This article was updated May 17th, 2017.
When I turned fifteen, I remember my father gave me a credit card which I was allowed to use for two things: emergencies and books. -- Ann Brashares
Credit cards are certainly handy when we encounter emergencies -- or books we want to buy. They're not all alike, though. Would you believe that there are several thousand different credit cards out there? No wonder it can be hard determining which one to apply for.
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 good 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 reviewed 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. Below 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.)
- Amazon.com Prime Rewards Visa: If, like many people, you spend a lot at Amazon.com and are a member of its Prime program, consider adding this card to your arsenal. It charges no annual fee, and no foreign transaction fees, either. You'll receive a $70 Amazon.com gift card upon signing up, and will then earn a whopping 5% cash back on all Amazon purchases, along with 2% back on spending at restaurants, gas stations, and drugstores, and 1% back on everything else.
- 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 that drops to 1%), 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. There's a $95 annual fee, but many people will find it well worth that. If you're not one of those, check out the Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express instead, which charges no annual fee and offers 3% back at the supermarket, 2% back at gas stations, and 1% back on everything else. Both cards have 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 in your first three months. (Read our full reviews of the Blue Cash Preferred from American Express and the Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express.)
- Chase Freedom Unlimited: This card offers a solid 1.5% cash back on all purchases, with no limit. The APR (annual percentage rate) 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 Unlimited.)
- Chase Sapphire Preferred: This card is best suited for travelers. 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.)
- Citi Double Cash Card: The Citi Double Cash Card offers a generous 2% cash back on everything you charge. It pays you 1% cash back when you make a purchase -- and then another 1% back when you pay off that sum. If you tend to charge around $1,000 worth of stuff per month, you're looking at $240 in cash back per year. Better still, there's no annual fee. Balance transfers don't earn cash back, but they do enjoy a 0% APR 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.)
Best balance-transfer and low-interest rate cards
These two kinds of cards also overlap, as people who are looking to transfer a balance also favor low interest rates. The following four contenders deserve your consideration.
BankAmericard®: The card charges no annual fee, but it does charge a balance transfer fee of 3% of the value of your transfer (or $10, whichever is greater). Its intro APR is 0% for the first 18 billing cycles for transfers made within 60 days of opening the account. The card also offers online or mobile access to your FICO credit score, which is helpful 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. This card does impose a penalty APR of more than 25%, though, if you pay a bill late, so be careful. (Read our full review of BankAmericard®.)
Barclaycard Ring Mastercard: This card charges no balance transfer fee (and no annual fee, either), 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. It doesn't charge foreign transaction fees, either, which is nice if you travel outside the U.S. The card also doesn't impose a penalty APR. (Read our full review of Barclaycard RingMastercard.)
- Chase Slate: This card offers a 0% initial APR for the first 15 months on balance transfers and purchases. Better still, there's no balance-transfer fee on transfers made within the first 60 days. Chase Slate also offers Blueprint financial plans to its cardholders to help them with debt-reduction strategies, and it offers access to your FICO score, too. Once the 0% teaser rate expires, the APR it charges isn't among the lowest you'll find, so aim to get a lot of debt paid off in those first 15 months. There's no annual fee and no penalty APR, either. (Read our full review of Chase Slate.)
- 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. That's quite a long period to enjoy a 0% rate, and it gives you a lot of time to pay down your debt significantly. It doesn't impose a penalty APR, either. (Read our full review of Citi Simplicity Card.)
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 PlusWorld 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 PlusWorld Elite Mastercard.)
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: 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 Reserve.)
- 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. The annual fee is $95, which is waived in the first year. You'll earn Starpoints on all spending, and five times as many 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®.)
All the cards above vary in how easy they are to obtain. Having a high credit score will help you be approved for some of the most generous credit cards, so consider working to boost your score if it's not what it could be.