The single best credit card and why my favorite cards didn’t make the list

“If I were to get just one credit card, which one should it be?”

I get this question a lot, but it’s not easy to answer.  The best card for you depends upon your credit score, whether you carry a balance month to month (please don’t!), how much you travel, and how much you spend at restaurants, grocery stores, etc.  It also depends on how you would like to use your rewards. For travel? For merchandise?  And, how much work are you willing to do to get the most value from your rewards?  I could go on and on…

Still, despite my objections above, it should be possible to come up with a single best card for most people.  Right?  Let’s try…

First, let’s assume that the person asking the question is responsible with their credit, has a good credit score, and pays their bills in full each month.  Given that, we’re looking for cards with the best rewards without concern for interest rates or missed payment fees.

Second, let’s eliminate all American Express cards from contention.  Don’t get me wrong: Amex has some of the best cards available.  Take, for example, the Fidelity Investment Rewards Amex that earns 2% cash back everywhere with no annual fee.  It would normally be a very strong contender for the single best card, but if you really want just one card in your wallet it shouldn’t be an American Express card.  There are too many places in which Amex cards are not accepted.  For the same reason, let’s eliminate all cards that are not MasterCard or Visa cards.

What about my favorite card(s) of all time, the Chase Ink Plus and Ink Bold business cards?  The Ink cards are terrific for those with high cable, cell phone, and internet bills since they earn 5 points per dollar in those categories.  Similarly, for the same reason, the Ink cards are outrageously good for those who spend a lot at office supply stores.  And, the Ink cards are great for those who seek to maximize rewards by shopping for gift cards and free after rebate items at office supply stores.  But, let’s face it, someone who wants just one credit card is unlikely to be one to stock up on gift cards or useless software products from Staples.  And, let’s not forget that these are business cards.  We should probably pick a personal card as the single best overall card.

So, what’s left?  In my mind, there are two strong contenders for the best credit card for the person who wants just one:

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa ($95 per year)
  • Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard ($89 annual fee version)

I think that both of these cards can make a strong argument that they would make the best single card for the widest range of people.  Let’s consider each, in turn:

Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard

There are two versions of this card, one with an $89 annual fee and the other with no annual fee.  I prefer the $89 card because it offers 2 points per dollar for all spend.  So, regardless of whether you use your credit card most for travel, dining, groceries, or whatever, you’ll earn points quickly.  Points can be redeemed for statement credits  to cover travel expenses at a value of 1 cent per point.  A nice extra perk is that when you redeem points for travel expenses in this way, you earn back 10% of the points spent.  In other words, when points are used to cover travel expenses, this is like a 2.2% cash back card (thanks to the 10% rebate).  It’s hard to beat that!

One big downside that I’ve just learned about is that points are worth much less if you want to redeem for non-travel expenses.  In that case, Barclays gives you only half a cent per point and the card becomes a measly 1% cash back card.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa

The Sapphire Preferred card offers 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar for travel and dining and 1 point per dollar everywhere else.  It also gives you a 7% annual “dividend” on points earned, so the earning structure is more like 2.14X for travel and dining and 1.07X everywhere else.  Significantly, the Sapphire Preferred card gives the cardholder access to the Ultimate Rewards Mall which often has the best earning rate among online point-earning shopping portals.  Where the Sapphire Preferred card shines the most is in the many valuable ways points can be used.  You could simply redeem points for cash, statement credits, or merchandise at a value of 1 cent per point.  Better yet, you could redeem points for travel booked through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards travel center at a value of 1.25 cents per point.  And, best of all, you can transfer points to airline, hotel, and train programs to get even more value.  If you know how best to use your points, it’s not unusual to get 2 cents, 5 cents, or even 10 cents per point value from various transfer partners.

And so, the best card is…

Personally, if I could pick only one card, I would take the Sapphire Preferred.  I would earn extra points by shopping frequently through the Ultimate Rewards Mall, and I would use my points for things like international first class travel (by transferring points to United and then booking Star Alliance flights), dirt cheap domestic flights (by transferring points to Southwest or even British Airways when circumstances warrant it), train trips (by transferring points to Amtrak), luxury hotel stays (by transferring points to Hyatt), etc.  But…  I don’t want just one card.  I want the right cards for the right situations.  I want my Chase Ink cards for 5X earnings.  I want my Amex Delta cards to earn elite status through spend.  I want my Citi Forward card for 5X earnings at restaurants, movie theaters, and more.  In other words, I’m not that person that asks for the one best card.

I think that the person who asks that question wants to keep things simple.  The Sapphire Preferred is a fantastic card, but maximizing value from it is not simple.  The Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard, on the other hand, is both rewarding and simple for the person who wants to use credit card points towards to pay for travel.  So, I’d have to say that the single best credit card, for the person that wants just one, is the Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard.

