A 2021 guide to the best 5 credit cards and their perks

Think beyond air miles in the new year.

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Typically, when you think of credit card perks, air miles usually come to mind. Of course, there are points that build toward credit in a particular store; think Chase’s Amazon Reward Card that turns purchases into credit at the e-commerce giant. But with the past year sending travel rates in a tailspin, what could people use their points for?

To learn more about what to expect for credit card perks in the coming year, Inverse spoke with Nick Ewen, senior editor at The Points Guy, an authority on perks and points.

How have credit card perks changed over the past year?

Major credit card issuers knew they needed to adjust the value propositions on travel-oriented cards, so we saw a ton of shifts in this direction. Many added new bonus earning opportunities at grocery stores and on dining/takeout purchases. Others added new statement credits for streaming services, and some premium cards (with annual fees of $450+) even added new flexibility for the annual travel credits they provide. We also saw a shift on the redemption side as well, as some issuers increased the value you’d get when using your points or miles for non-travel rewards.

Are there options for people to use credit card airline points for things outside of flights?

Yes, and this was the case prior to the pandemic. However, we almost always recommended against this, since it typically offered poor value compared to using your points or miles for travel. This has shifted to some extent in 2020, as many issuers have improved the value proposition. A great example is Chase Pay Yourself Back, which launched in late May. Under this program, you’re able to use your points to cover home improvement, grocery, and dining expenses charged to your card at the same rate you’d be able to book flights, hotels, car rentals, and other travel. This provided incredible flexibility for those with hundreds of thousands of points with no travel plans on the horizon.

What are the key trends to look out for in 2021?

Even with promising vaccine news, cardholders should still pay close attention to what issuers are offering. Some have extended new perks or benefits into April 2021, while others are set to expire at the end of this month. Travel — especially internationally — isn’t going to magically return, so there will likely be pressure on credit card companies to retain flexibility and keep new bonus categories on their cards. If they try to pull back the reins too soon, they risk blowback from cardholders who have come to expect this new suite of perks.

Looking toward 2021, could you share some of the best credit cards and their perks that are available now or will be soon?

We have a full list of our best travel card recommendations in this guide, but here are some of my top ones:

5. American Express Gold Card: Offers 4x points on dining and grocery purchases, plus it’s adding up to $120 in Uber credits ($10/month) starting in 2021 as a complement to $120 in dining credits ($10/month), with select establishments such as Shake Shack, GrubHub, and Ruth’s Chris.

4. Chase Sapphire Reserve: Offers 3x points on travel and dining, plus a number of valuable travel perks like lounge access — plus the Pay Yourself Back feature.

3. Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: Offers 2x points on travel and dining and Pay Yourself Back, but with a lower annual fee than the Reserve ($95).

2. Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card: Offers 2x miles on all purchases, which can be redeemed for any travel purchase or transferred to more than a dozen airline and hotel partners.

1. The Platinum Card from American Express: This luxury card is best for travel perks, but it’s currently offering an incredible welcome bonus for new cardholders — 75,000 points after spending $5,000 in six months, plus 10x points at gas stations and grocery stores for the first six months of card membership

Is there anything else we should know about credit card perks coming into the new year?

One of the big things to consider is whether to cancel or downgrade your card — and here, retention offers can play an important role in the decision-making process. If you have an annual fee on a travel rewards card that comes due in the first or second quarter of 2021, and you don’t see the value in continuing to pay said annual fee, it’s worth a quick phone call to the card’s customer service number. Explain that you’re not traveling enough (yet) to justify the annual fee and the perks you’re not using. There’s no guarantee, but the issuer could offer you an incentive to keep the card, which might include an annual-fee waiver, bonus points, or additional statement credits.

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