Maximizing Credit Card Rewards: Best Card To Use Per Spending Category

I signed up for my first credit card as soon as I turned 18, and have since opened hundreds of them over the past 20+ years to maximize cashback, points, and miles. In total, I’ve earned more than a million dollars in cash and rewards, in large part due to optimizing my card spending.

As a self-certified expert, I’ll share what I consider the best cards to use for each spending category. This is an unbiased review based on my personal experience. I didn’t allow any brand or company to sponsor or influence this post, unlike other listicles that you’d find on Google.

One final thing to mention before I begin. While this guide will list the best card and the runner-up for each spending category, understand that it may not be the right one for you depending on your individual circumstance and spending habits. You can check this page for a broader list of cards and the sign-up bonus offered, if any, associated with each.

This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a commission at no cost to you if you decide to make a purchase through my links. Visit this page for more information. The content on this page is accurate as of the posting date; however, some of the offers mentioned may have expired.

Best for 0% Balance Transfers

Winner: Wells Fargo Reflect® Card
Runner-up:
Chase Freedom Unlimited® Credit Card

I transferred balances like nobody’s business during what I call the golden years of balance transfers (2000-2007). Back then, not only did card issuers offer a 0% rate, many cards didn’t have a balance transfer fee.

With no debt to my name, I still applied for these cards, wrote the check out to myself in the amount of the credit limit, and deposited the check into my savings accounts to earn interest.

This interest arbitrage strategy, borrowing at 0% and earning 4% from other people’s money, netted thousands of dollars in free money for me and many others who did the exact same thing.

Alas, all good things come to an end. While plenty of credit cards offer a 0% balance transfer rate today, all of them charge a fee between 3% and 5% for the privilege to do so. That’s still a good deal, especially if you’re seeking to consolidate debt from cards with high interest rates to a 0% one.

So if you’re looking for the best 0% balance transfer card, look no further than Wells Fargo Reflect® Card. At the time of this writing, it has a 0% intro APR for 21 months from account opening on purchases and qualifying balance transfers.

While there’s a balance transfer fee of 5%, it gives you almost two years of no interest charges as long as you make the minimum monthly payments, usually 2% of the balance, on time. That could result in significant savings.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s latest Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit, Americans have an average balance of $5,733 on their credit cards.

Let’s assume in one scenario we transferred that debt to the Wells Fargo Reflect Card and paid the 5% balance transfer fee of $286.65 to get 0% APR for 21 months. In the other scenario, we leave the debt on our existing card with a typical 29.99% APR. Here’s how this compares after 21 months:

Balance Transfer RateFeesInterest
0% APR$286.65$0
29.99% APR$0$3,003.21

The $286.65 fee paid to transfer the balance saved us $3,003.21 of interest charges, for a difference of $2,716.56.

That’s how advantageous 0% balance transfers can be.

My runner-up choice is the Chase Freedom Unlimited® Credit Card. The 0% intro APR is 15 months, so it’s six months shorter than the winner in this category, but the balance transfer fee is just 3% for transfers made within 60 days of account opening.

The 2% difference of the balance transfer fees could be worth it for those who may need a 0% rate for a shorter time period. Each person should look at their financial situation and decide which option is more advantageous: a longer 0% period for a higher upfront fee or a shorter 0% period for a smaller upfront fee.

Best for Gas

Winner: AAA Travel Advantage Visa Signature® Credit Card
Runner-up:
Citi Custom Cash® Card

I love my PenFed Platinum Cash Rewards Visa Card for gas. Unlike other cash back credit cards, this card provides an unlimited 5% cash back on gas.

The only stipulation to open the plus version of the card (to get 5% cash back on gas compared to 3% on the standard version) is to join PenFed Credit Union and open one of their banking products (savings account, checking account, money market account, etc.).

Unfortunately, this card is grandfathered to existing customers only and is no longer available to new customers. However, the AAA Travel Advantage Visa Signature® Credit Card with no annual fee is available and offers 5% cash back on gas and electric vehicle-charging stations. It also earns 3% cash back on grocery stores, restaurants, travel, and AAA purchases. You get a flat 1% cash back on all other purchases.

Another great option is the Citi Custom Cash® Card, again with no annual fee. It gives 5% cash on your top eligible spend category for each billing cycle up to $500 spent, after which it goes to 1% cash back thereafter on all other purchases. Note that since this is a Mastercard, it won’t work at Costco, which only accepts Visa-branded cards.

