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One of the best ways to travel is to have the right credit card — one that can either provide VIP benefits, travel rewards or simply cash back to use on your trip. And with so many American Express cards, it’s sometimes overwhelming to figure out which one is best for you.
Fortunately, we can help you determine what’s the right American Express card based on your personal needs and point you in the right direction. So let’s take a look at our list of the best Amex credit cards in 2021 and see how you can earn more rewards by having the right card in your purse or wallet.
The best American Express credit cards
Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express: Best no-annual-fee card
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express: Best for cash back
American Express® Gold Card: Best for dining
The Platinum Card® from American Express: Best for luxury travel benefits
Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card: Best for free checked bags
Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card: Best for free hotel nights
Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card: Best for hotel elite status
American Express® Green Card: Best for leisure travelers
The Blue Business® Plus Credit Card from American Express: Best for business owners
Why did we choose these as our best Amex credit cards? To answer that question, we first need to learn a little bit about American Express cards in general and how they work.
The basics of American Express credit cards
When it comes to earning rewards with American Express cards, the type of points you earn can vary from card to card, and this can play a big part in your decision on which card is best for you.
Some Amex cards earn what are known as Membership Rewards points, which can be transferred to 21 different airline and hotel partners and then used directly with those respective programs. These points are often called “flexible” rewards since you have a variety of redemption options, but you’ll need to know the rules of each specific program in order to really get top value for your points.
Other Amex cards earn points or miles in just one airline or hotel program, so you typically don’t have the same flexibility to redeem them for other travel opportunities as you do with Membership Rewards points. But while these loyalty-specific points or miles can be more restrictive, you’ll sometimes get more perks with that credit card when traveling with the airline or hotel the card is tied to.
And if travel is not in your immediate future right now and you want to focus on earning as much cash as possible, there are a number of Amex cards that will earn cash back on every purchase you make. However, when you choose a cash back card, you’re generally trading off the ability to get outsized value for your credit card rewards in favor of putting cash directly into your pocket.
Finally, there’s one very important rule to keep in mind when it comes to American Express cards. Amex has a “once-in-a-lifetime” bonus restriction, so if you’ve applied and received a welcome offer for a specific Amex card in the past, you’re not eligible to get a welcome offer again on the same card. This is why it’s important to get Amex cards when the bonus is near or at the top, so you aren’t leaving points or miles on the table.
Now that you know how Amex rewards work and the rules, let’s dive into the details of each American Express card and see how they compare to one another.
Blue Cash Everyday from American Express: Best no-annual-fee card
Finding a great credit card that carries no annual fee can sometimes feel daunting, but that’s where the Blue Cash Everyday from American Express comes into play.
Unlike many other no-annual-fee credit cards, the Blue Cash Everyday offers a solid welcome bonus, rewarding cash back and strong perks, all without an annual fee (see rates and fees). And right now, new Blue Cash Everyday card members can earn $200 cash back as a statement credit after spending $2,000 on purchases in the first six months of card membership.
The Blue Cash Everyday also offers strong rewards on your everyday purchases. You’ll earn 3% cash back (in the form of reward dollars) at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%), U.S. online retail stores (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%) and U.S. gas stations. That’s a great set of cash back bonus categories on a no-annual-fee credit card, and the cash back is received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be easily redeemed for statement credits.
New Blue Cash Everyday card members also get an introductory 0% APR on purchases and balances for the first 15 months you have the card, but keep in mind the rate jumps to a variable 16.24% to 27.24% APR after the intro period ends (see rates and fees). While CNN Underscored never recommends spending more than you can afford, if you’re having a hard time making ends meet, this card could help you keep your interest to a minimum.
Other perks include access to Amex Offers and 90-day return protection, and while these perks are common across American Express cards, getting them on a credit card that doesn’t charge an annual fee means you’re getting a lot of value from every aspect of the Blue Cash Everyday. This card also offers up to $264 in statement credits per year — up to $84 towards The Disney Bundle purchase of a $13.99 subscription ($7 per month) and up to $180 towards Home Chef purchases ($15 per month) — enrollment is required before using these two benefits.
Blue Cash Preferred from American Express: Best for cash back
The old saying “cash is king” couldn’t be more true these days, and fortunately, the Blue Cash Preferred from American Express is one of the best cash back credit cards you’ll find.
