CNN Underscored reviews financial products such as credit cards and bank accounts based on their overall value. We may receive a commission through the LendingTree affiliate network if you apply and are approved for a card, but our reporting is always independent and objective. Terms apply to American Express benefits and offers. Enrollment may be required for select American Express benefits and offers. Visit americanexpress.com to learn more.
The holidays are just around the corner, and while buying gifts for others can be a lot of fun, it’s important to use a credit card that offers the best benefits when you’re doing your holiday shopping. Some people might want to use a credit card that offers cash back instead of travel points and miles, while others might prefer a card that protects their purchase in case the item gets lost or damaged, or if it needs to be returned and the store won’t take it back.
Now’s the time to decide whether a credit card you already have in your purse or wallet fits the bill, or if you need a new card to ensure you’re using the best choice for your upcoming purchases. So we went through all of the most popular credit cards and picked out seven that will make your wallet happy on every purchase you make this holiday season.
The best credit cards for holiday shopping
Citi® Double Cash Card: Best for cash back.
Chase Freedom Unlimited: Best for flexibility.
Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express: Best for US department stores.
Chase Freedom Flex: Best for Walmart.
Discover it® Cash Back: Best for Amazon and Target.
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express: Best for gift cards.
Chase Sapphire Reserve: Best for purchase protection.
Why did we choose these cards as the best credit cards for your holiday shopping? Let’s dive into the details of each card and see how each one can bring a little extra cheer to the end of your year.
Citi Double Cash Card: Best for cash back
If you want to keep things simple this holiday season, the Citi Double Cash Card is the way to go. You’ll earn 2% cash back on everything you buy — 1% when you make a purchase, and another 1% when you pay your statement — which means you don’t need to worry about bonus categories or fishing through your wallet for the right card every time you walk into a store during the holidays.
The only downside of the Citi Double Cash is that it doesn’t carry many shopping benefits. While some other credit cards will protect you if the item you purchase is lost, stolen or damaged within a certain time period, the Double Cash doesn’t carry the same benefit.
So despite the straightforward nature of the Double Cash, if you’re making a purchase where protection is needed, you might want to consider a different card on our list.
Chase Freedom Unlimited: Best for flexibility
The Chase Freedom Unlimited is one of those credit cards that truly caters to the masses, thanks to its flexible redemption options. You’ll earn 1.5% cash back on every purchase you make, 3% on dining and at drugstores, and 5% on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards.
While 1.5% cash back is a lower earning rate than the Citi Double Cash Card, the Freedom Unlimited offers potentially greater flexibility down the line. That’s because when you pair the card with a premium Chase Ultimate Rewards card such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve, you can pool your rewards from all your cards and redeem them for travel at a higher rate than you would get if you took your rewards only as cash back.
For instance, if you pair the Freedom Unlimited with the Chase Sapphire Preferred, you’d get 25% more value for the rewards when you redeem them for travel or via Chase’s Pay Yourself Back tool. You’d get as much as 50% more when you pair the Freedom Unlimited with a Chase Sapphire Reserve. And with either Sapphire card, you can also transfer your rewards to any of Chase’s 13 airline and hotel loyalty partners.
So even though you’re earning a slightly lower cash back rate on the Chase Freedom Unlimited to start, by pairing it with the right card, you could effectively end up with a higher return on your holiday purchases.
From a shopping perspective, the Freedom Unlimited offers peace of mind when you’re shopping, as you’ll be covered against damage or theft for 120 days on your purchases, up to $500 per claim and $50,000 per account. The card also adds an additional year to US manufacturer warranties of three years or less.
Blue Cash Everyday from American Express: Best for U.S. department stores
For starters, this card earns 2% cash back at select U.S. department stores, with no cap to the amount you can earn. And while this is identical to cards such as the Citi Double Cash, there are other advantages to using the Blue Cash Everyday when making your holiday purchases.
Since the Blue Cash Everyday is an American Express card, you have access to the money-saving Amex Offers program. Amex Offers provide instant savings or extra rewards at select merchants. The offers change regularly, but typically during the holiday months, you’ll notice a significant number of new offers, especially at department stores such as Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus.
So not only can you earn 2% cash back at these department stores with your Blue Cash Everyday card, there’s a chance you can “double dip” and save money with an Amex Offer at the same time. Just keep in mind that Amex Offers are sometimes targeted, so you’ll have to log into your American Express account to see which offers are available to you.
Unfortunately, you won’t reap the benefits of an extended warranty or return protection if you use this Blue Cash Everyday to make a purchase, though you can get those perks with the Everyday’s sister card, the Blue Cash Preferred from American Express (which we cover in depth below).
But the Blue Cash Everyday does offer purchase protection, which covers you if your item is damaged or stolen within 90 days from the date of purchase. The coverage is good for up to $1,000 per item and $50,000 annually.
Chase Freedom Flex: Best for Walmart
The Chase Freedom Flex credit card has many perks, but one of its best benefits is its set of rotating bonus categories. In each quarter, card holders can earn 5% cash back at a new set of merchants, up to $1,500 in combined purchases. And in the fourth quarter of 2020 — October through December — those categories include Walmart and PayPal.
With Walmart being a popular spot for holiday shopping, you could earn 5% in bonus cash back there with the Freedom Flex card. And for online holiday purchases, you can pay with PayPal to earn that same 5% cash back. In fact, you might be surprised to see the growing list of stores that accept PayPal — Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond, Ikea and Lowe’s are just a few.
