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Best credit cards for holiday shopping, holiday travel and avoiding holiday debt

By , Site Editor

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Best credit cards for holiday shopping

There are gifts to buy and travel to book and food – so much food – to shop for. And we haven't even gotten into the attire, whether cocktail dresses or ugly holiday sweaters, needed for all the parties. The holiday season, with all its joy and cheer and family and friends and fun, can also be quite the burden on your wallet.

While we can't get you out of that work party or trip to visit your in-laws, we can help you stretch each dollar you spend a little bit further. And, if you play your cards right (pun intended), you might even have a few points or miles accumulated after the holiday season with which to reward yourself.

The holiday season, from Thanksgiving right on through the new year, is a season of giving, receiving and spending. Be sure to maximize your savings by earning rewards on gifts, travel and entertainment purchases that you're making anyway. Here are our picks for the best cards to get you through the holiday season regardless of whether you relate more to Buddy the Elf or Ebenezer Scrooge.

Best Credit Cards for Holiday Shopping

Before we launch into the individual cards that could make your holiday spending a bit easier to swallow, allow us to mention an intriguing promotion American Express is running: "Shop Small for 2x the Rewards." The program awards double the points to cardholders with particular American Express cards, including The Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American ExpressHilton HHonors™Card from American ExpressThe Platinum Card® from American Express and Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express among many, many others (the full list is here), when they shop at small businesses.

Basically, it's a program to encourage cardholders to support small businesses; it's a win-win for small business owners and cardholders.

Now onto our list:

Discover it® - Cashback Match™

Discover it® - Cashback Match™About Our Ratings

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Our editor's take:
Discover it® - Cashback Match™ has you covered when it comes to cash back. Each quarter, Discover offers a category that provides 5 percent cash back. Plus, at the end of your first year of card membership, Discover matches the cash back you've earned, so the opportunity to earn serious cash back is front and center with the Discover It® - Cashback Match™ card.

Card Details
Purchase APR11.24% - 23.24% Variable
Annual fee$0

Five percent back is already a fairly high amount of cash back, but when you consider that all of your cash back earned in the first year will be MATCHED this card suddenly becomes almost unbeatable in the cash-back credit card world. Discover it® - Cashback Match, however, is upping the ante during the holiday season with its aptly timed bonus categories. The 5 percent bonus categories from Oct. 1-Dec. 31, 2016 include Amazon.com, department stores and Sam's Club. Given those categories, it's possible you could completely cross off your shopping list with the up to $1,500 in purchases that earn you 5 percent cash back. Even if you shop outside the bonus categories, you'll still earn an unlimited 1 percent back on all your purchases. And, if you're a new card holder, all that cash back you earn will be matched at the end of your first year.

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Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American ExpressAbout Our Ratings

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Our editor's take:
American Express is pulling out all the stops this holiday season and offering a serious limited time offer for its Blue Cash Preferred® and Blue Cash Everyday® cardholders. That's on top of its already healthy rewards structure.

Card Details
Purchase APR13.24%-23.24% Variable
Annual fee$95

The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express is positioned to be the card of choice for regular grocery shoppers; earn 6 percent back on up to $6,000 annually in grocery store spending. That will make all that Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner shopping a bit easier to handle, right? But you also earn 3 percent back at gas stations and 1 percent on all other purchases, which will go a long way to offsetting those trips to the mall for your gift shopping. BUT new cardholders who apply by Jan. 11, 2017, will also have the opportunity to earn 10 percent back for six months on their Amazon.com purchases for up to $200 in cash back. Plus, you earn $150 back after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new card within the first 3 months. If you take advantage of both limited-time promotions, that's a total of $350 back in addition to the cash back you can earn with the regular rewards program.

If you like the sound of the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, but don't want to pay the annual fee of $95, you might want to consider the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express instead. The "lite" version doesn't come with an annual fee and the reward tiers are slightly less (3 percent back at grocery stores, 2 percent at gas stations and 1 percent on all other purchases), but it's currently offering the same limited time promotion with Amazon.com purchases.

