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Here's why the American Express Gold Card is the best credit card for most people

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The American Express® Gold Card is one of the top-rated credit cards available to consumers, and you may wonder what all the hype is about. Sure, it's kind of cool to have a card made of metal (and occasionally offered in limited-edition rose gold), but that's not why this card ranks as our top credit card for restaurants and runner-up for rewards and travel. Cardholders can benefit from a competitive rewards program and a variety of high-end perks that can help offset the cost of the $250 annual fee. (See rates & fees)

When CNBC Select crunched the numbers and analyzed over 200 credit cards, we found that consumers can earn substantial rewards with the American Express® Gold Card over a five year period. (See our methodology for more information on how we choose the best cards.)

Below, we break down the rewards, benefits and fees associated with the American Express® Gold Card to help you decide if it's the right card for you.

American Express® Gold Card

American Express® Gold Card
Apply Now
On American Express's secure website.
  • Rewards

    4X Membership Rewards® points when you dine at restaurants worldwide and shop at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per year in purchases, then it drops to 1X), 3X points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com, 1X points on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    35,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases within the first 3 months from account opening

  • Annual fee

    $250

  • Intro APR

    Not applicable

  • Variable APR

    See rates and fees

  • Foreign transaction fee

    None

  • See rates and fees and our methodology, terms apply.

Pros

  • Strong rewards with 4X points earned on dining worldwide, 4X points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per year in purchases, then it drops to 1X) and 3X points earned on flights booked directly with airlines or amextravel.com
  • Cardmembers receive annual statement credits to help cover travel and dining costs
  • 35,000 Membership Rewards® points welcome bonus after you spend $4,000 within first 3 months
  • Baggage insurance plan covers up to $1,250 for carry-on baggage and up to $500 for checked baggage that is damaged, lost or stolen
  • No fee charged on purchases made outside the U.S.

Cons

  • No introductory APR period
  • $250 annual fee
  • American Express isn’t as widely accepted as Visa or Mastercard
  • This is a charge card, which means you have to pay off your balance in full each billing cycle
read more
Apply Now
On American Express's secure website.

Rewards

Cardholders earn 4X Membership Rewards® points when you dine at restaurants worldwide and shop at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per year in purchases, then 1X), 3X points on flights booked directly with airlines or on Amextravel.com and 1X points on all other purchases. Plus, you can earn 2X points on travel reservations, such as hotels, booked through Amextravel.com.

New cardholders can benefit from 35,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases within the first three months from account opening.

CNBC Select calculated how many rewards the average American can earn if they optimize the way they use their American Express® Gold. We worked with the location intelligence firm Esri, who provided us with a sample annual spending budget of $21,852.

The budget includes six main categories: groceries ($5,019), gas ($2,394), dining out ($3,365), travel ($2,154), utilities ($4,959) and general purchases ($3,961).

Here's a breakdown of how many Membership Rewards® points you can earn in each category, annually:

  • Groceries: 20,076
  • Gas: 2,394
  • Dining out: 13,460
  • Travel: 3,779
  • Utilities: 4,959
  • General purchases: 3,961
  • Total: 48,629

To determine how much your points are worth, Amex provides a helpful points value calculator, which allows you to select how many points you have (1,000; 5,000; 10,000, then increasing by increments of 10,000) to check the value. The value of points varies based on redemption method, so here are some examples of what 50,000 points are worth, which is roughly what you'd earn each year with this card using the sample budget of $21,852.

  • Pay with points at checkout: $250 (Ticketmaster), $350 (all other sites, such as Amazon and PayPal), $500 (NYC Taxi)
  • Gift cards: up to $500
  • Statement credit: $300
  • Book or upgrade travel: $350* (prepaid hotels and cruises), $500* (flights)
  • Transfer points to frequent traveler program partners: up to 50,000 points in the partners' program. Find out how to transfer points to a loyalty program.
  • Shopping with merchant partners: $250

*Note that you have to pay for travel using your American Express® Gold card through American Express Travel to get these redemption rates. There are no blackout dates when travel is booked on this site. Plus points don't expire while your account is open.

