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Consumers continue to love credit cards with premium rewards and perks, even when they come with high fees. But in a time of high inflation, shaky markets and economic uncertainty, many others see cards with no annual fees as the best value.

Experts at J.D. Power, which recently released a study on customer satisfaction with credit card issuers, say that when the economy is thriving, credit card rewards typically take center stage in consumers' minds. During periods of increased financial stress, however, customers tend to care more about their card terms — including interest rates, card limits and (of course) fees.

For obvious reasons, this stress can make no-fee cards attractive to customers. J.D. Power experts say that high gas prices and spiking inflation in general have driven more customers to opt for cards with low or no fees.

At the same time, plenty of cardholders still value premium rewards above all else. That’s why American Express, known for cards with high fees and great perks, has yet again been named the top overall card issuer in the latest J.D. Power study.

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Many customers feel they’re getting their money’s worth with American Express’s higher-fee cards, such as the company’s Gold and Platinum cards. The Platinum Card, with a $695 annual fee, tops Money.com’s best credit cards list, and Amex's $250-per year Gold Card is our favorite card for dining.

“American Express has very premium, exclusive products with high annual fees often, and lots and lots of benefits and rich rewards. And that seems to be very motivating to a lot of cardholders,” said John Cabell, managing director of payments intelligence at J.D. Power, who oversaw the study.

In second place on the list, Discover Bank received high marks for customer satisfaction in part because the company has no annual fees on any of its cards, Cabell said.

Discover’s satisfaction score rose in this year’s report, and the company ranked second overall for a third year in a row.

Bank of America rounded out the top three for satisfaction among large issuers, with customers drawn to the company’s flexible card offerings, Cabell said.

“Bank of America has really done a couple of things," he said. "They've launched a large effort with financial health with their banking customers, but also have transformed a lot of their card products around features that are customizable from a rewards standpoint.”

The company’s Customized Cash Rewards cards, for example, give customers the option to designate a spending category like gas or online shopping for 3% cash back rewards.

Cabell noted that although American Express, Discover and Bank of America use very different business models, all three companies received high scores in the study. That's because while some consumers just want a basic card that doesn’t break the bank, others like the premium perks they get from pricey cards.

“Each brand is doing something a little different, but they're all working for the cardholders that have an affinity for them,” he said.

J.D. Power’s study, which evaluates six metrics related to satisfaction — benefits and services, communication, credit card terms, interaction, key moments and rewards — found that on the whole, customers are becoming happier with their cards and more trusting of issuers.

“The landscape is changing — things were very disrupted the last couple of years with the pandemic. Consumer spending patterns were overturned, but issuers responded pretty well and have offered a lot of flexibility with their products,” Cabell said.

U.S. Bank, Synchrony and Credit One Bank received the lowest marks among large issuers in the study.

But it’s important to keep in mind that customers have different needs and desires when it comes to credit cards. Cabell said that despite the lower rankings, lots of consumers in the study are satisfied with the lower-performing credit card issuers.

Some of the lower-performing issuers got lower scores for satisfaction with customer service interactions, including online chat and call center experience. Other issuers received lower satisfaction scores because they have higher interest rates on their cards — a result of catering to customers with lower credit scores, Cabell said.

“They're not necessarily bad cards at all. They can work for a lot of consumers,” he said.

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