The 7 best stand-alone credit cards of 2021
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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new card offers and information.
The worst-kept secret of travel rewards is that credit card welcome bonuses, not flown-in-seat flight miles or paid hotel stays, are the best way to earn points these days. That, as well as complimentary bonus categories, is the reason that a multi-card strategy such as the Chase Trifecta works well for so many people. At TPG, some staffers happily have about 20 credit cards in their wallets to maximize every dollar spent.
But the truth is a wallet full of multiple rewards cards isn’t a viable or desirable option for everyone.
Maybe you plan on applying for a mortgage soon and want to minimize the number of inquiries or new accounts on your credit report. Maybe you simply don’t have time or energy to keep track of multiple cards and the multiple payments and annual fees they come with.
Whatever your situation is, there’s no reason you can’t still enjoy exceptional travel rewards with only one rewards card in your wallet. If you’re going to stick to one and only one card, it’s important that you pick it carefully. Here are seven of the best stand-alone credit cards. As always, be sure to check out our best credit card offers for all of TPG’s selections.
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How we picked our favorite stand-alone cards
In compiling this list, I focused on two main factors:
- Sign-up bonus/welcome offer: If you’re only applying for one credit card, you need a large bonus upfront to make sure you’ll have enough points to cover at least one or two flights.
- Bonus categories: Whether you spend $10,000 or $100,000 a year, it’s important to have a credit card that rewards you where you use it most.
I didn’t put much weight into perks like Global Entry application credits or lounge access — if you’re an infrequent traveler who’s sticking to a single credit card, those are luxuries and not necessities.
You’ll also notice that every card on this list is either a transferable points card or a cash-back/fixed-value card. Again, if you only have one rewards currency at your disposal, it’s important that you pick a flexible one that you’ll be able to redeem whether you’re traveling across the state or across an ocean.
Welcome bonus: 100,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.
Annual fee: $95.
Standout benefits: It’s easy to make a case that for most people, over time, the Chase Sapphire Reserve will pay for itself. But that doesn’t happen automatically; it requires careful work to maximize all the benefits and bonus categories. If you’re looking for a one-card strategy, you probably value simplicity over just about everything, and lucky for you the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card offers many of the same great rewards with a lot less hassle and upfront cost. Additionally, it is currently offering a better bonus than the Sapphire Reserve with an all-time high offer of 100,000 bonus points.
The low $95 annual fee makes this card much less of a commitment than its premium sibling, and you’ll still enjoy a 100,000-point welcome bonus worth $2,000 based on TPG’s latest valuations. You’ll also earn 5x total points on all travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards, 3x points on dining, including eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out, 3x points on select streaming services, 3x points on online grocery purchases (excluding Target, Walmart and wholesale clubs), 2x points on all other travel, and 1x point on all other purchases. Plus, valuable travel insurance benefits and access to the same great Ultimate Rewards transfer partners.
And for 2021, you’ll get up to $60 back on eligible Peloton Digital or All-Access memberships — just another way to help offset the annual fee for this year with one of the best travel credit cards.
Application link: Chase Sapphire Preferred — Earn 100,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.
Welcome bonus: 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening.
Annual fee: $95.
Standout benefits: Round after round of award chart devaluations have made fixed-value cards like the Capital One Venture Rewards Card a more attractive option for many people. The card earns 2 miles per dollar on all purchases, and miles can be redeemed at a fixed 1 cent each toward the cost of travel redemptions. There’s no minimum redemption amount, so you can redeem your miles as you please. In addition to a low annual fee and a welcome bonus worth $1,020 (since Capital One miles are worth 1.7 cents apiece), Capital One just gave us another reason to love this card.
The Capital One Venture Card just released a new, longer list of transfer partners, with improved transfer rates as good as 1:1. This combination of a strong earning rate, flexible fixed-value redemptions and a comprehensive list of transfer partners really puts the Venture card in a league of its own and makes it a great solo card for your wallet.
Application link: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card — Available with up to 60,000 bonus miles
Welcome bonus: 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 in the first three months of account opening.
Annual fee: $550.
Standout benefits: If you asked me to pick only one of my credit cards to keep forever, I would choose the Chase Sapphire Reserve without hesitation. This card packs just about everything you could want into one solid metal shell. The 60,000-point welcome bonus is worth $1,200 based on TPG’s latest valuations, and the 3x points in very broadly defined travel and dining categories continue to reward me whether I’m at home or on the road.
Even though it comes with a $550 annual fee, your real out-of-pocket cost is only $250 thanks to the $300 annual travel credit, which Chase will automatically apply for you. Add in perks like generous travel and baggage insurance, a Priority Pass Select membership, Global Entry or TSA PreCheck reimbursement and access to a premium concierge service, and it’s easy to see why the Sapphire Reserve is the complete package.
