Methodology: U.S. News reviewed hundreds of credit cards to identify cards with the best annual bonuses or credits. Each card has its own strengths and drawbacks, so there is no single card that’s ideal for every cardholder. Selections reflect the best card in each category that may suit your needs.
What’s the Difference Between Sign-Up Bonuses and Annual Bonuses?
Sign-up bonuses are commonly offered when you get a new rewards credit card, providing a rapid way to earn points, airline miles or cash back. However, as their name implies, sign-up bonuses happen only once – each time you sign up for a new credit card. If you want to take advantage of sign-up bonuses year after year, you’ll have to get a new card annually.
Signing up for credit cards, earning their sign-up bonuses and then canceling the cards is a potentially lucrative practice known as churning, but it’s not for everyone. It can be risky, especially if you fail to pay your balances in full each statement period or struggle to manage multiple credit card accounts. And opening and closing accounts may have a negative effect on your credit rating.
Churning can be a problem for issuers too. “Sign-up bonuses aren’t sustainable,” says Richard Kerr, founder of Award Travel 101, a Facebook community that helps members maximize rewards programs. “It’s just costing too much in customer acquisition.”
On the other hand, annual bonuses reward loyalty for cardholders who maintain cards for two years or longer. A card with an annual bonus can continue to offer bonus rewards value after the first year, which isn’t always true for cards that offer only a sign-up bonus. Annual bonus cards can be especially rewarding if they also offer a healthy sign-up bonus or have cardholder benefits you can use, or rewards earning rates you like.
Sometimes annual bonuses can be more valuable than a sign-up bonus. “One example of how an annual bonus can be worth more than a sign-up bonus is the British Airways Travel Together Ticket,” says Alex Miller, CEO and founder of UpgradedPoints.com, a website that helps consumers maximize their credit card rewards. This ticket is available with the British Airways Visa Signature Card when you spend $30,000 annually. It’s good for two years and gives you a companion seat on the same flight, in the same cabin when you book a qualifying British Airways flight with rewards and pay taxes, fees and carrier charges on both tickets.
How Can You Earn Annual Bonuses?
Annual bonuses may be provided as bonus points or airline miles as well as loyalty certificates. Loyalty certificates may be offered for free hotel stays or companion airline tickets. Some cards require spending to earn an annual bonus, or a bonus may be offered simply for maintaining your account and paying an annual fee.
You can earn 6,000 bonus points after your cardholder anniversary with the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card. However, this card has an annual fee of $99 that will apply on your anniversary, along with the bonus.
With the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card, cardholders can claim a discounted companion fare each year. The companion fare is as low as $121 – $99, plus $22 in taxes and fees.
What Should You Know About Earning Annual Bonuses?
Earning annual bonuses can take some strategy, so you’ll need to pay attention to details and plan ahead if you want to make the most of available bonuses.
Cardholder year vs. calendar year. When you plan for annual bonuses, pay close attention to whether you can earn them in a calendar year or a cardholder year. Although both calendars count the same amount of time, they are not necessarily counting the same period of time. A calendar year is from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, while a cardholder year is from the date you sign up for the card to the same date the following year.
This distinction matters because if you sign up for a new card, say, in November and plan to earn an annual bonus by meeting a calendar-year spending requirement, you may not have much time to do so. For example, if you’re approved for the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass Card, which earns a free weekend night each calendar year after you spend $15,000, you’ll have just a couple of months to meet that goal and earn your bonus in the first year.
Planning annual spending. Juggling multiple sign-up bonuses can be fairly straightforward. You can direct your regular spending to a new card to earn the bonus, then move on to the next. If you prefer, you can stop using the card and may close the account if it’s no longer valuable for rewards or does not help your credit rating with the age of the account or available credit. But if you’re trying to earn an annual bonus that has a spending requirement, you will have to continue using the card each year until you obtain the bonus.
Miller says your spending strategy will depend on your goals, but he prefers to direct his spending to particular credit cards until he reaches the elite credits or loyalty status he wants to achieve.
Kerr agrees you should spend just enough to meet your goals each year using cards with an annual bonus.
What Are Annual Credits?
Some credit cards offer benefits annually, most commonly in the form of travel or airline fee credits. These benefits renew each year and can provide hundreds of dollars in value to cardholders who continue to maintain their accounts.
For example, The Platinum Card from American Express offers a $200 airline fee credit each year with one qualifying airline. You’ll get a statement credit for baggage and other incidental fees for up to $200 annually. The card also offers up to $200 yearly in U.S. Uber ride credits – $15 each month, plus a $20 bonus in December.
Chase Sapphire Reserve has a $300 annual travel credit, which automatically applies as a reimbursement for any travel purchases charged to your account. It can be used for booking travel, paying incidental fees or covering any other purchases coded as travel.
Annual credits usually don’t roll over to the next year, so if you don’t use them, you’ll lose them. Consider whether you’ll be able to fully take advantage of a card’s annual credits. For example, a card with a lucrative annual travel credit may be valuable in years when you plan trips but not useful if you’ve decided to cut back on travel.
Is an Annual Bonus Worthwhile?
Annual bonuses are designed to provide cardholders with value that continues in the card’s second year and beyond. Bonuses may offset annual fees in whole or in part, but you’ll have to do the math for each card to determine whether they will offer enough value for you to maintain the credit card account.
Generally, annual bonuses will not completely offset your annual fee, but they can get you pretty close. The card’s other features may make up the rest of the value you need to make it worth keeping each year. For example, your points earned from purchases or cardholder benefits such as extended warranty coverage or auto rental collision damage waivers can give you additional value.
These are a few examples of how you can compare your card’s annual bonus to the annual fee:
The Hilton Honors American Express Surpass Card, which has a $95 annual fee, earns a weekend night reward each calendar year when you spend $15,000. The daily rate for Hilton hotels is generally well over $100, so this reward can offset your annual fee. However, you have to earn this reward with $15,000 in annual spending – $1,250 per month – which may be more than your budget allows.
With The Platinum Card from American Express and Chase Sapphire Reserve, the annual credits don’t fully cover the cost of the annual fees. The Platinum Card from American Express offsets $400 of its $550 annual fee with annual credits, and Chase Sapphire Reserve offsets $300 of its $550 annual fee with annual credits. Both still leave a portion of the annual fee to make up in value. However, you may be able to do that each year with each card’s rewards earnings and benefits, including airport lounge access and hotel loyalty status or complimentary room upgrades.