By Kelli B. Grant,
Senior Consumer Reporter, SmartMoney.com

A great credit card: Sounds like an oxymoron these days, with issuers jacking up rates and testing annual fees for even their most responsible card members.

But for consumers who prefer paying with plastic, there are still credit cards out there that offer low rates, great rewards and stellar balance transfer offers. The catch? You're not likely to find all three in one card.

Depending on what you're looking for, here are some of the best cards in five popular categories:

1. Low Rates

Winner: Simmons First Platinum Visa
Runners-up: Iberiabank Visa Classic, First National Bank Omaha Platinum

Finding a low-rate card is no easy feat these days, as issuers increase APRs in preparation of pending credit-card reform. Citibank, for example, increased rates to 29.99% for an undisclosed number of cardholders this fall. You'll have better odds looking to smaller banks, says Curtis Arnold, the founder of credit card comparison site CardRatings.com. They take on less risk, and so are better able to afford offering rock-bottom rates.

The Simmons First card carries a rate of just 7.25%, while Iberiabank and First National Bank Omaha have APRs starting at 8.75% and 8.99%, respectively. "They're not household names, but they're still smart choices," Arnold says. (Keep in mind, though, that these are all variable rates pegged to the prime rate, which is currently a very low 3.25%. Should the prime rate go up, so will your credit card's APR.)

Top-notch rates, however, do come with a few strings. For starters, you'll need excellent credit to apply, Arnold says. Cardholders can also expect relatively few frills and perks, such as introductory purchase offers and rewards programs, which are common with big banks' products.

Credit Card Annual Fee APR Bonus Features
Simmons First Platinum Visa None 7.25% variable N/A
Iberiabank Visa Classic None 8.75% to 15.25% variable 8.75% on purchases for the first 12 months.
First National Bank Omaha Platinum None 8.99% to 15.99% variable 0% on purchases for the first six months.


* Data from individual card issuers. Accurate as of Nov. 6, 2009.

2. Cash Rebates

Winner: Bank Americard Cash Rewards Visa Signature
Runners-Up: American Express Blue Cash, Discover More

No doubt about it: Money talks. "We find around 50% of people in the market for a rewards card opt for cash back," says Samir Kothari, a co-founder of BillShrink.com, a credit-cards comparison site.

Plenty of cards offer cash rewards; the trick is finding one that offers bonuses in categories that match your spending patterns. With that in mind, Kothari recommends Bank of America's Bank Americard Cash Rewards for its simplicity -- 1% on everything, and a generous 25% bonus if you wait to accrue at least $300 before cashing out.

If you tend to spend a lot in certain categories, look for cards with big bonuses like our runners-up. After you spend $6,500, American Express Blue Cash 5% back at supermarkets, drugstores and gas stations, and 1% on everything else. Discover More offers 5% back on rotating bonus categories such as movies, home improvement and clothes.

Credit Card Annual Fee APR Bonus Features
Bank Americard Cash Rewards Visa Signature (Bank of America) None 12.99% to 20.99% variable. • 0% APR on purchases and balance transfers for the first seven to 10 months, depending on your credit.
• For the first six months, earn 3% back on purchases in supermarkets, drugstores and gas stations.
• Earn 1% cash back on all purchases.
• Earn a 25% bonus for each cash-award redemption of $300 or more. (You can redeem once you've accrued just $25.)
• Make a purchase of $50 or more through Bank of America's Add It Up program within 60 days of opening the account, and you'll also receive a $75 statement credit.
• There's no cap on rewards earned.
American Express Blue Cash None 17.24% to 21.24% variable. • 0% APR on purchases for the first six months.
• Once you spend $6,500, earn 5% cash back on purchases in supermarkets, drugstores and gas stations, and 1.25% everywhere else. Before that, earn 1% cash back on everyday purchases and 0.5% everywhere else.
• There's no cap on rewards earned.
Discover More None 11.99% to 18.99% variable. • 0% APR on purchases for the first six months, and 0% on balance transfers for the first 12 months.
• Earn 5% bonus rewards in rotating categories -- from October to December, for example, grocery stores, restaurants and movies. Earn 1% everywhere else.
• There's no cap on rewards earned.


* Data from individual card issuers. Accurate as of Nov. 6, 2009.

3. Financial Rewards

Winner: Fidelity Investment Rewards Visa Signature
Runner-up: Upromise World MasterCard

If you're a better spender than saver, look to financial-reward cards as a way to get a little forced savings with each purchase. It's hard to beat Fidelity Investment Rewards, which offers 1.5% back -- bumped up to 2% once you spend $15,000 in a given year. You can deposit the rewards into any Fidelity account, including an IRA, 529 college savings account or brokerage account. (Spenders can get cash, too.)

Parents focused on future tuition bills may also want to look at the Upromise World MasterCard from Bank of America, which has a steady 1% rebate and bonuses of up to 10% at some restaurants and on select grocery and drugstore items.

