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2020 in review: Why these 7 cards outshined the others during the COVID-19 crisis

Dec. 28, 2020
10 min read
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Credit card rewards and benefits saw some serious changes in 2020.

Along with generous sign-up offers, perks are one of the primary reasons we sign up for credit cards. However, for some cards, many of those benefits were questionable during the pandemic.

Since the onset of the COVID crisis, I've been keeping a close eye on consumer spending and the resulting impact on cards, especially when it comes to limited-time perks. Nearly every issuer continues to fight for the top spot in our wallets, despite an environment where we're spending very differently.

Which are the cards that we kept using despite the devastating effect the pandemic had on travel? And how did card issuers pivot their benefits to make them useful at a time we may be spending less?

Let's take a look at the cards that performed the best during the pandemic in 2020.

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The trends we saw

Here's a brief look at what we saw issuers do over the past nine months.

A brief timeline of bonus categories

One of the major changes we saw during the pandemic involved bonus categories. In the spring and summer months, nearly every travel rewards card competed with each other in the hotly contested grocery and streaming categories.

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Then, other non-travel categories emerged with elevated bonuses or credits. For instance, gas and dining took center stage as lockdown measures were lifted but long-distance travel remained limited. And as we moved into the holiday season, online shopping became the latest limited-time bonus, with many consumers avoiding in-person retail.

We saw a lot of card bonuses on online shopping towards the end of 2020. (Photo by Roberto Westbrook / Getty Images)

Credits and non-travel redemptions

Besides bonus categories, we also saw the emergence of certain monthly credits from Amex on The Platinum Card® from American Express, The Business Platinum Card® from American Express and American Express® Green Card. These credits were intended to mitigate the sting of not being able to use the travel perks on these cards.

And with many people staying closer to home — and sitting on a healthy balance of points and miles — issuers revealed new ways to redeem. Chase's Pay Yourself Back is likely the best example of this with a higher redemption rate when you used points to cover gas, grocery and home improvement purchases.

The information for the Amex Green 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.

Related: Credit card innovations of 2020

The travel card(s) that pivoted the best

Chase Sapphire Reserve and Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

Chase stayed incredibly busy during the pandemic, with benefit change after benefit change to keep up with shifting consumer behavior. That's why I'm naming it the best travel card duo for these past nine months. Here's a look at all of the perks that were newly added or changed since March 2020.

(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)

Current limited-time offers

New grocery category bonus: Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders will earn 3x on up to $1,000 in monthly grocery store purchases, while Chase Sapphire Preferred Card members will earn 2x on up to $1,000 in monthly grocery store purchases. This new bonus category started on Nov. 1, 2020, and goes through April 30, 2021.

New Peloton credit: From now through Dec. 31, 2021, Sapphire cardholders will get statement credits that can be used to cover monthly Peloton Digital ($13) and All-Access ($39) memberships.

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve: up to $120 in statement credits
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: up to $60 in statement credits
(Image courtesy Peloton)

Travel credit: You can use the Sapphire Reserve’s $300 annual travel credit on purchases at grocery stores and gas stations through June 30, 2021.

Pay Yourself Back: Additionally, cardholders can maximize cash back with Chase’s Pay Yourself Back. This new feature allows you to redeem each point worth 1.5 cents (on the Sapphire Reserve) or 1.25 cents (on the Sapphire Preferred) toward a statement credit used to also offset purchases at grocery stores, home improvement stores and dining establishments. This has been extended through April 30, 2021.

Renewal annual fee: Finally, Chase Sapphire Reserve renewals processed at $450 instead of $550 in 2020.

