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We’re well into 2016, so now is the time to get your credit-card strategy for the year into place. With British Airways raising low-level redemptions in the US this month, an impending devaluation of American Airlines’ award chart, and more news sure to come down the pike about the takeover of Starwood by Marriott, it’s going to be an interesting year.
With all that change in the air, it is more imperative than ever to keep up with developments in the world of points and miles, and to make sure you’re maximizing your loyalty programs and the credit cards associated with them. By doing so, you’ll have a much stronger, more cohesive award-travel strategy in place, and you’ll be better insulated against any further changes or devaluations.
Each month, I compile a list of the top current travel rewards credit card offers out there. Many of the cards on this list remain consistent from month to month thanks to great benefits and relatively constant bonus opportunities and benefits, like those of the Chase Sapphire Preferred card and Platinum Card from American Express. However, the list does change, and rankings shift as new offers come out. For example, you’ll notice that the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard makes an appearance thanks to its exciting new lounge-access benefit expansion, the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Card also earns a place here thanks to one of its periodic 50,000-point sign-up bonus offers and the Citi ThankYou Premier has lost its place here because of the change in its sign-up bonus last month.
This is not a list of every offer on the market. For that, I recommend checking out the TPG Hot Deals page where you’ll find a comprehensive roundup of the best deals currently available, as well as specific hotel and airline credit cards that might interest you. However, if you’re thinking of applying for a credit card now, this list features my top all-around choices of the moment. You can check back each month for updates and the latest and best offers out there.
Before you get started, take a look at these posts for advice on checking your credit score, applying for new cards and getting approved:
- How to Check Your Credit — Preparing for the Credit Card Application Process
- When to Cancel a Card — My Personal Card Inventory and Decision Process
- How Credit Card Applications Affect Your Credit Score
- 5 Things to Understand About Credit Before Applying for Cards
- Should I Be Concerned About A Credit Card Denial?
- Your FICO Score and Which Credit Cards Offer it for Free
- Credit Card Application Restrictions for the Major Issuers
- Avoiding Late Payments and Other Silly Credit Card Mistakes
- 5 Lesser-Known Things That Affect Your Credit Score
- How to Use the CardMatch Tool to get Even Better Sign-Up Offers
THE SHORT LIST
Here’s the short list of cards, but continue reading below for more details on each of them.
1. Chase Sapphire Preferred
2. Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier
3. Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard
4. Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard
5. Citi Prestige
6. Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve
7. Platinum Card from American Express
8. Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card
9. British Airways Visa
10. Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard
Bonus Entry: Citi Double Cash
Here’s an in-depth look at each of the cards listed above, including their benefits and reasons to apply now.
Current Bonus: 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points when you spend $4,000 on the card in the first three months. You’ll earn another 5,000 bonus points when you add an authorized user and make a purchase within the first three months.
Benefits: This card regularly ranks highly on my list of top travel credit cards thanks to 2 points per dollar on travel and dining, no foreign transaction fees, primary auto rental insurance and the ability to transfer points to 10 travel partners, including British Airways, Southwest, United, Hyatt and Marriott.
Annual Fee: $0 introductory annual fee the first year, then $95.
Reasons to get it: Since it was introduced a few years ago, the Sapphire Preferred card has been one of my all-around top travel credit cards. It’s the card I use for most of my purchases thanks to the ability to earn 2 points per dollar on restaurant and travel purchases with no limit. It ranks as the top card this month because Chase recently raised the sign-up bonus from 40,000 points up to 50,000 points — a 25% increase. The program did lose Amtrak as a transfer partner in December. However, Ultimate Rewards still has 10 other travel transfer partners that I think more than pick up the slack.
The way I see it, this card’s tremendous benefits still far outweigh those negatives. Not only is the sign-up bonus back up to 50,000 points, but you can score an extra 5,000 points just for adding an authorized user. The bonus-spending categories are very broad, including restaurants and a range of travel purchases, which makes this a top earner in my wallet. The card also offers primary rental car insurance instead of the usual secondary coverage offered by most travel credit cards, and its trip cancellation coverage is higher than its competitors’ at $10,000. All that makes it a great choice for travel purchases and to use when you’re on the road, either domestically or abroad.
