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The Best (and Worst) Credit Cards for 2011

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Credit card issuers have been flooding mailboxes with new offers after pulling way back in 2009 amid a credit crisis and a flurry of stricter regulations. But that doesn’t mean that all the recent offers are attractive — issuers are more concerned with boosting their revenue than with rewarding customers, especially at a time when new restrictions are expected to cut fee income on credit and debit cards by $24 billion this year. Interest rates on outstanding credit balances average 14.7% now, compared with 11.8% three years ago. How to find the best credit cards for your needs… *

CASH-BACK CARDS

Many cash-back offers became less rewarding following the adoption of new federal rules restricting fees and interest rate increases on credit cards. Some cash-back cards still are generous, but consumers who don’t pay their bills in full every month should be aware of the typically higher interest rates on these cards.

Best cash-back card: Fidelity Rewards American Express. This card offers 2% cash back on all purchases. That cash is deposited into a Fidelity investment account. 866-598-4971, www.Fidelity.com.

Honorable mention: PenFed Visa Platinum Cashback Rewards.** This card offers 5% cash back at gas stations… 2% at supermarkets… and 1% on other purchases. 800-247-5626, www.PenFed.org.

Worst fine print for a cash-back card: Discover’s cash-back cards. Its “5% cash-back” rate applies only to specific spending categories that change quarterly, and even the “1% on other purchases” rate doesn’t apply to all other purchases — a skimpy 0.25% cash-back rate applies to a cardholder’s first $3,000 in charges each year and to all purchases at warehouse clubs.

TRAVEL REWARDS CARDS

One problem with some travel rewards credit cards these days is that airline miles have become extremely difficult to redeem. The best travel rewards cards offer simple, flexible redemption rules and make it easy to accumulate frequent-flier miles.

Best travel card: PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express.** This no-fee card offers five points for each dollar spent on airfare and one point per dollar on everything else. Earn 20,000 bonus points by spending at least $650 within three months of signing up. Points can be redeemed with virtually any airline, with no blackout dates or other restrictions. The typical domestic round-trip ticket costs 20,000 points. 800-247-5626, www.PenFed.org.

Honorable mention: Capital One Venture Rewards Visa. Earn two miles per dollar spent, with no caps or expiration dates. Each mile is worth one cent toward paying for travel costs. Under this program, you can avoid blackout dates and limits on the availability of frequent-flier seats. Redeem miles with any airline — or for a wide range of other travel expenses, including hotels, car rentals, taxis, airline baggage fees and parking fees. Spend $1,000 in the first three months to earn 10,000 bonus miles. Also, this credit card does not charge the foreign transaction fee on international purchases that most other cards do. The $59 annual fee is waived for the first year. 800-410-0020, www.CapitalOneVenture.com.

Worst travel-card drawback: USAirways MasterCards. A recent study found that USAirways is the most difficult airline to book seats on in exchange for frequent-flier miles. There’s no reason to earn miles if you can’t redeem them.

LOW-INTEREST-RATE CARDS

Credit cards now average a variable interest rate of more than 14%, and some have rates of 20% or more. But there still are a few cards with rates below 10%.

Best low-rate card: Simmons First Visa Platinum. Simmons has kept rates on its cards relatively low for more than 20 years. This card’s interest rate has been just 7.25% lately. 800-272-2102, www.SimmonsFirst.com.

Honorable mention: PenFed Promise Visa.** PenFed added this new low-rate, low-fee card to its already impressive lineup in 2010. It features a very attractive 7.49% fixed interest rate for the first 36 months, followed by a still-attractive variable rate — recently 9.99%. There is no annual fee and no fees for late payments… going over the credit limit… returned payments… balance transfers… cash advances… or foreign transactions. And there is no jacked-up penalty interest rate. 800-247-5626, www.PenFed.org.

Worst low-interest-card trap: Chase Freedom. The advertised 11.99% rate sounds appealing, but some applicants instead will be approved for a much higher rate of 22.99%.

BALANCE-TRANSFER CARDS

Attractive balance-transfer offers were very hard to find a year ago because the credit crunch and new credit card rules made banks especially wary of debt-laden customers. Now 0% introductory offers on transferred balances are back — but with a twist. In years past, transfer fees were nonexistent or tended to be capped at a few hundred dollars. Today those fees usually are uncapped — although some cards cap fees for the first 3%, 4% or 5% of the entire amount you transfer. It’s worth paying the fee only if you can find a very low rate that remains in effect for a substantial period of time.

Best balance-transfer card: Citi Platinum Select MasterCard. The 0% introductory rate on transfers remains in effect for 18 months, and the 0% rate on new purchases lasts for 12 months. A variable rate of 11.99% to 20.99% applies thereafter, depending on your creditworthiness. 800-311-9098, www.CitiCards.com.

Honorable mention: Discover More Card. This card’s 5% cash back for categories that change might not make it the most appealing card for people whose only goal is getting big rewards, but it does offer a 0% rate on balance transfers for 18 months without any balance-transfer fee. A rate of 11.99% to 20.99% applies thereafter. 800-347-2683, www.Discover.com.

Worst balance-transfer rate switch: US Bank FlexPerks Cash Rewards Visa. Its 0% balance-transfer rate sounds attractive, but that rate stays in effect for just six months, then could climb to as high as 23.99%, depending on your creditworthiness.

CARDS FOR MIDDLING CREDIT SCORES

Desirable credit cards increasingly are offered only to consumers who have credit scores of 720 to 730 and higher. People with lower scores do have a few reasonable options, however.

Best middling-credit-score card: Capital One Standard Platinum/Classic Platinum MasterCard. While most large credit card issuers spurn consumers with credit scores between 690 and 720, Capital One courts them. The bank offers a range of cards for those with average credit and provides a prequalification tool on its Web site so that consumers can gauge which cards they are likely to qualify for before submitting applications. Options include the Capital One Standard Platinum MasterCard, which has a 24.9% variable annual percentage rate (APR) and $19 annual fee that is waived the first year… and the Capital One Classic Platinum MasterCard, which has a 0% introductory APR until October 31, 2011, and 17.9% to 22.9% thereafter, depending on your creditworthiness, and a $39 annual fee. 800-955-7070, www.CapitalOne.com.

Honorable mention: Citi Secured MasterCard. “Secured” cards are available even to those with very low credit scores, but they require that the cardholder make a cash deposit with the issuer. Some secured cards charge steep interest rates and fees — though new federal rules did curtail these somewhat — but Citi Secured’s $29 annual fee and 18.24% variable interest rate are quite reasonable. Another advantage: Cardholders’ deposits are invested in interest-bearing certificates of deposit (CDs). 800-726-2109, www.CitiCards.com.

Worst card fees: First Premier Bank MasterCard. First Premier issues credit cards to people who have poor credit — but its fees are about as high as the law allows, and it has incredibly steep interest rates, recently 59.99%.

*Cards designated as “best” in this article charge no annual fee unless otherwise indicated. Be aware that card features change frequently.

**Although PenFed credit cards are available only to members of the Pentagon Federal Credit Union, membership is open to anyone who joins the National Military Family Association or Voices for America’s Troops for onetime fees of $20 and $15, respectively. Details are at www.PenFed.org.

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Source: Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com, which features credit card news and reviews. He is co-chair of the Arkansas chapter of the nonprofit Jump$tart Coalition for Financial Literacy and serves on the advisory board of The Center for Consumer Financial Services at Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, New York. He is author of How You Can Profit from Credit Cards (FT Press). www.CardRatings.com Date: March 1, 2011 Publication: Bottom Line Personal
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