Credit cards: Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em, it seems (although some of our fellow WalletPoppers are having a lively debate about just that right now).
The bottom line is, the majority of you probably need credit cards for something. With the help of Curtis Arnold, founder of the website CardRatings.com, and Doug Miller, senior analyst at research firm Corporate Insight, we sifted through oodles of cards to ferret out the best and the worst when it comes to rates, fees, rewards and perks. As with everything, your particular financial situation may or may not make you eligible for the best possible rates, so check before signing on the dotted line. Also, things can change quickly in Credit-Card Land, especially with sweeping new legislation arriving in just over three months, so double-check all the terms here. (We'll also be updating this round-up after the new rules come into play.)
First, the best-in-show. Break out the noisemakers; these cards rise to the top when it comes to all the stuff you want.
Interest rate: Our parent company, AOL, has sung the praises of this particular card before. Remarkably, given all the upheaval in the industry in recent months, the Simmons First Visa Platinum is still our top pick when it comes to interest rates, with an APR of just 7.25%. Of course, you can go online and find 0% interest offers up the wazoo, but those are limited-time only deals. This 7.25% is the regular rate, not some promotional gimmick designed to suck you in.
Annual fee: Luckily, there are still a lot of cards out there that don't charge an annual fee, so we started looking at what other fees they charged to pick out the best option for you. Our choice: the American Express Clear card. Not only is there no annual fee, there's also no fee for balance transfers, cash advances, going over your limit or paying late (not that we endorse either of these latter two behaviors!) Clear also lets you order a credit report once a year, on them.
Cash back: Cash-back card providers have scaled back their programs lately, generally only offering rewards greater than 1% on a few types of purchases or for short promotional periods only. After a little searching, we discovered the Fidelity Retirement Rewards American Express card, which gives you 2% back on everything. The money does have to go into a Fidelity college-savings, retirement or brokerage account, but since research shows that most of us don't save enough of what we make anyway, we like a card that gives you an incentive to do the right thing. If you really can't stand the thought of socking away that cash-back bonus for the future, the next best card is the Bank of America Accelerated Cash Rewards American Express card, which has no annual fee and gives you 1.25% back on all your purchases.
Points/rewards: Sussing out the best card to accrue points that let you "purchase" rewards can be tricky, because even a card with a good points-per-dollar-spent rate might not be such a hot deal if the merchandise is marked up. In this category, the American Express Blue card rose to the top, because it offers the highest actual rate of return. An added perk? There's no annual fee.
Miles: Here's the deal with airline cards: Unless you fly one airline exclusively, and unless you fly a lot, it's not worth getting a card branded with a particular carrier. These cards usually have high annual fees (some charge $80 or more!) and lock you into using just one airline. A better alternative for travelers who want flexibility is the Citi PremierPass MasterCard. The basic version has no annual fee and lets you earn points for dollars spent as well as for miles flown if you buy your ticket with the card.
Gas: As with airline cards, unless you shop at one brand of gas station exclusively, you're better off avoiding a branded card. The alternative? The TrueEarnings Card from Costco and American Express gives you 3% back on purchases of up to $3,000 per year at any gas station (after that, you get bumped back to 1% on gas), 2% back on travel purchases and 1% back on everything else, including Costco purchases (many cards exclude warehouse clubs from their rewards). You do have to be a Costco member to sign up, though, so here's another option: The Chase PerfectCard MasterCard gives users a 3% rebate on gas purchases and 1% on other purchases.
Concierge: Sure, you can pay big bucks for "concierge" card perks. (Want to know how big? Check out our worst list ). Or you can do the smart thing and get a Chase Sapphire Visa Signature card. There's no annual fee for this card, but you still get 24-hour access to the Signature brand concierge service.
Walletpop round-up: Best credit cards