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Whether you’re looking for killer rewards rates, a sign-up bonus that will make your head spin, free flights or hotel nights, or simply cash back on purchases you make every day, we’ve got you covered. Here are NerdWallet’s picks for the best rewards cards of 2016:

Best for travel rewards

Chase Sapphire Preferred®

Apply Now on Chase's secure website

Pros

  • A large bonus
  • No foreign transaction fee
  • Cool factor - metal card
  • Rewards redemption bonus through Ultimate Rewards

Cons

  • Has annual fee
  • Best for savvy travelers

Bonus Offer

Earn 50,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening

Annual Fee

Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95

Intro APR Promotions

None

APR

  • APR: 16.24%-23.24% Variable
  • Cash Advance APR: 25.24%, Variable

Card Details

  • Earn 50,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 in travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Named a 'Best Credit Card' for Travel Rewards by MONEY Magazine
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases
  • Earn 5,000 bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening
  • $0 foreign transaction fees, plus chip-enabled for enhanced security and wider acceptance when used at a chip card reader
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading frequent travel programs at full value - that means 1,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points equal 1,000 partner miles/points
  • Travel and shop with confidence with premium Travel and Purchase Protection Benefits, including Trip Cancellation/Trip Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Purchase Protection and more
  • Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95

Earn 2X points on dining out and travel, and 1 point on every $1 spent on everything else. Get a 20% points discount on travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards. Earn 50,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95.

Benefits of the Chase Sapphire Preferred®:

  • Points are worth 25% more if you redeem for travel booked through Chase’s tool. Your effective rewards rate, then, can be as high as 1.25% base and 2.5% for travel and restaurant spending.
  • If you add an authorized user and make a purchase within the first three months, you’ll get a 5,000 point bonus.
  • Card has no foreign transaction fee, making it a great choice for an international traveler.
  • Lots of 1:1 frequent traveler transfer partners, including British Airways Executive Club, Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards, United MileagePlus, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, Hyatt Gold Passport, Marriott Rewards, IHG Rewards Club and The Ritz-Carlton Rewards.

Drawbacks of the Chase Sapphire Preferred®:

  • There’s an Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95. Most upper-echelon travel cards do come with an annual fee, and the Chase Sapphire Preferred®’s is fair for what you get in return. Still, it does make the pulling the trigger on this card slightly more difficult knowing the long-term costs.
  • It doesn’t come with the airline-specific perks characteristic of most co-branded cards, such as free checked bags, automatic upgrades or priority seating.

The bottom line:

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® is not a co-branded travel card, which might make its choice as NerdWallet’s best travel card seem strange. But this card’s strong redemption flexibility, wide variety of 1:1 transfer partners and added bonus when points are redeemed for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards not only make it more desirable than many airline-specific cards, but also establish the Chase Sapphire Preferred® as one of the best travel cards on the market today.

Best for bonus categories

Chase Freedom®

Apply Now on Chase's secure website

Pros

  • Bonus 5% cash back categories
  • No annual fee
  • 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers
  • Qualify with Good credit

Cons

  • If you value simplicity, a flat rate cash back card may be better

Bonus Offer

Earn a $150 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening

Annual Fee

$0

Intro APR Promotions

0% for 15 Months on purchases and 0% Intro APR for 15 months on balance transfers

APR

  • APR: 14.24-23.24% Variable
  • Cash Advance APR: 25.24%, Variable

Card Details

  • Earn a $150 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening
  • Earn a $25 Bonus after you add your first authorized user and make a purchase within this same 3-month period
  • 0% Intro APR for 15 months on purchases and balance transfers. After the intro period, a variable APR of 14.24-23.24%
  • Earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in bonus categories each quarter you activate
  • Enjoy new 5% categories every 3 months like gas stations, restaurants, and select grocery stores
  • Unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases - it's automatic
  • Cash Back rewards never expire as long as your account is open
  • No annual fee

Get 5% cash back on one rotating category every quarter (up to $1,500 in spending). Earn a $150 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening. Annual fee of $0. 

Benefits of the  Chase Freedom®:

  • High cash back on bonus categories such as gas, groceries, restaurants and Amazon.com.
  • Earns unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases.
  • Comes with a cash sign-up bonus; no need to worry about redeeming points.

Drawbacks of the  Chase Freedom®:

  • Requires that cardholders opt in to the bonus category each quarter. If you forget to opt in, you won’t get 5% cash back.
  • If you don’t spend enough to maximize the bonus categories each quarter, you might be able to earn more rewards with another card.

