There are a lot of great rewards credit cards out there that offer lucrative sign-up bonuses and opportunities to redeem points and miles for fantastic travel options. One downside to many of them, though, is the annual fees many of them levy on cardholders each year for the privilege of earning those points and miles. Depending on the value you get out of each card, it may not make sense to keep an entire arsenal of these cards open since the fees can negate the value you receive, so I recommend always having a no-fee card you can fall back on for each of the major issuers. (Related: When Should I Cancel My Credit Card?) It’s always good to keep one card open to maintain the positive relationship with the credit card company, plus having accounts that have been open for a long time will help increase your credit score.
1. Chase Freedom: This is a great card to carry because not only do you earn 1 point per $1 you spend on everyday purchases, but the card also gives cardholders 5x points on quarterly rotating bonus spend categories such as gas stations and restaurants (currently) up to $1,500 in spending each quarter. Additionally you will earn 1% cash bank on all other purchase. The current sign-up bonus is 10,000 points, the equivalent of $100 cash back, though historically it has been up to 20,000 points. However, if you also have the Sapphire Preferred card, instead of liquidating these points for a penny each, you can transfer them to any of the Ultimate Rewards partners at an instant 1:1 ratio!
Capital One VentureOne
2. Capital One VentureOne: Cardholders of this Capital One card earn 1.25 points for every dollar they spend which can then be redeemed for travel at a fixed rate of 1 cent per point, so you’re essentially getting a 25% bonus on the value of the money you spend. That said, these aren’t points to redeem for premium travel, but rather are good for people who are looking to purchase economy airfare on fixed dates without any blackout periods. The current sign-up bonus is a paltry 10,000 points when you spend $1,000 in 3 months. One other great perk this card has, however, is that there are no foreign transaction fees, so it’s a good one to take abroad with you.
3. Citi Forward: This is a good cash-back card that rewards its holders with 1 cent per point they rack up. Most purchases earn 1 point per dollar, but cardholers earn 5 ThankYou Points for every $1 spent at restaurants and on books, movies and music. But beyond the cash back, if you can also redeem ThankYou points at a rate of 1 cent each for travel through the ThankYou rewards portal. (Unfortunately, that’s not as good as the rate of 1.33 cents each you get with the Citi ThankYou Premier card.) Not only that, but since this card is geared toward young people building their credit, there are also special perks such as the bank will lower your APR for purchases by up to 2% when you make a purchase, stay under your credit limit, and pay on time 3 billing periods in a row (they will reduce it 0.25% every quarter, a maximum of 8 times). The current sign-up bonus is 10,000 points when you spend $650 within 3 months.
American Express Blue Sky
4. Amex Blue Sky: Cardholders earn just 1 point per dollar on all purchases, though because they can redeem 7,500 points for a $100 statement credit toward any airline ticket, hotel stay, or car rental, they are essentially getting a 33% bonus on the worth of those points. Cardholders have the freedom to use those statement credits with no blackout dates, so essentially they’re just purchasing airfare, hotel reservations, etc., and getting cash back on their statement for those expenses, meaning you can earn elite status and miles you make on these reservations. Cardholders also get discounts at select merchants including Marriott and Hertz through the Blue Savings Program.
5. Citi ThankYou Preferred: You’ve got to make $1,000 in purchases within 3 months to score the 15,000-point sign-up bonus on this other no-fee Citi card. That equates to $150 cash back or redemptions for gift cards and merchandise at the usual rate of 1 cent per point, but you can also use ThankYou points for travel at the rate of 1.33 cents each, so those same points will get you an airline ticket of value up to $199.50. Cardholders earn 1 point on every $1 they spend. Cardholders also receive anniversary bonuses (1% for 1 year–not including the sign-up bonus, 2% for their second year, and 3% for every year thereafter), so there are a few extra points coming your way for program loyalty sort of like the 7% annual dividend on the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.
Pen Fed Travel Rewards
6. PenFed Travel Rewards: Earn 5 points on airfare purchases and 1 point on all other purchases. Cardholders also enjoy complimentary 24-hour concierge service, free LOUNGE CLUB membership which gives access to airport lounges throughout the world (upon spending $15,000 on the card annually), and travel offers and discounts through the American Express Travel Privileges program. The current sign-up bonus is 20,000 bonus points when you spend $650 in the first 3 months of opening the card, worth over $200 toward your next round-trip airline ticket This card also charges no foreign transaction fees.
7. Discover More: This card offers its holders 1% cash back on most purchases, 5% on certain spending categories that change periodically (for summer it’s gas stations, theme parks and movies), and between 5-20% on purchases made through the Discover online shopping mall. This cash back comes in the form of gift cards, merchandise or statement credits. Though you can’t use these points for travel, unfortunately, the great thing about cash back like this is you know exactly the amount of return you’re getting on each and every dollar that you spend, and if you’re just looking for a way to get some credit back on your monthly statement, this is a good card for you.
American Express Blue Cash Everyday
8. Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express: This versatile card is a good one for young people just starting out with credit since it’s all about the cash back. When you spend $1,000 within the first 3 months of membership, you get $100-worth of cash back in points. The first $6,000 of purchases at U.S. stand-alone supermarkets in a calendar year qualifies for 3% cash back; 1% thereafter. Cardholders can get 3% cash back at U.S. stand-alone supermarkets, 2% cash back on gasoline at U.S. stand-alone gas stations and select major department stores; 1% cash back on other purchases. Cardholders can simply take the cash back in statement credits, or redeem their points for merchandise or travel at the rate of 1 cent per point (for travel, merchandise varies). Plus, cardholders can take advantage of the Blue Savings program, and those who recommend the card to friends who apply and get it also earn $25 cash back per person. Not a bad referral fee.
Capital One LSU TIgers Mastercard
9. Capital One LSU Tigers Mastercard: You don’t have to be a die-hard Louisiana State Tigers fan to take advantage of this card (though it helps since the card designs are definitely campus-centric). Beyond the regional pride, however, this can be a great value card for young people since they earn 2 points per $1 on purchases at gas stations and major grocery stores and 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases. Points can then be redeemed for travel, cash back and merchandise, just like with Capital One’s other cards, though at a fixed rate of 1 cent per point for travel and cash back (merchandise and gift card rates vary). Perhaps even more valuable for those starting out with credit, this card (currently) carries a 0% APR on purchase (not balance transfers) until June 2013, and cardholders enjoy the full suite of Mastercard Platinum benefits including $0 fraud liability, travel services, and roadside assistance. Also great for students thinking of studying abroad? No foreign transaction fee on this card. One drawback: no sign-up bonus.
Citi Hilton Visa Signature
10. Citi Hilton Visa Signature: The current sign-up bonus on this card is now 50,000 Hilton HHonors points (enough for a free night at a Category 7 property like the The Drake in Chicago) when you spend $1,000 within 4 months. Cardholders earn 6 points per dollar spent at Hilton; 3 points at supermarkets, drugstores and gas stations; 2 points per dollar on phone, cable, satellite and internet bills; 2 points per dollar on everything else; and are awarded with automatic Hilton Silver status. Plus it’s a Visa Signature card, with a host of perks including travel experiences and discounts, restaurant and fine dining events, luxury hotel reservations and shopping discounts.