The Blue Cash Preferred earns 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%), making it one of the best credit cards year after year for buying groceries. On top of that you’ll also earn 6% cash back on all your U.S. streaming subscriptions and 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations and on transit, including taxis, ride-shares, parking, tolls, trains, buses and more. All cash back is received in the form of reward dollars that can be redeemed for statement credits.
If you’re looking at the Blue Cash Preferred for groceries, you’ll want to think about your overall annual spending at U.S. supermarkets to determine if this card makes sense, or if you’d be better off with the Blue Cash Everyday. Although the Blue Cash Preferred comes with a $95 annual fee (see rates and fee), the card is still a better choice in the long run if you spend more than $3,166 in groceries annually.
The one downside of the Blue Cash Preferred is that you should only use it on purchases made within the United States, as you’ll incur a 2.7% foreign transaction fee for overseas purchases (see rates and fees). That’s why while the Blue Cash cards are great to use domestically, they’re not recommended for those who often travel internationally.
American Express Gold: Best for dining
Foodies will love the American Express Gold card, thanks to the huge number of points you can earn on food-related purchases, along with the card’s annual dining credits.
With the Amex Gold — which earns Membership Rewards points — you’ll earn 4 points for every dollar you spend at restaurants worldwide, as well as up to $25,000 per year at U.S. supermarkets (then 1x). Best of all, many food delivery services also code as “restaurants,” which means you’ll continue to earn 4x points when you order food to your home.
You’ll also get up to $120 in annual dining credits — broken up into credits of up to $10 each month — when you pay with the Amex Gold at Grubhub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Boxed and participating Shake Shack locations. Enrollment is first required before you can use this benefit.
You’ll also receive up to $10 each month in Uber Cash with the Amex Gold (enrollment required before using this benefit). This Uber Cash can be used either for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides within the US.
Although the Amex Gold has a substantial $250 annual fee (see rates and fees), new card members can also earn 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first three months after opening the account. Add it all together and you’re looking at a great overall dining card.
The Platinum Card from American Express: Best for luxury travel benefits
While travel isn’t back to where it was before the pandemic, for those who have already hit the road again, being able to simplify your travel experience might be exactly what you need. The American Express Platinum card is the ultimate definition of luxury and comes with a slew of VIP perks that rival any card on the market — but also a hefty $695 annual fee (see rates and fees).
One of the best benefits of the Amex Platinum — and an easy way to partially offset the annual fee — is the up to $200 in annual airline fee credits. These credits can be used toward many incidental fees, such as checked bags, change fees and in-flight Wi-Fi, on the one carrier you select as your qualifying airline each year.
Other popular credits you’ll receive with the Amex Platinum each year include up to $200 in Uber Cash. These credits come in portions of up to $15 each month (and up to $35 in December), and can be used for Uber rides in the U.S. or Uber Eats orders. Just remember that enrollment is required before using this benefit.
You’ll also get up to $240 in annual statement credits (in portions of up to $20 each month) on eligible purchases or subscriptions with Peacock, Audible, SiriusXM or The New York Times, an annual credit of up to $200 for prepaid bookings at Amex Fine Hotels + Resorts or The Hotel Collection properties made through American Express Travel and up to $100 toward purchases at Saks Fifth Avenue, split into portions of up to $50 in each half of the year. Enrollment is required before using these benefits.
Aside from all these credits, you’ll receive access to more than 1,300 airport lounges worldwide with the Amex Platinum, including the exclusive American Express Centurion Lounges, Delta Sky Clubs (when flying Delta), Priority Pass Select lounges, Escape Lounges and more. Having lounge access when you’re traveling can be an invaluable perk and potentially worth the annual fee alone.
When it comes to VIP perks, the Amex Platinum comes with automatic Gold elite status at both Hilton and Marriott hotels (enrollment required before using this benefit). This mid-tier status can mean perks such as free upgrades, late checkout and complimentary breakfast at participating properties. If you travel often but not enough to earn elite status the hard way, this can definitely pay off.
Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express: Best for free checked bags
On most airlines, checking a bag is going to cost you — and the fees can add up. Fortunately, many airline credit cards offer complimentary checked bags as a benefit, and the Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card is one of the best when it comes to avoiding those fees.
