Best Credit Cards for 2013

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LotusHead (sxc.hu)

Among the best options now…

Cards offering as much as 2% cash back on all purchases or up to 6% back in spending categories such as groceries.

Cards with interest rates as low as 6.25% or with 0% introductory rates that last as long as 18 months.

Cards providing cash bonuses of up to $400 simply for signing up and making a specified amount of purchases.

Many of the best card offers are available only to applicants who have excellent credit scores—but issuers have been easing the requirements. These days, it often is enough to have a FICO credit score of 720 (out of 850), a level at which nearly half of all adults qualify. There now are some reasonable credit card options for those with lower credit scores, too. Among the best—and worst—credit card offers for 2013…

CASH BACK

The typical cash-back credit card provides 1% back on purchases, but some offer substantially more.

Best overall cash-back card: Blue Cash Preferred from American Express provides 6% cash back at supermarkets in the form of a credit on your bill or retail gift cards, plus 3% back at gas stations and certain department stores. (The 6% supermarket rewards are limited to $6,000 in annual supermarket spending—that’s $360 cash back—after which you get 1%.) Other purchases earn 1%. There also is a $150 initial bonus if you spend $1,000 in the first three months that you have the card, enough to cover the first two years of the $75 annual fee.* Interest rate: 12.99% to 21.99% variable APR depending on creditworthiness. www.AmericanExpress.com

Best no-annual-fee cash-back card: Capital One Cash Rewards Visa offers 1% cash back on all purchases. That’s nothing special—until you factor in the card’s additional year-end bonus of 50% of the rewards earned during the year. The result essentially is 1.5% cash back from a card with no annual fee. There’s also a $100 initial bonus if you spend $500 within the first three months. Interest rate: 12.9% to 20.9% variable APR depending on creditworthiness. www.CapitalOne.com

Best initial bonus card: Chase Sapphire Preferred gives new cardholders 40,000 bonus points for spending $3,000 during the first three months. Those points can be converted into a $400 statement credit, among other redemption options. There is no annual fee in year one, but a $95 annual fee is charged starting in year two. This might not be the ideal card for the long haul, but its big initial bonus and waived annual fee in year one make it a great short-term choice for consumers who don’t mind moving in and out of cards. Interest rate: 15.24% variable APR. www.Chase.com

Best cash-back card for saving: Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express offers two points for every dollar spent. Those points can be converted into cash at the rate of a penny a point for the equivalent of 2% cash back. The catch is that these cash rewards must be deposited into an eligible Fidelity account, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing if it encourages saving. There’s no annual fee. Interest rate: 13.99% variable APR. www.Fidelity.com (click on “Investment Products,” then “Cash Management”).

Worst drawback on a cash-back card: Discover Cards advertise up to 5% cash back on certain spending categories and up to 1% on other purchases (details vary among various Discover cards), but it’s not as good as it sounds. Aside from the featured spending categories—which change every three months with some Discover cards but are fixed with others—cardholders actually earn only 0.25% cash back on the first $3,000 they spend each year.

TRAVEL REWARDS

Travel rewards cards fall into two categories—cards that provide rewards that can be redeemed for free tickets or other perks on any airline…and those tied to a particular airline (or hotel chain).

Best travel card not linked to a particular airline: Capital One Venture Rewards Visa provides two miles for every dollar spent, plus an initial bonus of 10,000 miles for new cardholders who spend at least $1,000 in the first three months. The miles don’t expire and can be redeemed on any airline, with no blackout dates or seat restrictions. They can be redeemed for other travel expenses, too, including hotels and car rentals. The number of miles required depends on the size of the travel purchase—a $205 airline ticket requires 20,500 miles, for example. If you intended to travel anyway, it’s like earning 2% cash back. The card has a $59 annual fee, which is waived in the first year.Interest rate: 13.9% to 20.9% variable APR. www.CapitalOne.com

Best rewards card linked to one airline: Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus Visa gives you two points per dollar spent on Southwest or AirTran tickets or with Southwest’s hotel and car-rental partners…and one point per dollar on other purchases. The card also provides 25,000 bonus points for spending $1,000 in the first three months. The number of points required to earn a free ticket depends on the cost of the ticket—the usual redemption rate is 100 points per dollar of ticket price, but Southwest’s special Wanna Get Away? fares are available for 60 points per dollar. Unlike most programs, Southwest has no blackout dates or seat restrictions. There’s a $69 annual fee. Interest rate: 15.24% variable APR. www.Chase.com

Worst travel rewards on a high-end card: Visa Black Card is marketed to high-end travelers. But aside from access to airport lounges, its rewards are not particularly high-end—just the standard one point per dollar spent. What is high-end? Visa Black’s $495 annual fee.

LOW INTEREST RATES AND FEES

Low interest rates and low balance transfer fees are more important than rewards programs for those who carry a balance on their credit cards.

Best card for low ongoing rates: First Command Bank Platinum Visa offers a variable rate based on the prime rate plus 3%. As of December, that resulted in 6.25%. This low rate applies to purchases, cash advances and balance transfers. The card has no annual fee, over-limit fees or balance-transfer fees. www.FirstCommandBank.com

Best card for low introductory rates: Citi Diamond Preferred charges a 0% interest rate on new purchases for the first 18 months that the cardholder has the card. The rate then climbs to 11.99% to 21.99%, depending on creditworthiness. www.CitiCards.com

Best card for balance transfers: Slate from Chase charges 0% interest on balance transfers for the first 15 months that the account is open, and it charges no balance-transfer fee on transfers made during the first 60 days. (Most cards impose balance-transfer fees of 3% to 4%.) The interest rate on new purchases also is 0% for the first 15 months, then climbs to between 11.99% and 21.99%. And there’s no annual fee.www.Chase.com

SECURED CARDS

If you have poor credit or a limited credit history, your best option might be a secured card—which requires money to be deposited as collateral.

Best card for those who have poor credit scores: Capital One Secured MasterCard charges a very reasonable annual fee of $29 and reports to all three major credit bureaus, helping cardholders rebuild their credit. Responsible card use can earn cardholders credit-line increases, something that is not possible with most secured cards. Interest rate: 22.9% variable APR. www.CapitalOne.com

Worst fees on a card for those with poor credit scores: First Premier Bank Gold charges a wide range of steep fees, including a $95 processing fee, a $75 annual fee in the first year and a $45 annual fee and $6.25 monthly fee in subsequent years.

*Fees, interest rates and details of credit card rewards and requirements change frequently.

Source: Odysseas Papadimitriou, founder and CEO of Evolution Finance, Inc., the Arlington, Virginia–based parent company of CardHub.com, an online marketplace for comparing credit cards, prepaid cards and gift cards. www.CardHub.com

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