The Best Rewards Credit Cards, 2018

If you're not taking advantage of a rewards credit card, you could be leaving a heap of money on the table.

The total value of points or miles earned in the first year with a travel rewards card is $901, on average (taking into account both initial bonuses and rewards for each dollar spent and subtracting any first-year annual fees), according to a study from personal finance site NerdWallet. From the second year on, annual rewards average $277.

Whether you choose to play the travel rewards game or stick with a simple cash-back card, your own payback could be even more lucrative, depending on how much you spend and how dedicated you are to maximizing your rewards. To help you sort through the many options, we've divided the universe of rewards cards into categories and selected winners and honorable mentions in each.

Best Rewards Credit Cards for Flat-Rate Cash Back

This card's strength is its straightforward payback on all purchases. And because it carries no annual fee, it's a great choice even if you don't spend much. You'll earn 1% cash back each time you make a purchase and 1% when you pay the bill, for a total of 2% on everything you buy. When you accumulate at least $25 in cash back, you can redeem it as an account credit, a check, or a deposit into a Citi checking or savings account or any checking account from which you've paid a Citi credit card bill at least twice. Rewards expire if you don't use the card for a year.

Honorable mention: For the first year, Alliant Cashback Visa Signature (interest rate: 11.49% to 14.49%) hands out a hefty 3% cash back on all spending with no annual fee. From the second year on, the rewards rate drops to 2.5%-still a generous payback-and a $59 annual fee kicks in. For our sample cardholder, the typical annual rebate the second year is $491. (That beats the typical rebate on Citi Double Cash, but you would need to spend nearly $20,000 annually from the second year on to come out ahead with this card-and in this basic category we favor Citi's no-fee structure, which suits spending at all levels.) Redeem cash rewards-which expire about four to five years after you earn them-as a statement credit or deposit into an Alliant Credit Union checking or savings account. You must join Alliant to get the card, which you can do by making a one-time, $10 donation to the charity Foster Care to Success and opening a savings account with a complimentary $5 deposit from Alliant.

Best Rewards Credit Cards for Cash Back in Rotating Categories (Tie)

The Chase Freedom Visa offers 5% cash back on up to $1,500 spent in categories that change each quarter (1% on everything else). In the first quarter of 2018, the 5% category included gas station

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