Editor's Choice Awards: Best Credit Cards of 2014

By cardratings.com, CardRatings contributor
Updated, July 27, 2015

American Express and Citi are CardRatings.com advertisers.

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credit card stack

Momentum keeps building for the credit card industry. Americans' revolving balances have crept to their highest levels since 2009, according to the Federal Reserve. Suze Orman and other market watchers have predicted a rise in the prime rate that could send APRs higher over the next year. Meanwhile, banks continue to balance their lending portfolios between consumers who generate high finance charges and cardholders who rack up large balances that get paid down every month. Our Editor's Choice awards reflect the best deals for Americans in both of those camps.

clerk taking credit card

Although cash-back cards with rotating bonus categories technically offer higher rebate rates, there are plenty of appealing cards on the market offering solid cash-back rebates on all purchases.

  • Citi® Double Cash Card. This innovative card from Citi, a CardRatings.com Advertiser, rewards cardholders with 1 percent cash back at time of purchase, and 1 percent cash back as you pay for those purchases, whether you pay in full or over time.
  • Fidelity® Investment Rewards® American Express® Card. Cardholders get a 2 percent cash back rebate deposited directly into an eligible brokerage, retirement or college savings account.
  • NASA Federal Credit Union Platinum Cash Rewards. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to earn extra cash on your purchases, but it doesn't hurt to use the same credit cards they do (that is, if you're a qualifying member of this credit union - there are various ways you are eligible for membership, the easiest being that you're a NASA employee or retiree).

What our editors love: Credit card issuers have embraced cash back as an incentive for consumers to avoid debit cards. As more merchants mark up their goods and services to cover interchange fees, cash-back cards with rebates of 2 percent or higher are the best insulation consumers can find against price creep.

man at airport

Airlines caught criticism over the past year for devaluing their frequent-flier miles in the wake of mergers and cost-cutting. Banks seized the opportunity to entice road warriors with alternative travel rewards programs.

  • PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express® Card. Originally designed for military families, this no-annual-fee card offers points and perks for all kinds of frequent air travelers. It's worth noting that credit union membership is a requirement but not a guarantee than an applicant will be approved for this credit card.
  • Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®. This relative newcomer boasts a generous, flexible rewards program along with World Elite MasterCard perks for a relatively low annual fee of $89, which is waived for the first year.
  • Citi® Hilton HHonors™ Reserve Card. Citi's co-branded hotel rewards card offers the benefits of HHonors Gold status as long as you're a cardmember, plus opportunities to earn points for hotel nights.

What our editors love: Even once-loyal business travelers now hunt for bargains using travel reservation websites. Banks have recognized the trend with cards that offer real savings by waiving foreign transaction fees, extending rewards across multiple brands, and matching elite status at partner hotel chains.

credit card expiration date

When you don't need a lot of rewards, perks or hand-holding, some basic credit cards offer excellent opportunities to save money on finance charges.

  • Chase Slate®. This no-frills card includes access to Blueprint, Slate's clever budgeting tool that lets consumers figure out how to make balances disappear faster. Chase Slate is also offering both a zero-percent introductory balance-transfer APR and no balance transfer fee (for transfers made during the first 60 days -- after that, the fee for future balance transfers is 3 percent of the amount transferred with a minimum of $5). This card offers a 15-month zero-percent introductory APR on balance transfers and purchases. After the introductory period ends, a variable APR of 12.99 percent, 17.99 percent or 22.99 percent applies.
  • Discover it®. The latest iteration of Discover's flagship card boasts friendly customer service and competitive APRs for households trying to knock down debt.
  • PenFed Promise Visa® Card. This credit union offers some of the country's lowest introductory APRs for balance transfers, with no balance-transfer fees. It's worth noting that credit union membership is a requirement but not a guarantee than an applicant will be approved for this credit card.

What our editors love: Although no-fee balance transfers have become scarce in today's market, some banks have chosen to take their profit on the front-end of the transfer by locking in below-market APRs for reliable consumers.

credit card in hand

Meeting some stringent membership requirements can qualify you for an annual percentage rate far lower than what most banks advertise.

  • Simmons Bank Visa cards. When you've honed your credit score through years of hard work, this regional bank from Arkansas has an entire line of basic Visa cards ready for you.
  • Barclaycard® Ring MasterCard®. Barclays' U.S. credit card subsidiary has been running this MasterCard product as a crowdsourcing experiment for a few years. Cardholders vote each year on features and fees, with one recent decision to accept a higher ATM cash advance charge in exchange for eliminating foreign transaction fees.
  • USAA Rate Advantage Platinum MasterCard®. Qualifying members can score one of the country's lowest APRs, along with some basic perks and benefits on this no-annual-fee card.

