The most popular credit cards get all the attention – but these under-the-radar cards also offer great benefits and are worth considering. Here are my favorite underrated credit cards.
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You probably haven’t heard of most of these credit cards (unless you’re a serious cards fanatic), but you should check them out.
Drumroll, please – here are my favorite unheralded offerings.
See related: Americans love their cash back credit cards
My favorite underrated credit cards
- For travelers: PenFed Pathfinder Rewards Amex Card, HSBC Premier World Mastercard
- For cash back lovers: Alliant Credit Union Visa Signature Card
- For those who carry balances: Navy Fed Credit Union Platinum Card, Citi Simplicity, Chase Slate, Amex Everyday® Card from American Express, BankAmericard
- For those with sizable deposits/investments: Bank of America Cash Rewards Card
Under-the-radar cards for travelers
The PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express Card has some really compelling perks. This is the only no annual fee card to offer a $100 credit for Global Entry or $85 for TSA Precheck (cardholders should opt for Global Entry because it also includes TSA Precheck).
The card’s offering gets even better:
- $100 annual airline fee credit.
- a 25,000-point sign-up bonus (worth $250) if you spend $2,500 within 90 days of opening the account.
- 3 points per dollar on all travel spending (4 points per dollar if you’re a PenFed Honors Advantage member, which requires current or prior military service or simply maintaining a PenFed Access America Checking Account).
People who have not served in the military can join PenFed by making a one-time $17 donation to Voices for America’s Troops.
This card rivals the Chase Sapphire Reserve in many respects, but without the $450 annual fee. (To be fair, the Sapphire Reserve has some advantages, like a $300 annual travel credit, free airport lounge access and 3 points per dollar on dining in addition to travel.)
I also like the HSBC Premier World Mastercard for travelers. It doesn’t charge an annual fee, it offers a TSA Precheck fee waiver (although not Global Entry) and it has a $50 annual Uber/Lyft credit.
The sign-up bonus is a bit higher than the PenFed Pathfinder Rewards Amex (it’s worth $400 in air travel), but its travel earn rate is lower (2 points per dollar).
See related: Rewards cards: What you see isn’t always what you get
Under-the-radar cards for cash back lovers
The Alliant Credit Union Visa Signature Card gives 2.5 percent cash back on everything (3 percent in year one). There’s no annual fee the first year, but it’s $99 after that.
There are a couple of other cards that offer 3x rewards in year one. For instance, the Chase Freedom Unlimited offers 3 percent cash back in the first year on up to $20,000 in purchases, then 1.5 percent after that. Also, the Discover it® Miles Card offers 1.5 miles per dollar spent on all purchases, and at the end of the first year, Discover will automatically match all the cashback you’ve earned, effectively earning 3 miles per dollar in the first year. After year one, the rewards rate drops to 1.5 miles per dollar spent.
There are several cards – most famously, Citi Double Cash Card – that grant 2 percent cash back on all purchases – 1 percent when you charge, and an additional 1 percent when you pay your balance in the case of Citi Double Cash.
In year two and beyond, if you spend less than $20,000 a year on the card, you’d come out ahead with Citi Double Cash (because it doesn’t charge an annual fee). Spend more, and you’re better off with the Alliant Credit Union Visa Signature.
There are several ways to join Alliant Credit Union; the easiest is to make a one-time $10 donation to Foster Care to Success.
See related: My year in cash back
Under-the-radar cards for those who carry balances
The Navy Federal Credit Union Platinum Card charges as little as 8.24 percent APR (for those with good credit; the range goes as high as 18 percent if you have lesser credit). There are no rewards, but if you carry a balance, you should prioritize your interest rate.
That said, 8.24 percent can still add up, so if you can’t pay your balance in full, I’d also recommend checking out our list of 0 percent balance transfer cards.
These run as long as 21 months, like on the Citi Simplicity Card (then a variable APR of 16.74 percent to 26.74 percent). Most balance transfer cards require good to excellent credit and charge a 3 to 5 percent transfer fee.
These two card options don’t charge transfer fees (if you initiate the transfer within 60 days of opening the account), and they also provide 15 months with no interest: Chase Slate and Amex Everyday® Card from American Express.
One final balance transfer idea, if you think you’ll need a longer payoff period, is to check out one of these fixed-rated cards my colleague Susan Ladika recently wrote about. They charge mid- to high-single digit interest rates for the life of the balance transfer.
See related: 9 things you should know about balance transfer cards
Under-the-radar cards for those with sizable deposits/investments
Bank of America is a massive, well-known institution, but I still think there’s something important that most people don’t know about the Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card. This card earns 3 percent cash back on your choice of one of six popular categories, and 2 percent cash back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs (up to $2,500 in combined choice category/grocery store/wholesale club quarterly purchases).
However, if you keep $100,000 or more with the bank in checking, savings or – more likely – investments, then you can earn a 75 percent earnings boost on your credit card rewards, essentially meaning that this card pays 5.25 percent cash back on either gas, online shopping, dining, travel, home improvements/furnishings or drugstore purchase plus 3.5 percent cash back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs.
One catch is the quarterly spending cap of $2,500 (combined). Still, if you max out the 5.25 percent category each year (you can change the classification monthly if you so desire), that’s a whopping $525 in cash back from $10,000 in spending on a no annual fee card. There’s also a $200 sign-up bonus after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days.
In summary, these under-the-radar cards all require jumping through hoops in order to maximize their benefits, but they’re well worth the effort.