business Signature Visa. It gives me 2% back on everything without having to reach a preset level to get 2% (like the Fidelity), no annual fee in first year ($59 annually after that – my only card with an annual fee), is accepted just about everywhere, has rental car protection and also has zero exchange fees for when I’m out of the country (foreign exchange fees exceed 2% on most cards). In my book, that makes this Capital One the hands-down best all-around card ever. I also have the Discover it and Chase Freedom for their quarterly 5% back programs as well as many “specialty” cards with permanent rewards including the AMEX platinum for 10% back on FedEx, 5% on wireless and 3% gas and Chase business for 5% on office supplies and 3% on Travelocity. I only wish I already had that PenFed permanent 5% gas card. Just my two cents ( – per dollar)… :-)

  • John Lewinski

    They also pulled the valuable gift cards on the WORLDPOINTS CARD,
    so while you lose points every quarter, the gift card value is less too. I was to get a $500 gift card and now can only get four $100 cards. They all suck!