10 Most Reward-Laden Credit Cards You Can Get With Sparkling Credit

NEW YORK (MainStreet) – If a recession couldn't get Americans to clean up their credit, maybe a few perks will.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York notes that credit card debt increased by $17 billion last year, to $700 billion. The Federal Reserve, meanwhile, put total revolving debt at $887.9 billion in January. The average credit card debt per person can range from $1,098 for those with cards that don't carry a balance to $7,743 for those who hold cards that do. TransUnion puts the national average in the middle at $5,234 per person, which is still less than the pre-recession high of $6,276 in 2008.

Cardholders are only starting to get the message about managing their credit. The percentage of U.S. households with credit cards carrying revolving debt has decreased from 44% in 2009 to just 34% today, according to the National Foundation For Credit Counseling. But credit agency Experian notes that the average debt on credit cards still sits at more than $4,400, which is eating up roughly 30% of the limit on those cards. That's the exact percentage at which financial advisors warn clients that their debt isn't building their credit score, but crippling it. In a nation where credit scores drift between 330 and 830, the national average is 666. That's not horrendous, but it isn't great if you're looking for the best rates on mortgages, car loans or even credit cards.

“In truth, the greatest perk that comes with sterling credit is a low interest rate," says Matt Schulz, senior credit card industry analyst for CreditCards.com. “The difference in interest accrued with a 10.99% APR card vs. a 20.99% APR card can be absolutely huge over the life of a credit card.”

This is why credit card issuers use as many perks as possible to lure applicants with sterling credit. They know that a gaudy FICO score means that an applicant pays bills on time (35% of the score), pays of most or all of their balances each month (30%) and isn't hitching all of their credit to their cards (10%). To get those folks, issuers will offer 40,000 to 50,000 points for a signup bonus, which can translate into a $400 to $500 credit on a credit card statement.

“Other perks include use of 24-hour concierge, access to airport lounges, hotel and rental car upgrades,” Schulz says. “If you don’t have good credit, chances are you won’t have access to these things.”

In an effort to encourage cardholders to mind their credit and improve their habits, we've consulted with Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com and BestPrepaidDebitCards.com and came up with a list of 10 cards with great perks for folks with outstanding credit:

Citi Double Cash card

The Citi Double Cash Card earns rewards on 2% of all purchases, but gives you rewards as straight cash back: No airline miles and no investment accounts. That's split into 1% cash back when you make purchases and an additional 1% when you pay for them, which gives you those rewards whether you pay your balance right away or over time. Best of all, there's no annual fee and your APR can be as little as 12.99% with great credit.

CapitalOne Venture Rewards card

No foreign transaction fees, no specific airline or hotel partners, just double miles per dollar spent on every purchase. New cardholders earn 40,000 miles (equal to $400 in travel) once they spend $3,000 on purchases within the first three months after your account's opened. Miles don't expire and can be applied to flights, hotel stays, car rentals, cruises and more. The good news is that there's no annual fee for the first year and 12.9% APR for excellent credit. The bad news? It's $59 a year after that. Oh, and its best perks are only useful if you travel or leave the country every so often.

“It only makes sense to pay any annual fee if you are actually going to use the benefit and if it's not available for free on another card,” Arnold says.

Blue Cash Preferred Rewards card from American Express

It's tough to beat zero percent APR for the first 15 months, 6% cash back at supermarkets up to $6,000 a year, 3% cash back on purchases made at gas stations and department stores (with no spending cap) and 1% percent cash back on other purchases. Those reward dollars go right onto your statement and, if you're a regular spender, should go a long way toward offsetting that 12.99% APR and $75 annual fee.

Simmons Bank Visa Platinum

There are only a few perks available on this card, but boy are they good ones: no annual fee, no transfer fees and 7.25% APR. Did you catch that? Keep in mind that the absolute best APR you're going to get on any of the cards above is 12.99%, but that can go up to 20%-plus if your credit fluctuates. Here, you're locked in. Just transfer the balances of all your high-APR cards over to this low-interest dream and watch the debt melt away.