And similar to the Chase Freedom Unlimited, if you pair the Chase Freedom Flex with a premium Chase Ultimate Rewards card like the Sapphire Preferred or Sapphire Reserve, you can redeem your rewards for travel or with the Pay Yourself Back tool and get even more value for them.
The Chase Freedom Flex also offers extended warranty protection — which adds an additional year to a US manufacturer’s warranty of three years or less on any items purchased with the card — as well as purchase protection, which covers new purchases for 120 days against damage or theft, up to $500 per claim and $50,000 per account.
Discover it Cash Back: Best for Amazon and Target
Like the Chase Freedom Flex, the Discover it Cash Back card also offers rotating bonus categories, and the folks at Discover truly had the holidays in mind when they planned out their 5% cash back calendar.
For the fourth quarter of 2020 — which runs from October through December — you’ll earn 5% cash back at Amazon.com, Walmart.com and Target.com. However, you’ll only earn bonus cash back for your online purchases at these merchants, not your in-store shopping. Because of this, for in-store shopping at Target you may want to stick with the Target RedCard, which offers a 5% discount on your purchases.
Bonus cash back on the Discover it Cash Back is also capped at a combined $1,500 in purchases per quarter, but that still allows you to earn up to an extra $75 cash back in total. And you’ll need to remember to activate the bonus categories before you make any purchases in them, as you’ll only earn the bonus cash back after you’ve activated the categories.
New Discover card applicants can also get a dollar-for-dollar match on all the cash back you earn in your first year as a card holder. There’s no maximum amount on this cash back match, which means that if you get a new Discover card now, your holiday purchases in the rotating bonus categories can earn an effective 10% return with the match, or up to $150 cash back.
The Discover it Cash Back card also comes with an introductory 0% APR on all purchases for the first 14 months after opening the account, which rises to a variable 11.99% to 22.99% APR afterward. So this is a great card to use on any large holiday purchases that you may need to pay off over time. Unfortunately, the card no longer offers purchase protection or extended warranty benefits, so you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons on those large purchases.
Blue Cash Preferred from American Express: Best for gift cards
For those hard-to-please friends and family members, a gift card is sometimes the way to go. And while you can always go directly to a store and purchase a gift card, it may be easier to just buy it at your local supermarket. No need to make an extra trip when the gift card carousels at many grocery stores offer a slew of options, such as Amazon, Target, Best Buy, Nordstrom, The Gap and many more.
But this is also where the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express comes in handy, because it shines when it comes to your local supermarket. You’ll earn 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%). That means you could earn as much as $360 in bonus cash back on all your U.S. supermarket shopping each year, including any gift card purchases.
Just be aware that when you use gift cards, you’ll be losing any credit card benefits on your purchases, such as extended warranty and purchase protection. Even if you use a credit card that offers those benefits when purchasing the gift card, the perks don’t follow through when the gift card is actually redeemed.
Alternatively, if your supermarket doesn’t carry third-party gift cards, another option is to purchase gift cards at your local drugstore, such as CVS or Walgreens. The Chase Freedom Flex and Chase Freedom Unlimited offer 3% cash back at drugstores, and you’ll usually find plenty of gift card options at these stores.
Chase Sapphire Reserve: Best for purchase protection
For expensive items — such as gadgets that can break easily — using a card that offers purchase and return protection is highly recommended, as it’s a benefit that might even outweigh any bonus points or cash back you can earn when making a holiday purchase.
With the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, you’ll receive purchase protection for 120 days from the date of purchase, up to $10,000 per claim and $50,000 per year. This covers eligible items you buy against damage or theft, and it’s one of the longest time frames you’ll see on a credit card, along with some of the highest caps.
On top of purchase protection, the Chase Sapphire Reserve also comes with return protection, which is a benefit we’re seeing less and less of on credit cards these days. So a card that has both purchase and return protection in one is worth a look.
Thanks to return protection, if you want to return an eligible item that you bought with your Sapphire Reserve card within 90 days from the date of purchase and the merchant won’t take it back, you’ll be refunded the full purchase price (excluding shipping and handling).
Claims are capped at $500 per item — which is significantly higher than many other cards that cap it at $300 per item — and up to a maximum of $1,000 per card per year. But with a $550 annual fee, the Sapphire Reserve is by far the priciest credit card on our list, so make sure you can also take advantage of its many other benefits if you decide to get it.
Which credit card should you get for your holiday purchases?
With so many credit cards available to use on your holiday purchases, there’s bound to be one that fits the bill for your particular needs. If you want a card that offers straight cash back without having to worry about bonus categories, then your best bet is the Citi Double Cash Card.
On the other hand, if you want a card that provides more flexibility and some bonus categories, the Chase Freedom Unlimited allows you to earn cash back that can potentially be turned into points for travel down the line. And if you’re likely to shop at a big box or department store, you’ll want to make sure to have the Blue Cash Everyday, Discover it Cash Back or Chase Freedom Flex in your wallet.
However, if your goal is to ensure that your holiday purchase is protected, the Chase Sapphire Reserve will exceed your expectations if something happens to your item, or if you need to return a gift after the return period has ended. And finally, if you’re shopping for the friend who has everything, the Blue Cash Preferred can earn you the biggest return for your gift card purchases if you’re buying them at a US supermarket.
Looking for the best overall credit card? Find out which cards CNN Underscored chose as its best credit cards of 2021.