The best credit cards for social distancing

10

For the past four or five years, the best credit cards to rack up rewards quickly have not exactly been conducive to current calls for social distancing. The best cards have been those that earn the best category bonuses: cards like the Chase Ink Cash (5x office supply stores), the Chase Freedom or Discover IT card (rotating 5x / 5% categories), the US Bank Altitude Reserve (3x mobile payments like Apple Pay or Google Pay) or the Chase Sapphire Reserve (3x travel & dining) have been some of the best cards to carry for day-to-day spend. But those category bonuses generally assume that you’re spending money in person. Given a desire for distance, which cards should be near the top of your wallet today?

Credit cards that bonus online purchases

social distancing credit cards

While online shopping had long ago become part of the fabric of our lives, there is no doubt that it is also becoming the glue that keeps everything together right now. With all non-essential businesses in my home state of New York now closed for the foreseeable future to encourage social distancing, online shopping has become a go-to option for many.

The “best” card for online shopping is debatable, but these are cards worth consideration if you’re spending a lot of money online:

Bank of America Cash Rewards

Bank of America Cash Rewards (with Platinum Honors Preferred Rewards)

Card Type: Visa Signature

Base
1.75%
Travel
5.25%
Dine
5.25%
Gas
5.25%
Grocery
3.5%
Shop
5.25%
Other
5.25%

Earning rate: With Platinum Honors status with Bank of America's Preferred Rewards program, earn: 3.5% at grocery stores and wholesale clubs and 5.25% on gas up to the first $2,500 in combined purchases each quarter

The Bank of America Cash Rewards card earns 3% back on your choice of the following: gas, online shopping, dining, travel, drugstores, home improvement & furnishings (you can choose a new category monthly). The card also earns 2% back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs, but you won’t want to bring it out grocery shopping: you only earn the increased rates on the first $2500 in cumulative spending per quarter — counting spend in both 2% and 3% categories. You can do better than 2% at the grocery store, so don’t bother using up your $2500/mo bandwidth there.

This card really shines if you have Platinum Honors with Bank of America. That requires putting $100K on deposit with Bank of America (in cash or investments, including retirement accounts). If you’re able to do that, you get a 75% bonus on earnings on the Bank Of America (non co-brand) credit cards. Therefore, instead of 3% back, you’d earn 5.25% back on up to $2500 in purchases per quarter (as shown above). That’s $131.25 back per quarter if you max it out — not a bad return on a no-fee card. On top of the current welcome offer, that could make for a nice return for online spend.

Rakuten Visa

Rakuten (formerly Ebates) Cash Back Visa issued by Synchrony Bank

FM Mini Review: Incredible value for online purchases. Don't sign up for this card until you have first established a Membership Rewards Rakuten account.


Card Type: Visa

Base
1%
Brand
3%

Earning rate: 3% cash back on qualified purchases made through the Ebates portal ⚬ 1% cash back everywhere else.

See also: Ebates Visa with Membership Rewards. Everything you need to know.

We more or less called the Rakuten Visa dead to us a month ago when it stopped paying out the additional 3x for online gift card purchases, but if you have the card in your wallet already it may be ready for a resurgence.

They key benefit on this card is that it earns 3x on purchases made when clicking through the Rakuten shopping portal — which can be taken as Membership Rewards points instead of cash back. As we’ve pointed out in previous posts and podcasts, this isn’t quite as exciting as it sounds on the surface — that’s only 1x more than you could earn with the Blue Business Plus (which earns 2x on the first $50K in purchases per year, then 1x), and the Blue Business Plus earns that return whether or not you shop through Rakuten.

Still, with Rakuten occasionally offering the best payouts (and with increased payouts on “essentials” through at least the end of the month and maybe longer), you may already be shopping through Rakuten. In that case, 1x more adds up over time.

Also keep in mind that the Rakuten Visa is one of the relatively few cards that still offers price protection (up to $500 per claim, up to $2500 in claims per year). That could come in handy.

Affinity Cash Rewards

Affinity Cash Rewards Visa® Signature Credit Card

FM Mini Review: The Affinity Cash Rewards Visa Signature card could be really interesting for its rotating categories since the fine print indicates that it stacks on top of ordinary earnings.


