Credit cards can make our financial lives easier if we're smart about how we use them -- such as not charging more than we can afford. We need to be smart about choosing our credit cards, too. They may all look the same -- slick plastic rectangles embossed with our name -- but some will serve you far better than others.
Here's a look at some of the best credit cards available, in several categories, such as rewards and cash-back cards, balance-transfer and low-interest rate cards, and travel cards.
Note that each is generally best for many people -- but each will vary in how perfect it is for you. Learn more about these contenders to see which one(s) make the most sense for you, given your needs, your preferences, and your spending habits.
Best rewards and cash-back credit cards
These kinds of cards are sometimes dealt with separately, but they overlap quite a bit. Getting cash back, after all, is certainly a reward. And many rewards cards issue "points" that can be redeemed in place of cash. Following are some top contenders. Note that each has its own terms and conditions and often some limitations on rewards that can be earned. Most offer additional benefits and perks, so take a close look at any card of interest. (We have full reviews available for most of the cards.)
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express: For the right cardholder, this card can deliver a lot of cash back. Its main offering is 6% cash back at supermarkets (on up to $6,000 in annual spending, after which it becomes 1% cash back), 3% cash back at gas stations, and 1% cash back on everything else. If you spend $6,000 or more at the supermarket (that's about $115 per week), you're looking at $360 or more in cash back just for that. The card does sport a $95 annual fee, but many people will find it well worth that. If you're not one of those, you might prefer the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express, which charges no annual fee and offers 3% back at the supermarket, 2% back at gas stations, and 1% back on everything else. The card also has a special offer in effect as of this writing: If you apply by May 3, 2017, you can earn 10% back on what you spend at U.S. restaurants in the first six months -- up to earnings of $200. On top of that, you can earn $150 if you spend $1,000 on the card in your first three months. (Read our full review of the Blue Cash Preferred® from American Express to learn more.)
Citi® Double Cash Card: This card looks like it offers 1% cash back on just about all purchases, but it actually offers 2%. It pays you 1% cash back when you make a purchase -- and then another 1% back when you pay off that sum. Better still, there's no annual fee. Balance transfers don't earn cash back, but they do enjoy a 0% APR (annual percentage rate) for the first 18 months. On the other hand, they will also cost you either $5 or 3% of the value of the transfer, whichever is greater. That would amount to a $150 fee on a $5,000 transfer, which is why this is a great cash back card but not the best balance transfer card. (Read our full review of the Citi® Double Cash Card to learn more.)
Chase Freedom UnlimitedSM: This card offers 1.5% cash back on all purchases, with no limit. The APR is 0% for the first 15 months, even for balance transfers -- though those are also subject to a fee of $5 or 5% of the amount transferred, whichever is greater. You can collect a $150 bonus once you spend $500 in your first three months. There's no annual fee, either. (Read our full review of Chase Freedom UnlimitedSM to learn more.)
Chase Sapphire Preferred®: This card is best suited for travelers. A key appeal is that it awards you 50,000 points once you spend $4,000 on the card in your first three months. Those points are worth $625 in travel expenses when you redeem them through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. It's also good for those who like to eat out, as you'll earn double points for spending on travel and meals at restaurants. There's a $95 annual fee -- but it's waived in the first year. (Read our full review of Chase Sapphire Preferred® to learn more.)
Best balance-transfer and low-interest rate cards
These two kinds of cards also overlap, as folks seeking to transfer a balance want a low interest rate. The following three contenders deserve your consideration.
Barclaycard Ring™ MasterCard®: This card charges no balance transfer fee, and its initial APR is 0% for the first 15 months for transfers made within 45 days of opening the account. The card also offers online access to your FICO® credit score, which can be handy if you're working hard to pay off debts and beef up your score -- perhaps in preparation for getting a mortgage or taking on other debt. It doesn't charge foreign transaction fees, either, which is nice if you travel outside the United States. There's no annual fee.(Read our full review of Barclaycard Ring™ MasterCard® to learn more.)
BankAmericard®: BankAmericard® also charges no annual fee, though it does charge a balance transfer fee of 3% of the value of your transfer (or $10, whichever is greater). Its initial APR is 0% for the first 18 billing cycles for transfers made within 60 days of opening the account. After that, the APR is the lowest rate charged by any BankAmericard product. The card also offers online or mobile access to your FICO® credit score. (Read our full review of BankAmericard® to learn more.)
Citi Simplicity® Card -- No Late Fees Ever: This card features no annual fee, along with "no late fees ever" and "no penalty rate ever." For balance transfers, it charges a fee of 3% of the value of your transfer or $5 -- whichever is greater. Its initial APR is 0% for 21 months for both purchases and balance transfers. (Read our full review of Citi Simplicity® Card to learn more.)
Best travel credit cards
Travel cards come in various forms. Some are dedicated to one airline or one hotel chain, offering benefits and rewards when you frequent the specific company. Others are broader, offering a range of travel-related benefits and rewards. Here are some top contenders for your consideration:
Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®: This card offers 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days -- enough for a $500 travel statement credit. You'll get double miles on all purchases, too, and 5% miles back toward your next redemption whenever you redeem miles. It does charge an annual fee, of $89, but that's waived for the first year. Your miles won't expire as long as your account is open, active, and in good standing, and you'll be charged no foreign transaction fees when traveling. You'll also get online access to your FICO score, among other perks. (Read our full review of Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard® to learn more.)
Chase Sapphire ReserveSM: This card also offers 50,000 bonus points -- once you spend $4,000 in the first three months -- but here the points convert into a $750 value when you redeem them through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. You'll earn triple points when spending on travel or restaurants, and when redeeming points for airfare, hotels, car rentals, or cruises, you'll get 50% more value for your points. The annual fee is a whopper -- $450 (plus $75 per authorized user) -- but it might be more palatable given the $300 annual travel credit. (Of course, if you don't travel within the year, you'll be out a lot of money.) Perks include access to airport lounges and no foreign transaction fees. (Read our full review of Chase Sapphire ReserveSM to learn more.)
Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express: This card can serve you well if you spend a lot of time in hotels. It offers 25,000 bonus Starpoints® after you spend $3,000 on the card in the first three months (and if you sign up by April 5, it will tack on an additional 10,000 once you spend $2,000 more within the first six months). The annual fee is $95, which is waived in the first year. You'll earn Starpoints® when you spend at participating Starwood hotels (Starwood brands include W Hotels, Westin, Sheraton, and more -- and Starwood was recently bought by Marriott). You can spend Starpoints® at gobs of qualifying hotels worldwide and the points can be transferred to most major airline loyalty programs, too.
BankAmericard Travel Rewards®: This card is valuable with any airline or hotel, any time. You'll receive 20,000 bonus points after spending at least $1,000 on the card in the first 90 days -- and those points are worth $200 in a statement credit toward travel purchases. There's no annual fee and no point expiration to worry about. If you have an active Bank of America checking or savings account, you can earn an extra 10% in points on every purchase. (Preferred Rewards clients can collect a bigger bonus, of 25% to 75%.) There are no foreign transaction fees. (Read our full review of BankAmericard Travel Rewards® to learn more.)
Capital One® Venture® Rewards: With this card, you'll collect 40,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 on purchases in your first three months. Beyond that, you'll earn two miles per dollar of purchases overall. The annual fee is $59, which is waived in the first year. There are no foreign transaction fees. (Read our full review of Capital One® Venture® Rewards to learn more.)
Selena Maranjian owns shares of American Express and JPMorgan Chase. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Marriott International. The Motley Fool recommends American Express. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.