To be honest, for a long time we just thought credit cards were free money. Oops. The interest payments we incurred by thinking that way soon disabused us of this notion, but the truth is, credit cards can mean free money, if you use them correctly. (Note: This includes paying the entire balance every month.) Here, the best cards for earning you cash, miles, hotel points and other benefits.
Who They Work For: If you've got minimal attention to pay toward making the most of your credit card's benefits, a simple cash back card can be the right call for you. The following slides feature our favorite of these offerings but remember, these cards only earn you the big bucks if you pay them off each month.
Citi Double Cash Back Card
This card is the most straightforward. It earns you 2% cash back on every purchase you make. The first 1% is earned when you make the purchase, and the second 1% is earned when you pay your bill on time. There is no annual fee for this card.
The Chase Freedom Card
This card gives you 5% cash back on rotating categories which include groceries, gas, restaurants and wholesale clubs. All other purchases will earn you a flat 1% cash back. There's also a cash back signing bonus of $150 if you spend $500 on the card within the first three months. There is no annual fee for this card.
The Blue Cash Preferred Card From AmEx
This card gives you an astounding 6% cash back on groceries, 5% on travel purchases, 3% at gas stations and select department stores and 1% on all other purchases. (Hack: Buy gift cards at the grocery store to stretch your cash back benefits.) It also gives you a $250 cash back bonus if you spend $1000 in the first 3 months of membership. This card has a $95 annual fee, but if you spend as much in groceries and gas as we do, the fee will pay for itself.
Who They Work For: Those who travel a lot, and can invest some time into building a strategy around making these cards work for them.
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
This card earns you 2 points for every $1 you spend on travel and dining, and 1 point for every $1 you spend on anything else. If you then book your travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards, your points will be worth 25% more. Alternatively, you can transfer your points to the frequent flier programs of your choice. The card also offers a big mileage bonus—50,000 points—but you have to spend $4000 within the first 3 months to get it. The $95 annual fee is waived for the first year of membership.
Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select Master Card
With this card, you'll get 30,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles if you spend $1000 in the first three months. You'll also get 1 mile for every dollar spent anywhere, and 2 for those specifically spent with American Airlines. Cardholders also enjoy one free checked back per flight, are allowed priority boarding, and enjoy in-flight discounts on food and drink. The annual fee of $95 is waived for the first year of membership.
United MileagePlus Explorer
The benefits of this card are exactly identical to those of the Citi AAdvantage card, but the miles go toward United flights instead of American flights. Its $95 annual fee is also waived for the first year.
Virgin American Visa Signature Card
If you're a Virgin America loyalist, you should definitely look into applying for this card (it does require a high credit score, however). The Virgin card offers 1 point for every $1 spent, and 3 points for every $1 spent with Virgin America. You'll also enjoy one free checked bag per flight, 20% off in-flight purchases and a $250 discount on one companion ticket per year. The bonus is 10,000 bonus points if you spend $1000 in your first year. The annual fee is $49.
The JetBlue Card
If you like to fly JetBlue, this card offers some pretty sweet benefits. You'll get 2 points for every $1 spent at restaurants and grocery stores, 3 points for every $1 spent with JetBlue, and 1 point for everything else. You'll also get 50% off all in-flight purchases. The bonus is 5,000 miles if you spend $1000 within the first 3 months.
Southwest Rapid Rewards Card
This one is pretty standard—1 point for every $1 spent, 3 points if that dollar is spent with Southwest. The bonus is 40,000 points if you spend $1000 in the first 3 months. One thing we like about this card is that it awards you 6,000 bonus miles every year on your cardmember anniversary. The annual fee is $99.
British Airways Visa Signature Card
If you travel internationally with any frequency, this may be the card for you. Each $1 you spend earns you 1 point, and each $1 you spend with British Airways earns you 3 points. You'll also get 50,000 points for signing up for this card if you spend $3000 within the first 3 months. Miles earned on this card can also be used for American Airlines flights. The annual fee is $95.
Who They Work For: Those who travel frequently and have strong preferences when it comes to their lodgings.
Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from AmEx
Starwood Preferred Guests get a ton of perks, with or without this credit card—right now, for example, you'll get one night free with any 3-night consecutive stay as an SPG. As far as the specific benefits of this card go, it'll give you one SPG point for every dollar spent, and five points for every dollar spent at a Starwood Property. You can also transfer your points to several different frequent flier programs if desired. The bonus for this card is 25,000 Starpoints if you spend $3000 in the first three months. As an added benefit, this card gets you unlimited Boingo Wi-Fi access. Starwood recently merged with Marriott—see a full list of the group's hotels here.
Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard
This card offers you 2 points for every $1 spent on any purchase. You'll get a 50,000 point bonus if you spend $3000 within the first 3 months. It's a super flexible card—make a travel purchase with the card (at any airline or hotel group) and redeem your miles for a statement credit against that purchase. Every time you redeem your miles, you'll get 5% of them returned immediately to your account. The annual fee of $89 is waived for the first year.
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
If this card's Jen Garner and Alec Baldwin ads haven't yet convinced you to sign up, we don't know what will. This card pays you 2 points for every $1 spent on anything, and is like the Barclaycard in that the miles can be redeemed for any airfare or hotel purchase. The annual fee of $59 is waived for the first year. The bonus is 40,000 miles if you spend $3000 within the first 3 months. If you want to see how or why this card may make sense for you versus the Barclaycard, click here.