What Credit Card Offers Have Improved in the Pandemic?

Rewards rates, bonus offers, and card options have gotten a boost this year

online shopping with a credit card
••• Getty Images/Georgijevic

Despite ongoing economic gloom, the credit card industry is alive and well, as evidenced by a lineup of card offers that have improved during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Major card issuers including Chase, American Express, and Capital One have expanded rewards programs to include more everyday spending categories, boosted bonus offers, and in some cases, launched new products.

These changes are aimed at building customer loyalty in the pandemic economy. If card issuers can appeal to travel rewards fans even when they aren’t traveling or can attract new customers who need an accessible credit card to rebuild their scores, that will reap benefits in the long run. For consumers, this means more attractive offers and card flexibility during an unusual year.

“There has been such a dry spell until recently,” said David Shipper, senior analyst for market researcher Aite Group, in a phone call with The Balance. “We are already seeing offers start to pick up again.”

Key Takeaways

  • Several premium travel rewards credit cards are giving cardholders more ways to earn points (or miles) on everyday expenses for a limited time.
  • Those who don’t have a travel rewards card (or want another) can find substantial bonuses across hotel- and airline-branded card offers right now, often worth hundreds of dollars more than pre-pandemic deals.
  • Brand new cards, such as the Petal 1 Visa and the Venmo Credit Card, are breaking new ground with features such as tailored rewards programs and approval processes that consider banking history instead of just credit scores.

Improved Card Offers

There are several already good credit cards that have been made even better over the past six months. 

Chase Sapphire Preferred & Chase Sapphire Reserve

Starting Nov. 1, both of these premium travel cards give cardholders extra points on grocery purchases (including pick-up and delivery), which is good news for those who typically use these cards to rack up travel rewards but are staying close to home these days. Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders will get 3 points per $1 spent on groceries and Chase Sapphire Preferred cardholders will offer 2 points per $1 (up to $1,000 in purchases each month). This new offer is good through April 30, 2021.

Extra grocery rewards is just one of the extra perks these cards are offering during the pandemic. Another option is the “Pay Yourself Back” program, which reimburses you for routine purchases while giving you the same elevated value the points would have had if used to make travel reservations through Chase. It’s a good deal if you want to save money on purchases you are making while not traveling right now, such as takeout and groceries. This program was recently extended through April 2021, making it a lengthy limited-time offer. 

The Chase Sapphire Preferred card is also advertising a top-notch bonus, offering 20,000 more Ultimate Rewards points than it did earlier this year. New cardholders who spend $4,000 within three months of opening an account will earn 80,000 points, an offer worth $1,000 when redeemed for travel through Chase or the Pay Yourself Back program, possibly more if transferred to a travel partner loyalty program. The Chase Sapphire Reserve bonus isn’t nearly as good, but you can use its annual $300 travel credit on gas and grocery purchases now through June 30, 2021.

Chase Freedom Unlimited

Once a simple cash-back card best paired with others, the Chase Freedom Unlimited card got a quality facelift in September that makes it a worthy contender on its own. 

It still offers unlimited 1.5% back on all purchases, but now cardholders can also earn 3% back on dining and drugstore purchases, 5% back on Lyft rides through March 2022, and 5% back on travel purchased through Chase. This earning structure makes it a more competitive card considering similar cards only offer 1% back on all purchases, and rarely as much as 5% back. 

Marriott Bonvoy Boundless & Bonvoy Brilliant

Both of these hotel cards currently tout extremely high-value bonus offers for new cardholders. 

The Marriott Bonvoy Boundless offer stands out in particular since the card only charges a $95 annual fee. New cardholders who spend $5,000 within three months of opening their account will earn five free nights at a Marriott Bonvoy hotel. Each free night is worth up to 50,000 points each, so that makes this bonus worth 250,000 points total, or $2,775 based on The Balance’s average point valuations. That’s the very best hotel card bonus offer we know of right now, and even beats out the bonuses of other premium travel cards, like the aforementioned Chase Sapphire Preferred and Reserve cards. 

If you’re a fan of this hotel chain and don’t have a Marriott-branded card already, this is a great offer to snatch up if you’re planning a trip for 2021. Like all bonuses, it’s subject to change whenever the issuer sees fit, so it may only be around for a limited time.

The latest Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant bonus offer is also quite good—100,000 points for spending $5,000 in purchases within three months and another 25,000 points after your first cardholder anniversary—but the card comes with a higher annual fee. That unavoidable cost is made better by the second layer of the latest bonus offer: automatic Marriott Bonvoy Platinum Elite status for one year. You’d typically have to stay with Marriott 50 times in a year to earn that status level. Marriott Bonvoy Platinum Elite status offers members extra hotel points and indulgences such as late checkout, room upgrades, and lounge access at participating hotels. 

Capital One Venture 

Patient new cardholders can earn a massive bonus with the Capital One Venture Card. Spend $3,000 within three months of opening an account to earn 50,000 Venture miles, and then spend $20,000 within your first year as a cardholder to get another 50,000 miles, for a total bonus of 100,000 miles. The limited-time offer is worth $1,000 when used for travel purchase statement credits, in line with the big Chase Sapphire Preferred offer.

