The secret to rewards cards is that earning the most points has more to do with the sign-up bonus than on-going rewards rates. Thanks to a competitive credit card market, the top cards for travelers offer 20,000 to 50,000 bonus points for new cardholders who meet a minimum purchase requirement in the first three months after account opening. When redeemed, the bonuses are worth $200 to $625 in travel value.

Here are two of Fool.com's top picks for credit card points.

Credit card Bonus for new cardholders Minimum spending requirement Annual fee
Chase Sapphire Preferred® 50,000 points ($625 of travel value) $4,000 in the first three months $95, waived in the first year
Bank of America® Travel Rewards 20,000 points ($200 of travel value) $1,000 in the first 90 days of account opening No annual fee

Source: Card issuers.

High spenders start fast with a sign-up bonus

When it comes to sign-up bonuses, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® credit card is one of the best. This card offers an extraordinary 50,000 bonus points to qualifying cardholders who spend $4,000 in the first three months after account opening. The card also offers a standard rate of 2x points on travel and restaurant purchases, and one point per dollar on all other spending.

The 50,000 bonus points convert into travel value of $625 when you redeem your points through the bank's portal. Points can also be transferred to a long list of travel partners, including hotel chains and airlines, which make it a great choice for people who want to shop around to get the most value for their points upon redemption. (As a Chase Sapphire Preferred® cardholder, I've used its transfer option to redeem my points at a rate approximating $0.03 per point, far more than the "standard" valuation.)

The only downside to this card is that it may not fit the needs of smaller spenders. The card carries an annual fee of $95, which is waived in the first year. However, in exchange for an annual fee, cardholders get access to a lucrative rewards program, plus ancillary benefits like primary rental car insurance (most cards only offer less valuable, secondary insurance on rental cars.) Read more in our full review of the Chase Sapphire Preferred®.

Photo of a couple in a convertible car.

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Sign-up bonus for smaller spenders (no annual fee!)

Cardholders who have smaller spending needs may be better off with a no-annual-fee credit card like the Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card. This card offers a valuable 20,000 bonus point sign-up offer in which qualifying cardholders receive 20,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days after account opening. Points are redeemable for travel via statement credit redemptions, thus allowing you to charge travel purchases to your card and use your points to erase the balance from the purchase.

The Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card has a simple rewards program in which all types of spending earn at a rate of 1.5 points per dollar spent. You don't have to opt into bonus categories, or think about whether or not to use the card for a particular purchase, since it pays a flat rate on all spending.

Those who have a banking relationship with Bank of America may be able to extract even more value from this card. Preferred Rewards clients qualify for 25% to 75% bonus on top of the standard rate of 1.5 points per dollar spent. Thus, at the high-end, this card can dole out as much as 2.62 points on every dollar spent, equating to $0.0262 of travel value for every purchase dollar charged to the card. Read more in our full review of the Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card.

The skinny on rewards cards

As a general rule, the sign-up bonus has the greatest impact on how many points you earn from a card. The best cards to accumulate points have up-front sign-up bonuses that accelerate a cardholders' ability to collect high rewards on every dollar of spending.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® rewards new cardholders with 50,000 points (worth $625 in travel value) for the first $4,000 of spending, or $0.156 of bonus value on the first $4,000 of purchases. The Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card offers 20,000 points ($200 of travel value) on the first $1,000 of spending, or $0.20 of bonus value on the first $1,000 of purchases.

These two sign-up bonuses help cardholders get a fast start in accumulating points, while rewarding cardholders with attractive rewards on an on-going basis. Consider using them in tandem by using the Chase Sapphire Preferred® for restaurants and travel and the Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card for all other spending to maximize the points earned on every swipe after the sign-up bonus period.

Jordan Wathen has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.