7 best rewards credit cards for holiday shopping

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Are You Getting the Best Rewards from Your Credit Card?

From presents for the kids to special food for family get-togethers, holiday traditions have the potential to put a significant dent in your wallet. However, you can take the sting out of that spending by earning rewards for every purchase.

Rewards credit cards come in many flavors, with some offering cash back and others providing miles or points that can be redeemed for travel, gift cards or merchandise.

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U.S. News spoke to four credit experts to learn which cards they recommend consumers use this holiday season. They say shoppers shouldn't only worry about which card they select, but to also focus on how to maximize rewards.

"I'm a strong believer that rewards cards are best used by people who pay off their balance each month," says Jason Steele, the credit card expert at CompareCards.com. If you fail to pay off your balance, you could get charged interest that will negate any rewards you earn.

Online shoppers should also always visit their card's website to look for special offers before making a purchase. "A credit card bonus mall is an online portal that allows you to get extra points or cash back on your online purchases," says Sean McQuay, a credit card expert for NerdWallet. "But remember, the consumer has to use the card associated with that bonus mall to take advantage."

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Beyond that general advice, McQuay and Steele say it helps if you are swiping the right card for you. Here are their picks for the best rewards cards for holiday shopping, along with those of Bethy Hardeman, chief consumer advocate at Credit Karma, and Jill Gonzalez, credit card analyst for WalletHub.

Best rewards credit card for online shopping: Chase Freedom

Any rewards credit card can be used online, but Hardeman, Steele and McQuay all single out the Chase Freedom card as a particularly good choice this holiday season.

The card offers 5 percent cash back on categories that change quarterly. This quarter's bonus retailers include Amazon, a go-to destination for many holiday shoppers, as well as Zappos, diapers.com and Audible. "[The current bonuses] are very helpful for those who like to do shopping online with ease and convenience," Hardeman says.

For all other purchases, Chase Freedom offers 1 percent cash back. Plus, you get a $100 bonus if you spend $500 in the first three months after you open your account.

Best rewards credit card for in-store shopping: Blue Cash Preferred from American Express

If you'd rather shop in stores, Steele recommends using the American Express Blue Cash Preferred card.

The 3 percent cash back you get for department store purchases is nice, but the 6 percent offered at supermarkets is even nicer. "While you may not think of supermarkets as a place for gifts, you can find a lot of gift cards there," Steele says. You can either give those gift cards as presents, or use them to buy presents at other retailers.

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You may need to register for cash back promotions on the American Express website, and the supermarket cash back offer is limited to $6,000 in purchases. Other card perks include a $150 statement credit after you spend $1,000 on your card in the first three months and a 0 percent APR in the first 15 months.

Best rewards credit cards for cash back: Discover it and U.S. Bank Cash+

For those who split their shopping between online and brick-and-mortar retailers, the Discover it and U.S. Bank Cash+ cards are two solid options.

The Discover it card offers 1 percent cash back for most purchases with the exception of three bonus categories that rotate quarterly. For the current quarter, cardholders can get 5 percent back at Amazon, department stores and clothing stores. "It also offers one of the best bonus malls in the industry so it's an awesome choice for shopping online for the holidays," McQuay says

The bonuses are even better if you use Apple Pay, Steele says. Currently, Discover it offers 10 percent cash back for up to $10,000 of in-store purchases made with the mobile payment service through the end of the year. New card members also receive double cash back for their first 12 billing cycles, which means you could earn a whopping 20 percent cash back before 2016.

For those who'd prefer a Visa to Discover, the U.S. Bank Cash+ card offers 5 percent cash back on two categories of your choice, on the first $2,000 in purchases. You can also earn 2 percent cash back on one category, such as gas or groceries, that you select. On top of that, you get 1 percent back on all other purchases.

Hardeman likes the card because it allows consumers to evaluate where they will spend the most and select the appropriate categories.

Best rewards credit card to help you stay out of debt: Citi Double Cash

The Citi Double Cash card gets a nod from McQuay as having one of the highest flat cash back rates in the industry. Users get 2 percent cash back on all purchases, with no rotating categories to worry about.

However, the catch is the card gives you 1 percent when you make a purchase and 1 percent when you pay your bill. For those tempted to carry over some debt into the new year, the card's structure could provide a little motivation to pay off the balance ASAP.

Best rewards credit card for big spenders: Chase Sapphire Preferred

If you have a long gift list, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card could be a good choice, according to Gonzalez.

New account holders who charge $4,000 in the first three months receive 40,000 bonus points, worth $500 of travel through Chase. The card also offers other perks for travelers, including 2 points per dollar spent on travel expenses and restaurants, point transfers to eligible frequent flyer and hotel rewards programs and a 20 percent discount on travel redemptions.

The card is free for the first year but charges a $95 annual fee after that.

Best rewards credit card for those with average credit: QuicksilverOne from Capital One

Not everyone has stellar credit and for those with a few dings on their record, Gonzalez recommends the QuicksilverOne from Capital One. "It is a bit easier to get your hands on," she says.

The card has a $39 annual fee and doesn't offer any upfront bonus like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, but it does come with 1.5 percent cash back on all purchases. Not too shabby for a card that may be willing to approve customers who wouldhave their applications rejected elsewhere.

Before you start applying for cards, check your credit score to find out whether you should start with a card like QuicksilverOne or if you can apply for a more lucrative account. Hardeman points out too many applications at once could drop your score. "You don't want a bunch of inquiries on your report and nothing to show for it," she says.

Related links:
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