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Readers frequently ask me which rewards card to use for spending in a certain category. Each card has its strengths, and many offer bonus points for certain types of purchases. By using the best card for the job at hand, you can maximize each dollar spent, and earn a solid return of points and miles. Today, I’ll share some of my favorite cards for the most important bonus categories, and explain what I like about each one.
Now, there are plenty of cards, and this is by no means a comprehensive list of every card that offers bonus points in a certain category. I wouldn’t expect you to get every one of the cards below, but getting a few that most reward your spending will help boost your points and miles accounts. If you already have one (or more) of these cards, be sure to take advantage of it! Also, be sure to consider any auxiliary benefits on the cards you use, such as purchase protection and car rental insurance.
Here’s the short list of categories and cards, but continue reading below for more details on each of them.
- Dining — Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
- Hotels — Citi Prestige
- Airfare — Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express
- General travel — Citi ThankYou Premier
- Groceries — Everyday Preferred Credit Card from American Express
- Gas — Chase Freedom (during rotating quarterly category bonus period)
- Office supplies — Ink Plus Business Card
- Non-bonus spend — Starwood Preferred Guest Card from American Express
Dining — Chase Sapphire Preferred
Return: 2 points per dollar on all travel and dining, valued at 2.1 cents/point for a return of 4.2%.
Current Bonus: 50,000 points when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months. You’ll earn another 5,000 bonus points when you add a second cardholder and make a purchase within the first three months.
Benefits: This card regularly makes my list of the top travel credit cards thanks to compelling benefits like earning 2x points on all travel and dining, no foreign transaction fees, primary auto rental insurance and the ability to transfer points to 11 transfer partners, including British Airways, Southwest, United, Hyatt and Marriott.
Annual Fee: $95 (waived the first year)
Reasons to get it: This card offers great category bonuses on travel and dining, waived foreign transaction fees and excellent transfer opportunities via Ultimate Rewards airline and hotel partners.
For more information on the card and the Ultimate Rewards program, see these posts:
- Redeeming Chase Ultimate Rewards Points for Maximum Value
- Ways to Maximize Each Ultimate Rewards Partner
- Sapphire Preferred vs. Arrival Plus for International Travel
Hotels — Citi Prestige
Return: 3 points per dollar on airfare and hotels, valued at 1.6 cents/point for a return of 4.8%.
Current Bonus: 40,000 ThankYou points when you spend $4,000 in the first three months.
Benefits: Earn 3 ThankYou points per dollar on air travel and hotel purchases, 2 points on dining and entertainment, and 1 point on everything else. Get your fourth night free at hotels with no black-out dates when you book four consecutive nights via a personal travel adviser designated by MasterCard. Redeem your points for air travel at a rate of 1.33 cents apiece, or 1.6 cents apiece on American Airlines. Citi ThankYou Rewards also now has 12 transfer partners, including Air France/KLM Flying Blue, Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, Virgin Atlantic and Hilton HHonors. Get a $250 air travel credit each year for things like airfare, baggage fees, lounge access and some in-flight purchases. Admirals Club access and Priority Pass Select lounge membership. No foreign transaction fees. $100 Global Entry application fee waiver.
Annual Fee: $450
Reasons to get it: Citi Prestige comes with a ton of additional, valuable benefits that can make it more than worthwhile. This card is especially valuable for hotel purchases, as it earns 3x points on hotel purchases, and when you book through Citi’s travel service, you get the fourth night free at any hotel. That’s incredibly lucrative, and can save you hundreds, if not thousands, over the course of a year. For more information on the card and its benefits, check out these posts:
- Citi Prestige Updates Benefits
- Amex Platinum vs. Visa Black Card vs. Citi Prestige: Who Wins?
- Citi ThankYou Rewards: Earning, Redeeming, & More
Airfare — American Express Premier Rewards Gold
Return: 3 points per dollar on airfare, valued at 2.0 cents/point for a return of 6%. You can also earn an extra point (4 points per dollar total) for booking through Amex Travel, which yields a total return of 8%.