Here’s the bonus category list for 2016:

Q1 (Jan. 1 – March 31)

Gas stations and local commuter transportation (not including parking, tolls or Amtrak)

Q2 (April 1 – June 30)

Grocery stores and more

Q3 (July 1 – Sept. 30)

Restaurants and more

Q4 (Oct. 1 – Dec. 31)

Holiday shopping (specifics to be announced)

The bottom line:

The  Chase Freedom® has one of the best rewards rates out there without the commitment of fees and hassle of annoying rewards programs. If you spend on the 5% bonus categories (and most people do), you’ll easily earn substantial cash back with this card.

Best flat-rate travel rewards (tie)

Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

Apply Now on Capital One's secure website

Pros

  • High rewards rate
  • No foreign transaction fee
  • Flexible redemption for travel

Cons

  • Has annual fee

Bonus Offer

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

Annual Fee

$0 intro for first year; $59 after that

Intro APR Promotions

None

APR

  • APR: 13.24% - 23.24% (Variable)

Card Details

  • 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
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles per dollar on every purchase, every day
  • Fly any airline, stay at any hotel, anytime
  • Travel when you want with no blackout dates
  • Miles don't expire and there’s no limit to how many you can earn
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • $0 intro annual fee for the first year; $59 after that

Earns 2 miles on all purchases. 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. Annual fee is $0 intro for first year; $59 after that.

Benefits of the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card:

  • One of the most flexible travel cards out there, earning miles per dollar no matter the purchase.
  • Rewards can be used as a credit against most travel expenses like tickets or hotel rooms booked through your favorite site, and they don’t expire as long as your account is active.
  • This flexible program allows you to book through discount sites like Kayak and to fly on the airline of your choice, rather than limiting you to just one carrier. If you fly on a number of different airlines or prefer bargain-hunting, there’s no better airline card.
  • Like all Capital One credit cards, it has no foreign transaction fee, which will save you a pretty penny when you travel abroad.
  • Annual fee is low relative to other travel cards.

Drawbacks of the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card:

  • As with the Chase Sapphire Preferred®, if you’re looking for airline-specific perks, you won’t find them with the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card. If you’re loyal to one airline in particular, it might be worth comparing this card to the airline’s co-branded card.

The bottom line:

For easy miles earning and redemption, the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card is tough to beat. Whether you want to redeem miles on hotels, planes, cabs or cruises, this card will have you covered.

Best flat-rate travel rewards (tie)

Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®

Apply Now on Barclaycard's secure website

Pros

  • High rewards rate
  • 0% on balance transfers for 12 months (must be completed within first forty-five days of account opening)
  • No foreign transaction fee

Cons

  • Has annual fee

Bonus Offer

Earn 40,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 or more on purchases in the first 90 days from account opening.

Annual Fee

$89 - Waived first year

Intro APR Promotions

0% on balance transfers for 12 months (must be completed within first forty-five days of account opening)

APR

  • APR: 16.24% or 20.24%* Variable
  • Cash Advance APR: 25.49%, Variable

Card Details

  • Earn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days — that's enough to redeem for a $400 travel statement credit
  • Earn 2X miles on all purchases
  • Get 5% miles back to use toward your next redemption, every time you redeem
  • Chip card technology, so paying for your purchases is more secure at chip-card terminals in the U.S. and abroad
  • No foreign transaction fees on anything you buy while in another country
  • 0% introductory APR for 12 months for each Balance Transfer made within 45 days of account opening. After that, a variable APR will apply, currently 16.24% or 20.24%, depending on your creditworthiness.
  • Complimentary online FICO® Credit Score access for Barclaycard Arrival cardmembers

Earn 40,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 or more on purchases in the first 90 days from account opening. Earn 2X miles on all purchases and get 5% of your miles back when you redeem. APR: 0% on balance transfers for 12 months (must be completed within first forty-five days of account opening), and then the ongoing APR of 16.24% or 20.24% Variable. No foreign transaction fees. Annual fee: $89 - Waived first year.

Benefits of the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®: 

  • Earn 2 miles per dollar spent on all purchases.
  • You’re not restricted to any particular airline or hotel brand. Simply make a travel purchase with the card, then redeem your miles for statement credit against the purchase.
  • You get 5% of your miles back every time you redeem —  great way to get started saving for your next trip.
  • It’s one of the only travel cards with a 0% introductory APR on balance transfers. However, it does charges a 3% balance-transfer fee.

Drawbacks of the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®: 

  • Like the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® doesn’t offer the extra perks of a co-branded airline or hotel cards.