But this card doesn’t just sit on its old benefits comfortably; in recent months and years it has added money-saving new perks with Peloton and DoorDash, along with a new way to use points to “Pay Yourself Back” for charges in eligible categories at up to 1.5 cents each.
It checks all the boxes on the redemption side, with near-instant 1:1 transfers to 13 hotel and airline partners, including Hyatt, United, Southwest and more. You’ll also get a 50% bonus when redeeming for travel directly through the Chase portal, making your points worth 1.5 cents each. While this isn’t always the best deal, I love using it to book American Airlines special fares and earn miles based on distance instead of the price of my ticket.
Application link: Chase Sapphire Reserve— Available with up to 60,000 bonus points
Welcome bonus: 60,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $4,000 in the first six months of account opening.
Annual fee: $250 (see rates and fees).
Standout benefits: While the American Express Gold Card flew under the radar for a long while in its previous incarnation as the Premier Rewards Gold Card, its relatively recent refresh makes it an incredibly compelling choice for someone looking for a one-stop shop for travel rewards.
In addition to the 3x bonus category for airfare, the Gold Card also earns 4x at restaurants and 4x at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 a year, then 1x). Although the annual fee will cost you $250, the card now comes with up to $240 in annual statement credits.
You’ll receive up to a $10 monthly dining statement credit (up to $120 a year) valid at Grubhub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Boxed and participating Shake Shack locations. New in 2021, you’ll also receive up to $120 in Uber Cash, paid out in $10 increments per month which can be used for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S. Card must be added to the Uber app to receive this benefit. Enrollment required for select benefits.
If you can max out both the dining and Uber credits, you’ll be earning strong 4x rewards for only $10 out of pocket a year, making the Amex Gold one of the cheapest and most rewarding cards available as one of the best rewards credit cards and best dining credit cards.
Application link: American Express Gold Card — Available with up to 60,000 welcome bonus points
Welcome bonus: Earn 15,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months of account opening
Annual fee: $0 (see rates and fees).
Standout benefits: The Blue Business Plus is one of the only no-annual-fee credit cards (see rates and fees) to earn valuable transferable points. It also happens to be one of the top cards for everyday non-bonus spending.
You’ll earn 2x Membership Rewards points on your first $50,000 of annual spending (1x after that), with no bonus categories to keep track of. Points transfer to valuable partners such as Delta, Air Canada and British Airways. You can take all the time you would have spent worrying about perks and bonus categories and instead use it to perfect your redemption strategies.
If you max out the $50,000 of double points annually, those 100,000 points a year can take you to some pretty cool places.
Application link: Blue Business Plus by American Express — Earn up to 2x points per dollar on the first $50,000 in annual spending
Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card
Welcome bonus: $300 after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening.
Annual fee: $95.
Standout benefits: Good old-fashioned cash back is another option to consider, and the Capital One Savor Card has all your bases covered. You’ll earn an unlimited 4% back on dining, entertainment, and on popular streaming services, 3% at grocery stores (excluding superstores like Walmart and Target) and 1% everywhere else. You’ll also enjoy a valuable $300 welcome bonus, no foreign transaction fees and access to exclusive dining and entertainment events. Unlike the Venture Rewards card, the Savor offers actual cash back that can be used for whatever you like, whether it’s travel, a new TV or a night out with friends.
The information for the Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Welcome bonus: 50,000 points after spending $3,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening.
Annual fee: $95.
Standout benefits: The Bank of America Premium Rewards card makes this list for a number of reasons, including the fact that you will actually get paid to keep it open. The $95 annual fee is more than offset by the up to $100 annual airline incidental statement credit, leaving you with five extra bucks for every year you have this card. Every four years, including the first year you have the card, you’ll also receive up to $100 toward Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fees.
It also offers a unique bonus category structure that rewards Bank of America’s most valuable customers. All cardholders will earn 2% back on travel and dining and 1.5% on everyday spending, but members of Bank of America’s Preferred Rewards program can earn much more, up to 3.5% on travel and dining and 2.6% on everyday spending. Plus, earn 2 points for every $1 spent on grocery store purchases- now through 12/31/21. You can check out this guide for more details on the program.
Application link: Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card — Available with up to 50,000 points
There’s a misconception among newcomers to the travel rewards world that you have to be TPG-level obsessed in order to make any meaningful headway with your points.
While it’s absolutely true that you get out of this hobby what you put into it, I always like to remind my friends that one free flight a year is better than zero free flights a year. There’s no question that you’ll earn more points in both the short term and long term with a comprehensive card strategy like the Chase and Amex trifectas, but you can also get a ton of value from just a single card, especially while so many cards are offering all-time high bonuses in the neighborhood of 100,000 points.
Featured photo by The Points Guy.
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