What do you think?  What card do you think is the single best card for the person who wants just one?

Other contenders

For those interested, I considered a couple of other cards, but ultimately decided that while these cards would be best for certain people, they are more limited in appeal than the two I highlighted above.  Also, both of the following cards charge foreign transaction fees, so neither is right for those who travel out of the country.

Citi Forward

The Citi Forward card is currently marketed specifically to students, but it is an excellent option for many people.  This card earns 5 ThankYou points per dollar at restaurants (including fast food), and on books (including all Amazon.com purchases), music and movies.  ThankYou points can be redeemed for travel, merchandise, or gift cards at an exchange rate of 1 cent per point.  There are no options to transfer points to airline miles.  The card has no annual fee.

If you spend heavily within the card’s 5X categories (eat out every night maybe?), then this card is worth a look.  If you’re not a student, the best way to get this card is to get a different Citibank card and ask to downgrade to the no-fee Forward card.

Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa

This card earns 5 points per dollar on all purchases, and 10 points per dollar on Club Carlson property purchases.  And, the card gives you instant Club Carlson Gold status which makes you eligible for free room upgrades, a 2000 point online booking bonus, 50% more points earned per stay, and an in-room welcome gift.  The Club Carlson card also comes with one killer feature: bonus award nights. (Note: The Bonus Award night feature was discontinued as of 6/1/2015.) For every two night or longer stay booked with points, one night will be free.  This means that for 2-night stays you are charged only for one night!  For more details, see “Club Carlson rocks our world… Again.”

If you would love to stay at Club Carlson properties for free and would value that over perks available through other cards (such as free flights), then take a look at this card.  The card does have a $75 annual fee, but that is more than offset by an annual 40,000 point bonus.

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Comments

  1. I actually like the Citi Prestige. 15% off tickets, companion pass on lowest fares, and its pretty easy with the year end bonus structure and flight points to have a card that is close to 3.5-4% earning everywhere.

    For example, I got 2 tickets to Singapore from the midwest for $800 a person that would of been $1200 a person on .bomb Covered the annual fee right there, plus got qualifying miles and 45k flight miles.

    • carl: I agree
      trajan81: the Prestige card is pretty interesting. I’ve been researching it for a possible future post or two. In addition to its more obvious perks, its the only card I know of that gives you golfing privileges! Of course, due to its very high annual fee, its not for everyone.
      WeddingSpend: Yeah, I always try to do that, but some people are pretty adamant about wanting just one.
      NYBanker: I don’t know the percentage, but I run into “Amex not accepted” frequently. It’s especially frustrating when paying my state farm bill online.

  2. Your analysis is almost thought-for-thought what I tell people who ask me the same question. In the end, however, I somehow always manage to convince them to stretch their simple ways to include two cards and maaaaybe even three cards (perhaps people feel it’s simple as long as they have enough wallet slots?).

  3. I can’t recall the last time I found a merchant that didn’t accept Amex. Is it 5% of merchants in the US that don’t?

    AX Platinum for the benefits or AX Gold or AX SPG warrant serious consideration for the “one card,” depending on how you travel and spend.

  4. I agree on Club Carlson card. Probably the best bang for your buck, but ONLY if you can utilize it properly:2 for 1 deal, and you want to stay in their hotels anyway. As far as Barclaycard Arrival, I think it only makes sense for those, who put substantial amount on credit cards. The annual fee is a problem , if you put 24000 per year, like us. I think Sallie Mae card can easily beat it for most regular people.

    • milesforfamily: It doesn’t really take that much spend to justify the Arrival’s $85 fee. For example, suppose you compare the Arrival’s 2.2% redemption to a no-fee 1.5% card. In that case, at about $13K annual spend you’re better off with the Arrival card. Obviously the Arrival isn’t the one best card for everyone (I think I was clear about that). I just think it is probably the best for most people who would ask that question. Sallie Mae is an excellent card for low spend or for heavy uPromise use, but it has a 3% foreign transaction fee.

  5. why not the capital one venture card? That seems the easiest/most intuitive cash back rewards card. It also has no foreign transaction fees.

    • WB: Yep, the CapitalOne Venture card is an excellent choice too. It’s very similar to the Arrival card with 2X everywhere. It has a lower annual fee of $59 (vs. $85), but it doesn’t offer 10% back in rewards so it is really a 2% back card whereas the Arrival offers 2.2% for travel redemptions.

  6. I hope Barclay’s doesn’t downgrade their program any time soon. It is great to get 2.2% towards travel on every purchase. We are going to use our Barclay’s credit this weekend on other hotel spend (flights and hotel compliments of Chase!)