For more details on the card and why I think it’s worth applying for, check out these 5 reasons to get the Sapphire Preferred now. Then if you do get the card, be sure to check out this post on 5 things to do when you get the Chase Sapphire Preferred to make sure you maximize this card’s outstanding benefits.
Beyond that, read these posts for more information on the card and the Ultimate Rewards program:
- 5 Reasons Chase Sapphire Preferred Should Be Your First Credit Card in 2016
- 5 Chase Sapphire Preferred Benefits You Might Not Know About
- 10 Fun Ways to Use 50,000 Ultimate Rewards Points
- One Year of Earning and Burning With The Chase Sapphire Preferred
- Redeeming Chase Ultimate Rewards Points for Maximum Value
- Ranking the Chase Ultimate Rewards Transfer Partners
- Redeeming Chase Ultimate Rewards Points for Maximum Value
- Ways to Maximize Each Ultimate Rewards Partner
- How Long Do Chase Ultimate Rewards Take To Transfer?
- Why All Award Travelers Should Earn Transferable Points
Current Bonus: 50,000 Rapid Rewards points after spending $2,000 in the first three months your account is open.
Benefits: Earn 2 points per dollar on Southwest Airlines, and with Rapid Rewards participating hotel and rental car partners. No foreign transaction fees. Earn 6,000 bonus points each year after your account anniversary. Earn 1,500 Tier-Qualifying Points per $10,000 you spend on the card each calendar year up to a maximum of 15,000 Tier-Qualifying Points per year.
Annual Fee: $69
Reasons to get it: Chase recently relaunched this increased sign-up bonus (normally, the offer is just 25,000 points). The card offers a solid overall return with a relatively low minimum-spending requirement, even with the annual fee due in the first year. That’s why it’s one of my top airline co-branded credit cards. I list Rapid Rewards points at 1.3 cents apiece in my most recent valuations, so the bonus alone is worth at least $650.
However, these points can be doubly lucrative if you can leverage this offer to earn the Southwest Companion Pass at 110,000 qualifying-points in a calendar year. The Companion Pass is essentially a two-for-one that allows you to bring a companion along on any flight and just pay the taxes on his or her ticket, including those you book with points.
The faster you earn the Companion Pass in 2016, the longer it’s valid, since it’s good not only for the calendar year in which you earn it, but the entire following year. So if you earn it right off the bat, it will be valid not only through 2016, but also through 2017. That could equate to nearly two years of half-priced travel! If you applied for this card and the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Business Card (which also currently offers a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months), you’d be almost all the way to a Companion Pass just by meeting both cards’ minimum-spending requirements. And you’d have a ton of Southwest points to use as well.
For more information, see these posts:
- One Year of Earning and Burning with the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier
- Earning Southwest Rapid Rewards Points Without Flying
- How Can I Earn Points for the Southwest Companion Pass?
- Maximize 50,000 Southwest Points on Flights to the Caribbean
- How Can I Get the Southwest Companion Pass for 2015/16?
3. Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard
Current Bonus: Earn 50,000 AAdvantage miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months.
Benefits: Free first checked bag and Group 1 priority boarding for you and up to four travel companions on American Airlines. 10% mileage refund on awards (up to 10,000 miles each year), and reduced-price awards. Two miles per dollar on American Airlines purchases, one mile per dollar on everything else.
Annual Fee: $95, waived the first year.
Reasons to get it: The current sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles is as high as the public bonus on this card usually gets (more commonly it offers 30,000 miles), and AAdvantage miles are among the most valuable mileage currencies out there right now (especially if you can score the bonus before the award-chart devaluation in March). I currently value them at 1.7 cents apiece, so the sign-up bonus alone is worth $850. If you maximize the 10% mileage refund on award redemptions, that’s equivalent to another $170 in value annually. The card also includes benefits like 25% off in-flight purchases on American Airlines, as well as 2 miles for airfare purchases. All in all, this is a good offer and one to get in on sooner rather than later before we see more changes from American.
Current Bonus: 50,000 AAdvantage miles when you spend $5,000 in the first three months.
Benefits: This card’s greatest benefit is probably Admirals Club access, which is why the annual fee is at a premium level. However, the card recently expanded this benefit so that authorized users (of which you can add up to 10 per card account, so I got it for several TPG staffers) also get lounge access, greatly increasing its value proposition. It also offers a credit for a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application, which equals another $100 in value. Apart from that, cardholders earn 2 miles per dollar spent on eligible American Airlines purchases, and can earn 10,000 elite-qualifying miles for spending $40,000 on the card every calendar year (January through December billing statement), which can be a nice shortcut to earning elite status. Cardholders also get priority boarding, 25% savings on eligible in-flight purchases, first checked bag free and concierge service, and the card comes with embedded Smart Chip technology.
Annual Fee: $450
Reasons to get it: While the sign-up bonus on this card has been as high as 100,000 miles in the past, you had to spend $10,000 in three months to get there, so this spending-bonus equation might be more in your wheelhouse. The expanded lounge benefits are a great selling point in my book because you can get up to 10 additional cards at no further cost. So you’re basically getting lounge access for 10 people (and the guests they can bring) for the price of one. Many people seem to wonder whether to get the Citi Prestige or the Citi / AAdvantage Executive because the two cards offer similar benefits. The Executive card is still a great option for American Airlines loyalists who value elite status (or perks that mimic it), while the Prestige offers a broader range of benefits. Check out this post for a more thorough answer to that question, and see these tips on how to use 82,500 miles from the Citi / AAdvantage Executive Card.
Current Bonus: 50,000 ThankYou points when you spend $3,000 in the first three months.
Benefits: Earn 3 ThankYou points per dollar on air travel and hotel purchases, 2 points per dollar on dining and entertainment and 1 point per dollar on everything else. $250 air travel credit each year for things like airfare, baggage fees, lounge access and some in-flight purchases. Admirals Club access (when flying AA) and Priority Pass Select lounge membership. No foreign transaction fees. $100 Global Entry application fee waiver. Get your 4th night free at hotels with no blackout dates when you book four consecutive nights at any hotel via a personal travel advisor 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 now has 13 transfer partners, including Air France/KLM Flying Blue, Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, Virgin America and Hilton HHonors, among others.
Annual Fee: $450
Reasons to get it: This card has a much higher annual fee than its mid-tier counterpart, the Citi ThankYou Premier, but the Prestige comes with a slate of high-end benefits that make it potentially much more valuable. The annual $250 air travel credit equates to more than half of the annual fee, and you can even use it on airfare, which sets it apart from competitors like the Platinum Card from American Express. If you take advantage of the other great benefits (such as lounge access, a Global Entry fee waiver, the 4th night free and free rounds of golf), this card is a clear winner. But the real standout benefit as I see it is that fourth-night free perk. It recently saved TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig $1,490 on a single hotel stay!
For more information on the Citi Prestige and Citi ThankYou Rewards, check out these posts:
- Maximizing Benefits with the Citi Prestige in 2016
- How I’ve Gotten $2,250 in Value from my Citi Prestige Card
- Maximizing Citi Prestige Benefits – A Reader Success Story
- Immediately Denied for the Citi Prestige? You’re Not Alone!
- Is Amex Platinum or Citi Prestige Better for Lounge Access?
Current Bonus: Two weekend night certificates after spending $2,500 in the first four months. Each certificate is good for one weekend night (standard room, double occupancy) at most hotels and resorts within the Hilton Worldwide portfolio.
Benefits: Earn 10 HHonors points for every dollar spent on hotel stays within the Hilton Worldwide portfolio, 5 points for every dollar spent on airline and car rental purchases and 3 points for every dollar spent on all other purchases. Receive automatic Hilton HHonors Gold status and earn Diamond status with $40,000 in annual spending, no foreign transaction fees, SmartChip technology. Cardholders who spend $10,000 annually (starting on your annual fee date) get a free weekend night certificate on the account anniversary.
Annual Fee: $95
Reasons to get it: The free nights, automatic Gold status and the ability to earn Diamond status through spending all make this card a top choice for Hilton HHonors loyalists, but also for folks who can maximize its benefits and use those free weekend nights at high-end properties. The sign-up bonus alone can be worth thousands of dollars depending on where you redeem those free-night certificates. I do see the status as less of a benefit since Hilton (following Hyatt’s lead) announced it would be offering status matches through March 2017, so there might be a glut of new elites, but it’s still worth something in my book.
Another great benefit: If you spend $10,000 annually, you also get another free weekend night certificate, which can far outweigh the card’s $95 annual fee, depending where you redeem it. Citi sometimes offers a limited-time $100 statement credit for your first Hilton stay within three months of account opening, but that extra incentive isn’t available at the moment. If you aren’t in a rush to apply, you might hold out to see if that offer shows up again, but this is a great card even without it.
For more information, check out these posts:
- Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card Review
- Maximizing Citi Hilton Reserve Free Nights
- Citi Hilton Honors Reserve Free Weekend Nights Valid at Category 1-10 Hotels
- Which Hilton Card Offers Elite Status
Current Bonus: 40,000 Membership Rewards points when you spend $3,000 in the first three months. There are targeted offers through the CardMatch Tool, where you might be eligible for special bonuses like 100,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first three months, which we saw over the summer and into the fall.
Benefits: This card comes with an entire laundry list of valuable benefits, including a $200 annual airline rebate, access to Delta and Priority Pass lounges (as well as the Amex Centurion Lounges) and a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application rebate. Just as important, you can transfer the Membership Rewards points it earns you to 20 airline and hotel partners.
Annual Fee: $450
Reasons to get it: Though the annual fee on this card is among the highest on the market, it has several valuable perks that you can learn more about in the posts I’ve linked to below. If you can maximize benefits like the $200 annual airline rebate, lounge access, free Hilton Gold status (which is fairly new) and free Starwood Preferred Guest Gold status, as well as the Fine Hotels & Resorts program and Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credits, this card’s perks can easily be far more valuable than the cost of the annual fee. The Platinum Card did lose some of its lounge benefits last year, but Amex is actively expanding the network of Centurion Lounges throughout the US and beyond, including the recently added lounges in Miami and Seattle, and one in Houston opening later this year — with an additional location possibly opening at LAX.
For more information, check out these posts:
- My Experience Getting Refunded for the Global Entry Application Fee With My Amex Platinum Card
- Maximizing the Amex Platinum $200 Annual Airline Rebate
- Is Amex Platinum Worth It If I’m Not Near Centurion Lounges?
- The Best American Express Membership Rewards Redemptions
- Is the Amex Platinum Card Worth the $450 Annual Fee?
Current Bonus: 50,000 Marriott Rewards points when you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months.
Benefits: Enjoy 1 Free Night Stay at a Category 1-5 location every year after your account anniversary date. For every dollar spent, you’ll earn 5 points at 4,000 Marriott locations; 2 points on airline tickets purchases directly with the airlines, at car rental agencies & restaurants and 1 point everywhere else. 15 nights of elite credit per year after approval and after your account anniversary (enough for Silver status) and the ability to earn additional elite nights at a rate of one per $3,000 in spending per calendar year. Smart Chip technology.
Annual Fee: $0 the first year, then $85 thereafter.
Reasons to get it: Though the bonus on this card regularly goes up to 70,000-80,000 points, you might want to consider it now for a few reasons. First, with the impending acquisition of Starwood, it might be good to have some Marriott points in your back pocket while we see how the two chains’ loyalty programs will be merged. Second, this card automatically confers 15 nights of credit toward elite status each year, enough for automatic Silver status. Marriott also announced a new scheme that lets members redeem points for status if they failed to requalify this year, so a handy points bonus from this card might be just what you need. Especially if you were Platinum and can get it back since, thanks to Marriott’s RewardsPlus partnership with United, Marriott Platinum members can get automatic United Silver status. The anniversary free night at a Category 1-5 property can be worth well over the $85 annual fee. Finally, if you’re a Southwest flyer, if you take advantage of Marriott’s Hotel + Air packages and transfer Marriott points for an award stay and airline points with Southwest, those points will count toward Companion Pass qualification — a potentially huge value.
- Is the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card Worth It?
- One Year of Earning and Burning with the Marriott Visa
- 9 Marriott Properties that Make Awesome Award Redemptions
- Finding Value with Marriott’s Cash + Points Awards
- How Much is Marriott Rewards Elite Status Worth?
9. British Airways Visa Signature Card
Current Bonus: A total of 100,000 Avios. Earn 50,000 bonus Avios after you spend $2,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening. Plus, earn an additional 25,000 bonus Avios when you spend $10,000 on purchases for a total of 75,000 bonus Avios. You’ll also earn another 25,000 bonus Avios when you spend a total of $20,000 on purchases within your first year for a total of 100,000 bonus Avios.
