It's still not as easy to get a new credit card as it was before the recession, but Americans have shown a willingness to use credit cards more responsibly over the past few years. As credit card delinquencies have declined and household balances have dropped, lenders have stepped up competition over consumers with strong credit scores. The first eight of this year's Editor's Choice picks single out accounts that reward your solid credit history with low fees and high rewards.
Best cash back credit cards
Despite threats that retailers might force reductions in processing fees, research shows that consumers still prefer big cash back rebates to other kinds of credit card offers. Two offers rose above the rest in 2012:
- Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express. The country's most curious hybrid card stays at the top of our list for yet another year. Issued by a Bank of America subsidiary, bearing the AmEx logo, and available only to Fidelity Investments account holders, these no annual fee cards deposit 2 percent rebates directly to your linked investment, retirement, or college savings accounts.
- Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express. Our editorial team loves saving money on everyday items such as gas, groceries and clothes. Even with a higher-than-average annual fee, a rebate of up to 6 percent on U.S. stand-alone supermarkets purchases can really help stretch your household budget.
Cash back credit card predictions for 2013: Even more banks will get into the cash back credit card business, but many offers will carry high annual fees, spending caps, or other catches that restrict your potential rebates. Watch closely for deals that offer real value, especially if the recession dinged your credit report.
Best airline and travel rewards credit cards
According to researchers at Tourism Economics, business travel remains down, while leisure travel has returned to 2009 levels. Foreign visitors have driven up airfare and hotel prices, making cheap travel deals harder to come by. This year's best travel rewards cards offer real value for even infrequent vacationers.
- Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express. Every kind of traveler can find the perfect room within Starwood's network of hotels, including the posh Le Meridien brand, the hip W Hotels, and the value-conscious Four Points. With good timing and a generous signup offer, you can score almost an entire week of free hotel nights. Then, earn up to five times the reward points when you use your card at participating Starwood properties.
- Capital One Venture Card. Instead of declaring loyalty to a single airline, consider this low annual fee card that offers a 2 percent rebate on all your purchases, all year long. Redeem your reward anytime by picking a travel purchase from your statement and "erasing" it with Capital One's clever online tool.
Travel rewards card predictions for 2013: The U.S. Travel Association predicts that the travel business will remain sluggish well into the new year. Therefore, expect to see airlines and hotel chains ramp up their introductory offers to lure business away from competitors.
Best low interest credit cards
Many of us love to keep a low interest credit card on hand in case of an emergency, or to help spread out the cost of an unexpected purchase. You won't see this year's lowest interest rates advertised on television, but you will save money on finance charges if you get to know the banks behind these choice deals:
- Simmons First Visa Platinum. If you've got excellent credit and you want a no-frills card with the lowest variable APR on the market, some friendly bankers in Pine Bluff, Arkansas would love to meet you.
- Navy Federal Credit Union Visa Platinum. Your military service (or your family's military connection) can qualify you for a low interest credit card with no balance transfer fee.
Low interest credit card predictions for 2013: With the prime rate still hovering at generational lows, most credit cards seem like low interest credit cards. If the economy makes a strong surge in the spring or summer, rising variable rates will start to separate the leaders from the pack.
Best balance transfer credit cards
Statistics show that Americans have started paying off their credit card debt in greater numbers over the past few years. A strong balance transfer offer can help you join the ranks of consumers who have knocked down their debts:
- PenFed Promise Visa. Designed to help military families manage their finances, this card's now available to nearly anyone with strong credit. Promising "absolutely no fees," this card's signup promotions have included zero interest for six months, very strong balance transfer offers, and an extremely low "go-to" rate.
- Slate from Chase. With excellent credit, you can qualify for one of the lowest APRs offered by a national credit card issuer. Moreover, Slate from Chase has received quite a bit of attention for their excellent signup offers on purchase and balance transfer APRs and fees. Slate's online budgeting tool, Blueprint, can even help you manage your money and clear your balance faster.
Low introductory rate credit card predictions for 2013: Personal finance remains a hot topic on Capitol Hill, with regulators pressuring banks to make low interest credit cards available to more consumers. Meanwhile, regional banks, credit unions, and other upstart lenders have popularized the notion that even people with fair credit can qualify for low rate cards -- hopefully, a trend that will continue.
Despite all the positive gains the economy made in 2012, most of us still feel some pressure compared to years past. In part two of our annual roundup, we'll look at some of the best credit cards for average credit.