Current Bonus: 25,000 Membership Rewards points when you spend $2,000 in the first three months.
Benefits: Earn 3 Membership Rewards points per dollar on air travel, 2 points on dining, gas stations and supermarkets, and 1 point on everything else. No foreign transaction fees. American Express Membership Rewards points transfer to quite a few airlines and hotels, including favorites like Singapore Airlines, British Airways and Cathay Pacific. $100 air travel credit each year for things like airfare, baggage fees, lounge access and some in-flight purchases that can help offset the annual fee.
Annual Fee: $195
Reasons to get it: This is a solid points-earning card, especially for airfare. As a bonus, it’s great for earning on dining, gas and supermarkets as well. Plus, there’s no foreign transaction fees and it has a relatively low minimum spending requirement. It’s not the only card that offers 3 points per dollar on airfare (Citi Prestige does that too), but Membership Rewards points are more valuable and easier to use.
There are plenty of ways to use Membership Rewards points, so check out these tips to maximize them.
General travel — Citi ThankYou Premier
Return: 3 points per dollar on all travel, valued at 1.6 cents/point for a return of 4.8%.
Current Bonus: 40,000 ThankYou points when you spend $3,000 in the first three months.
Benefits: Earn 3 ThankYou Points per dollar spent on travel, and 2 ThankYou Points per dollar spent on dining and entertainment. Citi ThankYou Rewards also now has 12 transfer partners, including Air France/KLM Flying Blue, Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer and Hilton HHonors. This card also features EMV chip technology, no foreign transaction fees and Citi Price Rewind.
Annual Fee: $95
Reasons to get it: There are plenty of reasons to consider the Citi ThankYou Premier, including the current sign-up bonus, which was simplified from the old convoluted formula that took a full year to earn. The greatest motivation might be those bonus spending categories, which Citi recently changed so that you earn 3x points on travel and 2x points on dining and entertainment. Citi also adjusted the travel category to include a broader range of expenses: In addition to airlines, hotels and travel agencies, you’ll now earn 3x ThankYou Points for spending on car rentals, gas, taxi/limousines, passenger railways, cruise lines and more.
In general, Citi has dramatically improved its ThankYou Rewards program with all those new airline partners (and occasional transfer bonuses), and the annual fee on this card (which is waived for the first year) dropped from $125 to $95, making it an even more attractive option. In fact, I recently applied for this card myself.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred is another solid option for general travel, offering 2 points per dollar on an even broader range of travel expenses.
For more information, check out these posts:
- Redeeming Citi ThankYou Points for Maximum Value
- Top 10 Uses for Citi ThankYou Premier’s 50k Sign-Up Bonus
- One Year of Earning and Burning with the Citi ThankYou Premier
- How Long Do Citi ThankYou Points Take to Transfer?
Return: 4.5 points per dollar on groceries (with 30 transactions in a month), valued at 2.0 cents/point, for a return of 9%
Current Bonus: 15,000 points when you spend $1,000 in 90 days.
Category Spending Bonuses: Earn 3 Membership Rewards points per dollar at US supermarkets (not including warehouse stores like Costco) on up to $6,000 of purchases annually (1 point per dollar beyond that); earn 2 points per dollar at US standalone gas stations; earn 1 point per dollar on all other purchases.
Other Bonuses: Use the Card to make 30 or more purchases in a billing period and get 50% extra points on all those purchases (less returns and credits).
Annual fee: $95
Reasons to get it: If you can hit the requisite 30 transactions a month, this return can’t be beat. You’ll earn a total of 4.5 Membership Rewards points per dollar, and these are full Membership Rewards points, which can be transferred to airline and hotel partners. Even if you don’t make the 50% bonus, the return is still pretty good, at 6%.
Return: 5 points per dollar on rotating bonus categories, valued at 2.1 cents/point if you also have Chase Sapphire Preferred, for a return of 10.5%
Current Bonus: 15,000 points when you spend $500 in three months on the Chase Freedom, 50,000 points when you spend $4,000 in three months on the Chase Sapphire Preferred.