Credit Card Annual Fee APR Bonus Features
Fidelity Investment Rewards Visa Signature None 13.99% variable. • Earn 1.5% cash back; 2% once you spend $15,000 annually.
• Redeem rewards automatically for cash, or choose to accrue them for deposit to a Fidelity account each time you earn $50.
• There's no cap on rewards earned.
Upromise World MasterCard None 12.99 to 20.99% variable. • Earn 1% back on every purchase, deposited into a college savings account through Upromise.
• Earn 2% back on gasoline purchases at Mobil and Exxon.
• Earn 10% back on purchases of select grocery and drugstore items, at purchases at participating restaurants.
• Earn a $25 college savings bonus after you use your card for a purchase, balance transfer, or cash advance within 90 days.


* Data from individual card issuers. Accurate as of Nov. 6, 2009.

4. Points or Miles Programs

Tie: American Express Membership Rewards and Citibank Thank You Network

Programs that let you earn points or miles for a variety of reward options -- travel, gift cards, cash and merchandise -- aren't often your best bet in today's economy, says Kothari. As banks look for ways to increase profits and cut costs, these pricey programs are usually one of their first targets. It doesn't help that their reward partners (retailers and airlines) are also hurting financially and may scale back their end of the deal, too.

That said, some programs remain robust. American Express Membership Rewards lets you earn one point per dollar spent, with bonuses for shopping with partners through the rewards site or the issuer's online mall https://www.bonuspointsmall.com/. A unique perk: You can transfer points to the frequent-flier program of your choice, or pay for all or part of airfare using points. Kothari likes the Starwood Preferred Guest Card from American Express for fast, flexible rewards good toward hotel stays or airfare.

Citi's Thank You program is another winner, says Arnold. Users can earn extra points -- up to 800 a month -- for maintaining a banking relationship with Citi. You'll also earn points for debit-card usage, one per $2 spent when you sign for purchases, and one per $3 when you enter your PIN. The Citi Forward card even gives you 100 points each month just for paying on time and staying below your credit limit.

Credit Card Annual Fee APR Bonus Features
Starwood Preferred Guest Card from American Express $45 (waived for the first year) 15.24% variable. • 2.9% APR on purchases for the first six months.
• Earn 10,000 points with your first purchase.
• Earn two points per $1 spent at participating Starwood properties and one point per $1 spent on everything else.
• Each time you transfer 20,000 points into miles in a single transaction, earn a 5,000-mile bonus.
Citi Forward None 14.24% variable. • 0% APR on purchases and balance transfers for first six months.
• Earn 6,000 points after you make $250 in purchases within the first three months.
• Earn 5,000 points when you sign up for paperless statements within the first three months.
• Earn five points for every $1 you spend on dining, fast food, books, music and movies, one point for every $1 spent on everything else.
• Receive 100 points each billing period when you pay on time and stay under your credit line.
• Get a 0.25% reduction in your purchase APR for each three billing periods in a row that you make a purchase, stay under your credit line and pay on time. You can receive up to eight reductions, a maximum discount of 2%.


* Data from individual card issuers. Accurate as of Nov. 6, 2009.

5. Balance Transfers

Winner: Chase Slate with Blueprint
Runners-up: Iberia Visa Select, Pentagon Federal Platinum Rewards Card

Transferring a balance requires a little give and take. If you want a 0% rate, expect to pay a balance transfer fee -- typically about 3% of the amount you're transferring, Arnold says. In most cases, you'll also need to pay off the balance fast. Most issuers have shortened the once-common 12-month transfer periods to nine or even six months. Prefer better terms? You'll have to settle for a higher rate. The Iberia Visa Select has no transfer fee, but charges 8.75% for 12 months. Pentagon Federal Platinum Rewards Card, meanwhile, has a transfer fee of 2.5% (capped at $100), and a rate of 4.99% for two years.

But the winning Chase Slate with BluePrint provides cardholders with more than an attractive rate (0% for 12 months), says Arnold. The BluePrint feature lets you choose which purchases to pay off in full each month, enabling you to reduce interest charges and eliminate that balance faster. The one downside: a 3% transfer fee with no cap.

Bottom line: Crunch the numbers to see how well a particular offer works for your financial situation. Use our calculator here.

Credit Card Annual Fee APR Bonus Features
Iberia Visa Select $45 8.75% variable • 8.75% APR on balance transfers for 12 billing cycles.
• No balance transfer fee.
Pentagon Federal Platinum Rewards Card None 13.99% fixed. • 4.99% APR on balance transfers for 24 months.
• Balance transfer fee of 2.5%, minimum $10, maximum $100.
Chase Slate with Blueprint None 13.24% to 22.24% variable. % APR on balance transfers for the first 12 months.
• Balance transfer fee of 3%, minimum $5.
• Blueprint feature allows you to separate purchases for full payment or split payment, and target purchases to reduce interest charges and pay off your balance faster.


* Data from individual card issuers. Accurate as of Nov. 6, 2009.

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