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Published: Mar 18, 2024 8 min read

Money prides itself in recommending not just the best possible products, but the ideal ones for our readers’ specific financial circumstances and lifestyles. The same holds true for our credit card picks.

In order to find the best credit cards for our wide range of readers, we take into account various factors.

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Transparency

We first evaluate each card’s offers and dive deep into the fine print of its terms and conditions. This helps us assess whether the issuer is transparent about fees and that its rewards really do deliver the value they advertise.

We rule out issuers that only disclose important information behind multiple clicks and/or in the tiniest of fine prints. (We’ve found, for example, hidden maintenance fees, disclaimers on lower reward value that’s being advertised and much more.)

Instead, we favor issuers that have no hidden fees and offer high reward rates with clear requirements and few caveats.

Fees

Annual fees are the most significant, and they can range from as low as $0 to as high as $700. We weigh these annual fees against the rewards offered, and calculate how much value consumers can actually get from the card.

Foreign transaction fees — that is, a percentage added to purchases made in non-US currency — are important factors as well, especially when evaluating travel credit cards. However, certain credit cards have great travel benefits even though they charge a foreign transaction fee. We don’t completely discard these options, but recommend them for domestic traveling, for example.

Other important fees include balance transfer fees (particularly when evaluating balance transfer credit cards) and late fees, which can range between $20 and $40.

Rewards

Rewards — whether they’re in the form of cash back, points or statement credits — are, for many consumers, credit cards’ main appeal. Although there are plenty of worthwhile credit cards that don’t offer much in the way of rewards (for example, certain balance transfer or credit-building cards), in most cases, these will play a major role in our decision-making.

We evaluate the amount of points, cash back or miles offered, as well as the different categories in which the highest reward rates are offered, ensuring they’re either convenient for most or they fulfill a particular type of consumer’s needs.

We also look at the value of points and miles in an issuer’s reward system, comparing how much they’re worth and what you can use them for.

This includes considering whether they can be used to pay back the card, whether there are transfer partners available (major hotels or airlines, usually) and/or if there are specific instances in which the value goes up or down significantly.

For example, with certain cards, points could be worth less when redeeming for some types of travel expenses, such as reserving prepaid hotels, but points could be worth up to 50% more when redeeming for travel through their online portals.

Additional perks

Other than points or cash back, many credit cards offer additional benefits such as complimentary memberships to popular services like Uber or Instacart, access to airport lounges, statement credits for TSA Precheck or similar programs, discounts at specific retailers and much more.

Having said that, more isn’t necessarily better, though. We carefully evaluate what these benefits actually offer potential cardholders and, if the card charges an annual fee, whether these perks make that fee worth it.

Insurance and protection

While rewards get most of the attention, insurance coverage can be one of the most valuable benefits provided by credit card issuers. While pretty much all major consumer cards offer fraud protection (meaning they will revert charges if they were made by an unauthorized user), some will also offer rental car coverage, some type of travel insurance and extended warranties for eligible purchases.

We take a look at all the insurance coverage each card offers and compare it to competitors with similar annual fees.

In some cases, insurance policies can be essential to our decision making. It’s important for travel cards, for instance, to have travel-related insurance such as trip cancellation coverage, lost baggage reimbursement and/or rental car insurance.

Reading the fine print is once again paramount in these cases. We compare the requirements for coverage, the reimbursement amount and whether it covers family members, other flyers under the same reservation or just cardholders themselves.

Introductory offers

Introductory offers tend to last a limited amount of time and are usually a one-time thing, so they shouldn’t be the main reason to apply for a credit card. However, a good intro offer can give a card an edge over a competitor, or provide the specific services and benefits someone is looking for.

Balance transfers with an introductory 0% APR, for example, is a popular reason to apply for a credit card. Welcome bonuses are also valuable and can sometimes be enough to get a free flight, a hotel stay or savings on a big purchase.

When it comes to this, we consider how long the introductory period lasts, the points or cash back offered, as well as any spending requirements to receive the bonus.

Reliability and customer service

We look at customer satisfaction surveys such as the J.D. Power U.S. Credit Card Satisfaction Study to find out whether issuers give their customers what they need — and what they advertised. We also assess customer review sites such as the Better Business Bureau to gauge an issuer’s customer service approach.

We carefully analyze reviews and any legal claims we find against banks. Some customers allege that certain banks, for instance, have had issues honoring benefits or insurance, have overcharged customers or repeatedly reported late payments incorrectly. We take these claims into account when making our choices to ensure we recommend trustworthy issuers.

We also analyze customer service, how easy it is to access representatives and how willing the issuer is to resolve any problems.

Annual Percentage Rates (APR)

Because most credit cards’ APRs fluctuate and the rate given to each consumer will depend on their credit history, most issuers provide a range of possible APRs for each card. We evaluate those ranges and compare it to the average APR nationwide. (In 2023, the average was around 22.8%.)

If the bottom of the range provided by the issuer is much higher than average — some issuers are offering 30% or more, for example — they will most likely not make our lists.

There are times when a reasonable APR can be one of the determining factors, particularly when it comes to credit-building and balance transfer cards. These types of cards tend to have higher-than-average APRs in general and we will favor those that offer cardholders the lowest possible rates.

For more information on the methodology we use for each particular type of card, check out our pages below.

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