The bottom line:

The Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® rewards program is nearly identical to that of the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card. Redemption on the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® comes out slightly ahead, since you get 5% of your miles back. However, you also pay a higher annual fee of $89 - Waived first year.

Best for everyday spending

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

Apply Now on American Express's secure website

Pros

  • Leading cash back rewards for groceries
  • Sign-up bonus
  • 0% APR for 15 months on purchases and balance transfers

Cons

  • Has annual fee - but if you spend more than $27/week the rewards offset the fees
  • American Express isn’t accepted at as many merchants as Visa or MasterCard

Bonus Offer

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.

Annual Fee

$75

Intro APR Promotions

0% on Purchases for 15 months and 0% on Balance Transfers for 15 months

APR

  • APR: 13.24%-22.24% Variable
  • Penalty APR: Up to 29.49%, Variable
  • Cash Advance APR: 25.49%, Variable

Card Details

  • 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.
  • Earn Cash Back: 6% U.S. supermarkets up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%), 3% U.S. gas stations & select U.S. dept stores, 1% other purchases. Terms and limitations apply.
  • With the Blue Cash Preferred® Card, you can start earning cash back. No rotating reward categories. No enrollment required.
  • Cash back is received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be redeemed as a statement credit. Cash back is earned only on eligible purchases.
  • 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months, then a variable rate, currently 13.24% to 22.24%, based on your creditworthiness and other factors.
  • Terms and limitations apply.
  • View Rates and Fees

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. Earn 6% cash back on groceries (up to $6,000 spent annually). Unlimited 3% back at gas stations and department stores. Annual fee of $75.

Benefits of the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express:

  • One of the highest rewards rates on on groceries around, supplemented by a competitive unlimited rate on gas and department stores. All other purchases earn an unlimited 1% back.
  • Cardholders can get 6% cash back on gift cards — such as Starbucks, the Gap, Home Depot, etc. — when purchased at grocery stores. Doing so extends the 6% cash back far beyond just groceries.
  • Strong cash sign-up bonus.
  • Free FICO score.

Drawbacks of the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express:

  • Annual fee is kind of heavy, but if you spend at least $1,250 on groceries with this card every year, the cash back will offset it.
  • Because this card is an American Express, you may have trouble using it in some places. It’s usually best to supplement an AmEx with a more widely-accepted Visa or MasterCard.
  • Charges a foreign-transaction fee of 2.7%, making it a poor choice for spending abroad.

The bottom line:

There’s another version of this card, the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express, without an annual fee, but it’s generally an inferior card. Looking only at grocery rewards, if you spend $2,500 on groceries annually (that’s about $50 a week) you’re better off with the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express. And that doesn’t even account for gas and department store rewards, or the better sign-up bonus.

If you spend on family rather than travel, with a lot of that going to food and gas, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express is the perfect card.

Best for flat-rate cash back

Citi®Double Cash Card

Apply Now on Citibank's secure website

Pros

  • High rewards rate
  • No annual fee
  • 0% if you qualify for 15 mos on transfers

Cons

  • Needs excellent credit

Bonus Offer

The only card that earns you cash back twice on every purchase

Annual Fee

$0

Intro APR Promotions

0% on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months*

APR

  • Min APR: 13.24%, Variable
  • Max APR: 23.24%, Variable
  • Penalty APR: Up to 29.99%, Variable
  • Cash Advance APR: 25.49%, Variable

Card Details

  • 0% Intro APR on Balance Transfers and Purchases for 15 months. After that, the variable APR will be 13.24%-23.24%, based on your creditworthiness*
  • There is a balance transfer fee of either $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater
  • The only card that earns you cash back twice on every purchase with:
  • 1% cash back when you buy
  • Plus 1% cash back as you pay for those purchases, whether you pay in full or over time*
  • No Category Restrictions, No Caps, No Enrollments in Rotating Categories
  • No Annual Fee

Earn 1% cash back on all purchases, then an additional 1% cash back when you pay them off. Annual fee of $0.

Benefits of the Citi®Double Cash Card:

  • Opportunity to earn one of the highest cash-back rates around on all purchases.
  • Cash back can be redeemed as a statement credit, a gift card or a check in the mail.
  • In addition the great rewards, this card offers 0% for 15 months on purchases and balance transfers, and then the ongoing APR of 13.24% - 23.24% Variable .
  • Free FICO score.

Drawbacks of the Citi®Double Cash Card:

  • Comes without bonus categories. Higher cash back percentages can be had on different cards for specific categories.
  • This card charges a foreign-transaction fee of 3%, making it a poor choice for spending abroad.

