The top credit card reward schemes pay you £2 for every £100 spent on them, an easy way to make £100s or £1,000s a year just by changing plastic. Yet some use impenetrable points systems to disguise poor payouts.
This guide intensively analyses every major scheme to calculate the best buys for frequent flyer points, cash, and more.
Best Reward cards
How long will these cards last? This guide is fully up to date. However, there is a chance some card firms could cut rewards in future, as the EU has capped the charges providers can levy on shops each time you use their plastic, which funds rewards. Capital One, RBS, M&S and Tesco Bank have already cut rewards for some customers. So enjoy the perks while you can.
How reward cards work
The premise is simple. Spend on one of these cards and they pay you - some of these cards even pay you cashback. Do it right and you can earn £100s worth of goodies each year, at no cost. If you're debt-free and pay off every month, you might as well get paid to spend.
It sounds great - everyone loves something for nothing. But unless you're careful, cards will actually deliver nothing for something, as there are a couple of major holes to watch for.
The reason cards give rewards is to encourage spending, as do that and they can charge us 15% interest or more and retailers up to 0.3%. So always follow…
Getting charged interest almost always dwarfs even the very best reward schemes, so quite simply…
If you want rewards, always set up a direct debit to repay the card in full each month, so there's NO interest.
Sadly, some card providers deliberately miss the 'repay in full' option off their direct debit forms. If so, just write 'pay off in full' and send it in. It should be honoured, but call to check.
It's also worth watching for any annual fee. These are now rare, and everyone except very high spenders should avoid any card with one. The cost isn't usually recovered by the extra rewards.
Can't repay in full every month?
If you're not sure you can always repay the card in full, then DON'T pick a card for rewards. Focus on a card with a lower interest rate instead. - see the 0% Credit Cards guide.
As applying for any financial product has a minor credit score impact (see the Credit Scores guide), if you have existing credit card debts, it's also worth prioritising making them cheap before going for rewards by doing a balance transfer.
Don't believe the hype
Some schemes are focused on making people think they're earning large, when actually payouts are pretty paltry. To what extent depends on the type of scheme.
Here you earn days out, flights, holidays or more by getting points - and that's where the problems start, as Martin points out...
"For a TV programme stunt I was once asked to design a credit card that looked good, but contained hidden, abysmally anti-consumer traps. Many signed up to my fake MACS card (SCAM backwards), which promised TWELVE points per pound spent.
"Most people didn't ask what the points were worth. In fact, they were worth 0.0001p. In other words, nothing. And 12 nothings… is nothing.
"It's this lack of transparency that allows reward schemes to create a magical 'something for nothing' mystique. A Sainsbury's Nectar point is worth up to 1p compared to a Tesco Clubcard point worth up to 4p, so one Clubcard point is worth almost four times more than the Nectar points.
"That's what this guide focuses on; a mathematical evaluation of every scheme to pick the real winners."
Cashback or cash-lite cards
With cashback cards you earn cash each time you spend, and it's then usually paid once a year as a lump sum (see the Top Cashback Cards guide). The main advantages are you know exactly what you're getting and can spend the rewards anywhere.
Cash-lite schemes are where money earned can be converted into gift vouchers or can only be spent in a specific store, eg, M&S.
Many credit cards offer incentives such as free flights or electronic goods for you to sign up to the card. Therefore if you've a good credit score, just take advantage by signing up even if you don't want the card. A full list of what's available is in the Credit Card Freebies guide.
Best buy credit card reward schemes
These results are based on evaluating over 40 schemes, calculating the actual value of the rewards for spending. This is done by first number-crunching what an individual point's really worth, then how many points you get when you spend.
The rewards are measured in percentages. So a 1.5% reward means you get an average £1.50 worth of points for each £100 spent.
Unless stated, all cards were judged on annual spend of £10,000; very achievable if you lump all your normal spending on it. Plus it incorporates annual fees and unless noted, introductory bonus points. We've separated the top deals into categories.
This is the top cashback card currently available. This card has a big intro bonus. For full options see the Top Cashback Cards guide.
Highest paying fee-free card but you need to spend big to win
Amex Plat Everyday* 5% for 3mths then up to 1.25%
If you want to earn cashback while spending but don't want to pay for the privilege of doing so, then this fee-free card from American Express* pays new cardholders a massive 5% intro cashback for the first three months. And after three months, the amount of cashback you'll earn depends on how much you spend, but you can earn up to 1.25%.
Need to knows
- You earn 5% for the first three months (max spend £2,000).
- Overall you need to spend at least £3,000 in the year to receive cashback.
- After the intro period, you earn 0.5% cashback on spending up to £3,500/year.
- Spending between £3,501 and £7,500 will get you 1% cashback per year.
- All spending above £7,501 in a year will earn 1.25% cashback per year.
- Make sure you repay in full EVERY month to avoid the 22.9% representative APR, or interest will quickly wipe away the cashback gains.
Consistent top cashback rate but you need to pay to get the card
Amex Platinum 5% for 3mths then 1.25%
This American Express Platinum Cashback card is different to the card above because it pays 1.25% cashback regardless of how much you spend. But while the flat rate is a big plus, there is a £25 annual fee which wipes away some of the gain - and if you happened to spend less than expected, you'd still be hit with the fee, making this card less profitable than the Amex card above.
Need to knows
- You earn bonus 5% cashback for the first three months (max spend £2,500).
- If you spend over £10,000 in a year, you'll also get unlimited 2.5% cashback in your anniversary month.
- All spending including the fee, is 28.2% rep APR.
There are a variety of different schemes, but part of the choice depends on which airlines you prefer and their availability, as often the big gain comes from using credit card points along with points from frequent flying.
Watch out for taxes and charges, as all reward schemes make you pay these on top. In some cases (especially if you're travelling within Europe) it might be cheaper to fly with a budget airline instead of paying for the tax on top of using your Avios points. Read the Cheap Flights guide to see if you can get cheaper flights. We've only listed the top fee-free card but you can earn more airline rewards with other cards which charge a fee. Frequent flyers read the Airline Credit Cards guide for all our top cards.
Top fee-free card if you like to travel plus free companion flight at £20k+ spend
If you fancy yourself as a bit of a jet setter then the BA Amex* card can reward you with free flights. Plus, if you're accepted you can get 9,000 bonus Avios points. But you need to be quite flexible with your dates as seats can be limited. You can also get a 'free' companion ticket if you spend £20,000/yr on the card.
Need to knows
- You'll earn 1 Avios point per £1 spent on the card.
- Spend £1,000 within the first three months and you'll get the bonus 9,000 Avios points.
- Spend £20,000/year, and you get one free 'companion ticket' when booking a flight. The free ticket can be used to get the same ticket type as the cardholder (if you go first class, so do they), though only on BA. But you'll still need to pay taxes and charges on top.
- Compare other frequent flyer cards in the Airline Credit Cards guide.
- See more ways to Boost Your Avios Points.
Some cards only give rewards, vouchers or cash for certain retailers or when spending in a particular store. They can be useful if you're a creature of habit, and like to do your weekly shop at the same place every week.
Good if you're a die-hard Tesco shopper, plus long 0% on spending
Tesco Clubcard* 5pts for every £4 spent in Tesco
If every week you're at your local Tesco doing the food shop then it may be worth paying for that shopping on the Tesco Clubcard* credit card as it gives you extra clubcard points on top of the normal points you'd normally collect.
Need to knows
- Earn one Clubcard point for every £8 spent, or 1 point per £4 if shopping in Tesco (plus the 1 point per £1 you get with a standard Clubcard).
- One point is worth 1p if spent instore at Tesco, but boosts to up to 4p if redeemed for some of Tesco's special Clubcard Rewards vouchers. These can be used for a huge array of mainly entertainment-based treats.
- There's also 21 months 0% on spending, which means you only have to pay the minimum balance each month and you won't be charged interest. But after the 0% period ends you must repay the card in full or you'll be charged 18.9% rep APR (some poorer credit scorers could get up to 23.9%)
Boost for Sainsbury's shoppers plus 0% on spending
Sainsbury's Nectar 2 pts per £1 spent in Sainsbury's
If you prefer to shop at Sainsbury's then the Nectar Dual credit card gives you a boost on the Nectar points you earn when shopping there.
Plus you'll get 21 months 0% on spending, so you won't have to repay the full balance each month, and you won't be charged any interest. But only do this if you are disciplined and will save the money so you can fully repay at the end of the 21 months.
Need to knows
- New customers applying by 24 May 2016 will get a boosted 4 points per £1 spent on Sainsbury's shopping and fuel for the first three months. This is capped at a £1,000 spend per month.
- You will get two Nectar points for every £1 you spend in Sainsbury's, or one Nectar point for every £5 elsewhere.
- You can redeem the points with other retailers in the Nectar scheme, such as PizzaExpress, Argos, eBay, Eurostar and more - and in some cases the point value increases.
Up to 1% back in Waitrose/John Lewis vouchers
John Lewis/Waitrose 1 point for every £1 spent here
Similar to the cards above you earn points each time you spend on the Partnership credit card. But you'll earn John Lewis/Waitrose vouchers instead - so perfect if you like to shop in either one of those stores.
Need to knows
- You earn one point for every £1 spent in John Lewis/Waitrose and one point for every £2 spent elsewhere.
- The points are converted into vouchers three times a year and can be spent at John Lewis, John Lewis Direct (online) and Waitrose.
- Always pay off the card in full every month, or the rewards points are wiped by the 16.9% representative APR.
Free M&S voucher worth £30, plus points on spending
M&S* 1 point for every £1 spent in M&S
Currently, accepted new cardholders can earn lots of rewards on this M&S* credit card. As well as earning points on your spending, apply via this link and you'll also get a £30 M&S voucher. Plus, you'll get 19 months 0% on spending.
Need to knows
- To get the voucher, you must apply for the card by 20 June 2016 and make a purchase by 31 July.
- The voucher will be emailed to you by 22 August 2016 and must be redeemed by 31 August. It can be spent on clothing, homeware, food, wine and flowers.
- You won't be eligible for the voucher if you already hold an M&S credit card or have done within the last year.
- You'll earn one point for every full £1 spent in M&S stores, and one point for every full £5 spent elsewhere. These points are then converted into M&S vouchers every three months.
- After 19 months, you'll be charged 18.9% representative APR if you don't pay the card off in full.
- Spend once in either food, clothing or home in M&S, and you'll also get 500 bonus points, which is converted into a £5 voucher the first time your rewards are sent.
Shopping at Asda can earn you 1% cashback
Asda Money* 1% cashback
The Asda Money* card offers a reasonable cashback rate, especially if you're an Asda shopper. You can also earn more cashback if you take certain insurance products with Asda, but never use this as an excuse to get these with the store. Instead, always check if you can get these cheaper elsewhere as the cashback bonus isn't that great.
Need to knows
- Earn 1% cashback on all shopping done instore and online, or on Asda fuel. All other spending attracts 0.5% cashback.
- You'll be charged 18.9% representative APR if you don't pay the card off in full at the end of each month.
Linked to bank accounts
Some cards require you to have the issuing bank's current account to be eligible for the card. But it's usually not worth switching just to get the rewards on the credit cards - however, the two cards below are associated with some of our top pick bank accounts, so if you're switching anyway, see these cards as another perk on top.
Flat amount given back when you spend
Halifax Rewards Clarity*
If you have a Halifax current account, you could also get the Halifax Rewards Clarity* credit card which gives £5 a month cashback for every month you spend £300 on the card. The card is in fact the same as the Halifax Clarity credit card, a best buy in our Travel Credit Cards guide, and 'Rewards' is a benefit that is automatically applied if you fulfill a number of conditions.
Need to knows
- To qualify, you either need to hold or switch to a Halifax current account and pay £1,000 a month into it, or the Halifax Ultimate Reward current account (costs £15/month, see our Premium Bank Accounts guide to check if it's worth it).
- Switching to a Halifax current account will also net you a £100 bonus.
- Make sure you pay off in full at the end of each month, or you'll be charged 18.9% representative APR on your statement balance, which'll quickly negate the reward.
Earn 0.5% unlimited cashback and load-free spending abroad
If you already hold a Nationwide current account then you can get Nationwide's Select* credit card which gives 0.5% cashback on all spending in the UK. Alongside the Halifax card mentioned above, this card is a best buy in our Travel Credit Cards guide. But it's not worth getting the current account just for this card as the cashback can be beaten.
Need to knows
- To qualify, you need to hold a Nationwide FlexAccount current account and pay £750 a month into it (and have done so for the last three months), or the Nationwide FlexDirect (no fee, pays interest) or FlexPlus (£10/month) current account.
- The Nationwide FlexAccount comes with free UK and European travel insurance.
- There's also 12 months 0% on spending. After this you'll be charged 15.9% representative APR so ensure you clear the card before the interest kicks in.
Boost the value of your points
By correctly targeting the right rewards to redeem your points on, it is possible to substantially increase the amount. To find out how to do this for all schemes and specific info for Nectar, Avios and Tesco, read the Boost Your Loyalty Points guide.
Use the card for all spending
Once you set up a credit card, every time you use it you get paid. While this isn't an excuse to 'spend more', it does mean from now on…
Use the rewards card for ALL normal spending, replacing cash, cheques, and other debit, credit and charge cards.
For those who have work expenses they need to reclaim, this can be a powerful way to earn more, at no cost to you, provided you can cope with paying the bill in full each month.
There's extra protection on all spending too…
There's another big bonus to using a rewards card. You actually have far more consumer protection. This all comes about due to what's called Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974. It says…
75. - (1) If the debtor under a debtor-creditor-supplier agreement falling within section 12(b) or (c) has, in relation to a transaction financed by the agreement, any claim against the supplier in respect of a misrepresentation or breach of contract, he shall have a like claim against the creditor, who, with the supplier, shall accordingly be jointly and severally liable to the debtor.
Which of course, reads like gobbledegook… yet in a nutshell means:
Buy something costing over £100, here or abroad, and pay on a credit card, and the card issuer's equally liable if something goes wrong.
Now this protection only applies to credit cards, not debit cards or any other plastic and it's hugely important, especially in the current credit crunch climate. It means order something and if the retailer went kaput, you'd still be able to claim your money back from the card company. Read a full guide on Section 75 Refunds.
Think before adding the 'insurance'
Payment protection insurance is commonly sold with credit cards - the idea is it'll make some payments for you, usually for a year, if you are unable to (eg, if you lose your job).
There have been a myriad of cases where it has been mis-sold. Some borrowers didn't realise they were signing up for it, or it was totally unsuitable for them. Some big lenders have been fined.
The protection isn't always bad, though policies sold by credit card companies are often overpriced (you pay a monthly amount depending on the size of your balance). If you want it, compare the lender's cover with standalone providers such as Paymentcare or Best Insurance.
Always be vigilant to check you aren't getting more than you bargained for when you fill in the application, then check your statement each month to check you aren't inadvertently paying for extras if you didn't ask for them.
Reward cards Q&A
I'm in debt, is it OK to use a reward card alongside my debt card?
Can I transfer a balance to a reward card?
There's little point in doing so - you don't earn points on balance transfers.
Many reward credit cards try to tempt you with competitive balance transfer offers, they want you to both spend and shift debts to the card. It'll end up costing you as you're unlikely to be able to afford to repay the card in full. Instead use a separate card for Balance Transfers.
How do they make money if I always repay?
The second source of income for card companies is the retailer. When you pay on a credit card, it gets between 0.1% and 0.3% of what you spend from the shop/restaurant and this will often cover the cashback.
Therefore in a way all you're doing is getting back the extra that's been factored in to pricing for all customers to cover credit card costs.
Generally, the bigger the retailer the less it pays, as it has more negotiating power with Visa or Mastercard. Also it's worth noting Amex tends to charge retailers more, one of the reasons some smaller companies don't accept it.
How many reward cards can I have?
As many as you're accepted for, there's no limit. Though of course, every card application has a small impact on your credit score. So the more you have, the less likely you are to be accepted for more cards.
Don't apply for lots if you may need credit for something important such as a mortgage or a balance transfer card. Full info in the Credit Rating guide.
Is it worth going for a card that gives bigger rewards in one store?
If you spend a substantial amount of money in a store then it certainly is worthwhile. But don't let this blind you for the rest of your spending, make sure you maximise what you get elsewhere too (it may be worth having two cards).
Also remember lots of cards use a 'double earn' promise, so it looks like you get more points using your credit card in the linked store, but actually you would've got the same just using its normal loyalty card. See the Loyalty Points guide for a full explanation.
Can I withdraw cash on a reward card?
Again, you don't earn reward points for withdrawing cash on one of these credit cards.
What you do earn is a hefty fee, big interest, and a note on your credit file that you've withdrawn the cash.
The rule's simple: never, ever, ever use credit cards for cash withdrawals.
Where credit cards or loans use a representative APR, this means that 51% of successful applicants will be given the stated interest rate.
With credit cards, the rate for purchases (as opposed to balance transfers or cash withdrawals) is used as the main rate to advertise the card.
So if that is described as 19.9% representative APR, then 51% of people accepted will get 19.9% APR, but 49% will get a different rate (likely to be higher).
Loans are slightly simpler as they only have one rate. So if a loan is advertised as being 7.5% representative APR, this means 51% of accepted applicants will get 7.5%, and 49% will get a different rate (likely to be higher).
Of course, some people will be rejected outright for the card or loan too.
Credit card minimum repayments
From 1 April 2011 the rules on credit card minimum repayments changed. For customers getting a new credit card agreement the monthly minimum repayment must be AT LEAST:
- 1% of the debt
- Plus the amount of interest that appears on the statement
- Plus charges for missed payments, going over limit or defaults
- Plus any annual fees
This is a minimum, so card companies can charge more if they wish.
Some card providers (including Barclaycard, MBNA and Santander) have applied these changes to existing card holders too.