Pair whichever card you decide to get with a gas app like Upside to supercharge your savings. Upside is a mobile app that offers up to 25¢ in cash back per gallon of gas at more than 25,000 gas stations across the United States.

Thanks to my partnership with Upside, if you’re new, download the app using this link to earn an extra 30¢ per gallon bonus, for a total of up to 55¢ cash back per gallon. On a gas guzzler like my Porsche Cayenne with a fuel tank capacity of nearly 24 gallons, that can be as much as $6 back when I refill my car!

Best for Cash Back

Winner: Alliant Cashback Visa® Signature Credit Card
Runner-up:
Bank of America® Unlimited Cash Rewards Credit Card

Remember when 2% cash back was a rarity? I do, but those days are over. A credit card featuring 2% cash back is a commodity. I have the following cards in my wallet, all of them gives me an unlimited 2% back:

  • American Express Blue Business Cash™ Card
  • Fidelity® Rewards Visa Signature® Credit Card
  • Citi Double Cash® Card
  • Wells Fargo Active Cash® Card
  • Capital One Spark Cash Plus
  • Synchrony Premier World Mastercard
  • PayPal Cashback Mastercard

However, there are a few cards that offer cash back rates surpassing 2%. They may not be widely known and each comes with additional requirements worth noting, but they’re the top cash back cards accessible to the public.

The Alliant Cashback Visa® Signature Credit Card emerges as the winner in this category, based on its cash back percentage and simple eligibility criteria (you need you to open an Alliant High-Rate Checking account).

With this card, you can earn 2.5% cash back on the initial $10,000 spent per billing cycle, a feature likely to meet the needs of most individuals. If your monthly spending exceeds $10,000, the cash back rate for all purchases beyond this threshold is a fixed 1.5%.

My runner-up choice is Bank of America® Unlimited Cash Rewards Credit Card. It earns 2.62% cash back on every purchase, which is more than the winner, but the requirements to get that rate can be a barrier for some.

To enjoy that surperb cash back rate, you need to reach the Platinum Honors Tier in Bank of America’s Preferred Rewards program, which requires at least $100,000 in combined average daily balance across your eligible Bank of America deposit accounts and Merrill investing balance.

Bank of America accounts like checking, savings, and certificate of deposit, as well as Merrill investment accounts such as Cash Management Accounts, 529 plans, and IRAs, all count towards the combined balance.

Best for Groceries & Supermarkets

Winner: Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
Runner-up:
Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express

American Express dominates this category. I crown them both as the winner and runner-up.

The winner, Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, offers an unbeatable 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases.

While there’s an annual fee, it’s relatively small and waived for the first year. It also more than makes up for it by offering 6% cash back on streaming subscriptions, 3% back on gas, and 3% back on transit (taxis/rideshares, parking, tolls, trains, buses, and more). Additionally, you get 1% back on all other purchases.

If you’d rather avoid cards with an annual fee, then consider the runner-up Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express. This card earns 3% cash back at U.S. groceries and supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases. While this is 50% less than Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, it comes with no annual fee, so weigh the trade-off based on your preferences.

Beyond groceries and supermarkets, it also earns 3% cash back on U.S. online retail purchases (up to $6,000 per year), 3% back on gas, and 1% on other purchases, making it a compelling choice.

Best for Travel

Winner: Platinum Card® from American Express
Runner-up:
Chase Sapphire Reserve® Credit Card

Having visited over 140 countries in my life, it’s safe to say that traveling is my favorite hobby by a mile. I also happen to own all the popular credit cards in this category, and I love each of them for different reasons. However, if I had to choose one all-around travel card, it would undoubtedly be the Platinum Card® from American Express.

This card earns 5x points on flights booked directly with airlines or through their travel portal, American Express Travel®, 5x points on prepaid hotels booked on AmexTravel.com, and 1x on other purchases.

The annual fee of $695 may seem staggering, but there are so many benefits that will offset it, including:

  • $200 Airline Credit: Receive up to $200 in statement credits per year to a single airline of your selection for incidental fees charged to your card by the airline (including baggage fees, seat-related fees, cancel fees, priority upgrade fees, etc.
  • $200 Hotel Credit: Up to $200 back in statement credits each year on select prepaid hotel bookings through American Express Travel®
  • $200 Uber/Uber Eats Credit: $15 in Uber Cash to use on eligible orders with Uber Eats and rides with Uber in the US every month plus a bonus $20 in December
  • $240 Digital Entertainment Credit: $20 per month for Disney+, Disney Bundle, ESPN+, Hulu, New York Times, Peacock, SiriusXM, and The Wall Street Journal
  • $155 Walmart+ Credit: Pay for a monthly Walmart+ membership and receive a statement credit for $12.95 (plus applicable taxes) that covers the full cost each month
  • $100 Shop Saks Credit: Get up to $50 in statement credits from January through June and up to $50 in statement credits from July through December for purchases at Saks Fifth Avenue
  • $300 Equinox Credit: Get up to $300 in statement credits each year when you pay for an Equinox+ digital subscription with live and on-demand classes, or an Equinox club membership
  • $189 CLEAR Plus Credit: Cover the cost of a CLEAR Plus membership with up to $189 in statement credits per calendar year after you pay for CLEAR Plus with you card

Other lesser-known perks are just as valuable, if not more so. For instance, Trip Delay Insurance reimburses you up to $500 per covered trip for you and each covered person (family members and traveling companions) for necessary expenses when your trip is delayed for more than six hours.

I chronicled how Maryna and I received $1,000 ($500 per person) because we got stuck overnight in Washington, D.C. during a layover due to bad weather. Thanks to Trip Delay Insurance, we were able to make the most of it, staying at a hotel in the city, purchasing new clothes, replacing our toiletries, dining at a couple of restaurants, and taking a few taxis. The best part? All of these expenses were reimbursed.

Or when Amex wrote a check out to me when I lost a shopping bag thanks to their Purchase Protection benefit. The process was much simpler compared to other card issuers. Once I realized the bag was missing, I called to initiate a claim, sent in the police report, and got the check three weeks later.

In my opinion, American Express’ customer service is the best in the industry. This isn’t based solely on these events, but rather on the overall experience I’ve had as a cardholder for over 20+ years. I’ve never ended a phone call with them feeling disappointed.

Some readers may argue that the runner-up, Chase Sapphire Reserve® Credit Card, should be the winner. It’s a fair statement and I could see that being the case.

Its earning structure is impressive, offering 5x points on flights when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 10x points on hotels and car rentals through Chase, 3x points on dining at restaurants (including select delivery services, takeout, and dining out), and 3x points on other travel-related spending (airfare, hotels, taxis, trains, etc.) worldwide. Similar to the Platinum Card® from American Express, it earns 1x on all other purchases.

Benefits of Chase Sapphire Reserve® Credit Card include:

  • $300 Travel Credit: Take advantage of the most flexible travel credit available (airlines, hotels, motels, timeshares, car rental agencies, cruise lines, travel agencies, discount travel sites, campgrounds and operators of passenger trains, buses, taxis, limousines, ferries, toll bridges and highways, and parking lots and garages all count) with up to $300 in statement credit reimbursements each card anniversary year for travel-related purchases
  • $199/Year Lyft Pink Membership: 2 complimentary years of Lyft Pink All Access when activated by Dec. 31, 2024 – a value of $199/year, and 10x total points on Lyft rides (through March 2025)
  • $5 DoorDash Credit: $5 in DoorDash credits each month (through December 31, 2024)
  • DoorDash DashPass Subscription: Pay for a monthly Walmart+ membership and receive a statement credit for $12.95 (plus applicable taxes) that covers the full cost each month
  • $99 Instacart Membership: 1 year of complimentary Instacart (activate by July 31, 2024)
  • $15 Instacart Credit: $15 in statement credits each month through July 2024

Collectively, the card’s perks and benefits are comparable to Platinum Card® from American Express, while charging a lower annual fee of $550. So why did I put the latter as the winner instead of Chase’s premium travel card?

For me, there are a few reasons. First, the various credits offered by American Express are very useful and effectively make it a “no annual fee”. The ones from Chase, apart from the $300 travel credit, are harder to take advantage of.

Second, in terms of being able to transfer points to airlines, American Express partners with airlines I highly value that Chase doesn’t (though there are quite a bit of overlap). At the time of this writing, Chase partners with 11 airlines, whereas American Express partners with 17 airlines:

AirlineChaseAmerican Express
Aer Lingus1:11:1
AeromexicoN/A1:1.6
Air Canada1:11:1
Air France-KLM1:11:1
ANAN/A1:1
AviancaN/A1:1
British Airways1:11:1
Cathay PacificN/A1:1
Delta AirlinesN/A1:1
Emirates1:11:1
Etihad AirwaysN/A1:1
Hawaiian AirlinesN/A1:1
Iberia1:11:1
JetBlue1:15:4
QantasN/A1:1
Singapore1:11:1
Southwest Airlines1:1N/A
United Airlines1:1N/A
Virgin Atlantic1:11:1

Savvy credit card users understand that transferring points from Amex or Chase to airlines gives you the biggest bang for your buck. This allows you to book international business class and first class flights that would typically cost thousands of dollars.