The bottom line:

With the Citi®Double Cash Card, earning cash back couldn’t possibly be simpler. Just be sure to pay off your purchases to earn the additional 1% cash back.

Best for online shopping cash back

Discover it®- Double Cash Back your first year

Apply Now on Discover's secure website

Pros

  • Bonus cash back categories
  • No annual fee
  • 0% on purchases for 12 months and 0% on balance transfers for 12 months
  • No foreign transaction fee

Bonus Offer

We'll DOUBLE all the cash back you've earned at the end of your first year. So if you earned $101 cash back, we'll double it to $202—Automatically. Only for new cardmembers.*

Annual Fee

$0

Intro APR Promotions

0% on purchases for 12 months and 0% on balance transfers for 12 months

APR

  • APR: 11.24% – 23.24% Variable*
  • Cash Advance APR: 25.24%, Variable

Card Details

  • We'll DOUBLE all the cash back you've earned at the end of your first year. So if you earned $101 cash back, we'll double it to $202—Automatically. Only for new cardmembers.*
  • 5% cash back in categories that change each quarter like gas, restaurants, home improvement stores and more -up to the quarterly maximum when you sign up.* 1% cash back on all other purchases.
  • 0% intro APR* on purchases & balance transfers for 12 months—then a variable purchase APR applies, currently 11.24% – 23.24%. A 3% fee applies to each transferred balance.
  • Freeze It℠ on/off switch lets you prevent new purchases, cash advances & balance transfers on misplaced cards in seconds by mobile app & online.* Plus get 100% U.S.-based service.
  • Track your recent FICO® Credit Scores for free in one easy-to-read chart on monthly statements & online.*
  • No annual fee.* No overlimit fee. No foreign transaction fee. No late fee on first late payment & paying late won't raise your APR.*
  • Each Discover purchase is monitored. If it's unusual, you're alerted by e-mail, phone or text and you're never responsible for unauthorized purchases on your Discover card.
  • Click "Apply Now". *See rates, rewards, FICO® Credit Score terms & other information.

Earns 5% cash back on categories that change quarterly, up to $1,500 spent each quarter. Unlimited 1% cash back on everything else. Comes with a $0 annual fee.

Benefits of the Discover it®- Double Cash Back your first year:

  • Broad bonus rewards categories, allowing cardholders to earn 5% on things like restaurants, online shopping and gas.
  • Cardholders have access to Discover Deals, Discover’s online bonus mall that gives 5 to 20% cash back on popular online retailers.
  • No foreign transaction fee and a waived first late payment fee.
  • Great intro APR: 0% on purchases for 12 months and 0% on balance transfers for 12 months, and then the ongoing APR of 11.24% – 23.24% Variable.
  • Free FICO score.

Drawbacks of the Discover it®- Double Cash Back your first year:

  • As with any rotating category card, cardholders need to remember what type of spending is eligible for the bonus each quarter if they want to maximize reward earnings. (The Discover it®- Double Cash Back your first year does not require opting in, though.)
  • If you don’t spend enough to max out the bonus categories each quarter, you might be able to earn more rewards with another card.
  • Discover, like AmEx, is known for its acceptance issues with some retailers. So if you’re carrying this card alone, it’d probably be wise to add in a Visa or MasterCard.

The bottom line:

If you’re a big online spender, Discover Deals’ steep cash-back rebates on popular retailers have the potential to save you a lot of money. Combine that with the card’s rotating 5% bonus category, a $0 annual fee and solid intro APR and you have an all-around winner.

♦ HONORABLE MENTION: Amazon.com Store Card

The Amazon.com Store Card earns an impressive 5% back (in Amazon credit) on all Amazon purchases under $149. On purchases over $149, Amazon users get to choose between 5% cash back or 0% interest financing. And with Amazon selling just about everything these days, most cardholders won’t have any problems finding ways to earn 5%.

Amazon’s card — which is issued by Synchrony bank and available only to Amazon Prime members — works solely on Amazon purchases, though. So, it’s not going to replace some of the other options on this list just yet. Nevertheless, if you’re looking to spend online, you’ll probably stumble across Amazon. If you have the Amazon.com Store Card, you’ll get some money back, too.

Methodology

NerdWallet’s credit cards team selects cards in each category based on overall consumer value. Factors in our evaluation include fees, promotional and ongoing APRs, and sign-up bonuses; for rewards cards, we consider earning and redemption rates, redemption options and redemption difficulty. A single card is eligible to win in multiple categories.  

Last updated January 7, 2016.

Kevin Cash is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: kcash@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @kevin_cash.