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Chase Freedom®

Chase Freedom®About Our Ratings

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Our editor's take:
Another rotating categories cash-back card, Chase Freedom® has also tailored its October-December 2016 bonus categories to fit into typical holiday spending patterns. And, new cardholders should take note that you can earn a $150 bonus after spending $500 on the card, in any category, in the first three months.

Card Details
Bonus OfferEarn a $150 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening
Purchase APR14.24%-23.24% Variable
Annual fee$0

If you don’t already have a Chase Freedom® card, it might be a good time to consider signing up. The holidays are a great time to take advantage of bonus sign-up offers for new cardholders. With Chase Freedom®, as with most sign-up bonus cards, you'll need to spend a certain amount -- $500 in the first three months with Chase Freedom® -- in order to earn the sign-up bonus; it's $150 with Chase Freedom®. Add to that opportunity the chance to collect 5 percent back on up to $1,500 in purchases at department stores, wholesale clubs like Costco and Sam's Club, and drugstores and you can watch that cash back grow as your holiday shopping list shrinks. Remember that you'll earn an unlimited 1 percent back on all your purchases outside the bonus categories, too, so it won't hurt to use Chase Freedom® for all your holiday shopping needs.

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Upromise® World MasterCard

Upromise World MasterCard® by SallieMaeAbout Our Ratings

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Our editor's take:
The Upromise Mastercard® is the definition of smart spending. Each time a cardholder users the Upromise credit card, rewards can be put directly toward college tuition (or a number of other cash-back options). And rewards rates are high too with the opportunity to snag as much as 10 percent back on certain purchases.

Card Details
Purchase APR14.24%, 20.24% or 23.24%
Annual feeNone

Today you're buying action figures, Play-doh and dress-up supplies, tomorrow you're financing a college education. Shopping with the Upromise MasterCard® means that today's holiday gifts help fund tomorrow's college degree. Each purchase made with the Upromise Mastercard® earns cash back -- 10 percent if you use your card to shop at Upromise.com (5 percent for your Upromise.com purchases and another 5 percent for using the card to make the purchases), 2 percent on eligible in-store department store purchases and at movie theaters and 1 percent back on all your other purchases. There is no limit to the total cash back you can earn on eligible purchases either. You can redeem your rewards into an eligible 529 College Savings Plan, for a paper check, a Sallie Mae high-yield savings account or to pay off an existing student loan. By the way, there are some pretty hefty introductory perks with this card as well, including a $50 cash bonus just for using your card within the first 45 days of account opening.

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Wells Fargo Cash Wise Visa® Credit Card

Wells Fargo Cash Wise Visa® Credit CardAbout Our Ratings

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Our editor's take:
The holidays are hectic, so no one could blame you if you just want a little simplicity with your credit card rewards this season. Luckily, this card offers you a decent cash-back rate of 1.5 percent across the board. All your purchases, all the time, with no cap on the amount of cash back you can earn.

Card Details
Purchase APR13.24%-25.24% (Variable)
Annual fee$0

Sure it's nice to earn bonus cash back on holiday shopping, but sometimes you just want the ease of knowing you'll earn the same rate no matter where you shop and you don't have to worry about capping out in the bonus categories. The Wells Fargo Cash Wise Visa® Credit Card offers 1.5 percent cash back on all your purchases, but new cardholders can up that amount to 1.8 percent cash back on Android Pay™ or Apple Pay™ mobile wallet purchases for the first 12 months of card ownership. And, just to make your holiday shopping a little bit easier, Wells Fargo allows you to redeem your cash rewards as a withdrawal from any Wells Fargo ATM (and there are 13,000 of them nationwide).