What our editors love: Each of these cards uses its own filter to determine who might qualify for an extremely low interest rate. While you may never have heard of these cards, you're not footing the bill for a huge marketing budget or for someone else's charge-offs with your own, inflated finance charges.

woman reading on beach

Getting great rewards no longer means locking in to a hotel or airline loyalty program. We found three banks offering access to high value deals on merchandise, gift cards and travel rebates.

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. Along with exceptional sign-up offers for new cardholders, this perennial favorite offers plenty of chances to earn 2points per dollar spent on purchases for travel and dining at restaurants. Point transfers to travel loyalty programs and access to top-flight customer service specialists make this card popular among bargain-hunting travelers.
  • Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card. Still one of the go-to rewards cards for frugal travelers, this card offers a consistent 2X miles on every purchase that you can redeem toward qualifying travel purchases.
  • PNC points® Visa® Credit Card. Earn 4 points per dollar spent on qualifying purchases with this card, with opportunities to earn 25, 50 or 75 percent bonus on those base points. Redeem points for various rewards including cash, gift cards, merchandise and travel.

What our editors love: Rewards cards work best when you can funnel as many of your purchases as possible through them, then pay your balance in full at the end of each cycle. Skilled travel hackers love to carry a card with targeted bonuses for key purchases (like gas or groceries) and a backup card with a high rebate rate for everything else.

man with empty pocket

Exceptional banks understand how taking a chance on a consumer today can lead to long-term loyalty. We found credit cards you won't be unhappy to carry while you're restoring credit or building your first-time credit profile.

  • Harley-Davidson® Visa® Secured Card. One of the most unusual rewards programs in the credit card business also happens to be accessible to consumers who want to rebuild their credit.
  • nRewards® Secured Credit Card. Navy Federal Credit Union offers its own version of a secured credit card (to qualified credit union members) with a flexible rewards program and one of the country's lowest APRs for any kind of card (not just among secured cards), currently starting at 8.99 percent (rate bases on evaluation of credit history).
  • BankAmericard® Secured Credit Card. This no-frills card lands on our list for its easy application process and support through its substantial retail footprint.

What our editors love: While most secured credit cards seem like sketchy deals, each one of these three lenders shows a willingness to treat customers with poor credit fairly, and with an eye toward rebuilding credit instead of maximizing fees.

military family

Both of this year's most innovative credit cards reward cardholders for great decisions, whether it's serving our country or building a sound financial foundation through homeownership.

  • PenFed Defender Visa Signature® Card. Although PenFed has been attracting plenty of members from outside the military, this revamped version of its Defender Visa cuts straight to the core of this credit union's mission. This no-annual-fee card offers unlimited, 1.5 percent cash rebates on every purchase, automatically credited back to each member's account at the end of every month. Along with one of the country's lowest APRs, this card features no late fees, no foreign transaction fees, no balance transfer fees, no cash advance fees, and no overlimit fees. The only catch? Only active duty military personnel, members of the National Guard and Reserves, and honorably discharged and retired veterans can qualify. After hearing so many stories about banks and payday lenders gouging military families, this is an excellent way to reward exemplary military service.
  • Wells Fargo Home Rebate Visa®. This clever program funnels generous rebates directly toward loan principal on a linked Wells Fargo home mortgage. Gas, grocery and drugstore net purchases earn rebates of 5 percent for the first six months, while most other everyday net purchases earn a 1 percent rebate. Every time a cardholder's rewards balance hits $25, Wells Fargo automatically converts that balance into a mortgage credit. At a time when retail branch-based banks have mostly been getting trounced on deals from heavyweight credit card issuers, this offer signals Wells Fargo's attempt to muscle back into the mainstream consumer credit market.

velvet rope red carpet

Over the past few years, we've documented the escalating cold war between American Express, Visa, Citi and Chase to capture cardholders' hearts (and wallets) with exclusive entertainment and experiences.

Editor's note: This offer expired and is no longer available.

This year, the loyalty battle moved to a whole new front: the airport lounge.

Airline mergers condensed lounge footprints, while alliances between carriers and banks bumped American Express Platinum Card customers off the airport lounge guest lists in many major hubs. With veteran travelers questioning the value of lounges with uneven service and limited availability, it seemed like a once-major perk was headed for the history books.

Imagine the meeting at American Express where someone just said, "You know what? Our cardmembers love airport lounges. Let's just make our OWN lounge, better than anything the airlines are doing."

With locations in four of the country's busiest airports (and more on the way), American Express wants to treat its biggest spenders to delicious (free) meals, fast (free) Wi-Fi, expansive (free) work spaces and cozy (free) couches.

In an environment where it seems airlines and airports have placed a premium on even basic amenities, American Express has chosen to pamper its cardholders at the precise moment when a generous brunch buffet can have the biggest impact on customer loyalty. Non-Platinum customers don't have to feel left out though -- a $50 day pass gets any valid AmEx charge or credit card holder into the lounge. It's a grand idea that can transform an airport visit from mediocre to magnificent.

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