With the Delta Gold Amex, you’ll get your first checked bag for free on Delta flights, along with up to eight additional passengers traveling in the same reservation. For a family of four, that could save you as much as $240 round trip, since Delta charges $30 per bag for domestic flights.
You’ll also get a 20% savings in the form of a statement credit after you use your card on eligible Delta in-flight purchases of food, beverages and audio headsets, and can even earn a $100 Delta flight credit after you spend $10,000 in purchases on your card in a calendar year. Plus, the Delta Gold Amex has a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99 thereafter (see rates and fees).
One thing you’ll want to be wary of, however, is that the Delta Gold Amex isn’t the best credit card to use for your everyday purchases. You’ll earn 2 miles per dollar on eligible Delta purchases as well as restaurants (including takeout) and at U.S. supermarkets, but on all other purchases, you’ll only earn 1 mile per dollar spent.
If your end goal is to earn as many Delta SkyMiles as possible, then you might be better off with an Amex card that earns flexible Membership Rewards points. That’s because Membership Rewards can be transferred to Delta at a 1-to-1 ratio, and many of those Amex cards have more bonus categories, meaning you can ultimately earn more number of points for the same purchases.
Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express Card: Best for free hotel nights
If Marriott is your hotel chain of choice, you’ll want to pay close attention to the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express Card, since it’s one that you’ll want to keep for years to come, thanks to its strong perks and statement credits.
While the Marriott Brilliant Amex has a substantial $450 annual fee (see rates and fees), you’ll get up to $300 in statement credits for Marriott purchases each year, which can be used toward room rates, resort fees or any incidentals charged to your hotel room. However, starting Sept. 22, 2022 this benefit is going away and being replaced with an up to $300 statement credit (up to $25 per month) for eligible purchases at restaurants worldwide. As long as you can utilize the entire $300 credit, the credit alone effectively brings your annual fee down to $150 per year if you can use it in full.
Then, starting with the second year you have the Marriott Brilliant Amex and every year thereafter, you’ll receive a Free Night Award that can be used at any Marriott that costs 50,000 points or less based on Marriott’s award chart. As long as you use the certificate at a property that would otherwise cost $150 or more, you’ll come out ahead. But in our experience, hotels that cost 50,000 points can often go for $400 or more per night if you were paying cash — meaning you’re getting more from the card than it costs.
Also, right now is an excellent time to grab the Marriott Brilliant Amex. That’s because new card members can earn 75,000 bonus points after you make $3,000 in purchases within the first three months of opening the account. Based on the point valuations of frequent flyer website The Points Guy, those 75,000 bonus points are worth $600 in travel.
Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card: Best for hotel elite status
On the other hand, if you’re brand agnostic and looking for a credit card that offers top-of-the-line hotel elite status without having to make a lot of stays at one hotel brand, then the Hilton Honors Aspire card may be the right card for you.
Just by having the Hilton Honors Aspire card, you’ll get complimentary Diamond elite status, which is Hilton’s top-tier status level. The status comes with lounge access, daily food and beverage credits, room upgrades and more. If you find that you’ve been traveling less than usual lately and earning status the hard way is challenging, being able to get status without stepping foot into a hotel room can be quite nice.
The card also comes with a free weekend night reward certificate, which you’ll get when you first get the card and then again on every account anniversary (meaning each year on the date you first opened the card). And if you end up using the Hilton Honors Aspire a lot, you can earn a second weekend night certificate each year by spending $60,000 on the card within a calendar year.
As the name implies, weekend night rewards are typically limited to only being redeemable for stays on the weekends. But Hilton has made some temporary changes due to the pandemic, and right now all weekend night certificates issued through Dec. 31, 2022, can be used on any night of the week.
Other benefits of the Hilton Honors Aspire that can help offset its weighty $450 annual fee include up to $250 in annual Hilton resort statement credits and up to $250 in annual airline incidental fee credits. If you can take advantage of all these statement credits and the weekend night certificate each year, you can easily come out ahead with the card — and have access to some great perks along the way.
Read CNN Underscored’s review of the Hilton credit cards.
All information about the Hilton Aspire Card has been collected independently by CNN Underscored. The Hilton Aspire Card is not currently available through CNN.