I frequently travel to Asia and love transferring my Amex points to All Nippon Airways (ANA). They have one of the best business class products in the skies. Flying 12 hours from San Francisco to Tokyo in business class, what ANA calls “The Room”, is a heck of a lot better than in economy:

Nonstop Dan in ANA's business class "The Room"
(Nonstop Dan in ANA’s The Room, January 2020. DAN GOZ/NONSTOP DAN)

That’s not to say Chase is a slouch in this area. For instance, both American Express and Chase partner with British Airways.

Transferring 70,000 points from either program to British Airways is enough to book a one-way business class flight on Qatar Airways (which partners with British Airways) from Boston to the Maldives. Maryna and I took advantage of this to enjoy 17 hours of what Qatar calls “QSuites,” quite literally a bed in the sky:

But I’ll give Chase this: it has an exclusive partnership with Hyatt, allowing you to transfer points on a 1:1 basis. Hyatt offers the best hotel program to transfer points into, far surpassing the value you’d get at the other two giant hotel brands, Marriott and Hilton.

There are massive values that can be found, like transferring 25,000 points to stay at Park Hyatt Hadahaa in Maldives. The typical cost of this resort runs over $1,000 a night. I stayed here for seven nights during my honeymoon and it was nothing short of incredible:

John sitting on the beach at Park Hyatt Hadahaa in Maldives
(John at Park Hyatt Hadahaa, January 2019. JOHN PHAM/THE MONEY NINJA)

And the final reason I chose the premium card from American Express is something I hinted to earlier – their customer service is unparalleled. This may seem subjective, but my experience is backed up by numerous surveys, including J.D. Power’s U.S. Credit Card Satisfaction Survey.

There’s something to be said about not having to call repeatedly to resolve an issue or spend countless hours waiting on the phone listening to crappy elevator music. How much do you value your time? Is it higher than a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10? Then pick American Express.

I’ll leave it at that.

Best Credit Card Overall

Winner: Capital One Venture X Credit Card
Runner-up:
Fidelity® Rewards Visa Signature® Credit Card

This was the toughest category to rank because the best overall card depends on your general spending habits. Here are my choices, one premium card and one straightforward card:

If I had to pick just one card to rule them all, it would be the Capital One Venture X Credit Card (read my full card review) because it gives you an unlimited 2% back on everything in the form of a statement credit (or you can transfer the rewards to several airline and hotel programs for potentially outsized value), has no foreign transaction fees, and offers benefits that comes with a premium credit card.

While it comes with a $395 annual fee, it gives you $300 in annual travel credit and 10,000 anniversary miles each year (worth $100 statement credit), offsetting the entire fee. Compared to its immediate premium card competitors like the American Express Platinum Card or the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the annual fee is a lot lower.

If you travel frequently, this card would further cement itself as the one-and-only card. You get credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck® to avoid long lines at the airport, get access to Priority Pass and Capital One Lounges worldwide, and enjoy protection from flight delays and lost/damaged luggage.

For those who prefer something simple, straightforward, and don’t want or wish to pay an annual fee, it’s hard to beat Fidelity® Rewards Visa Signature® Credit Card.

It earns an unlimited 2% cash back on all purchases – no caps or category restrictions. Your rewards can be deposited into any eligible Fidelity account (checking account (Cash Management Account), brokerage account, or even a 529 college savings plan).

In additional to no annual fee, it also doesn’t charge any foreign transaction fee. That’s not a common benefit for fee-free cards. It’s great even if you only travel abroad on occasion as those FTF can add up quickly. I forgot to take this card with me on a trip to Dominican Republic and was shocked how much banks charge for international spend.

Bottom Line

I hope you found this guide helpful and that it provided you with some food for thought on how to maximize your credit card spending. This post summarizes my years of credit card knowledge into a single, albeit lengthy, 3,200+ word document.

Do you agree with my winners and runner-ups? Did I miss a card you consider a hidden gem? Let me know in the comments below!

About John Pham

John Pham is a personal finance expert, serial entrepreneur, and founder of The Money Ninja. He has also been fortunate enough to have appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe, and U.S. News & World Report. John has a B.S. in Entrepreneurship and a Masters in Business Administration, both from the University of New Hampshire.

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