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M&T Visa Signature Card

M&T Visa® Signature Credit CardAbout Our Ratings

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Our editor's take:
The M&T Visa Signature credit card offers a the opportunity to earn a chunk of cash back as an introductory offer and can help you avoid interest on your holiday shopping purchases with a generous 0-interest period on purchases.

Card Details
Purchase APR11.49%-18.49% variable
Annual feeNone

The M&T Visa Signature credit card once again offers the simplicity of flat-rate cash back; in this case, you'll earn and unlimited 1.5 percent cash back on all your purchases no matter where your holiday gift shopping list takes you. Furthermore, new cardmembers can earn 10,000 bonus points, good for $100 in cash back, after making just $500 in purchases within the first 90 days of card membership. That threshold is already pretty low when it comes to intro offers, but it could be even more attainable during the shopping-heavy holiday season. But let's not overlook that 12-month 0 percent APR on purchases and balance transfers, which means you can take a few extra months to pay off your holiday shopping spree interest-free... It just might be the perfect gift to give yourself.

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Best Credit Cards for Holiday Travel

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Chase Sapphire Preferred® CardAbout Our Ratings

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Our editor's take:
If you know you're going to be taking to the skies or roads or hotel rooms or restaurants during the holiday season, you might as well make sure you'll be paying for those purchases with a card designed to reward you handsomely for those purchases. You never know; your holiday travel, entertainment and dining out just might add up to a nice vacation for you a few months down the road.

Card Details
Purchase APR16.24%-23.24% Variable
Annual fee$0 Intro for the First Year. Then $95

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® card is a favorite with CardRatings editors because of its high rewards rate and easy-to-redeem points structure. You'll earn 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining at restaurants and one point per dollar on all your other purchases. The real kicker with this card, however, is the bonus opportunities. Right now, new card members can earn 50,000 points after spending $4,000 within the first three months. Those points are worth up to $625 in travel when redeemed through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. In fact, anytime you redeem points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® you'll receive 20 percent of those points back to be used on a future redemption. This card really can't be beat if you're a regular traveler or even just someone who eats at restaurants on a fairly regular basis... and who has time to cook during a busy holiday season.

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Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card

Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit CardAbout Our Ratings

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Our editor's take:
The generous 40,000 bonus miles (or $400 in travel purchases) intro offer from Venture® is the most obvious benefit of this card, but the high-ongoing rewards rate is what truly makes this card special. Plus, your rewards don't come with blackout restrictions or expiration dates.

Card Details
Points or MilesEarn unlimited 2X miles per dollar on every purchase, every day
Bonus OfferEnjoy a one-time bonus of 40,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months, equal to $400 in travel
Annual fee$0 intro for first year; $59 after that

If the huge sign-up bonus of 40,000 bonus miles (or $400 in travel) once you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first three months from Venture® doesn’t capture your attention, perhaps the on-going high rewards rate will. Cardholders can receive two times the miles on every purchase, uncapped. The $59 annual fee is waived the first year, and, moving forward, if you spend about $250 on your card each month you’ll offset the annual fee.

Rewards can be redeemed for miles for any flight, a hotel stay, car rentals and cruises, among other travel-related purchases, with no blackout dates to worry about. For those who have used airline specific cards, you know how hard it can sometimes be to book the flight you really want (or need). And because points never expire, there is no limit to the amount you can earn. So as you’re chipping away at your holiday shopping list, each purchase can earn points toward that much-needed vacation once your in-laws leave town after the holidays.

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The Platinum Card® from American Express

The Platinum Card® from American ExpressAbout Our Ratings

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Our editor's take:
This is not the card for the "I only travel at holidays" travelers. It comes with a substantial annual fee, but that annual fee nets you all kinds of comforts and perks that -- should you find yourself in the airport during the chaotic travel season -- could certainly come in handy.

