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- As a credit-card rewards expert – and Business Insider’s rewards reporter – I currently have around 20 credit cards. Don’t worry – they’ve actually helped my credit, because I pay off all my cards in-full and on-time.
- I opened each of them to earn a lucrative sign-up bonus, and kept them because they offer generous rewards or useful benefits that cover any annual fees.
- However, there are only three cards that I routinely keep in my wallet – and two more that I occasionally carry with me.
- Don’t miss out on the best credit card offers available this month.
As a credit card rewards reporter – and enthusiast – I’ve had, and still have, a lot of different credit cards. I’ve assessed even more, looking at the rewards they offer, what they can be used for, and the various benefits.
Despite the fact that I’ve had more than 20 different credit cards, there are only three that I keep in my wallet right now – and a few others which I occasionally add, depending on whether I need them or not.
While these cards have a combined annual fee of more than $1,250 – which might seem absurd – they offer tangible, real-value benefits that I take advantage of to virtually offset those fees. Just by subtracting the value I get from various statement credits, for purchases I would be making anyway, the effective total fee drops down to just $230 – less, if I can take advantage of some of the credits twice during a cardmember year.
Keep reading to see my everyday cards, and the two I carry when I need them.
These cards are always in my wallet:
The Chase Sapphire Reserve has a permanent spot in my wallet, and is one of my two daily drivers.
I value Chase Ultimate Rewards points rather highly, since they’re arguably easier to use than any other high-value rewards currency. Plus, you can pool them with other household members, so my wife and I can combine our points when it’s time for a redemption.
The Sapphire Reserve earns 3x points per dollar spent on all travel and dining purchases – a big portion of my spending – and 1x point on everything else. That means I get 3x points on lunch, coffee, drinks at bars, dinners out (or take-out), taxis, train rides, and bigger travel expenses like flights or hotels.
An extra incentive for using the Sapphire Reserve on travel purchases – especially flights – is that it offers trip delay coverage. If my flight or Amtrak ride is ever delayed six or more hours – or overnight – I’m covered for up to $500 in expenses, like meals, taxis, hotels, or even necessities like toiletries, a change of clothes, charging cables, or more.
It has no foreign transaction fees, and earns points on bonus categories whether you’re in the US or abroad, so it’s also my go-to when I’m traveling.
The Sapphire Reserve has a $450 annual fee, but you get $300 in statement credits to cover travel purchases each year. The credits are automatically applied – you don’t earn points on that $300, of course – and bring the effective annual fee down to just $150. The rewards and benefits cover the rest.
The Freedom Unlimited is my other daily driver. While it’s marketed as a cash-back card that earns a flat rate of 1.5% on everything, it’s actually a points card – it earns 1.5x points per dollar spent, and you can redeem each point for 1¢ in cash back. However, if you pair it with a premium card like the Sapphire Reserve, you can pool the points, and use any of the Sapphire Reserve’s wider range of redemption options.
Instead of a traditional sign-up bonus, the Freedom Unlimited offers double its normal earning rate – so 3% back, or 3x points per dollar – on up to $20,000 of spending your first year. That means up to an additional $300, or 30,000 points.
The Freedom Unlimited has no annual fee, making it an easy choice.
The AmEx Gold earns 4x points per dollar at restaurants worldwide, and 4x on up to $25,000 each year at US supermarkets (and 1x after that), 3x on flights booked directly with the airline, and 1x point on everything else.
There’s some overlap with the Sapphire Reserve – read our comparison of the two cards here – so I switch off each month on which card I use for my dining purchases. I also value AmEx Membership Rewards points, and like to diversify my points stash, so for me, it makes sense to alternate between the Chase card and the AmEx.
The AmEx Gold Card offers up to $100 in credits each calendar year on airline fees, and up to $120 in annual dining credits, broken into monthly $10 portions. These credits only apply to a few participating chain restaurants – specifically Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and some Shake Shack locations – but they also apply to popular food ordering services GrubHub and Seamless, as well as Boxed.com.
Those two credits – which I maximize each year – bring the card’s $250 annual fee down to an effective $30.
I only carry these cards when I need them:
I’m a fairly frequent flyer, which means that having the AmEx Platinum Card is essential. The card offers access to more than 1,200 airport lounges around the world, and has extensive access to lounges within the US.
The card has the highest annual fee on this list – $550 – but, like other cards, statement credits cover most of it, while other benefits make up the rest – in my first year with the card, I got more than $2,000 in demonstrable value.
Up to $200 each calendar year in airline fee credits, up to $200 in Uber credits each year, and up to $100 in annual shopping credits – all of which I make sure to use – brings the effective annual fee down to $50. Just a few coffees and breakfasts in airport lounges covers the rest.
But there’s more. The card offers benefits at hotels, complimentary Gold status at Marriott and Hilton, and more which add direct, tangible value. If you’re an active servicemember, you can get all of these benefits without paying any annual fee.
The reason the card isn’t a mainstay in my wallet – while it’s benefits-rich, it’s somewhat rewards-poor. The only rewards bonus category is flights booked directly with the airline or through AmEx Travel, and Fine Hotels and Resorts stays paid for through AmEx Travel. It earns 5x points on each of those.
I use the card to pay for flights when I either don’t feel worried about extensive delays, or I’m planning on getting third-party travel insurance that happens to include trip delay coverage. Otherwise, I pay with the Sapphire Reserve, and only put the Platinum Card in my wallet when I have a flight coming up and need the card to access a lounge.
The Chase Freedom works just like its sibling, the Freedom Unlimited, in that it’s marketed as cash-back but actually earns points that can be pooled with a Sapphire Reserve. However, its earning structure is different.
Each quarter you activate, the Freedom earns 5% back – or 5x points – on spending within a few different rotating categories, on up to $1,500 of purchases. It earns 1% back – or 1x point per dollar – on everything else.
Some quarters, when the categories are useful to me – like Q2 2019, when the bonus categories include grocery stores – I keep the card in my wallet. Otherwise, I leave it in my dresser and just keep the Freedom Unlimited with me.
Because the card has no annual fee, there’s no reason for me not to keep it handy in case the categories work out.