Based on the annual spending budget from Esri, the average American can earn an estimated $806 in the first year of card membership, thanks to the welcome bonus, and $2,631 over five years with the American Express® Gold Card, net the annual fee. This assumes that cardholders are redeeming points for a typical maximum value of 1 cent per point. Extreme optimizers might be able to achieve more value, and you may earn a higher or lower return depending on your spending habits

Additional benefits

Beyond rewards, the American Express® Gold Card provides a variety of added dining, travel and shopping perks that can add up to increased savings.

Save on dining

Receive an annual $120 dining credit ($10 a month) at Grubhub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth's Chris Steak House, Boxed and participating Shake Shack locations. You must enroll in the program, but this credit can be used offset the bill at a participating restaurant.

Shopping

AmEx is one of few card networks to provide exclusive shopping discounts at select retailers through AmEx Offers. These offers typically give you a set dollar amount of cash back, credited to your account within 90 days after you meet the requirements.

Offers vary based on location and are usually only available for a certain period of time. There are typically minimum spending requirements and maximum earning benefits. Plus offers can vary from between different AmEx cards and from cardholder to cardholder.

A current offer for Boxed states: Spend $75 or more, get $20 back. The offer is valid through October 31, 2019, and you can spend $75 in one or more transactions online.

Cardholders can also sign up for a free ShopRunner membership, which provides free 2-day shipping on eligible items at over 100 online stores, such as Bloomingdale's and Neiman Marcus. Find out more about how ShopRunner works.

And if you try to return a purchase made with your Gold Card within the first 90 days from the date of purchase and the merchant won't accept it, AmEx may refund eligible items up to $300 per item ($1,000 max per calendar year based on the date of purchase).

Travel

If you want to upgrade your seat for extra leg room or check a bag to avoid the hassle of battling for the overhead bin, you can take advantage of the $100 annual airline fee credit to cover these incidentals as well as in-flight food and beverages.

When you stay at select hotels booked through The Hotel Collection, cardholders can receive exclusive perks, such as a $100 hotel credit and complimentary room upgrades.

Added travel protections include baggage insurance up to $1,250 for carry-on baggage and up to $500 for checked baggage and car rental loss and damage insurance. Terms apply.

There are also no foreign transaction fees, so you can use your Gold Card outside the U.S. without the typical 3% fee other rewards cards may charge.

Fees

This card has a $250 annual fee, but if you take advantage of the annual $120 dining credit and annual $100 airline fee credit, you can offset the fee to an effective $30.

There is no regular purchase APR since this is a charge card, and you're required to pay your bill in full every month. However, AmEx provides a Pay Over Time feature where eligible purchases over $100 can benefit from payment flexibility, with interest. See rates and fees for the Pay Over Time APR.

Since this is charge card, balance transfers can't be completed with this card.

Bottom line

The American Express® Gold Card provides a range of benefits for consumers who are looking to earn first-class rewards on groceries and dining out. The $250 annual fee may seem steep, but if you take advantage of all the yearly statement credits, you can easily offset the fee.

Our Methodology

To determine which credit cards offer the best value, CNBC Select analyzed 234 of the most popular credit cards available in the U.S. We compared each card on a range of features, including rewards, welcome bonus, introductory and standard APR, balance transfer fee and foreign transaction fees, as well as factors such as required credit and customer reviews when available. We also considered additional perks, the application process and how easy it is for the consumer to redeem points.

CNBC Select teamed up with location intelligence firm Esri. The company's data development team provided the most up-to-date and comprehensive consumer spending data based on the 2018 Consumer Expenditure Surveys from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. You can read more about their methodology here.

Esri's data team created a sample annual budget of approximately $21,852 in retail spending. This budget is comprised of the most common spending categories, including groceries ($5,019), gas ($2,394), dining out ($3,365), travel ($2,154), utilities ($4,959) and general purchases ($3,961). General purchases include items such as housekeeping supplies, clothing, personal care products, prescription drugs and vitamins, and other vehicle expenses.

CNBC Select used this budget to estimate how much the average consumer would save over the course of a year, two years and five years, assuming they would attempt to maximize their rewards potential by earning all welcome bonuses offered and using the card for all applicable purchases. All rewards total estimations are net the annual fee.

While the five-year estimates we've included are derived from a budget similar to the average American's spending, you may earn a higher or lower return depending on your shopping habits.

For rates and fees of the American Express® Gold Card, click here.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.