TPG’s editors’ choice award for best new credit card of 2021
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We saw change after change (after change) among travel credit cards in 2021.
Welcome bonuses rose and fell, benefits were added or stripped away, annual fees were discounted then reinstated.
As the pandemic began to loosen its grip earlier this year, several credit card issuers even launched all-new products.
Many of these premieres were in the works before COVID-19 took hold of the travel industry. And as the world continues to reopen, you can bet that we’ll see more new card refreshes (and entirely new products) centered around the key themes of flexibility, customization and personalized benefits.
Our editors considered those factors and more as we decided which product would win our TPG editors’ choice award for best new credit card.
Read on for more details on what we looked at … and which card came out on top.
Editor’s note: The TPG editorial team only considered new products from major issuers launched through Nov. 12.
First, let’s highlight exactly how we approached this award. In order to qualify for the TPG editors’ choice award for best new credit card, an issuer must have launched an all-new card product in 2021 (through Nov. 12).
From there, TPG examined several criteria, including how lucrative the points, miles or cash-back earning of that product was. In addition, three key tenets — value-added perks, rewards flexibility and customization — were taken into consideration.
Note that we excluded welcome offers from this card analysis, since these can change from time to time, and this award is focused on a new card that is best for a wide swath of readers right now.
We evaluated several new cards from 2021, carving down our list to six finalists that we found to have the most impact. These six cards came from six different issuers, with three of them focused on cash-back appeal, one categorized as a mid-tier airline card, another that allows cardmembers to supercharge their rewards on rent, and the final one being the first premium rewards card from a major player.
- United Quest Card: Launched in April.
- Citi Custom Cash℠ Card: Launched in June.
- Bilt Mastercard: Launched in June.
- Bank of America® Unlimited Cash Rewards credit card: Launched in July.
- Wells Fargo Active Cash® Card (rates & fees): Launched in July.
- Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card: Launched in November.
Now for how the cards all stacked up.
Disclosure: The information for the Bilt Mastercard and Wells Fargo Active Cash has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer. TPG founder Brian Kelly is a Bilt advisor and investor.
Cash rewards contenders
The Citi Custom Cash, Bank of America Unlimited Cash Rewards and Wells Fargo Active Cash are all cash rewards cards (as their names imply) with no annual fee. While these cards lack the appeal of splashy benefits or travel privileges, they do have two things going for them: easy earning and practical flexibility.
The Citi Custom Cash is a no-annual-fee card that earns 5% back on your top eligible spending category. Conveniently, you don’t have to select, enroll or change categories at any time. The major limitation on the card? It only earns 5% back on up to $500 spent each billing cycle; thereafter it’s just 1%.
That said, the Citi Custom Cash should be especially enticing for existing Citi cardholders. Even though the Custom Cash is branded as a cash-back card, you’ll earn rewards in the form of Citi ThankYou points. That means if you already carry one of Citi’s travel rewards cards (such as the Citi Prestige® Card or the Citi Premier® Card), you can combine the points earned on that card with the points earned on the Custom Cash. That allows you to earn full-fledged ThankYou points that unlock the door to 17 airline and hotel transfer partners.
Based on TPG’s valuation of Citi ThankYou points at 1.7 cents each, this means you can earn an effective 8.5% return when you buy and pay with your Citi Custom Cash (on the first $500 per billing period).
The information for the Citi Prestige has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
For its part, Bank of America’s Unlimited Cash Rewards card provides the ability to earn an unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases — with no cap. While that’s competitive, it’s certainly not breaking any new ground. The key value proposition, however, is the ability to earn 25% to 75% more cash back if you’re a Bank of America Preferred Rewards member.
Finally, the Wells Fargo Active Cash is another simple no-annual-fee card with the ability to earn a flat 2% cash rewards on purchases, ranking as one of the best rewards rates among any card with this type of rewards structure.
Although each card is compelling in its own right, there were three higher-profile cards still to consider.
A great card … but mainly for United flyers
Next, we took a look at the United Quest, a mid-tier, $250-per-year airline card that launched in April.
Although the United Quest comes with a lot of unique perks, most of them apply specifically to frequent United flyers.
For instance, cardholders receive up to $125 in annual statement credits toward United purchases each account anniversary. Starting with their first account anniversary, they also receive 5,000 miles back on a United award redemption, up to twice per year, for a total potential annual rebate of 10,000 miles.