Brand New Cards

Even though issuers have pulled back on lending during the pandemic, a number of new credit cards have made their debut this year, many of which stand out among others in their class:  

  • Petal 1: This secured-card alternative considers applicant banking history alongside credit score to determine creditworthiness. That’s unusual, and could help people with fair or poor credit to build up their credit score. Petal launched this card to help those who don’t have many card options when lending standards are high. 
  • Venmo Credit Card: It’s only available to some Venmo users right now, but has a unique rewards structure that automatically gives the highest rate of cash-back (3%) to cardholders' top spending category each month. It’s a personalized approach to credit card rewards, unlike the fixed bonus categories typically offered by cash-back cards.
  • United Gateway Card: This airline-branded card replaces the atypical United TravelBank card that was closed to new applicants earlier this year. It’s light on airline perks, as no-annual-fee airline cards often are, but the earning rates are solid compared to other similar airline cards, and cardholders can earn lots of extra miles on groceries each month, which is a boost for those not flying much right now. 
  • Chase Freedom Flex: Alongside the Freedom Unlimited refresh in September, Chase launched its Freedom Flex card, which offers a blend of rotating rewards categories and fixed categories that always award extra points. It’s an option for those who want to earn valuable Ultimate Rewards points, but avoid a premium annual fee.
  • U.S. Bank Altitude Go Visa Signature Card: It’s not as new as some of the other cards on this list, but offers excellent rewards on dining purchases (including delivery), and solid rates on grocery, gas, and streaming service expenses. The card is on par with the notable Wells Fargo Propel, and is likely a good fit for many consumers’ spending habits this year in particular. 

Other Positive Changes

The Balance has observed many other smaller, but still positive changes over the past six months, including larger sign-up bonuses and extra ways to earn travel card rewards.

Boosted Travel Card Bonus Offers

In addition to the stand-out offers mentioned earlier, a handful of other travel cards (mostly branded by airlines and hotels) have also bolstered their new-cardholder bonuses during the pandemic.

Travel Rewards Credit Card Bonuses That Have Improved in 2020
Credit Card Old Sign-Up Bonus New Sign-Up Bonus Additional Bonus Value
Delta SkyMiles Platinum Business Card 45,000 miles after $3,000 spent (plus $100 statement credit after first purchase) within 3 months. 90,000 miles (and a $100 credit) after $3,000 spent within 3 months. $693
Delta SkyMiles Platinum Card 40,000 miles and 5,000 MQMs after $2,000 spent (plus $100 statement credit after first purchase) within 3 months. 90,000 miles after $3,000 spent within 3 months. Plus $200 statement credit after making a Delta purchase in first 3 months. $770
Delta SkyMiles Gold Business Card 40,000 miles after $2,000 spent within 3 months. 70,000 miles (and a $50 credit) after $2,000 spent within 3 months. $462
American Express Gold Card 35,000 points after $4,000 spent within 3 months. 60,000 points after $4,000 spent in 6 months. $285
Delta SkyMiles Gold Card 35,000 miles after $1,000 spent within 3 months. 70,000 miles after $2,000 spent  within 3 months. $231
IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card 125,000 points after $3,000 within 3 months. 140,000 points after $3,000 within 3 months. $113
Hilton Honors American Express Card 75,000 points after $1,000 spent within 3 months. 80,000 points after $1,000 spent within 3 months. $23
Hilton Honors American Express Surpass Card 125,000 points after $2,000 spent within 3 months. 130,000 points after $2,000 spent within 3 months. $23

Note: To determine the additional value of each bonus, we calculated the difference between the old and new bonus values based on our estimated value of each card’s rewards point.

Increased Reward Flexibility

A number of major card issuers including American Express, Capital One, and Citi are still offering additional ways to get statement credits that are usually based on travel expenses. That’s helpful for those who have cards with high annual fees and who may count on those extra credits to recoup costs. 

Similar to the Chase Pay Yourself Back program, Capital One is still allowing those with the Venture and VentureOne cards redeem miles for restaurant and streaming services purchases. Venture Miles won’t lose any value when used that way either.

For more information about these card perks, read “Limited-Time Travel Rewards Card Offers During COVID-19.”

Evolving Consumer Needs Continue to Drive Card Offers

Instead of maintaining the status quo, card issuers have used the past several months to appeal to what cardholders are using cards for today, such as buying groceries and stockpiling rewards to use for postponed vacations. Some of the brand new card launches also speak to those who have become most vulnerable this year, according to John Cabell, Director of Banking and Payments Intelligence for J.D. Power. 

“We know that people who are on the lower income band typically have more credit challenges, but they are also the ones who have been more impacted by the pandemic, so there need to be products to meet their needs,” he said in a phone call with The Balance. “The launches that we have seen have been centered around realigning the products with changing consumer spending patterns.” 

Offer updates like the ones recorded in recent months also encourage cardholder loyalty, which banks ultimately need for their bottom line. “Customers who are more satisfied with their rewards and card benefits will stick around,” Cabell said.

What to Expect in 2021

Industry experts believe positive credit card offer changes will continue into the final months of 2020 and the new year. 

“At the beginning of 2021, we may start to return to normal and see lots of offers going out either by direct mail, email, or online advertising, and more people opening cards,” Shipper, the Aite Group analyst, said.

Lucrative short-term offers that allow more ways to earn points or get statement credits with travel rewards cards will likely still be available, too. It’s easier (and financially less risky) for banks to boost products with limited-time deals rather than flip all card products on their head to adjust to our current environment, according to Cabell. Eventually, spending and travel should normalize—or at least reach a new baseline.

“At some point the pendulum will swing back,” Cabell said. “Issuers don’t want to be caught with a bunch of products and offers that don’t fit.”