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In a normal year, I fly about 100,000 miles. But last year was not normal, and 2021 is shaping up to be another in which we’ll do things very differently from before the pandemic. Nobody traveled very much after last March, and the prospects for jetting around the world in 2021 look pretty dim, too.
But I am keeping in my wallet some credit cards that earn points for travel, and even some that charge a yearly fee in exchange for the travel-related perks I can’t use right now.
That’s because these cards save me money outright on some everyday expenses, offer bonus points earnings for things I would have bought anyway, and ultimately give me value that offsets their membership fees — regardless of whether we can travel right now.
Here are the three credit cards I’m using the most in 2021, and why they might make sense for you to include in your credit card strategy. Two are travel-focused cards with yearly fees, and one is a fee-free card that’s ideal for some home deliveries — something we’re all using a lot more of these days.
If you’re looking for a credit card that offers rewards, ask yourself what you spend the most money on — and then zero in on a card that maximizes rewards for those spending categories.
Chase Sapphire Reserve
Before COVID-19 stopped most nonessential travel, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® was one of the most popular travel rewards cards, despite its high annual fee of $550.
If you are a frequent traveler, the Reserve is a great card. It has a travel credit of $300 every year, which can be used for all sorts of transportation, from subway tickets to airfare and ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. It also gives you access to airport lounges in the Priority Pass network, found all over the world. And it offers trip cancellation and delay protections, including a provision for Chase to pick up your expenses (up to $500) if you get stranded because of a cancelled or delayed flight. Plus, you get 3x Chase Ultimate Rewards points for every dollar spent on travel and dining — points you can redeem for more, and free, travel.
And it’s still the card I use the most, even though in the last year I have taken no more than a handful of flights. Why? It has changed a lot of its perks to suit customers who now are largely staying home.
“The Chase Sapphire Reserve has done a great job pivoting from a travel-heavy to a more pandemic-friendly card,” says Benet Wilson, senior credit cards editor at The Points Guy (which is owned by Red Ventures, like NextAdvisor.)
You can now use the card’s $300 travel credit toward gas and groceries through June 30, 2021. Until April 30, you also get 3x points per dollar on those groceries, for the first $1,000 spent per month. Also until April 30, you can redeem Ultimate Rewards points to offset grocery and dining purchases, at 1.5 cents per point. I’ve already got that $300 worth of groceries from the card this year, and I’ve been using my Chase points to erase some of those purchases — additional value that offsets the annual fee.
It’s also a good card to use for takeout and delivery from restaurants. Not only does it earn three points per dollar spent on dining, but it comes with a $60 credit through December 31 on purchases from delivery service DoorDash. It also has complimentary membership in DashPass, an option for DoorDash customers that normally costs $9.99 per month. With it, you get no delivery fees and reduced service fees on orders over $12 from eligible restaurants. DoorDash says this saves an average of $4 to $5 per order, which I’ve found consistent with my experience.
With a DoorDash order per week at a savings of $5 apiece, that’s $260 a year I would otherwise pay out of pocket. Add this to the $60 DoorDash yearly credit and the $300 credit for groceries, and that’s $620 in value from the Chase Sapphire Reserve this year, more than the annual fee, without traveling at all.
Another notable perk is that when renting cars with it, the Reserve has primary coverage for both collision damage and theft, up to $75,000. That lets me decline rental agencies’ pricey collision insurance, something I value because, like many New Yorkers, I do not own a car but rent one often. This is a benefit that will come in handy after the pandemic, and another reason for me to keep the card. (Note that the Reserve does not offer liability insurance on car rentals. I have a non-owner car insurance policy to cover that.)
Delta SkyMiles Platinum American Express Card
Being loyal to one airline can get you free upgrades to first class and other bonuses that come with frequent-flyer status, and my choice is Delta Air Lines. That’s why I am keeping, and using as often as I can, an American Express card that earns Delta miles. Delta’s SkyMiles never expire, and I plan to use them as soon as travel is back.
When the Chase Sapphire Reserve’s bonus on grocery purchases ends in April, I’ll switch to the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card when checking out at supermarkets, where it earns 2x miles per dollar spent. I also use this card to pay for Netflix and YouTubeTV, since I’ve stopped using cable in favor of streaming services.
The key perk of this card for me, however, is the free companion ticket on Delta it offers every membership year. For the price of one airfare, I can take another person with me anywhere in the continental U.S. in coach class — which can more than offset the card’s $250 yearly fee. I have until February 2022 to take my wife on vacation for the price of one ticket, and by then I am sure that we will be able to travel safely.
Granted, given the scale of problems caused by the pandemic — from unemployment to economic insecurity — the lack of travel ranks very low.
Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card
Unlike the other two cards, the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card from Chase does not have an annual fee. It also offers rewards for doing the exact opposite of traveling: you get a bonus for not leaving your house, while having things delivered to you.
That’s because the card earns 5% cash back on purchases from Amazon and Whole Foods. That high cash back rate has also made it a favorite of NextAdvisor editor Samantha Rosen.
The 5% cash back includes grocery delivery from Prime Now and Amazon Fresh, so this card is “an excellent way to save money while keeping your distance from others,” says Andrew Kunesh, a senior writer who covers credit cards at The Points Guy.
The card earns 2% cash back at restaurants, gas stations and drugstores, and 1% on all other purchases.
You have to be an Amazon Prime member to apply for it, which costs $119 a year, but you can easily earn cash back offsetting that amount. And in the first year of membership you’ll get an $100 Amazon gift card. In the past 12 months, the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa has earned me $270 in cash back, easily surpassing the cost of a Prime membership.
Credit card issuers have had to get creative to entice customers to keep cards with yearly fees at a time when many Americans have been cutting back on expenses. This means that you can still get value out of travel rewards cards if you spend strategically.
If you use credit responsibly — not spending for things you would not have bought otherwise, and not carrying a balance on which you’d have to pay a high interest — you can make credit cards work for you. And with the points or miles you can earn, you’ll be ready for when travel does return.