The 7 Best Standalone Credit Cards

Nov 23, 2018

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The worst-kept secret of travel rewards is that credit card welcome bonuses, not butt-in-seat flight miles or paid hotel stays, are the best way to earn points these days. That, as well as complementary bonus categories, is the reason that a multi-card strategy such as the Chase trifecta works well for so many people.

But the truth is this isn’t a viable option for everyone. Maybe you plan on applying for a mortgage soon and want to minimize the number of inquiries on your credit report. Maybe you simply don’t have time 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 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 standalone credit cards.

In compiling this list I focussed on two main factors:

1. Welcome bonus — If you’re only applying for one credit card, you need a large bonus up front to make sure you’ll have enough points to cover at least one or two flights.

2. 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 country or across an ocean.

1. Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

Welcome bonus: 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months

Annual fee: $95 (waived first year)

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 that’s waived for the first year and a welcome bonus worth at least $700, Capital One just gave us another reason to love this card.

While a specific start date hasn’t been announced, beginning in December miles earned on the Venture family of cards (and the Spark Miles business cards) will transfer at a 2:1.5 ratio to 12 different airline partners and a 2:1 ratio to 2 airline partners. Some of these partners are real gems, including Star Alliance members Avianca LifeMiles and Air Canada (Aeroplan), as well as Etihad Guest which can be a great way to book cheap American Airlines awards. 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.

2. Chase Sapphire Reserve

Welcome bonus: 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months

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 in just about everything you could possibly want into one solid metal shell. The 50,000-point welcome bonus is worth an even $1,000 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 and access to a premium concierge service, and it’s easy to see why the Sapphire Reserve is the complete package.

It also 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.

3. American Express® Gold Card

Welcome bonus: 35,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months.

Annual fee: $250 (See Rates & 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 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 refreshed Gold Card will also earn 4x on dining and 4x at US supermarkets (up to $25,000 a year; then 1x). Although the annual fee has been raised to $250 and is no longer waived for the first year, the card now comes with up to $220 in annual statement credits. The $100 annual airline incidental credit is unchanged, but the card is now getting a $10 monthly credit, up to $120 a year, valid at Grubhub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Shake Shack. Keep in mind that the airline credit is not valid on fares, only incidental charges like bag fees, seat assignment, lounge access, etc. That being said, if you can max out both these credits you’ll be earning strong 4x rewards for only $30 out of pocket a year, making the Amex Gold one of the cheapest and most rewarding cards available.

4. Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

Welcome bonus: 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months

Annual fee: $95 (waived first year)

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.

The low $95 annual fee (waived for the first 12 months) makes this card much less of a commitment than its premium sibling, and you’ll still enjoy a 50,000-point welcome bonus worth $1,000 based on TPG’s latest valuations; 2x points on travel and dining; valuable travel insurance benefits; and access to the same great Ultimate Rewards transfer partners.

5. The Blue Business®️ Plus Credit Card from American Express

Welcome bonus: N/A 

Annual fee: $0 (See Rates & 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, and 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, Aeroplan 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, those 100,000 points a year can take you to some pretty cool places.

6. Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card

Welcome bonus: $300 after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months

Annual fee: $95 (waived first year)

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 and entertainment, 2% at grocery stores 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 such as the Capital One Orange Bowl in Miami. 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.

7. Bank Of America Premium Rewards credit card

Welcome bonus: 50,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first 90 days of account opening

Annual fee: $95

Standout benefits: The Bank of America®️ Premium Rewards®️ Visa®️ card makes this list for a number of reasons, including the fact that like the new Amex Gold Card, you will actually get paid to keep it open. The $95 annual fee is more than offset by the $200 annual airline incidental credit, leaving you with 5 extra bucks for every year you have this card.

It also offers a unique bonus category structure that rewards BofA’s most valuable customers. All cardholders will earn 2% back on travel and dining and 1.5% on everyday spend, 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 spend. You can check out this guide for more details on the program.

Bottom Line

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.

For rates and fees of the Amex Gold Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Blue Business Plus Card, please click here.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.