Card Type: Visa Signature

Base
1%
Dine
7%
Gas
2%
Grocery
2%
Other
5%

Earning rate: 5% back at all bookstores, including Amazon (note: this is capped at $3500 in purchases per month) ⚬ Extra 5% back in rotating categories (Q3 2020: Clothing & Home Furnishings) ⚬ 2% back at restaurants, gas stations, and supermarkets

Noteworthy perks: No foreign transaction fees; cell phone protection

Last but not least, the king of Amazon might be the Affinity Cash Rewards card. This card offers 5% back at all bookstores, including Amazon.com. While the Amazon Prime Visa also offers 5% back at Amazon, it is issued by Chase and therefore subject to the 5/24 rule. The Affinity card does not require Prime membership and it also offers rotating bonus categories.

An interesting thing about the rotating categories on the Affinity Cash Rewards card is that they offer 5% on top of the normal card earning for the quarterly bonus categories. Since restaurants ordinarily earn 2% on this card and they are the 5% rotating category bonus through the end of March, that means this card has been earning 7% at restaurants. Q2 is gas (already a 2% category, so it will be 7% total) and Q4 will be bookstores (already a 5% category, so they should become 10% for Q4).

Credit cards with rotating categories

Kroger Gift Card Rack social distancing credit cards

During certain quarters, cards with rotating 5x categories may offer bonuses for online shopping (or something like PayPal, which can be used to pay for online purchases in many cases). In other quarters, they may bonus grocery stores or gas stations. If you’ll already be visiting a grocery store or gas station, you may be able to load up on gift cards for websites where you shop. Additionally, some grocery store chains sell gift cards online without needing to visit the store at all.

Likely your best choices for rotating categories are the Chase Freedom and Discover IT.

Chase Freedom

Chase Freedom Visa

FM Mini Review: Great for 5X categories. Good companion card to Sapphire Reserve, Sapphire Preferred, or Ink Business Preferred.


Card Type: Visa Signature or Platinum

Base
Shop

Earning rate: 5X Lyft ⚬ 5X in rotating categories on up to $1,500 spend per quarter. Q4 2020: 5X Walmart & Paypal

Noteworthy perks: Free DashPass for up to 3 months upon activation

See also: Chase Ultimate Rewards Complete Guide

Discover IT

Discover it®
$50 + First Year Double
Get $50 after first purchase. All cashback earned in first 12 months will be doubled including 5% earned in rotating categories.

No Annual Fee

FM Mini Review: This is a great choice for its rotating 5% categories


Card Type: Discover

Base
Shop

Earning rate: 5X in rotating categories, up to $1500 spend per quarter. 2020 Q4: 5% Amazon.com, Walmart.com, and Target.com

Noteworthy perks: Discover Cash Back is worth more than face value when redeemed for partner gift cards

Credit cards that bonus office supply stores (good for buying gift cards)

social distancing credit cards

Similar to grocery stores and gas stations, office supply stores like Staples and Office Depot sell gift cards to many stores, so you may be able to eke out 5x / 5% on many of your current shopping needs via gift card purchases from office supply stores. While an unnecessary in-person stop at an office supply store might be inadvisable for you at the moment, keep in mind that Staples and Office Depot do sell third-party gift cards on their websites.

For office supply purchases, you’d want the Chase Ink Cash.

Chase Ink Cash

Chase Ink Business Cash Credit Card
50K points
50K after $3K spend in 3 months

No Annual Fee

See: How to sign up for Chase Ink cards

Recent better offer: None. This is the best we've seen.

FM Mini Review: This one should be in everyone's wallet. Incredible signup bonus for a no-fee card. Great card for 5X categories. Excellent companion card to Sapphire Reserve, Sapphire Preferred, or Ink Business Preferred.


Card Type: Visa Signature Business

Base
Dine
Gas
Phone
Office
Other

Earning rate: 5X office supplies ⚬ 5X cellular/landline/cable (on up to $25,000 in total purchases in 5x categories annually) ⚬ 2X gas and restaurants ⚬ 5X Lyft

See also: Chase Ultimate Rewards Complete Guide

Credit cards that bonus groceries

social distancing credit cards

With fewer meals out / business lunches / evening events, kids not eating lunch in school, and the difficulty of social distancing from the refrigerator when you’re working from home, I imagine that the bulk of spending for most of us has shifted to groceries.

If you’re looking to apply for a new card for grocery purchases, our Best Category Bonuses page shows that you should consider the Wells Fargo Rewards Visa or the Wells Fargo Visa Signature as either of those cards offer 5x on up to $12,500 in combined purchases for gas, grocery, and drugstore purchases for the first 6 months. That could equal up to 7.5% back on groceries depending on how you use the points.

However, if you’re looking for a long-term keeper, my top pick right now would be between two Amex cards.

Amex Blue Cash Preferred

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
$300 Back
Limited-time offer: $300 cash back as a statement credit after $3K in the first 6 months. Terms Apply. (Rates & Fees)
(Offer Expires 12/10/2020)

No Annual Fee First Year, Then $95

Recent better offer: Up to $350: 10% cash back on purchases at U.S. Restaurants in the first 6 months, up to $200 back. Plus, earn $150 back after $1K spend in 3 months. (Expired 5/3/17)

FM Mini Review: Solid cash back option, especially for those who spend a lot at US Supermarkets and US gas stations


Card Type: Amex Credit Card

Base
1%
Travel
3%
Gas
3%
Grocery
6%
Shop
3%
Other
6%

Earning rate: ⚬ 6% cash back at US supermarkets up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%) ⚬ 6% Cash Back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions. ⚬ 3% Cash Back on transit (includes taxis/rideshare, parking, tolls, trains, buses and more). 3% cash back US gas stations ⚬ 1% cash back on other purchases ⚬ Terms apply.

Noteworthy perks: Terms Apply. (Rates & Fees)

This card has a $95 annual fee but offers 6% back on up to $6K in purchases per year at US Supermarkets (then 1%). Spending $115.39 per week every week (times 52 weeks per year) would max out the 6% category at $360 cash back. After accounting for the $95 annual fee, that’s still a net 4.42% back if you don’t spend in any other categories.

However, the card also offers 6% back on streaming services. In an era of social distancing, that could help mitigate the annual fee. The reason that I included this card over the Everyday Preferred card is because the Everyday Preferred requires 30 transactions per month to earn the best return, whereas the Blue Cash Everyday does not include that hoop through which to jump.

Amex Gold Card

American Express® Gold Card
60K Points
60K after $4K spend in first 6 months. Terms apply. (Rates & Fees)

$250 Annual Fee

Recent better offer: This is the best we've seen

FM Mini Review: This card offers an awesome return on US supermarket and worldwide dining spend, putting it at or near the top-of-class in both categories. The addition of Boxed.com makes it easy to get full value from the card's $10/month dining & entertainment credits.


Card Type: Amex Charge Card

Base
Travel
Dine
Grocery

Earning rate: 3X points for flights booked with airlines or on amextravel.com ⚬ 4x points at US Supermarkets (up to $25K in purchases, then 1x) ⚬ 4x at restaurants worldwide ⚬ 1X points on other purchases. Terms apply. (Rates & Fees)

Noteworthy perks: ⚬ Up to $100 a year in statement credits for baggage fees and more with one qualifying airline (available through 12/31/21) ⚬ Up to $10 in statement credits monthly with participating dining partners (Boxed.com, Shake Shack, Seamless/Grubhub, Cheesecake Factory and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse) ⚬ Up tp $10 in statement credits monthly with Uber or Uber Eats beginning in January 2021 ⚬ Complimentary Uber Eats Pass Membership for up to 12 months (must enroll by 12/31/21) ⚬ $100 hotel credit on qualifying charges on stays of 2 nights or longer, plus a room upgrade upon arrival, if available with The Hotel Collection at americanexpress.com/hc

The Amex Gold card offers a pretty compelling 4x at US Supermarkets on up to $25K in purchases per year (then 1x). That’s a great return if you do enough supermarket spend to exceed the caps on the Blue Cash Preferred or Everyday Preferred. The kicker is the higher annual fee.

However, I imagine that many people are now making use of the $10 monthly credit that can be used at Boxed.com or Seamless / GrubHub. While Boxed.com has been out of stock of some of the higher-demand home essentials recently, they still stock enough to potentially be useful (particularly if you can stack with an Amex Offer and/or good portal rate).

Depending on how highly you value those credits and how much you spend in the 4x categories, it may be your best bet even if you don’t make use of the $100 annual airline incidental credit.

Credit cards that offer useful credits

Grubhub Gift Card social distancing credit cards

Noted above, the Amex Gold card offers both an airline incidental credit and a monthly $10 credit that can be used for food delivery from Seamless / GrubHub or for orders from Boxed.com. While airline incidental credits aren’t particularly useful for most of us at the time being, several other cards also offer other types of credits that could be useful to many at the moment.

Platinum Card from American Express

The Platinum Card® from American Express
60K points + up to $300 in statement credits
60K after $5K spend in 3 months plus 20% back as a statement credit for restaurant purchases worldwide for the first 12 months up to $300 back. Terms apply.

$550 Annual Fee

FM Mini Review: This card is absolutely loaded with high end perks. Depending upon your situation, those perks may be worth the annual fee or much more.


Card Type: Amex Charge Card

Base
Travel

Earning rate: 5X points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel ⚬ 5X points for prepaid hotels booked through American Express Travel

Noteworthy perks: ⚬ $200 Airline Fee Credit. Up to $200 a year in baggage fees and more at one qualifying airline ⚬ Up to $200 for Uber rides annually. Credit and Uber VIP status for Basic Member only ⚬ Complimentary Uber Eats Pass Membership for up to 12 months (must enroll by 12/31/21) ⚬ Up to $100 in credits annually for purchases at Saks Fifth Avenue (up to $50 in credits semi-annually, enrollment required) ⚬ $100 Global Entry fee reimbursement ⚬ Airport lounge benefits ⚬ Rental car elite status ⚬ Marriott Gold status ⚬ Hilton HHonors Gold status ⚬ Free Gold card AUs. Terms Apply.

See also: Amex Platinum Guide

The Amex Platinum (various personal / consumer versions) offers a monthly Uber credit. That credit can be used toward UberEATs for those ordering delivery.

Chase Sapphire Reserve

Chase Sapphire Reserve Card

FM Mini Review: Excellent all-around card for frequent traveler. Best when paired with no-fee Chase Freedom Flex, no-fee Freedom Unlimited & no-fee Chase Ink Cash


Card Type: Visa Infinite

Base
Travel
Dine
Other

Earning rate: 3X Travel and Dining ⚬ 10X Lyft (through March 2022)

Noteworthy perks: $300 Annual Travel Credit ⚬ Points worth 1.5 cents each towards travel ⚬ Primary auto rental collision damage waiver ⚬ Priority Pass Select lounge access ⚬ $100 Global Entry fee credit ⚬ $60 annual DoorDash credit in 2020 & 2021 ⚬ Free DashPass for at least 1 year (activate by 12/31/21) ⚬ One year Lyft Pink membership ⚬ Earn 10X on Lyft spend

See also: Chase Ultimate Rewards Complete Guide

While I wouldn’t recommend applying for the Chase Sapphire Reserve just for its DoorDash credit, it’s worth keeping in mind that the CSR is offering a $60 credit on DoorDash purchases this year and another $60 next year.

Uber Visa

Uber Visa Card

FM Mini Review: The refreshed version of this card (as of 10/28/19) no longer earns cash back. Instead, it earns Uber Cash. This card only makes sense for the most die-hard of Uber fans.


Card Type: Visa Platinum or Signature

Base
Travel
Dine
Brand

Earning rate: 5% Uber Cash for Uber spend (including UberEATS) ⚬ 3% Uber Cash for dining, hotels, and airfare ⚬ 1% Uber Cash everywhere else

Big spend bonus: ⚬ Annual $50 subscription credit when you spend $5,000 in a year (good for things like Netflix, HBO NOW, Amazon Prime, etc) — note that this benefit kicks in during the second year if you spend $5K in year 1)

Noteworthy perks: Up to $600 mobile phone insurance against theft or damage when you charge your total monthly bill to the card ($25 deductible) ⚬ No foreign transaction fees

The Uber Visa offers a $50 subscriptions credit when you spend $5,000 in a year. This credit works on stuff like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc — but it only kicks in in year 2. Those who spent $5K on the card last year are likely happy with a $50 credit on subscriptions right now.

