How To Choose The Best American Express Credit Cards For Cash Back And Travel Rewards

How To Choose The Best American Express Credit Cards For Cash Back And Travel Rewards

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One of the best ways to travel is to have the right credit card — one that can either provide VIP benefits, travel rewards or simply cash back to use on your trip. And with so many American Express cards, it’s sometimes overwhelming to figure out which one is best for you.

Fortunately, we can help you determine what’s the right American Express card based on your personal needs and point you in the right direction. So let’s take a look at our list of the best Amex credit cards in 2021 and see how you can earn more rewards by having the right card in your purse or wallet.

Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express: Best no-annual-fee card
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express: Best for cash back
American Express® Gold Card: Best for dining
The Platinum Card® from American Express: Best for luxury travel benefits
Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card: Best for free checked bags
Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card: Best for free hotel nights
Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card: Best for hotel elite status
American Express® Green Card: Best for leisure travelers
The Blue Business® Plus Credit Card from American Express: Best for business owners

Why did we choose these as our best Amex credit cards? To answer that question, we first need to learn a little bit about American Express cards in general and how they work.

When it comes to earning rewards with American Express cards, the type of points you earn can vary from card to card, and this can play a big part in your decision on which card is best for you.

Some Amex cards earn what are known as Membership Rewards points, which can be transferred to 21 different airline and hotel partners and then used directly with those respective programs. These points are often called “flexible” rewards since you have a variety of redemption options, but you’ll need to know the rules of each specific program in order to really get top value for your points.

Other Amex cards earn points or miles in just one airline or hotel program, so you typically don’t have the same flexibility to redeem them for other travel opportunities as you do with Membership Rewards points. But while these loyalty-specific points or miles can be more restrictive, you’ll sometimes get more perks with that credit card when traveling with the airline or hotel the card is tied to.

And if travel is not in your immediate future right now and you want to focus on earning as much cash as possible, there are a number of Amex cards that will earn cash back on every purchase you make. However, when you choose a cash back card, you’re generally trading off the ability to get outsized value for your credit card rewards in favor of putting cash directly into your pocket.

iStockIf travel isn’t on your radar right now, American Express has some great credit cards that earn cash back.

Finally, there’s one very important rule to keep in mind when it comes to American Express cards. Amex has a “once-in-a-lifetime” bonus restriction, so if you’ve applied and received a welcome offer for a specific Amex card in the past, you’re not eligible to get a welcome offer again on the same card. This is why it’s important to get Amex cards when the bonus is near or at the top, so you aren’t leaving points or miles on the table.

Now that you know how Amex rewards work and the rules, let’s dive into the details of each American Express card and see how they compare to one another.

Finding a great credit card that carries no annual fee can sometimes feel daunting, but that’s where the Blue Cash Everyday from American Express comes into play. Unlike many other no-annual-fee credit cards, the Blue Cash Everyday offers a solid welcome bonus, rewarding cash back and strong perks, all without an annual fee (see rates and fees).

Right now, new Blue Cash Everyday card members can earn $100 cash back as a statement credit after spending $2,000 on purchases in the first six months of card membership, plus 20% back on Amazon purchases within the same six-month time period, up to $150 back.

The Blue Cash Everyday also offers strong rewards on your everyday purchases. You’ll earn 3% cash back (in the form of reward dollars) at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%), 2% cash back at U.S. gas stations and 2% cash back at select U.S. department stores. That’s a great set of cash back bonus categories on a no-annual-fee credit card.

Related: Lower your expenses by getting one of these credit cards with no annual fee.

New Blue Cash Everyday card members also get an introductory 0% APR on purchases for the first 15 months you have the card, but keep in mind the rate jumps to a variable 13.99% to 23.99% after the intro period ends. While CNN Underscored never recommends spending more than you can afford, if you’re having a hard time making ends meet, this card could help you keep your interest to a minimum.

Other perks include access to Amex Offers and 90-day return protection, and while these perks are common across American Express cards, getting them on a credit card that doesn’t charge an annual fee means you’re getting a lot of value from every aspect of the Blue Cash Everyday.

Read CNN Underscored’s review of the American Express Blue Cash Everyday card.
Learn more about the American Express Blue Cash Everyday.

The old saying “cash is king” couldn’t be more true these days, and fortunately, the Blue Cash Preferred from American Express is one of the best cash back credit cards you’ll find.

