The best travel rewards credit cards for each bonus category

Mar 10, 2020

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Despite all of the advanced techniques for generating travel rewards, people are still surprised to hear that daily spending on credit cards is the most reliable way to earn them. The key is to use cards that earn the most rewards for particular spending categories. In part one of a three-part series, we consider some of the best travel rewards credit cards for common spending categories.

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In This Post

Best travel rewards credit cards for each bonus category

Comparison of the best cards for each travel rewards credit card category

Card best in  category (% Return based on TPG’s valuations) Annual fee
Citi Prestige Card Dining (8.5% return based on TPG’s valuations) $495
Citi Premier Card Gas (5.1% return) and entertainment (3.4% return) $95
Chase Sapphire Reserve General travel including hotels (6% return) $550
The Platinum Card from American Express Airfare booked directly with the airline or through Amex Travel (10% return) $550 (see rates and fees)
American Express Gold Card Groceries from U.S. supermarkets (8% return) $250 (see rates and fees)
Citi Double Cash Card Non-bonus spending (3.4% return when converted to Citi ThankYou points) None

The information for the Citi Prestige and Citi Premier has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Although the above table shows our top travel rewards card for each spending category, often there are other cards that also perform well — and may even perform better for your specific spending habits and lifestyle. For each category, we’ll present the card that provides the highest return followed by a table with additional cards you should consider.

Best cards for dining

Winner — Citi Prestige Card

Return: 5x Citi ThankYou points per dollar spent at restaurants. Points are worth 1.7 cents apiece, according to TPG’s latest monthly valuations, so you’re getting a return of 8.5%

Current bonus: 50,000 points when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening

Benefits: You’ll earn 5x points on air travel, 3x points on hotels and cruise lines and 1x on all other purchases. You’ll get automatic statement credits each year for up to $250 of travel spending, a Priority Pass Select membership and a fourth night free on stays of four nights or longer up to twice each year when booked through Citi. The Prestige has no foreign transaction fees.

Annual fee: $495

Related reading:

Top travel rewards cards for dining

Card Dining category bonus Value of the points* Total earned per dollar spent Annual fee Welcome bonus
Citi Prestige Card 5x 1.7 cents 8.5 cents $495 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months of account opening
American Express® Gold Card 4x 2 cents 8 cents $250 (see rates and fees) 35,000 points after you spend $4,000 in purchases in the first three months of account opening. Terms apply.
American Express® Green Card 3x 2 cents 6 cents $150 (see rates and fees) 30,000 points after you spend $2,000 in purchases in the first three months of account opening. Terms apply.
Chase Sapphire Reserve 3x 2 cents 6 cents $550 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months of account opening

*Based on TPG valuations and not provided by issuers. See more information here

Best cards for entertainment

Winner — Citi Premier Card

Return: 2x Citi ThankYou points per dollar spent at restaurants. Points are worth 1.7 cents apiece according to TPG’s latest monthly valuations, so you’re getting a return of 3.4%.

Current bonus: 60,000 points when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening.

Benefits: You’ll earn 3x points on general travel expenses, including gas stations; 2x points at restaurants, and 1x on all other purchases. The Premier has no foreign transaction fees.

Annual fee: $95

Related reading:

Apply here: Citi Premier Card

Best cards for hotels

Winner — Chase Sapphire Reserve

(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

Return: 3x Chase Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on travel, including hotels. Points are worth 2 cents apiece, according to TPG’s latest monthly valuations, so you’re getting a return of 6%. Granted, some other cards provide a higher return on select hotel stays — but the winner of this category needed to provide impressive earning on all hotel stays.

Current bonus: 50,000 points when you spend $4,000 in the first three months

Benefits: In addition to the 3x points on all travel, including hotels, you’ll earn 3x on dining, and 1 point per dollar spent on everything else. You’ll get a $300 annual travel credit, travel protections, shopping protections, 10x points on Lyft rides through March 2022 and more. The Chase Sapphire Reserve has no foreign transaction fees.

