8/22/2012 11:05 AM ET|
The best rewards cards for 2012
Not all rewards cards are created equal. Five experts give us their top picks for travel, cash-back and savings rewards programs.
A rewards card is like a shoe. What might be a great fit for one person may very well chafe on another. Some people adore their airline-affiliated cards, for example, while others complain about how hard it is to redeem their rewards for a flight. Many people like the simplicity of cash-back cards, and others like to see how much value they can squeeze out of their reward points.
Rewards cards are also like shoes in that they can get a little down at the heel over time. Rewards can get harder to earn or redeem, or both. Competitors may offer shinier new models that might be a better fit for your individual needs.
So it makes sense to review the available options periodically to make sure you're still getting the best possible deal. I turned, once again, to the experts at CardHub, CardRatings.com, CreditCards.com, LowCards.com, and NerdWallet for recommendations on the best cards in each of three categories: travel, cash back and savings.
Clear winners emerged in each category, along with a number of honorable mentions. If the card you're using now wasn't nominated, it might be time for a switch.
All this assumes:
- You don't carry a credit card balance. If you do, you're not a good candidate for most rewards cards, since they tend to have higher interest rates. Look instead for a low-rate card to help you pay off your debt.
- You have great credit. The richest rewards cards are reserved for people with FICO credit scores of 740 to 750 and above. Credit card issuers are "still skittish from the wave of defaults during the financial crisis" and are looking for "safe borrowers and big spenders," explained Anisha Sekar, the vice president of credit and debit products at NerdWallet.
"If you fit that bill, prepare to be courted with $300 or $500 bonus offers," Sekar said.
Those initial rewards are actually becoming more important than the ongoing rewards rate, said Odysseas Papadimitriou, the founder and CEO of Evolution Finance, which owns CardHub.
"Consumers have made it clear that they're willing to sacrifice ongoing benefits in return for more lucrative immediate perks," Papadimitriou said, "and issuers have responded in kind."
CardHub's second-quarter Credit Card Landscape Report found the average cash-back initial bonus is nearly 40% more valuable than last year and the average points or miles bonus is more than 20% more lucrative.
Some are questioning, though, how long the party can last. Banks eliminated rewards programs on their debit cards after transaction fees were cut in half last year, noted Bill Hardekopf, the CEO of LowCards.com.
- Calculator:When will I pay off my credit cards?
This year, issuers agreed to a $7 billion settlement on transaction fees that could chill rewards. Part of the settlement included a reduction in the interchange fee for the next eight months, Hardekopf said. Merchants also will be allowed to charge people extra for using a credit card, which could discourage credit card use.
"If banks are taking in less revenue from interchange fees," Hardekopf said, "expect the issuers to cut back their credit card rewards programs."
So let's party while we can. Here are some of the best rewards cards available now.
Capital One Venture Card once again emerged the clear winner, just as it did last year. All five experts nominated the card, which allows users to book any airline ticket, hotel room or other travel arrangement they want and then redeem points to pay for it. No blackout dates, no struggle to grab available seats, no weird connecting flights are necessary: Just buy the travel deal you want and pay for it with your points.
"The Venture Card has been the king of the rewards genre for years now, as it is lucrative and provides redemption flexibility," Papadimitriou said. "It offers what amounts to 2% cash back across all purchases when you redeem miles for anything travel-related. In addition, it currently offers a $100 initial bonus, and there are often even more attractive incentives for new customers to sign up."
Chase Sapphire Preferred was nominated by three experts. Points earned with the card can be transferred to any airline mileage program, or even redeemed for cash. But it's the bonus that catches the expert eye.
"If you want a high sign-up bonus, the Sapphire is the way to go. It currently gives 40,000 Ultimate Rewards Points, worth $500 if you redeem for travel booked through Chase," NerdWallet's Sekar said. "Its ongoing rewards rate isn't great -- 2.14% on travel and dining, and 1.07% elsewhere -- but it provides an opportunity to take the bonus and run."
Starwood Preferred Guest from American Express received two nominations "because it pays out in Starpoints, which can be incredibly lucrative if redeemed correctly," as Sekar put it.
"This is another card with a great sign-up bonus offer and one of the highest ongoing point values available -- over $2 per point when you redeem for hotel stays," said Amber Stubbs, the senior managing editor for CardRatings.com. "Right now there is a limited-time, 30,000-point signup bonus that's good for up to six free nights for a category one or two hotel -- less you if choose a nicer hotel. This card also gets you Starwood Preferred Guest status. Considering the high point value and additional perks, it's well worth the $65 annual fee that it will cost you after the first year."
Citi Platinum Select/AAdvantage Visa Signature also received two nominations, with experts citing a big bonus -- 30,000 miles if you spend $1,000 in the first three months -- plus other perks. Hardekopf noted that up to four traveling companies can check a bag for free when you charge your American Airlines ticket to the card, plus you get a $100 discount on the airline if you spend $30,000, and you can earn back 10% of your redeemed miles each year, up to 10,000 miles.
The $95 annual fee is waived the first year, but "the sign-up bonus alone is worth many years' worth of annual fees," said Ben Woolsey, the director of marketing and consumer research for CreditCards.com.
Three experts also nominated cards affiliated with the Hilton HHonors rewards program, but each picked a different version. Woolsey chose the Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature Card, which offers a 40,000-point sign-up bonus after spending $1,000 within four months and no annual fee, with six points for each dollar spent at Hilton properties; three points for each dollar spent at supermarkets, drugstores and gas stations; and two points per dollar for all other purchases.
