Americans collectively owed more than $1 trillion in credit card debt as of the end of 2017—the highest credit card debt ever. That whopping debt burden should serve as a reminder that low interest rates may be as important as rewards in choosing a card.
All in all, the card you choose will depend on your particular habits, whether that means you are a big borrower…traveler…foodie…driver…a small-business person…or a student.
Here’s a look at 11 of the best credit cards for different uses and users…
Best Low-Rate and Low-Fee Cards
If you don’t pay off your balance every month or your goal is to minimize credit card fees, not maximize rewards—these could be the cards for you.
Best for low ongoing interest rates: Lake Michigan Credit Union Prime Platinum offers rates as low as the prime rate plus three percentage points. As of early January, that added up to an impressively low 7.5% annual percentage rate (APR), compared with the credit card industry average of 16.7%. The card also does not charge any fee for transferring balances from other cards. You must be a member of Lake Michigan Credit Union to qualify, but anyone who makes a onetime $5 donation to the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association of Michigan through the credit union’s website can join. If your credit score is below 720 or so, you might be offered a higher interest rate. (No annual fee. LMCU.org)
Best low introductory rate/best balance transfer card: Citi Diamond Preferred offers a 0% interest rate for your first 21 months with the card, the longest 0% “introductory” rate currently available (another card, Citi Simplicity, matches this 21-month 0% introductory rate—see below). That 0% rate applies to both purchases and balance transfers. The balance-transfer fee is a reasonable 3% (or $5, whichever is greater). (No annual fee. 14.24% to 24.24% APR depending on your creditworthiness following the introductory period. Citi.com)
Best for people prone to late payments: Citi Simplicity won’t charge a late fee or impose a steep “penalty APR” if you miss payment due dates. And like Citi Diamond Preferred, it offers an impressive 21-month 0% introductory interest rate on both purchases and balance transfers. Simplicity does come up short of Diamond Preferred in one way, however—its interest rates are a bit higher after that introductory period ends. (No annual fee. 15.24% to 25.24% APR depending on your creditworthiness following the introductory period. Citi.com)
Best Rewards Cards
Here are some of the cards that offer the most attractive rewards for different types of purchases—or different types of cardholders.
Best for dining out: Capital One Savor is a great new card for foodies. Savor, which became available in October, offers a delectable 3% cash back at restaurants. It also offers 2% back at grocery stores and 1% on everything else. (No annual fee. 15.74% to 24.49% APR following a 0% nine-month introductory period. CapitalOne.com)
Best for cash-back simplicity: Citi Double Cash is for cardholders who want as much cash back as possible while jumping through as few hoops as possible. It essentially offers 2% back on all purchases without any spending caps or rotating categories to worry about. The only twist—you earn half that 2% when you make the purchase, and the other half only when you pay off the credit card balance. But as long as you pay off your balance in full each month, that’s virtually the same thing as receiving 2% back on everything…and if you don’t pay off your balance in full every month, you should be using a low-APR card, such as Lake Michigan Credit Union Prime Platinum, not a rewards card. (No annual fee. 14.74% to 24.74% APR. Citi.com)
Best for travel rewards: Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard gives cardholders the equivalent of 2% back on all purchases—but its rewards are provided in the form of miles, not cash back. Those miles are almost as good as cash if you travel—they don’t expire (assuming the account remains open, active and in good standing), and they can be redeemed for purchases made with almost any airline, hotel, time-share, car-rental agency, cruise line, discount travel website, train, bus or taxi, among other options. Still, it’s reasonable to question why consumers should choose this card, which charges an annual fee and restricts their rewards to travel purchases, over a straightforward 2% cash-back, no-annual-fee card such as Citi Double Cash (see above). The answer is that the Arrival Plus 2% back is not its only perk. It currently offers 40,000 bonus miles—enough for a $400 travel credit—if you spend at least $3,000 in the first 90 days, among the best credit card sign-up bonuses currently available. It offers “5% miles back” when you redeem miles—redeeming 20,000 miles earns you an additional 1,000 miles, for example. And it imposes no foreign transaction fee. (The annual fee of $89 is waived in the first year. 17.24% to 24.24% APR. Home.BarclaycardUS.com)
Best for gas: PenFed Platinum Rewards offers the equivalent of 4.25% cash back on gas purchases made at the pump. (Cardholders technically earn five “points” for each dollar spent on gas, but those points can be redeemed for versatile gift cards at a rate of approximately 0.85 cents per point, among other redemption options.) The card also offers the equivalent of 2.55% back at supermarkets…and 0.85% on everything else. New cardholders receive a $100 statement credit if they spend at least $1,500 in their first 90 days with the card. Only members of the PenFed Credit Union can obtain this card, but you can join by making a onetime donation of as little as $17 to a specified nonprofit—see PenFed’s website for details. What’s more, Platinum Rewards is one of the few rewards cards that can make sense for people who carry a balance. Its interest rates are very low by rewards cards standards—recently 9.74% to 17.99%, depending on creditworthiness. New cardholders qualify for a 0% APR on balance transfers for the first 12 months (there is a 3% balance-transfer fee). (No annual fee. PenFed.org)
Alternatives: If you are a member of Costco, Costco Anywhere Visa by Citi offers 4% cash back at most gas stations—not just Costco gas stations—on up to $7,000 in gas purchases each year (1% after that). The card also offers 3% back at restaurants and on many travel purchases, 2% at Costco and 1% on everything else. (No annual fee, but this card is available only to Costco members, and membership generally costs $60 per year. 16.49% APR following seven-month 0% introductory rate on purchases. Citi.com)
If there are Marathon gas stations in your area and you buy lots of gas, also consider Marathon Visa, which offers the highest potential cash-back rates among station-branded rewards cards. Cardholders earn a 25-cent rebate on each gallon of Marathon gas they charge during months when their total charges reach or exceed $1,000—that’s a stellar 10% discount if gas costs $2.50 a gallon and the card is used only for gas purchases. The rewards rate is a still-attractive 15 cents per gallon (as much as 6% cash back) in months where $500 to $999.99 is charged…but a less notable five cents (as much as 2% cash back) in months where less than $500 is charged. (No annual fee. 17.99% to 25.9% APR. Comenity.net/Marathon)
Best Cards for Businesses and Students
In addition to consumers, businesses and students can benefit from picking the best credit cards…
Best small-business rewards card: Capital One Spark Cash Visa for Business offers 2% cash back without limit. New cardholders can earn an additional $500 cash back for spending $4,500 in the first three months. ($95 annual fee, but this is waived in the first year. 18.24% APR. Capital One.com)
Best student rewards card: Discover It Chrome Card for College Students offers 2% cash back on up to $1,000 in spending at restaurants and gas stations each quarter, plus 1% back on all other purchases. It also provides $20 cash back for each school year in which the student’s GPA is 3.0 or higher, for up to five years. And at the end of the student’s first year with the card, Discover will match the cash back that the student earned during that year, effectively doubling the card’s year-one cash-back rates. (No annual fee. 14.24% to 23.24% APR. Discover.com)