The Blue Cash Preferred earns 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%), making it one of the best credit cards year after year for buying groceries. On top of that you’ll also earn 6% cash back on all your U.S. streaming subscriptions and 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations and on transit, including taxis, ride-shares, parking, tolls, trains, buses and more. All cash back is received in the form of reward dollars that can be redeemed for statement credits.

If you’re looking at the Blue Cash Preferred for groceries, you’ll want to think about your overall annual spending at supermarkets to determine if this card makes sense, or if you’d be better off with the Blue Cash Everyday. This is because the Blue Cash Preferred comes with a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95 thereafter (see rates and fees). Essentially, the Blue Cash Preferred is the better choice in the long run if you spend more than $3,166 in groceries annually.

Related: Amex Blue Cash Preferred vs. Amex Blue Cash Everyday.

iStockThe Blue Cash Preferred card can be a great choice if you spend a lot on groceries each month.

Unlike the Blue Cash Everyday, in addition to return protection, the Blue Cash Preferred also comes with purchase protection, which will cover any eligible purchase that gets damaged or stolen within the first 90 days after purchase, up to $1,000 per item. In the case of an unfortunate event, this could save you a lot of money when it comes to repairing or replacing a recently purchased item.

The one downside of the Blue Cash Preferred is that you should only use it on purchases made within the United States, as you’ll incur a 2.7% foreign transaction fee for overseas purchases (see rates and fees). That’s why while the Blue Cash cards are great to use domestically, they’re not recommended for those who often travel internationally.

Read CNN Underscored’s review of the American Express Blue Cash Preferred.
Learn more about the American Express Blue Cash Preferred.

Foodies will love the American Express Gold card, thanks to the huge number of points you can earn on food-related purchases, along with the card’s annual dining credits.

With the Amex Gold — which earns Membership Rewards points — you’ll earn 4 points for every dollar you spend at restaurants worldwide, as well as up to $25,000 per year at U.S. supermarkets (then 1x). Best of all, many food delivery services also code as “restaurants,” which means you’ll continue to earn 4x points when you order food to your home.

You’ll also get up to $120 in annual dining credits — broken up into credits of up to $10 each month — when you pay with the Amex Gold at Grubhub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Boxed and participating Shake Shack locations.

Related: Here’s how the American Express Gold Card practically pays for itself.

You’ll also receive up to $10 each month in Uber Cash with the Amex Gold, as well as a complimentary Uber Eats Pass membership for up to 12 months when you enroll by Dec. 31, 2021. This Uber Cash can be used either for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides within the US.

Although the Amex Gold has a substantial $250 annual fee (see rates and fees), new card members can also earn 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first three months after opening the account. Add it all together and you’re looking at a great overall dining card.

Read CNN Underscored’s review of the American Express Gold card.
Learn more about the American Express Gold.

While travel isn’t back to where it was before the pandemic, for those who have already hit the road again, being able to simplify your travel experience might be exactly what you need. The American Express Platinum card is the ultimate definition of luxury and comes with a slew of VIP perks that rival any card on the market — but also a hefty $695 annual fee (see rates and fees).

One of the best benefits of the Amex Platinum — and an easy way to partially offset the annual fee — is the up to $200 in annual airline fee credits. These credits can be used toward many incidental fees, such as checked bags, change fees and in-flight Wi-Fi, on the one carrier you select as your qualifying airline each year.

Other popular credits you’ll receive with the Amex Platinum each year include up to $200 in Uber Cash — which can be used for Uber rides in the U.S. or Uber Eats orders — up to $240 in annual statement credits (in portions of up to $20 each month) on eligible purchases or subscriptions with Peacock, Audible, SiriusXM or The New York Times, an annual credit of up to $200 for prepaid bookings at Amex Fine Hotels + Resorts or The Hotel Collection properties made through American Express Travel and up to $100 toward purchases at Saks Fifth Avenue, split into portions of up to $50 in each half of the year.

Related: American Express adds new benefits to its Platinum card, increases annual fee.

Aside from all these credits, you’ll receive access to more than 1,200 airport lounges worldwide with the Amex Platinum, including the exclusive American Express Centurion Lounges, Delta Sky Clubs (when flying Delta), Priority Pass Select lounges, Escape Lounges and more. Having lounge access when you’re traveling can be an invaluable perk and potentially worth the annual fee alone.