  7. It depends on who the card is for as well. Dealing with credit card rewards is second nature to a lot of us, but a lot of people simply don’t want to mess with that stuff and a simple cashback card (e.g. Fidelity Amex, CapOne Quicksilver) is a good choice.

    • Nick @ PFDigest: I guess I was thinking that the Arrival card is basically a souped up cash back card.
      farulg: I agree, I really with the Sapphire Preferred would add a chip!
      Matt: I like the Freedom card too and I think its perfect as a starter card or a supplement to other cards.

  8. I love the Chase Sapphire Preferred. The UR advantage, the lack of foreign fees.

    Unfortunately it doesn’t have an EMV chip. I travel outside the US significantly and in most places the machines simply can’t read it. So I end up using my Hyatt card most of the time.

  9. The Freedom has long been my favorite credit card. It was my first, and one of two for a long time. No fee, and I find that the 5x category points allows me to rack up rewards really quickly. It’s way easier for the person who values simplicity, since the real value of the CSP is transfering points to airline partners. Plus, you do still get the UR mall with a Freedom, and if you get into rewards more, you can always use stocked up UR points on a CSP later.

  10. Greg, I’ve argued that the CSP is the single best Chase card to get if you only get 1 Chase card. The funny thing is, the more Chase cards you get, the less valuable the CSP is and ultimately, almost every CSP perk can be had with a combination of Chase cards. Any thoughts?

    • Grant: yes, it’s true that the CSP perks can be almost duplicated with other cards, but if you want the full family of Ultimate Rewards perks you still need it for “2x travel”. Not counting signup bonuses, the best stable collection of Ultimate Rewards cards in one household probably is:
      1. One Sapphire Preferred account. Others in household have free authorized user cards. Total annual fee: $95
      2. A Freedom card for each person to maximize 5X benefits. No annual fee.
      3. Ink Cash and Ink Classic cards as needed to get 5X office supplies, telecom, etc. No annual fee.
      On point 3, I’d argue that people should start with the Ink Plus and then downgrade to the Ink Cash or Classic after a year. The Ink Bold is not downgrade-able. Maybe I should write a post about this…

  11. Okay, you’ve answered the question “What if I want just one card”. How about answering the same question for two, three, and four cards. I think most people would be willing to carry a small portfolio of cards (up to three or four).

    • LarryInNYC: Great idea! I’ll think about that.
      bexho2000: I agree, but I’ve met some of those people!
      Jimmy: Agreed
      StephenM: In order to get the most out of the Sapphire Preferred card you need to learn how to get the most from their transfer partners. You can transfer Ultimate Rewards points to United, British Airways, Southwest, Hyatt, Amtrak, and more. If you had transferred to United, there is a good chance you could have booked the same round trip (but not on Delta) for 25,000 miles and $5 or so in fees. For short hops on American Airlines, you can sometimes book round trip flights using British Airways Avios for only 9000 points! If you don’t want to bother with all of that, then a card like the Arrival card is probably best for you.

  12. I kind of find it hard to believe people these days would be comfortable with having just 1 cc in their wallets all the time…Great analysis as usual. I haven’t tried the arrival yeat, but will give it a shot – this does not mean I am trowing away my chase cards though as they are the most flexible ones in my belief for converting to miles!

  13. I highly recommend against only having one card in your wallet. What if that card is accidentally denied and you’re in a big rush? (This has happened to me). And on occasion, I will run into a merchant that doesn’t accept AmEx, but those instances are extremely rare nowadays. That said, first choice is Fidelity AmEx, unless I’m shopping somewhere with a 5% category.

  14. What is so great about the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card? Everyone talks about it like it is their favorite card. I tried to book a flight in March from Providence to Palm Springs and returning from Phoenix to Providence. Deltas’s cost was $35 and 40,000 bonus miles. Chase was $197 and the total points I had in my account which was 49,554. I am very unexcited about the Chase card. Am I missing something? StephenM

  15. @StephenM Its best to transfer UR points to United and then book an award flight. Using them as cash currency to buy a flight at 1.25 cents is not a good redemption.

  16. Nick said it well – its 2nd nature to some but total insane for others, i had a hard time when i get to “…then you go to xyz.com using the gift cards you bought with 5X and earn extra points…” it kills people right there.

    Grant: “the more Chase cards you get, the less valuable the CSP is”, my feeling as well. Now I use it almost exclusively for restaurant.

    So I carry 3 cards, every dap purchase is AMEX SPG. My preference is AA(UA 2nd) & SPG nights:

    Ink – Gas & Amazon & Dept stores,Office(all 5x, some thru gc)
    CSP – restaurant (2x)
    AMEX SPG – SPG nights(2+2), others (1.25 to AA).