Credit cards good for everywhere else

Finally, there’s the “everywhere else” card. Your best bet for an everywhere else card is to see our Best Everywhere Else Rewards Card resource page. Still, my top two recommendations wouldn’t necessarily be the top two on that page. I’d go with either:

Bank of America Premium Rewards (with Platinum Honors)

Bank of America Premium Rewards (with Platinum Honors Preferred Rewards)

Card Type: Visa Signature

Base
2.625X
(2.63%)
Travel
3.5X
(3.5%)
Dine
3.5X
(3.5%)

Earning rate: With Platinum Honors status with Bank of America's Preferred Rewards program, earn: 3.5X travel and dining ⚬ 2.625X everywhere else

If you have Platinum Honors with Bank of America, I think the Premium Rewards card is a strong contender despite not being at the top of the list on our everywhere else page. That’s because at 2.625% back everywhere without a cap or time limitation (assuming you have Platinum Honors), it makes the opportunity cost of collecting points on the other everywhere else cards feel high. If you choose to earn 2 Membership Rewards points per dollar or 2 Thank You points per dollar instead of 2.625% back, you’re giving up 1.3125 pennies for every point you earn. Are you a buyer of those points at that price? If you have a specific use in mind or are collecting for a high-value reward, you might be. But with future travel a bit up int he air, cash may be king for you.

However, if you’re confident that this too shall pass and life will return to normal, I think it becomes a tough call. The Discover IT Miles card essentially earns 3% back for the first year when used toward travel. Alternatively, the Blue Business Plus and Citi Double Cash each offer opportunities to earn points that can be even more valuable.

If I had to pick one everywhere else card and wanted flexibility, I’d probably go with the Double Cash.

Citi Double Cash

Citi Double Cash Card

Recent better offer: None

FM Mini Review: 2X rewards for all spend with no annual fee makes this card a winner. Earn 2X everywhere and redeem for the equivalent of 2% cash back or 2X ThankYou points. Pair with the Premier or Prestige card to make points transferrable to airlines.


Card Type: Mastercard World Elite

Base

Earning rate: 2% cash back everywhere (1% cash back for each purchase + 1% when paying your credit card bill for that purchase)

Noteworthy perks: 1X when you make a purchase + 1X when you pay for those purchases

The reasons why I’d go with the Double Cash above the rest of the options are:

  • The floor redemption is 2% cash back (1% when you buy and 1% when you pay the bill). That’s a good rate and it’s straight cash back that requires no other cards in your portfolio, no large amount on deposit with the bank, and no annual fees.
  • If travel does resume to normal, this card can easily be paired with a Citi Premier or Prestige card to transfer to partners. With the Turkish Miles & Smiles sweet spots for flights on United and for travel to/from Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Africa, I think the ability to earn an uncapped 2x everywhere is strong (and of course there are other good transfer partners as well)
  • It’s a Mastercard, which makes for wider acceptance (and means it can be used for more types of Plastiq payments and to earn points in places where Amex won’t).

Of course, there are a number of other cards on the Best Everywhere Else Rewards Card page that are also worth consideration.

My ideal quarantine wallet credit cards

Based on the above recommendations, this is my ideal wallet during this time:

  • Bank of America Cash Rewards with Platinum Honors (5.25% online purchases on up to $2500 per quarter)(no annual fee)
  • Amex Gold (4x US Supermarkets up to $25K per year, then 1x + useful $10 monthly credit that I’d use via Boxed right now. While I’m not currently ordering any takeout, I know many other folks are and 4x from restaurants is also compelling)($250 annual fee)
  • Chase Ink Cash (5x office supply stores, to be used for buying gift cards for things like gas stations and streaming services at 5x if I run out of bandwidth on the Cash Rewards card)(no annual fee)
  • Citi Double Cash (everywhere else)(no annual fee)

That 4-card solution would ensure that I’d earn 4x or better on most purchases from home and 2x on those that don’t fit the big categories. The single $250 annual fee should be mitigated by the earnings and benefits, but if that were a big put-off, the Blue Cash Preferred could be substituted for 6% back on up to $6K at US Supermarkets (then 1x) for a $95 annual fee.

If I wasn’t going to get Platinum Honors with Bank of America, I’d probably take a shot at the Affinity Credit Union Cash Rewards in place of the BOA Cash Rewards card for 5% back at Amazon (and maybe 10% back later this year along with 7% back at gas stations from April through June).

Bottom line

Whether you’re looking to rotate the best cards into your starting lineup while stuck at home for a while or you are looking to draft a new lineup altogether, you’ll likely need to make some adjustments over tried-and-true strategy to accommodate what I imagine is a significant shift in spend. The good news is that there are a lot of no-fee cards that could be strong components of a wallet balanced for social isolation — several of which don’t rely on this ending in a specific quarter for you to continue to earn well on spend. Since many of the options above carry no annual fee, they may be even more appealing given the current economic uncertainty. The good news is that you can still earn significant rewards from your couch while cutting back on costs as best you can.

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