The card confers great day-of-travel benefits, too, such as two checked bags for free for the cardholder and a companion on the same reservation, priority boarding and a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee statement credit (up to $100) once every four years.
While all those advantages can certainly help travelers save time and money year after year, unless you’re a United loyalist, they might be of limited use.
That’s why our editors eventually decided against naming the United Quest as the best new credit card of the year — it simply didn’t stand out as a card that had enough mass appeal, especially with a $250 annual fee. But it is one of the better new card launches of 2021, especially if United is one of your airlines of choice.
Next up we had the Bilt Mastercard, which launched in June and then underwent a revamp in September.
Bilt is the first-ever rewards program that, along with the credit card, lets you earn points on rent without any transaction fees or charges. You can enroll in the program and use the app to pay rent directly if your landlord is a Bilt Rewards Alliance partner property. If not, you can sign up for the Bilt Mastercard and use the program’s app to mail your nonparticipating landlord a check.
The credit card, which has no annual fee and no sign-up bonus, earns 1x on rent payments with no fees (on up to $50,000 in rent payments every year), 2x on travel (when booked directly with an airline, hotel, car rental or cruise company), 3x on dining and 1x on other purchases. In order to earn points, you’ve got to make at least five transactions per statement period.
What makes this more interesting to us is that Bilt points transfer to nine airline and hotel partners including American Airlines AAdvantage, Air Canada Aeroplan, World of Hyatt and IHG Rewards.
It all sounds like it could be a game-changer, right? And it might be for some consumers. However, there were a few reasons we took the card out of the running for the year’s top spot.
While we aren’t technically judging based on sign-up bonuses, note that there isn’t one. This means it might be a long time before you rack up enough rewards for a meaningful redemption. Second, you don’t actually need the credit card to participate in the Bilt program if you live in a Bilt Rewards Alliance building, so the card might not be totally necessary for some of the people who would benefit the most from carrying it. Finally, the five-transaction-per-month minimum to earn points, while not too onerous, is just an extra hoop to jump through.
So while the new Bilt Rewards program has transfer partners, such as American and Hyatt, that are quite intriguing, because of those limitations and the tailoring of the card primarily to a rental market that doesn’t encompass everyone, TPG’s editors ultimately decided to award the year’s top prize to another product.
The winner is …
That left us with the Capital One Venture X, which debuted on Nov. 9, 2021. Talk about getting in under the wire!
The Venture X marks Capital One’s first-ever premium travel rewards credit card. Its annual fee is $395, but its benefits are potentially worth much, much more.
Cardholders receive up to $300 back in annual statement credits toward travel booked through the Capital One Travel portal. That alone wipes out the cost of much of the card’s annual fee, effectively bringing it down to $95 in true cost if you use the credit.
The Venture X earns 10 miles per dollar on hotels and car rentals booked via Capital One Travel, 5 miles per dollar on flights booked via Capital One Travel and an unlimited 2 miles per dollar on everything else, which means you can rack up rewards quickly, even on everyday spending.
After the account anniversary each year, cardmembers receive 10,000 bonus miles, worth $100 toward travel, or up to $185 based on TPG’s valuation thanks to the fact that you can transfer Capital One miles to 17 airline and hotel partners.
The Venture X will reimburse you for a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee once every four years, and that’s worth up to another $100.
Finally, the card confers various travel and purchase protections, including trip interruption and cancellation coverage, trip delay reimbursement and primary rental car insurance (benefits are only available to accounts approved for the Visa Signature card; terms apply), plus Hertz President’s Circle status for car rentals. Under its cellphone protection, by using the card to pay your monthly wireless bill, you’re eligible for up to $800 in coverage per claim if your phone is lost, stolen or damaged, with a maximum of two claims and a $1,600 limit per 12-month period. A $50 deductible applies per occurrence.
All these benefits are why the Venture X ranks as one of the best travel rewards credit cards currently available, and our clear winner for the most exciting credit card of 2021.
In 2021 (through Nov. 12), many of the major credit cards that were launched included cash-back products, but ultimately our winner for the best credit card is the premium Capital One Venture X.
Not only is the card a strong everyday earner that racks up reward miles you can use for a variety of travel redemptions, but it also boasts one of the most well-rounded suites of perks of any travel credit card out there. Though it’s only a week old, the card is sure to have some staying power thanks to its excellent value proposition.
Additional reporting by Eric Rosen.
Featured image by Bill Harkins/The Points Guy.
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