Category Spending Bonuses: Rotating bonus categories on Chase Freedom, 2 points per dollar on all travel and dining on Chase Sapphire Preferred.
Annual fee: No annual fee on the Chase Freedom, $95 on the Chase Sapphire Preferred (waived for the first year).
Reasons to get it: I’m recommending a duo of two cards here. The Chase Freedom card offers 5 points per dollar in a different bonus category each quarter.
The best part is that you can transfer Chase Freedom points to your Chase Sapphire Preferred account, making them full (and much more lucrative) Ultimate Rewards points.
Office supplies — Ink Plus Business Card
Return: 5 points per dollar at office supply stores, and on cell phone, landline, internet and cable TV, valued at 2.1 cents/point, for a return of 10.5%.
Current Bonus: 60,000 points after spending $5,000 in the first three months.
Benefits: Earn 5 points per dollar at office supply stores, and on cell phone, landline, internet and cable TV services (on up to $50,000 in spending annually), and 2 points per dollar spent at gas stations and on hotel accommodations (again, on up to $50,000 in spending annually). No foreign transaction fees. Ability to transfer points to 11 travel partners, including United, British Airways, Southwest and Hyatt.
Annual Fee: $95
Reasons to get it: This is truly one of the best returns you’ll find on a credit card, valued at over 10%! I list Ultimate Rewards points at 2.1 cents apiece in my most recent monthly valuations, so I value the sign-up bonus at $1,050.
For more information, see these posts:
- 10 Chase Ink Benefits You Might Not Know About
- Top 10 Ways to Maximize Each Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partner
- Why I Love Chase Ultimate Rewards
Non-bonus spending — Starwood Preferred Guest Card from American Express
Return: Apart from spending at Starwood hotels, earn 1 Starpoint per dollar, valued at 2.4 cents/point, for a return of 2.4%.
Current Bonus: 25,000 points when you spend $3,000 in purchases within the first three months.
Benefits: Earn up to 5 Starpoints per dollar on purchases at participating SPG hotels. Earn 2 stays/5 nights of credit toward elite status each year, and get automatic Gold status when you spend $30,000 on the card in a calendar year. American Express also just added a slew of new benefits effective August 11, including no foreign transaction fees, complimentary unlimited Boingo Wi-Fi and complimentary premium in-room internet access. The business version of the card is also adding Sheraton Club access.
Annual Fee: $0 the first year, then $65 (though it will go up to $95 effective August 11, 2015).
Reasons to get it: I absolutely love Starpoints. It seems a bit counterintuitive to use a hotel card for general spending, but since Starpoints are so valuable, this card is a great option for purchases that don’t earn a category bonus. Apart from the great benefits this card offers on its own, the Starwood Preferred Guest program is unique in that it offers both great hotel redemptions and has over 30 airline transfer partners. You also earn a 5,000-mile bonus when you transfer 20,000 points at a time to airline partners, making it easier to top up various accounts for the awards you want.
For more information, check out these posts:
- 9 SPG Properties that Make for Awesome Redemptions
- Ultimate Guide to Starwood Airline Transfers
- Is the SPG Amex Worth Getting with the Increased Annual Fee?
- Starwood Preferred Guest Amex Cards Adding New Benefits
As you can see, it can be difficult to track cards in order to maximize your returns, but after some practice it’ll likely become second nature. When you’re first starting out, I absolutely recommend adding another tool to your wallet: TPG apps. Our native Android and iOS app TPG To Go makes it easy to figure out exactly which card to use. Once you add your cards, the app can pinpoint your location and show you exactly which card to use when checking out at a store or restaurant. If you’re currently dining out, you’ll see the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, while the Ink Plus Business Card may pop up when you enter an office supply store.
It might sound like a hassle to leverage eight different credit cards, but if you’re looking to maximize your earnings, the extra effort will definitely pay off.
Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.
- Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- Named Best Credit Card for Flexible Travel Redemption - Kiplinger's Personal Finance, July 2016
- 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 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
- No foreign transaction fees
- 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
- Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $625 toward travel
- No blackout dates or travel restrictions - as long as there's a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards