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2020: A credit card year in review

Dec. 30, 2020
6 min read
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I think it's safe to say that 2020 was filled with surprises — from new card launches to major refreshes to tightened approval criteria and just about everything in between. With 2021 just around the corner, let's take a look back at the past year and all the credit card shake-ups that defined the industry in 2020.

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American Express hits the ground running

American Express brought in the new year with a bang, adding trip cancellation and interruption insurance and trip delay insurance across many cards. While the changes themselves were announced in October 2019, they took effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

Of course, this move also came with a couple of benefit removals: travel accident insurance and roadside assistance. However, even with the removals, cardholders came out on top with more coverage across premium Amex credit cards.

New travel protections from Amex can help save you thousands in a bind. (Photo by Maskot/Getty Images)

Chase said 'new year, new CSR'

Chase really did take the phrase "new year, new you" seriously in 2020. In January, a significant update was announced for the Chase Sapphire Reserve. The changes included new Lyft and DoorDash benefits — but also a $100 hike in its annual fee, to $550.

While some people (myself included) were excited about the changes, they were met with some frustration from those who didn't think the new benefits justified the jump in cost.

The partnerships with Lyft and DoorDash did also add new perks for some other Chase credit cards, including increased Lyft earnings through March 2022 and DashPass discounts.

Delta changes take effect

Back in September 2019, Delta and Amex announced an overhaul for their cobranded credit card lineup, but the changes actually took effect Jan. 30, 2020. Every single card had benefits added, and a few had some removed with annual fee changes.

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Most notably, the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card got enhanced bonus categories and a Global Entry/TSA PreCheck fee credit, while the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card got an enhanced earning rate on Delta purchases, more ways to earn Medallion® Qualification Miles to hit elite status, complimentary access to Amex Centurion Lounges (when flying Delta) and more.

These changes also came with a round of limited-time welcome bonuses.

Delta's major update also came with sleek new card designs. (Photo by The Points Guy)

The pandemic pause

Of course, early on in the year, the world was hit with the novel coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic and the government shutdowns that quickly followed meant a rapid economic downturn that changed the trajectory of the credit card industry for the rest of 2020.

The Federal Reserve slashed rates to almost zero, credit card issuers started tightening criteria for credit card approvals, some cards were pulled from the market, credit limits were cut and some unused accounts were shut down.

During most of the spring and into summer, applying for credit cards became much harder.

Battle of the temporary benefits

During the summer, top credit card issuers went head-to-head to add temporary benefits to persuade existing cardholders to hold on to the travel credit cards they were no longer using. Amex and Chase led the charge, offering temporary bonus categories and perks.

Related: Have card issuers opened a Pandora’s box by offering temporary pandemic benefits?

Standouts among these temporary benefits were The Platinum Card® from American Express's new monthly credit for streaming services, Chase's reduced annual fee on the Chase Sapphire Reserve, new redemption options for Capital One and Chase and a slew of cards offering bonus categories at grocery stores.

Grocery perks became one of the most popular temporary benefits offered during the pandemic. (Photo by d3sign/Getty Images)

Chase makes a comeback

Chase made waves once again in late August by announcing a new credit card and additional bonus categories for the Chase Freedom Unlimited. The Chase Freedom Flex replaced the Chase Freedom in Chase's lineup. Both the new Flex and updated Unlimited now offer 5% back on Chase Ultimate Rewards and 3% back on dining and at drugstores. The Unlimited kept its 1.5% back on other purchases and the Flex kept the Freedom's 5% quarterly rotating categories (on the first $1,500 in purchases each quarter you activate).

Related: Why I switched from the Chase Freedom to the all-new Chase Freedom Flex

Then Chase dropped more news in September with a new limited-time sign-up bonus offer on the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: 80,000 points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening. That offer is worth a lucrative $1,600 according to TPG valuations. This offer is currently available.

Speaking of limited-time offers ...

As we headed into fall, issuers started to see the light at the end of the tunnel. That meant a season filled with pumpkin spice lattes and limited-time sign-up bonuses.

Among the standouts were the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, with its 100,000-mile sign-up bonus (this offer is currently available offering new cardholders 100,000 bonus miles after spending $12,000 on purchases in the first 12 months of account opening, United bringing back the United Club Infinite Card's 100,000-mile offer from its launch earlier in the year, multiple limited-time offers across Marriott's cobranded credit cards, and most recently an updated Amex Platinum offer that includes 75,000 bonus Membership Rewards points and temporary bonus categories for groceries and gas. These offers are no longer available.

One of the limited-time offers going on right now includes a solid welcome bonus and enhanced earning categories on the Amex Platinum. (Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)

Bottom line

This year has been such a roller coaster, and the cards industry certainly wasn't immune. The year started out strong with new card launches and updates before heading into that midyear "pandemic pause" that was marked with fewer credit card approvals and cut credit limits. But as fall hit, we've seen many more limited-time offers that will hopefully continue to roll out into 2021.

It's been real, 2020. But at TPG we're all pretty excited to see what 2021 brings.

Featured image by (Photo by Orli Friedman / The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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