"Too many people spend money they haven't earned to buy things they don't want to impress people they don't like."
-- Will Rogers
Credit cards can make it all too easy to spend money we don't have and end up drowning in debt. They're not all bad, though. It's hard to beat the convenience of a credit card in your pocket when you encounter something you want to buy. And better still, some cards can put cash back in your pocket or help you get out of debt.
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.
Some will better serve you than others. 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
Rewards and cash-back credit 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. 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.)
- Amazon Prime Rewards Visa: If, like many people, you spend a lot at Amazon.com and are a Prime member, this card can serve you very well. 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. (Read our full Amazon.com Prime Rewards Visa review.)
- Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express: If you spend a lot at grocery stores, this card offers a whopping 6% cash back there (on up to $6,000 in annual spending, after which that drops to 1%), along with 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 is a $95 annual fee -- but you can bypass it by opting for the Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express instead, which charges no annual fee and offers less in cash back: 3% at supermarkets, 2% at gas stations, and 1% back on everything else. Depending on which card you choose, you can also collect $100 or $150 if you spend $1,000 in your first three months. (Read our full Blue Cash Preferred from American Express review and Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express review.)
- Chase Freedom Unlimited: This card offers a solid 1.5% cash back on all purchases, with no limit. You can collect a $150 bonus once you spend $500 in your first three months. There's no annual fee, either. (Read our full Chase Freedom Unlimited review.)
- Citi Double Cash Card: The Citi Double Cash Card pays you 1% cash back when you make a purchase -- and then another 1% back when you pay off that sum, for a total of 2% cash back. If you tend to charge around $1,500 in total per month, you're looking at $360 in cash back per year. Better still, there's no annual fee. (Read our full Citi Double Cash Card review.)
- Fidelity Rewards Visa Signature Card: This card offers a simple 2% cash-back reward -- with an appealing catch. The 2% will be deposited in a Fidelity account. That can be perfect if you've got a Fidelity savings account, retirement account, brokerage account, or other account. There's no annual fee, either. This card offers an easy way to sock some extra money away for retirement.
Best balance-transfer and low-interest-rate cards
These two kinds of cards also overlap, and they're both good for those who are weighed down by credit card debt. A balance-transfer card can give you some breathing room, charging you no interest for a bunch of months while you work hard to pay off your debt, while a low-interest-rate card will help you spend less on interest payments than you would with other cards. The following contenders deserve your consideration.
- BankAmericard®: BankAmericard® charges no annual fee -- and no balance-transfer fee, either, for transfers made within 60 days of opening your account. (After that, it charges 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 15 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 increase your credit score -- perhaps in preparation for getting a mortgage or taking on other debt. This card doesn't impose a "penalty APR," either -- that's when card companies raise your interest rate, often to 25% or more, if you're late paying a bill. (Read our full BankAmericard® review.)
- Barclaycard RingMasterCard: This card charges no balance-transfer fee (and no annual fee or foreign transaction fees, 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. The card also doesn't impose a penalty APR. (Read our full Barclaycard Ring MasterCard review.)
- Chase Slate: This card offers a 0% initial APR for balance transfers and purchases during the first 15 months once the account is opened. Better still, there's no balance-transfer fee on transfers made within the first 60 days. Transfers made after that face a steep 5% fee (or $5, whichever is greater). The Chase Slate card also offers Blueprint financial plans to its cardholders to help with debt-reduction strategies, and it offers access to your FICO score, too. There's no annual fee and no penalty APR, either. (Read our full Chase Slate review.)
- 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. (Read our full Citi Simplicity Card review.)
Best travel credit cards
Travel cards come in various forms. Some are dedicated to one airline or one hotel company, offering benefits and rewards when you frequent that company. Others are broader, offering a range of travel-related benefits and rewards from a wide array of companies. 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 Barclaycard Arrival PlusWorld Elite MasterCard review.)
- Chase Sapphire Preferred: This card 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. The card can also serve you well if you dine out frequently, 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 Chase Sapphire Preferred review.)
- 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 using the $300 annual travel credit means it will only cost you $150. (Of course, if you don't use the credit on travel within the year, you'll owe the $450.) Perks include access to airport lounges and no foreign transaction fees. (Read our full Chase Sapphire Reserve review.)
- 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, either. (Read our full BankAmericard Travel Rewards® review.)
Selena Maranjian owns shares of Amazon, American Express, JPMorgan Chase, and Marriott International. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon and Marriott International. The Motley Fool recommends American Express. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.