A credit card with a good travel rewards program can earn you big perks such as free flights and hotel stays, which is why Canadians tend to prefer travel rewards cards over their cash-back cousins. But last year’s Air Miles debacle left customers with a bad taste in their mouths. Sure, earning travel points was easy. But redeeming them for something you want often left customers, well, wanting.

That’s why I expected 2017 to be a great year to sign up for a new credit card. Canada’s big banks and credit card issuers should have been champing at the bit and dangling all kinds of incentives in hopes of winning over disgruntled Air Miles customers.

Unfortunately, the year of the credit card started off with a whimper. Tangerine, which released its long-awaited Money-Back credit card to great fanfare last March, did an about-face and downgraded a bunch of perks and features.

Then just last week Chase Canada closed its Amazon.ca Rewards Visa to new applications. This card is particularly useful for those who travel and shop in the U.S. or abroad because Chase does not charge the typical 2.5 percent fee to convert your foreign currency purchases back into Canadian dollars. Another loss for Canadian consumers.

But there’s still hope for 2017 to turn out positively for fans of credit card rewards.

Recently, American Express – a company known for its generous credit card perks and incentives – upped the ante with its SimplyCash Preferred Card. The cash back credit card now gives 2 percent back in any spending category with no limits on how much cash back you can earn.

Top 3 Cash Back and Travel Rewards Credit Cards for 2017

Top 3 Cash Back Credit Cards

Here’s how I’d rank the top 3 cash back credit cards on the market today:

1. SimplyCash Preferred Card from American Express

  • 2 percent cash back in any category
  • Bonus: 5 percent cash back for the first six months (up to $300 cash back)
  • $99 annual fee

2. MBNA Rewards World Elite MasterCard

  • 2 points for every dollar spent (2 percent)
  • Bonus: 10,000 points after first purchase ($100)
  • $89 annual fee

3. Scotia Momentum Visa Infinite card

  • 4 percent back on groceries and gas. 2 percent back at drug stores and on recurring bill payments. 1 percent back on everything else.
  • Bonus: 5 percent cash back for the first 3 months (up to $150)
  • $99 annual fee

Top 3 Travel Rewards Credit Cards

On the travel rewards side, you’ll still find value in programs that offer strong base earnings rates along with flexible ways to spend points and miles.

Here are my picks for the top 3 travel rewards credit cards on the market today:

1. Capital One Aspire Travel World Elite MasterCard

  • 2 reward miles for every dollar spent (2 percent)
  • Bonus: 40,000 bonus miles – equal to $400 in travel – once you spend $1,000 on purchases within the first 3 months
  • Book your own trip – including the hotel, airline or rental car of your choice – then redeem your reward miles for your travel expenses
  • $150 annual fee

2. Scotiabank Gold American Express Card

  • 4 Scotia Rewards points for every dollar spent on groceries, gas, dining, and entertainment. 1 Scotia Rewards point for every dollar spent elsewhere
  • Bonus: 25,000 Scotia Rewards points – worth $250 in travel – when you spend $750 within the first 3 months
  • Book and redeem for travel anywhere, anytime, and with no travel restrictions
  • $99 annual fee (1st year free for new sign-ups)

3. BMO World Elite MasterCard

  • 2 percent back for travel on all purchases
  • Bonus: 20,000 welcome points – good for $200 in travel
  • VIP airport lounge access (over $200 US/year value)
  • $150 annual fee

Final thoughts on Cash Back and Travel Rewards

We can get better value from our credit card rewards by looking beyond traditional travel and airline points programs (such as Air Miles and Aeroplan).

Cash back credit cards have come a long way, with many of them offering earnings that rival or surpass so-called premium travel rewards cards on the market, without the hassle of blackout dates and restrictions.

Travel rewards programs such as Capital One Aspire, which allow cardholders to find and book the cheapest flights and hotels on their own and then redeem their reward miles against the charges afterwards, should become the gold-standard moving forward.

2017 can still be a great year to sign up for a new rewards card. Be patient and look for a card with a rewards program that best matches your spending habits – preferably one that offers a generous sign-up bonus, waives the first year’s annual fee, and makes it easy to redeem your points.

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