Annual fee: $550

Related reading:

Apply here: Chase Sapphire Reserve

Top travel rewards for hotels

Card Hotel category bonus Value of the points* Total earned per dollar spent Annual fee Welcome bonus
The Platinum Card® from American Express 5x (only for prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com) 2 cents 10 cents $550 (see rates and fees) 60,000 points after you spend $5,000 in the first three months of account opening
Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express 14x (only at participating Hilton properties) 0.6 cents 8.4 cents $450 (see rates and fees) 150,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months of account opening. Terms apply.
World of Hyatt Credit Card 4x (only at Hyatt properties) 1.7 cents 6.8 cents $95 25,000 points after you spend $3,000 in the first three months of account opening; an additional 25,000 points after spending $6,000 total in the first six months of account opening
Chase Sapphire Reserve 3x 2 cents 6 cents $550 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months of account opening
American Express® Green Card 3x 2 cents 6 cents $150 (see rates and fees) 30,000 points after you spend $2,000 in purchases in the first three months of account opening. Terms apply.

*Based on TPG valuations and not provided by issuers. See more information here

Best cards for airfare

Winner — The Platinum Card from American Express

(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

Return: 5x American Express Membership Rewards points per dollar spent on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel. Points are worth 2 cents apiece, according to TPG’s latest monthly valuations, so you’re getting a return of 10%.

Current bonus: 60,000 points when you spend $5,000 in purchases in the first three months of account opening, although you may be able to snag an elevated targeted offer, subject to change at anytime through the CardMatch tool.

Benefits: You’ll also earn 5x points on prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com, and 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases. You’ll get an up to $200 annual airline fee credit, elite status with Marriott and Hilton and access to lounges (including Centurion Lounges) through the Amex Global Lounge Collection.

Annual fee: $550 (see rates and fees)

Related reading:

Apply here: The Platinum Card from American Express

Top travel rewards cards for airfare

Card Airfare category bonus Value of the points* Total earned per dollar spent Annual fee Welcome bonus
The Platinum Card from American Express 5x (only when you book directly with the airline or with American Express Travel) 2 cents 10 cents $550 (see rates and fees) 60,000 points after you spend $5,000 in the first three months of account opening
Citi Prestige Card 5x 1.7 cents 8.5 cents $495 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months
Chase Sapphire Reserve 3x 2 cents 6 cents $550 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months
American Express Green Card 3x 2 cents 6 cents $150 (see rates and fees) 30,000 points after you spend $2,000 in the first three months

*Based on TPG valuations and not provided by issuers. See more information here

Best cards for general travel

Winner — Chase Sapphire Reserve

(Photo by The Points Guy)
(Photo by The Points Guy)

Return: 3x points per dollar on all travel (and dining), equal to a return of 6% when you use this card to pay for airlines, hotels, rental cars and other purchases that Chase counts as travel

Current bonus: 50,000 points when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months

Benefits: 3x points on all travel purchases is a huge benefit (excluding the $300 travel credit), made even better by the Ultimate Rewards program’s solid selection of 1:1 airline and hotel transfer partners. Sapphire Reserve cardholders can also redeem points for 1.5 cents apiece through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, and the card offers a $300 annual travel statement credit that applies to a wide variety of purchases. The card provides Priority Pass Select membership (including restaurant lounges) and has excellent travel protections.

Annual fee: $550

Related reading:

Apply here: Chase Sapphire Reserve

Top travel rewards cards for general travel

Card Travel category bonus Value of the points* Total earned per dollar spent Annual fee Welcome bonus
Chase Sapphire Reserve 3x 2 cents 6 cents $550 50,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months of account opening
American Express Green Card 3x 2 cents 6 cents $150 (see rates and fees) 30,000 points after you spend $2,000 in the first three months of account opening
Citi Premier Card 3x 1.7 cents 5.1 cents $95 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months of account opening
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card 2x 2 cents 4 cents $95 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 in the first three months of account opening

*Based on TPG valuations and not provided by issuers. See more information here

Best cards for groceries

Winner — American Express Gold Card

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael)
(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)

Return: 4x Membership Rewards points at U.S. supermarkets, up to $25,000 in purchases each calendar year; then 1 point per dollar spent. At a value of 2 cents per point, these rewards are worth 8% back on your purchases. 

Current bonus: 35,000 bonus points when you use your card to spend $4,000 in purchases within three months of account opening

Benefits: You’ll also earn 4x points at restaurants worldwide, 3x points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com, and 1 point per dollar spent on everything else. You can transfer points to airlines and hotels that partner with the Membership Rewards program. You’ll also get an up to $120 annual dining credit and up to $100 annual airline fee credit.