American Express Green Card: Best for leisure travelers
If you’re looking for a travel credit card that earns Membership Rewards points but you think the Amex Gold and Amex Platinum cards are too pricey, you might want to consider the American Express Green Card as a compromise.
The Amex Green card comes with a significantly lower annual fee of $150, but also some perks that are perfect for the leisure traveler who doesn’t find themselves living in airports year-round. These include up to $100 in annual CLEAR® credits, which offers touchless access to cut the line with biometric alternatives at airport security checkpoints and even certain sporting event venues.
You’ll also get up to $100 in LoungeBuddy airport lounge credits each year with the Amex Green card. LoungeBuddy allows you to purchase one-day access to partner lounges at airports around the world. While that’s not comparable to the unlimited lounge access that comes with the Amex Platinum, up to $100 in annual credits are equal to a handful of lounge visits per year, which might be all you need.
On the earning side, you’ll earn 3 points for every dollar you spend on travel and restaurant purchases, including takeout and delivery with the Amex Green card, 1 point per dollar on all other purchases and access to trip delay, baggage and car rental insurance when you pay for your travel bookings with the card.
Read CNN Underscored’s review of the American Express Green card.
All information about the American Express® Green Card has been collected independently by CNN Underscored. The American Express® Green Card is not currently available through CNN.
The Blue Business Plus from American Express: Best for business owners
The Blue Business Plus from American Express is the only Amex business card that earns Membership Rewards points and has no annual fee (see rates and fees), making it a desirable choice for business owners looking to increase their travel rewards once business travel starts to pick up again.
This card offers simplicity at its finest, as you don’t need to keep track of bonus categories. Instead, you’ll earn a flat 2 points per dollar on all purchases made with the Blue Business Plus, up to $50,000 per year, then 1 point per dollar thereafter. Since The Points Guy values Membership Rewards points at 2 cents apiece, that’s effectively a 4% return on your first $50,000 of purchases every year.
Businesses also pay nothing to add authorized users, and you’ll earn points on any expenses charged on those employee cards as well as your own. Plus, the Blue Business Plus offers a 0% introductory APR on purchases for the first 12 months you have the card, which rises to a variable 15.49% to 23.49% APR afterward (see rates and fees). So if you use the card to finance your business purchases, make sure to pay the debt in full before the intro period ends.
Essentially, if you own a small business that typically spends less than $50,000 per year on credit cards, the Blue Business Plus allows you to track your business expenses while earning flexible Membership Rewards travel points, and all without paying an annual fee.
Which American Express card is best for you?
With so many highly rated American Express cards, there isn’t a “best” card, as the answer depends on your personal goals. All the Amex cards on our list are strong in their own way, offering unique benefits that cater to different people.
If you’re looking for a card that’s simple and earns cash back, then you’ll want to consider either the Blue Cash Everyday or the Blue Cash Preferred. With so many similarities between the two, the best option for you depends on how much you spend each year in certain categories, especially at U.S. supermarkets.
For those looking for travel perks, you can’t go wrong with the Amex Platinum. But, if you don’t think you’ll fully utilize all the benefits that come along with this pricey card, you might want to instead consider the Amex Green. Alternatively, the Amex Gold might serve as a happy medium between the two with a balance of perks, points and a moderate annual fee.
On the other hand, those who want a card that earns points or miles in a specific airline or hotel program and comes with perks tied to that airline or hotel will want to think about one of the Amex co-branded cards. If earning hotel rewards is important to you, then the Hilton Honors Aspire or Marriott Brilliant Amex are the way to go. And for the frequent or even leisure flyer, the Delta Gold Amex is a great go-to card for saving money on those pesky baggage fees.
Last but not least, small-business owners will enjoy the easy-to-use no-annual-fee Blue Business Plus, as it can help them rack up travel rewards when spending money on their business expenses, and also finance some purchases at a low cost if your business needs help to make ends meet right now.
Looking for the best overall credit card? Find out which cards CNN Underscored chose as its best credit cards available right now.
Click here for rates and fees of the Blue Cash Everyday card.
Click here for rates and fees of the Blue Cash Preferred card.
Click here for rates and fees of the American Express Gold card.
Click here for rates and fees of the American Express Platinum card.
Click here for rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Gold card.
Click here for rates and fees of the Marriott Brilliant card.
Click here for rates and fees of the Blue Business Plus card.