Card Details
Bonus Offer40,000 points after you use your new Card to make $3,000 in purchases in your first 3 months.
Annual fee$450

The Platinum Card® from American Express (American Express is a CardRatings advertiser) is certainly a luxury credit card, in case you hadn't guessed that from the $450 annual fee. But before you write it off, take a moment to consider that having this card in your wallet means you also have complimentary access to more than 1,000 airport lounges around the globe and you'll be eligible for up to $200 in fee credit annually for annoying charges like checked bag fees and in-flight meals on a pre-selected airline. There are also hotel credits and more for which just having this card makes you eligible. Oh, and don't forget that you'll also earn five times the points on all flights you book directly with airlines or through American Express Travel. Before you know it, that annual fee has been offset thanks to all the perks and discounts this card affords you. And, honestly, who wouldn't want a chance to escape the airport hubbub and relax in a lounge this holiday travel season?

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Best 0-interest Offer Credit Cards for Handling Holiday Debt

Citi Simplicity® Card - No Late Fees Ever

Citi Simplicity® Card - No Late Fees EverAbout Our Ratings

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Our editor's take:
If you need a bit of extra time to pay off holiday spending Citi Simplicity® is a great card to consider. Simplicity® touts a 21-month long 0% intro APR which happens to be the longest intro APR on the market.

Card Details
Purchase APR13.24% - 23.24% (Variable)
Annual fee$0*

While cash back rewards are always welcome, sometimes just having a bit of extra leeway when it comes to paying off holiday spending is what you want. While we condone responsible credit card use and spending within your means, 0 percent APR credit cards can help bridge the gap when increased spending arises during the holiday season.

Citi® Simplicity® card (Citi is a CardRatings advertiser) has just introduced the “Grand Poobah” of 0% intro offer credit cards. If you are a new cardholder of Citi® Simplicity® the 0% intro APR lasts for 21 months – the longest 0% intro APR currently on the market. Citi® Simplicity® also comes with a no-fee policy… No late fees, no penalty rate, no annual fee. Citi® Simplicity® is one of the Citi® cards that comes with the price rewind feature too, so not only do you have some extra time to ensure you’re paying off your debts, you’ll also be able to guarantee you’re paying the lowest price every time you use your Citi® Simplicity® card.

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Citi® Double Cash Card - 18 month BT offer

Citi® Double Cash Card - 18 month BT offerAbout Our Ratings

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Our editor's take:
Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer is a great option for cardholders that like a simple rewards program: 1% cash back for all purchases made and 1% cash back after you pay for your purchases. The new Citi® PriceRewind feature ensures cardholders receive the best deals on all purchases, making holiday shopping even easier and potentially less expensive.

Card Details
Purchase APR13.24% - 23.24%* (Variable)
Annual fee$0*

Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer is a great option if you would prefer to put your cash back program on autopilot, and do away with rotating categories, specific store requirements, and annual fees. Perfect if you aren’t quite sure where this holiday season will direct your purchasing. Unlike some reward cards that operate on a system that offers rotating categories that give a little more back on spending with specific department stores or websites during the holiday season (but exclude other practical expenditures) Citi® keeps it easy – no rotating categories, simply 1% cash back for all purchases made, and 1% cash back as you pay for your purchases. Another option is to double up cards with one of the ones that offer rotating categories below and use your Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer as your card for purchases that don’t fall into one of the 5% cash back categories, and have your cake and eat it too!

Citi® cardholders also receive the benefits of Citi® Price Rewind. Every time you use your Citi® card to make an online purchase – such as holiday gifts – Citi® Price Rewind will perform a 60-day search for a lower price on the item you purchased. If you didn’t get the lowest price available, then you can request a refund of the price difference. If you’re in a holiday hurry, don’t waste time comparing store prices, just use your Citi® card to do the grunt work.

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Each of the credit cards that CardRatings.com has featured can be a helpful tool for holiday shoppers to cost-effectively check items off their holiday list. In order to take full-advantage of the perks these credit cards offer, cardholders will need to pay off their balances in a timely manner, and spend within their limits. Overspending and under-paying the balance will quickly off-set the rewards earned.

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