Expired limited-time offers

In addition to these current offers, many perks were only available for a limited time and have since expired. Here's a quick look at what those were:

  • Between May 1 and June 30:
  • Cardholders earned 5x (Reserve) and 3x (Preferred) Ultimate Rewards points (up to $1,500 per month) in grocery purchases.
  • Between July 1 and Sept. 30:
  • Cardholders earned 5x (Reserve) and 3x (Preferred) Ultimate Rewards points (up to $1,500 in purchases) through Instacart and at gas stations.
  • Cardholders earned 10x (Reserve) and 5x (Preferred) Ultimate Rewards points (up to $1,500 in purchases) on select streaming services.
  • $50 statement credit on an Instacart Express membership

The refreshed cards that did the best

Chase Freedom Unlimited and Chase Freedom Flex

Chase significantly overhauled its no-annual-fee card lineup in September with the launch of the new Chase Freedom Flex (replacing the Chase Freedom) and a refresh of the Chase Freedom Unlimited card. With new bonus categories and still no annual fee, this Chase duo takes home the title of best refreshed cards during the pandemic.

Here's a look at what all those bonus categories are on each of these cards.

Freedom Flex:

Freedom Unlimited:

The Freedom Unlimited’s premier feature is a flat 1.5% back, making it a popular pick for beginners and experts alike. The refresh saw the addition of three new bonus categories, similar to the Freedom Flex:

  • 5% back on travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards (new)
  • 3% back on dining (new)
  • 3% back at drugstores (new)

The best part of both of these cards listed above? You can unlock the full potential of Ultimate Rewards points if you also hold a Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire Reserve or Ink Business Preferred Credit Card.

Related: The power of the Chase Trifecta: Sapphire Reserve, Ink Preferred and Freedom Unlimited

The best existing points card

American Express® Gold Card

Unlike the cards above, the Amex Gold card hasn’t had any limited-time COVID-19-related benefits added to it or refreshed perks. However, the Amex Gold gets top billing as the best existing points card because of how lucrative it is for dining and groceries -- two vital spending categories during the pandemic.

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)

The Gold earns earn 4x Membership Rewards points per dollar on dining at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets (U.S. supermarkets capped at $25,000 in purchases per calendar year, then 1x). That's valued at 8 cents per dollar in return, according to TPG valuations.

Additionally, you can earn up to $120 annual dining credit ($10 per month) through merchants such as Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly,, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.. Enrollment required for select benefits.

With reduced traveling, groceries and dining (including takeout and deliver in the U.S.) have been two of my highest spending categories during the pandemic and I've earned valuable Amex points from the Amex Gold. The card has a $250 annual fee (see rates and fees).

Related: Why I became even more loyal to the Amex Gold during the coronavirus pandemic

The best existing cash-back card

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

If cash back is more your style, the Blue Cash Preferred came out on top with bonus categories that aligned with consumer behavior during the pandemic. That is, it's an ideal card for normal, everyday spending.

(Photo by The Points Guy)

In my view, no other cash-back card has a better permanent combination of category bonuses for staying at or near home. The Blue Cash Preferred with a $95 annual fee for the first year (see rates and fees), has bonus earnings on U.S. supermarkets (6% back up to $6,000 in purchases each calendar year; then 1%), select U.S. streaming services (6% back), U.S. gas stations (3% back) and transit (3% back). In every single category, it’s made our list of best credit cards. These bonus categories are relevant to our current environment and the card has the ease of cash-back earning. Cash back is received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be redeemed for statement credits.

Related: Why the Amex Blue Cash Preferred comes out on top during the pandemic

The best new card

The Venmo Credit Card

(Photo courtesy of Venmo)

Finally, 2020 saw the launch of several significant new credit cards. One of the most important elements of any card its earning structure. The Venmo credit card was arguably one of the most intriguing launches of the year. Why? In a time when things are in flux, flexibility is particularly important.

Related: TPG’s Venmo guide for beginners: how to make the most of small, but mighty, perks

The card is offering an incredible amount of flexibility with no set bonus categories. Instead, it offers 3% back on your highest spending category each month, 2% back on your second highest spending category and 1% back on everything else. That’s the kind of versatility we hope to see from other cards in 2021.

For rates and fees of the Amex Gold card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Blue Cash Preferred card, click here.

Featured image by Photo by Jen Wolf / Shutterstock
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.