Annual fee: $250 (see rates and fees)

Related reading:

Apply here: American Express Gold Card

Top travel rewards cards for groceries

Card Grocery category bonus Value of the points* Total earned per dollar spent Annual fee Welcome bonus
American Express Gold Card 4x at U.S. supermarkets up to $25,000 per year, then 1x 2 cents 8 cents $250 (see rates and fees) 35,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening. Terms apply.
Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card from American Express 3x at U.S. supermarkets up to $6,000 per year, then 1x (50% bonus when you use the card 30 times a month) 2 cents 6 cents (9 cents with 50% bonus) $95 15,000 points after you spend $1,000 in the first three months of account opening. Terms apply.
The Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express 2x at U.S. supermarkets up to $6,000 per year, then 1x; 20% bonus when you use the card 20 times a month 2 cents 4 cents (6 cents with 20% bonus) None 10,000 points after you spend $1,000 in the first three months of account opening

The information for the Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card and Amex EveryDay® 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. 
*Based on TPG valuations and not provided by issuers. See more information here

Best cards for gas

Winner — Citi Premier Card

Return: 3x points on all travel including gas stations, worth 1.7 cents each, which equals a 5.1% return for your gas purchases

Current bonus: 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 within three months of account opening

Benefits: 2x points on restaurants and entertainment. You can transfer your ThankYou points to airline loyalty programs, which allows you to maximize your points. Your points are also worth 1.25 cents each when redeemed toward airfare booked through the ThankYou Travel Center. This card also waives foreign transaction fees.

Annual fee: $95

Related reading:

Apply here: Citi Premier Card

Top travel rewards cards for gas

Card Gas category bonus Value of the points* Total earned per dollar spent Annual fee Welcome bonus
Citi Premier Card 3x 1.7 cents 5.1 cents $95 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening
PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa Signature Card 5x 0.85 to 1.27 cents** 4.35 to 6.35 cents None $100 statement credit after you spend $1,500 in the first 90 days of account opening
Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card from American Express
2x at U.S. gas stations; 50% bonus when you use the card 30 times a month 2 cents 4 cents (6 cents with 50% bonus) $95 15,000 points after you spend $1,000 in the first three months of account opening. Terms apply.

*Based on TPG valuations and not provided by issuers. See more information here
**TPG does not assess the value of PenFed points. However, PenFed has provided examples to us that indicate points are worth 0.85 cents toward gift cards, and perhaps a little more for merchandise. When booking travel, points are worth around 0.85 to 0.90 cents each for air travel, but as much as 1.27 cents toward hotel bookings, with many hotel reservations returning about 1.18 cents in value per point redeemed.

Best cards for non-bonus spending

Winner — Citi® Double Cash Card

(Photo by Josh Gribben for The Points Guy)
(Photo by Josh Gribben/The Points Guy)

Return: Up to 2% cash back (1% when you buy and 1% as you pay) on all purchases with no limits. While this is technically a cash-back card, you can convert your cash back to ThankYou Points via a linked ThankYou account. Since Citi ThankYou points are worth 1.7 cents each based on TPG valuations, you’re looking at a return of up to 3.4%.

Current bonus: None

Notes: Don’t use it for non-bonus spending outside of the U.S. because it charges a 3% foreign transaction fee.

Annual fee: $0

Related reading:

Apply here: Citi Double Cash Card

Top travel rewards cards for non-bonus spending

Card Non-bonus earning Value of the points* Total earned per dollar spent Annual fee Welcome bonus
Citi Double Cash Card 2x (2% cash back: 1% when you buy, 1% as you pay) 1.7 cents if converted to ThankYou points 3.4 cents $0 None
Chase Freedom Unlimited 1.5x (1.5% cash back on every purchase) 2 cents if you have an Ultimate Rewards-earning card 3 cents $0 $150 after you spend $500 on purchases in the first three months of account opening
Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card 2x Venture Rewards miles per dollar 1.4 cents 2.8 cents $95 (waived the first year) 50,000 miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening
Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card 1x Membership Rewards points (50% bonus when you use the card 30 times a month) 2 cents 2 cents (3 cents with 50% bonus) $95 15,000 points after you spend $1,000 in purchases in the first three months of account opening

*Based on TPG valuations and not provided by issuers. See more information here

Related guides

For rates and fees of the Amex Gold Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Amex Green Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Aspire Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of Amex Platinum Card, please click here.

Featured photo by Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images.

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.