Benefits: Earn 3 Avios for every dollar spent on British Airways purchases and 1 for every dollar spent on all other purchases. 10% off British Airways ticket purchases with CARDOFFERU cardholder code through the end of 2016. No foreign transaction fees. Every calendar year you make $30,000 in purchases on your British Airways Visa card, you’ll earn a Travel Together Companion Ticket good for the rest of the year and the following.
Annual Fee: $95
Reasons to get it: Though this card ranks ninth on this list thanks to that high sign-up bonus, there are a few things to keep in mind when applying. First, you have to spend $20,000 in order to get the full 100,000-Avios bonus. Second, British Airways’ Avios program underwent a major devaluation in April that brought some huge increases in redemption requirements for most premium-cabin and partner awards. BA also recently raised its lowest-level 4,500-Avios awards within the US to 7,500 Avios, meaning awards booked on American Airlines using BA Avios are now more expensive. The bonus categories on the British Airways Visa also changed in May so you earn more points per dollar spent on BA airfares, but fewer Avios on all other purchases, which is a major consideration.
However, there are still a lot of good reasons to get the card, including the fact that most economy awards did not increase in price (and some even decreased thanks to off-peak pricing). Avios can still offer some pretty good value on short-haul flights, including on BA’s Oneworld partner American Airlines within the US, as well as Cathay Pacific flights in Asia, LAN flights in South America and Qantas flights in Australia. Recently, BA even offered a few discounted award redemptions of up to 40% off.
One of the major reasons you might consider this card now, though, is the fact that British Airways and Amex also decreased the transfer ratio of Membership Rewards to Avios by 20% in October. That makes Membership Rewards points a less attractive option for BA redemptions, but using this card to earn Avios without having to transfer from Amex a much better option for some flyers.
If you purchase flights on the airline, you can get some tremendous value from this card’s 10% discount on BA fares. Plus, the ability to spend your way to a companion award ticket can be worth thousands of dollars if you strategize your spending and awards.
For more information on how to maximize British Airways Avios, check out these posts:
- 7 Ways to Get Great Value From the British Airways Visa
- Lesser-Known British Airways Visa Perks
- British Airways Avios and What to Do After the Devaluation
- Best Ways to Redeem British Airways Avios
- How to Redeem British Airways Avios Without Huge Fees
Current Bonus: 40,000 miles after spending $3,000 in 90 days.
Benefits: Earn 2 miles per dollar spent on all purchases, and receive 5% of your miles back when you redeem for travel. Chip and Pin technology. No foreign transaction fees.
Annual Fee: $89, waived the first year.
Reasons to get it: It might surprise some to see this card back on my list due to some recent changes to it and its benefits, such as lowering the travel redemption points refund from 10% to 5%, raising the minimum point redemption from 5,000 to 10,000 and the elimination of the tourist attraction category for redemptions. However, I like having a card that can cover the in-between costs of travel, from Uber to bed and breakfasts to even private jets. Plus, 2.11% on travel redemptions is slightly better than the 2% cash back I can usually get on other cards like the Capital One Venture.
For more information on this card, check out these posts:
- Review of the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard
- Travel Bonus Category and Redemption Options
- Top 10 Ways To Maximize Barclaycard Arrival Miles
Bonus Entry: Citi Double Cash
Current Bonus: None
Benefits: Earn 1% cash back on purchases, with no limit on earnings. Earn another 1% cash back on payments you make toward charges that appear on your current monthly statement, so long as you pay at least the minimum amount due. 0% Intro APR on Balance Transfers for 18 months. After that, the variable APR will be 13.24% – 23.24% based on your creditworthiness. Get a pass on your first late fee. Other standard Citi benefits like Price Rewind.
Annual Fee: $0
Reasons to get it: This card does not offer a sign-up bonus, but I still think it’s a tremendous asset to have in your wallet. Though some folks might benefit more from the Chase Freedom and Discover it cards thanks to their 5% rotating cash-back bonus categories, if you are looking for a card that gives you a good, solid cash back rate on all purchases, this might be a better option for you. That simplicity makes it a great starter card, and a useful one for earning cash-back that you can put toward travel expenses for which you cannot normally redeem points. For more, check out this review of the card.
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
|Intro APR||Regular APR||Annual Fee||Foreign Transaction Fee||Credit Rating|
|N/A||16.24%-23.24% Variable||Introductory Annual Fee of $0 the first year, then $95||0%||Excellent Credit|