Papadimitriou liked the Hilton HHonors Surpass Credit Card, an American Express card that also offers 40,000 bonus miles after your first purchase, plus another 20,000 after you charge at least $3,000, which "is well worth the $75 annual fee for frequent travelers, but you also get nine points per $1 spent at Hilton properties, six points per $1 at gas stations and drugstores, and three points per $1 everywhere else."
Stubbs highlighted another Citi Hilton card, the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Visa Signature Card, which has a sign-up bonus good for two free weekend nights at most Hilton properties. "Although you can get more free nights with other hotel sign-ups, this offer allows you to score free nights at some very swanky properties that would normally set you back 50,000 points or more," she explained. Ongoing perks include more points per dollar (10 for Hilton stays, five for airline and car rental purchases and three for all other purchases) and Hilton HHonors gold status, which she said is "worth the $95 annual fee if you stay at Hilton properties just a couple nights per year." For every year that you spend at least $10,000 on the card, you get one free weekend night.
Two cards received honorable mention status, with one nomination each. Hardekopf nominated Gold Delta SkyMiles from American Express, which offers 30,000 bonus miles if you spend $500 in the first three months. You earn two miles for every purchase on Delta or for a supermarket or gas station, and one mile for everything else. The $95 annual fee is waived the first year, and your first bag is checked free.
For auto travel, Papadimitriou likes the PenFed Platinum Rewards Card, which he called "the best gas rewards credit card on the market." The card offers five points per $1 spent on gas, three points per $1 at supermarkets, and one point per $1 on everything else. The card also gives $250 in initial bonuses when you spend at least $1,000 during the first three months.
Capital One takes top honors in this category, too. Four experts nominated the Capital One Cash Rewards, a no-annual-fee card with a "very simple and straightforward reward structure," as Woolsey put it. The card offers a $100 initial bonus for spending $500 in the first three months, a 1% rebate on all purchases and a 50% annual bonus on all the rewards earned each year.
"This card is great for people who don't want to be bothered with keeping track of how much cash back they earn in a certain spending category, when they have to sign up for bonus categories, etc.," Papadimitriou said.
A longtime favorite once again made the list: American Express Blue Cash Preferred, nominated by three experts. "The Blue Cash Preferred gives unlimited, high rewards rates on the purchases people make most: 6% cash back on groceries, 3% on gas and department store spending, and 1% elsewhere," Sekar said. "It has no spending thresholds or caps, and its $75 annual fee is mitigated by the current $150 sign-up bonus and by the spectacular rewards rate."
Stubbs agreed that the annual fee "will pay for itself very quickly if you use the card on even a semi-regular basis." Those who want to avoid annual fees can consider the version with a less robust rewards program, the American Express Blue Cash Everyday Card, she said.
Chase Freedom is NerdWallet's favorite no-fee cash back card, Sekar said, and Hardekopf liked it as well. "The Freedom offers 5% back on rotating bonus categories that change quarterly, up to $1,500 spent per quarter, and an unlimited 1% back elsewhere," Sekar said. "The categories are broad, helpful and seasonally timed. For the summer driving season, it currently gives 5% back on gas and restaurants."
Honorable mentions: Citi ThankYou Preferred Rewards Visa, which Woolsey liked because its "excellent online merchant network offers special discounts and extra point-earning potential." The no-annual-fee card provides 15,000 ThankYou points for spending $1,000 in the first three months, which can be redeemed for $150 in gift cards or cash.
TrueEarnings Card from American Express, another Woolsey pick, "makes the most sense for Costco members but offers strong cash-back purchase category incentives on gasoline (3%) and restaurants (2%) along with 1% cash back on all other purchases. No annual fee for Costco members."
Papadimitriou singled out U.S. Bank Cash+ Visa Signature Card, which "allows you to tailor your rewards to your biggest expenses and does not charge an annual fee," he said. "You earn 5% cash back on two spending categories of your choosing; 2% cash back on gas, groceries or drugstores; and 1% cash back on everything else."
This category, which includes cards that help people save for retirement, college, a car purchase or other goals, has waned over the years as people opted for more immediate rewards. Still standing, though, are the three Fidelity-affiliated American Express Rewards Cards, which deposit your rebates into your Fidelity investment, retirement or college savings account. Four out of the five experts nominated one or all of these cards for their straightforward 2% rebate structure. Stubbs says she's always been a fan of the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express card "because it offers a straight 2% cash back on all purchases and because it encourages saving. This card is so simple -- no rotating categories, no spending thresholds, no point caps, automatic cash deposited into your Fidelity account and no annual fee."
Upromise World MasterCard from Sallie Mae received three nominations. Rewards can be deposited into the affiliated 529 college savings plan or a high-yield savings account or used to pay off Sallie Mae loans. They can also be taken as cash back. The Upromise pays 5% to 10% rewards when users shop through the Upromise online storefront, and "the selection of merchants is actually decent, and includes Wal-Mart, Target and Macy's," Sekar noted. "It also earns 4% back on eligible restaurants, 3% on Exxon Mobil gas, 2% at movie theaters and 1% elsewhere."
"This can be a great way for parents and grandparents and other family members to team up and leverage their spending to help save for college," Woolsey added.
Honorable mention: GM Credit Card, which Papadimitriou called "a great option for anyone interested in purchasing a GM vehicle, as it does not charge an annual fee and offers 5% cash back on all purchases, redeemable towards a GM purchase."
Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.
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So a card that earns 1.5% cash back all the time - the Capital One Cash Rewards - is better than a card that gives 5% back on different but recurring categories every 3 months?
You can even use reward points for purchases, although that's less of a good deal than buying products with the card and paying it off with the money from the reward.
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