United MileagePlus Club Card

This card builds character, but mostly by punching you in the gut with a $395 annual fee before giving you any perks. There's no disguising just how awful that fee is, but it does come with some fairly substantial perks. First off, United doesn't allow customers to buy gift cards or certificates without MileagePlus membership. Secondly, it provides United Club membership with lounge access, priority check-in, expedited security screening and priority boarding that could ordinarily add up to about $500 per year. Finally, and this is the big one, you and your travel companion get your to check up to two bags apiece for free. What? That can add up to more than $200 per round trip. It's not cheap, and its 15.99% variable APR isn't great, but those are tough perks to beat for a frequent United traveler.

PennFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express

We're just going to start you off with no annual fee and an APR starting at 9.99% for qualified cardholders and take it from there. This card, which was once a benefit reserved for military families, offers five points on airfare purchases, one point on all other purchases, 20,000 bonus points when you spend $2,500 within the first three months of opening the card account, a 2.99% APR for the first year, complimentary 24-hour concierge service, and two complimentary lounge club visits at airports around the world upon spending $15,000 on the card in a calendar year. That concierge service shouldn't be discounted, either, as CardRatings notes that card concierges have helped cardholders arrange honeymoons, organized house painting for vacationing card members, find giant tubs of nacho cheese and even help complete crossword puzzles.You have to have sterling credit to even be considered for this one, but it's worth the maintenance.

Citi/AAdvantage World Elite MasterCard

American Airlines has seen better days, but partners including British Airways and Qantas give cardholders membership and access to more than four dozen Admirals Club airport lounges worldwide. Up to two traveling guests or immediate family members (spouse, domestic partner, children under age 18) also get in on the fun. The whopping $450 annual fee and 15.99% APR aren't pretty, but they entitle cardholders to benefits such as expert concierges who can help you make travel bookings and restaurant reservations, and customer service agents stand by to assist with price protection and retail purchase protection claims. AAdvantage bonus miles also can make booking flights on American more cost effective, even if they're not always the cheapest deals.

Visa Black Card

What kind of statement does the stainless steel/carbon fiber Black Card make? “I paid $495 this year just for the right to hold this card.” American Express offers invitations to folks who want its similar-looking Centurion card, but plebes with stellar credit can simply apply for this one online. The card offers a 24-hour concierge service, 1% cash back, double points on airfare, 25,000 bonus points when you spend $1,500 on purchases in the first 90 days, a zero percent introductory APR, unlimited airport lounge visits, no foreign transaction fees, travel insurance and luxury gifts. No, you may not be as elite as invitation-only Centurion members, but Visa is doing its best to make you feel just as loved.

Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve

This was one of just two hotel-specific card CardRatings' editors highlighted, but there's a reason it's in such elite company.

This card gives cardholders HHonors Gold status, and all the perks that come with it, for as long as they hold the card. Yes, there's a $95 annual fee, but that gets you two weekend night certificates good at select hotels and resorts within the Hilton family if you make $2,500 in purchases within four months of your account opening.

From there, you earn 10 points per dollar on every Hilton hotel room rental, five points for every dollar spent on airline and car rental purchases and three points for every other purchase. Oh, and your card has a chip and no foreign transaction fees. For rewards that are good at Hilton hotels, the Waldorf-Astoria, Conrad, Canopy, Curio, DoubleTree, Embassy Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton Inn, Homewood Suites, Home2 Suites and Hilton Grand Vacations, this card is a frequent traveler's best friend.

Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express

OK, so maybe you aren't a Hilton or Visa person. For a $65 annual fee after a free first year, you'll earn Starpoints on eligible purchases at participating Starwood Preferred Guest hotels and resorts

That's no small deal if you consider that Starwood's hotel brand roster includes Sheraton flag, the W Hotels, the Aloft airport lofts and even St. Regis and The Luxury Collection. Also, Starwood uses market-based pricing for rewards stays at its properties, which means spending as little as $7,000 on the card can get you a room that would ordinarily cost $150 or more a night.

— Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore., for MainStreet

To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.

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