    • DJ: I assume you would use CSP for travel too?
      P: I’m guessing that you’re not the target audience for the question I was trying to answer? PRG is great for people who spend a lot, especially within the bonus categories, and who know how to use MR points most effectively.
      Chris: I might just do that. I could imagine up to 3 posts: cards for your wallet every day; cards for your sock drawer; and cards to travel with internationally. They’re all different!

  17. Sapphire? Meh. I don’t even carry that in my wallet. 1x on most spend is a joke.

    PRG on the other hand, is the card I’ll probably wear out. 2x gas AND grocery, plus 15K MR bonus on $30K spend. And 3x on travel.

  18. I like LarryInNYC’s comment: what about 2,3 or 4 cards? That would be an interesting analysis! I’ve got my own mix, but wonder if I’m utilizing them to their fullest. Another post?

  19. @Chris, it gets more and more subjective the more cards you get. Also depends if you are cash back oriented, travel rewards oriented (which airlines / hotels), and a business traveler. Good luck to Greg if he tries to workout the best 2, 3, or 4 cards.

  20. The Arrival card would be my choice if I could only have one. But you will never convince people who insist on paying 2+ cents for their miles in opportunity cost.

    • I agree with HikerT. But once again, it does depend, on how much you spend. If you spend close to 100K per year and don’t care about premium redemptions, by all means. Otherwise, other cards would make more sense. Amex Blue Cash Preferred, Sallie Mae, Freedom and so on.

  21. FM, the store I actually spend the most at (Costco) doesn’t take Visa/MC. Of course, you can buy AMEX GCs with your Visa/MC, and vice-versa. That’s how I would solve the issue with the Arrival card, but it technically violates the “1 card” rule.

    • ScottL: Great question. As I understand it, to get the 2.2% BOA BankAmericard Privileges with Travel Rewards you have to be in the BOA Platinum Privileges program which requires $50K combined balance across accounts. Is that not correct?

  22. How about Priceline? 2 points per dollar everywhere, 5 points for Priceline NYOP, no annual fee. Points are 1 cent each, and if you redeem against NYOP purchase, it’s 1.1-1.3 cents each.
    JCB Marukai Premium is 3% cashback, but not accepted everywhere.

  23. I think there’s an easy way to answer this question. No matter how many cards you have…you have to ask yourself, which card has your highest spend over a long period of time. I’m talking real spend not manufactured spend. In my case in 7 of the last 8 years I’ve bought more stuff using Chase Freedom than any other card…so if I had to pick one card…it would be Chase Freedom.

  24. You can redeem for TRAVEL-related purchases ONLY with Barclay Arrival, in the form of statement credit, in increments of $25 to the full purchase amount (assuming you have sufficient reward points).

  25. Your statement that the Arrival “is like a 2% cash back card most of the time” is incorrect – for non-travel-related expenses it’s only a 1% cash back card since the miles are only credited at half-value. They state: “Cash back statement credit redemptions start at 2,500 miles for $12.50.”

  26. Thanks trajan81.
    Here is another one, but about my Delta SkyMiles card. I tried to book a flight in March from Providence to Palm Springs and returning from Phoenix to Providence. Delta’s cost was $35 and 40,000 bonus miles. Within a 5 minute period I transferred 10,000 from my wife’s account for $100 to give me enough miles, went back to the site and it was a 60,000 bonus miles flight. Am I missing something or is this a semi-total rip off? StephenM

  27. I think the Priceline card is only offering 1% now to new applicants. For those of us who are grandfathered in at 2%, it’s probably the best option due to the lack of annual fee and the ability to get more than 1cpp value redeeming against NYOP purchases.

    I think even people who aren’t at all into the credit card game can handle 2 or maybe 3 cards, though. That means there’s nothing wrong with recommending the Fidelity Amex (or JCB Marukai for someone who lives in HI/CA/WA/OR/NV) plus a Visa/MC for merchants that won’t take it.

  28. StephenM: Ouch! Yes, Delta miles are difficult to get value from. It is very hard to find low priced awards on Delta. I’d recommend checking back daily rather than accepting the 60K quote. Award prices go up and down regularly. Also, try finding a cheaper route yourself (instead of trusting delta.com) by searching for one-way flights for each leg of the trip. If you find options for 40K (or, better yet, 25K), right down the date/time/flight number and try to piece together the whole flight. Then, go to multi-city award search and put in each of the from/to pairs and select the exact flights you found earlier. Hopefully the award will price out at 40K or less.

  29. Lemma: I was wondering about that (the Priceline card). If there is still an option for 2% for new applicants, I haven’t found it. Thanks for the info.
    Yes, I think that I need a follow up post that is something like what you suggested: the best card trio maybe.

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