Julian KheelThe new Amex Centurion Lounge at LaGuardia is just one of many lounges you can access with the Amex Platinum.

When it comes to VIP perks, the Amex Platinum comes with automatic Gold elite status at both Hilton and Marriott hotels. This mid-tier status can mean perks such as free upgrades, late checkout and complimentary breakfast at participating properties. If you travel often but not enough to earn elite status the hard way, this can definitely pay off.

Related: Score 100,000 bonus points with the American Express Platinum card.

The Amex Platinum is also one of the few American Express cards that comes with baked-in trip cancellation, interruption and delay insurance. With this protection, you can be reimbursed for up to $500 per covered trip if your trip is delayed more than six hours, and up to $10,000 if you need to cancel or interrupt your trip because of a covered reason.

Read CNN Underscored’s review of the American Express Platinum card.
Learn more about the American Express Platinum.

On most airlines, checking a bag is going to cost you — and the fees can add up. Fortunately, many airline credit cards offer complimentary checked bags as a benefit, and the Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card is one of the best when it comes to avoiding those fees.

With the Delta Gold Amex, you’ll get your first checked bag for free on Delta flights, along with up to eight additional passengers traveling in the same reservation. For a family of four, that could save you as much as $240 round trip, since Delta charges $30 per bag for domestic flights.

You’ll also get a 20% savings in the form of a statement credit after you use your card on eligible Delta in-flight purchases of food, beverages and audio headsets, and can even earn a $100 Delta flight credit after you spend $10,000 in purchases on your card in a calendar year. Plus, the Delta Gold Amex has a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99 thereafter (see rates and fees).

Related: These are our favorite credit cards for Delta flyers.

One thing you’ll want to be wary of, however, is that the Delta Gold Amex isn’t the best credit card to use for your everyday purchases. You’ll earn 2 miles per dollar on eligible Delta purchases as well as restaurants (including takeout) and at U.S. supermarkets, but on all other purchases, you’ll only earn 1 mile per dollar spent.

If your end goal is to earn as many Delta SkyMiles as possible, then you might be better off with an Amex card that earns flexible Membership Rewards points. That’s because Membership Rewards can be transferred to Delta at a 1-to-1 ratio, and many of those Amex cards have more bonus categories, meaning you can ultimately earn more number of points for the same purchases.

Read CNN Underscored’s review of the Delta Gold American Express card.
Learn more about the Delta Gold American Express.

If Marriott is your hotel chain of choice, you’ll want to pay close attention to the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express Card, since it’s one that you’ll want to keep for years to come, thanks to its strong perks and statement credits.

While the Marriott Brilliant Amex has a substantial $450 annual fee (see rates and fees), you’ll get up to $300 in statement credits for Marriott purchases each year, which can be used toward room rates, resort fees or any incidentals charged to your hotel room. This credit alone effectively brings your annual fee down to $150 per year if you can use it in full.

Then, starting with the second year you have the Marriott Brilliant Amex and every year thereafter, you’ll receive a Free Night Award that can be used at any Marriott that costs 50,000 points or less based on Marriott’s award chart. As long as you use the certificate at a property that would otherwise cost $150 or more, you’ll come out ahead. But in our experience, hotels that cost 50,000 points can often go for $400 or more per night if you were paying cash — meaning you’re getting more from the card than it costs.

Related: Earn bonus points and free nights with these Marriott credit cards.

iStockGet extra perks at properties like the San Francisco Marriott near Union Square with the Marriott Brilliant American Express card.

Also, right now is an excellent time to grab the Marriott Brilliant Amex. That’s because for a limited time through Nov. 3, 2021, new card members can earn 150,000 bonus points and a bonus Free Night Award after you make $5,000 in purchases within the first three months of opening the account.

Based on the point valuations of frequent flyer website The Points Guy, those 150,000 bonus points are worth an impressive $1,200 in travel, and unlike the annual Free Night Award that you get with the Marriott Brilliant Amex starting in your second year, the free night included in the welcome bonus can be used at any Marriott that normally costs up to 85,000 points, meaning almost any Marriott in the world.

Read CNN Underscored’s review of the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant card.
Learn more about the Marriott Brilliant American Express card.

On the other hand, if you’re brand agnostic and looking for a credit card that offers top-of-the-line hotel elite status without having to make a lot of stays at one hotel

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