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

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“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 [Offer Expired]

[NOTE: The offers described here has expired. To find current Barclaycard offers, please click here.]

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, Barclaycard 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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