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Just when you think you know about all of the travel rewards cards available from the major banks, along comes a credit union with a new card that offers something different. PenFed is the Pentagon Federal Credit Union, the second-largest federal credit union in the US, and its new Pathfinder Rewards American Express Card offers a competitive return on all purchases, including bonus points for travel expenses. In addition, it features many of the benefits that you’ll find on an expensive premium travel rewards card, but without the annual fee.
Who Is This Card For?
PenFed designed a card that members would want to use for all of their purchases, not just the ones that earn bonus points. The bonus categories are especially strong, with the ability to earn as much as 4x points on all travel (including commuter transportation expenses). This card also earns 1.5x points on all other purchases, unlike most other cards that only get you 1 point per dollar on non-bonus spending.
It also has plenty of features and benefits that appeal to frequent travelers, such as an annual $100 airline incidental fee credit and an application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, and it includes plenty of travel insurance and purchase protection policies, in addition to waiving foreign transaction fees. But what really stands out is that you get all of these benefits with no annual fee.
To receive this card, you have to be a member of the PenFed credit union, which is free to employees and household members of many military, defense and government organizations. Otherwise, anyone can join by becoming a member of a military support organization, with a one-time $17 fee, and no military service required. You can easily apply for the card and join PenFed at the same time.
New applicants can earn 25,000 bonus points after spending $2,500 with their card within 90 days of account opening. New accounts also receive 12 months of 0% APR financing on balance transfers, with a 3% balance transfer fee. After 12 months, the APR will vary from 12.49% to 17.99%.
All cardholders can earn 3x points on travel and local commuter expenses, while military members and holders of PenFed’s free Access America Checking accounts earn 4x. Eligible charges include airfare, hotel, rental cars, cruises and tours as well as tolls, public transportation and ride-share services — honestly, comparing well to the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve‘s wide definitions of travel, though PenFed doesn’t explicitly include parking in its definition. This card also offers a competitive 1.5x on all purchases that don’t qualify for the travel bonus.
Note that the points you earn are not Membership Rewards points — you can redeem points earned with this card for gift cards, merchandise and travel reservations made through PenFed’s travel site. From the examples provided to me by PenFed, points are worth 0.85 cents toward gift cards, and perhaps a little more for merchandise. When booking travel, points are worth around .85 to 0.90 cents each for air travel, but as much as 1.27 cents toward hotel bookings, with many hotel reservations returning about 1.18 cents in value per point redeemed. Unfortunately, you can’t really take a look at the redemption portal until you’re a cardmember, so it’s difficult to get an exact picture of how the rewards program works for the specific redemptions you’d want.
This card offers a $100 annual airline incidental fee credit, much like the $100 credit for the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express. But where Amex forces you to choose a single carrier for using this perk, the PenFed benefit automatically applies to 10 different airlines based in the US (11 if you include Virgin America, which technically no longer exists). You also get a $100 credit toward the application fee for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, which you can use once every five years. This credit is triggered by the charge on your account, so like the comparable perks offered by other card issuers, there’s no reason you can’t use it for someone else’s application fee and still be reimbursed.
Other benefits include roadside assistance, baggage loss and delay insurance, trip delay coverage and rental car insurance (secondary except outside the US). You also receive extended warranty coverage, price and return protection and purchase protection. All this with no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees. It even offers a standard interest rate of between 12.49% and 17.99% APR, which is pretty low for a rewards card. Nevertheless, reward card users should always avoid interest charges by paying their monthly statement balances in full.
Which Cards Compete With the PenFed Pathfinder Amex?
If you compare this card to others that offer bonus rewards for travel expenses, you’d be looking at options like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, the Citi Premier Card and the Bank of America Premium Rewards credit card. But because the PenFed Pathfinder also offers 1.5x points on non-travel purchases and has no annual fee, it doesn’t really fit neatly into this category.
Instead, you could compare it to other no-annual-fee cards like the Citi ThankYou Preferred Card or the Bank of America Travel Rewards Card. The ThankYou Preferred offers 2x points on dining and entertainment, and just 1x elsewhere, and those points are never really worth more than 1 cent each, unless you also have a Citi Premier or Prestige card. The Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card offers 1.5x everywhere (no bonus categories), and those points are worth 1 cent each.
The Platinum Card from American Express offers 5x points on air travel and hotels booked through Amex travel. But it has a $550 annual fee, compared to $0 for the PenFed Pathfinder, so it can hardly be called a competitor. The closest competitor I could find would be the Bank of America Premium Rewards card, which offers 2x points for travel and dining, and 1.5x elsewhere. It also has a $100 annual airline incidental fee credit and a $100 application fee credit for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. However, its bonus for travel purchases isn’t as strong, and it has a $95 annual fee. Still, the Bank of America Premium Rewards card has comparable travel insurance and purchase protection benefits.
The PenFed Pathfinder was designed to be the one card in your wallet that you can use for anything, and it does a pretty good job. Several cards offer you 2x miles or 2% cash back on all purchases, which is slightly better, but without bonus categories. Examples include the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and the Citi Double Cash Card.
Finally, the Chase Freedom Unlimited offers you 1.5x points on all purchases, which come in the form of Ultimate Rewards points that can be transferred to travel partners when you also have another eligible card. And you can do a little better than PenFed’s 4x on airfare by using an Amex Platinum that returns 5x Membership Rewards points, which are worth 9.5 cents according to TPG’s latest valuations. But keep in mind the Pathfinder offers bonus points on not just airfare and hotels, but on a broad range of travel and commuter transportation expenses.
In the end, this is now the only no-fee card that offers such a strong array of travel benefits, including an annual $100 airline incidental fee credit and a credit toward a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application. It’s also one of the rare cards that offers competitive bonus rewards for travel and commuter expenses, while also giving you 1.5x on all other purchases. This is a unique product that’s definitely worth a look.
With great travel benefits, 2x points on travel & dining and a 50,000 point sign up bonus, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great card for those looking to get into the points and miles game. Here are the top 5 reasons it should be in your wallet, or read our definitive review for more details.
- Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- Chase Sapphire Preferred named "Best Credit Card for Flexible Travel Redemption" - Kiplinger's Personal Finance, June 2018
- 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- No foreign transaction fees
- 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
- Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 50,000 points are worth $625 toward travel
- No blackout dates or travel restrictions - as long as there's a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards