Best credit cards for 2014

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This week, I’m sharing my favorite accounts with you.

Let’s get to it.

When my book was published in 2009, I named names. This is why some banks will never, ever partner with me. Oh well!!

My old favorite credit card: Citi PremierPass card

Anyway, in the first chapter on credit cards, I shared the details of my favorite credit card at the time: the Citi PremierPass card. In fact, I had used it as my primary credit card for several years and recommended it to hundreds of thousands of people.

That’s changed now.

In 2010, Citi tightened up on its credit-card lineup, dropping several of their most compelling rewards. This was highlighted in a devastating column in the New York Times.

Hilariously, Citi actually mailed out a note to cardholders trying to spin the reduction of benefits into something like ‘exciting new features’ — but it was obvious to anyone with a pulse that the most compelling rewards were being removed.

And so I began an exhaustive search for a new credit card. Because I spend a significant amount on my credit card, I expect significant rewards. Also, I consider it a fun game to find the 99.99999th percentile best card in the world. This is why women find me irresistible.

Today, I’ll share my new favorite credit card. I consider it the best card on the market — even better than my Citi card — and in addition to using it myself, it’s the  card I’m recommending to my readers.

First, 5 rules about credit cards

  1. Use a rewards card. The vast majority of people should use a rewards card. If you’re already spending money, you should be rewarded for it. Exceptions are people who can’t qualify, who should instead use a secured credit card.
  2. Interest rate doesn’t matter if you don’t carry a balance. The interest rate is irrelevant as long as you’re paying off your entire balance each month. Don’t be a dumbass and keep a balance, please
  3. I prefer travel cards over cash back. Most people would benefit more from travel rewards than from cash-back. I describe the details of why in my book. For some reason, people get really mad when I make this recommendation, but I don’t care.
  4. I prefer general rewards cards, not airline-specific cards. Unless you fly a majority of flights on the SAME airline, I prefer a general travel card instead of an airline-specific card (like a United card). For example, I fly Jetblue and Virgin a lot, so I want a travel card that I can redeem on multiple airlines, not just one.
  5. Annual fees are not Satan’s spawn. I know it may be blasphemy to personal-finance “experts,” but I’m willing to pay an annual fee! OMG! This is why you can call me RTR: Ramit The Rebel. In some cases, there are no-fee versions of the card, so you should always calculate if you spend enough to justify it. Still, $65/year is just not that significant to my financial situation any more.

BONUS RULE: I am merciless about using my credit card perks, which can easily be worth $1,000/year. DO THIS.

What I want from the best credit card

My bottom line is I want to get free flights and free hotels. For example, when I go on vacation, travel for friends’ weddings, or travel between NYC and SF.

Alternatively, I want to upgrade to business class when I travel abroad.

And I don’t want to be nickel-and-dimed for idiotic things like blackout dates, penalties, and fees.

So with that in mind, here is…

The best credit card for 2014 is…

It’s the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express.

When I first discovered this card, I actually wasn’t sure how many places accept AMEX. But after using the card for nearly a year, I’m happy to report that I use my AMEX 95% of the time. (I always carry a Mastercard or VISA backup, just in case.)

This is the best travel card on the market. Here’s why:

4 Starwood perks that matter most

  1. Flights + hotel points: Whenever you spend money, you earn points, which you can redeem for flights (on virtually airline) and hotels (in the Starwood program)
  2. Flights: The Magical 25% bonus. Let’s say you redeem 20,000 Starwood points to your American Airlines frequent-flier program. Starwood will give you a 25% bonus — that’s 5,000 points — which is a HUGE bonus to get free flights faster. This is worth a ton in free flights.
  3. Hotels: You can stay at hotels for just 2,000 points, which is great if you just need a basic place to stay. But if you want ultra-luxury, Starwood has top-of-the-line properties (including the St. Regis and even higher-end resorts) that will accept your Starwood points. Here are the cheapest hotels and most expensive.
  4. Customer service: I fanatically test the customer service of companies I work with. My goal is for them to call me a diva in writing. I opened a second Starwood card (biz + personal) and somehow, they didn’t connect the card to my Starwood account. That meant that I had lost something like 15,000 points over the last few months. I sent them an email and a few hours later, they said, “We’ve retroactively applied your points.” Done. I love it.

Other perks:

  • Starpoints® bonus: earn up to 25K bonus points — 10K with your first purchase and another 15K when you spend $5K within the first 6 months of Card membership – enough for a weekend getaway to a Category 4 hotel like the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa
  • Free Hotel Nights: redeem Starpoints at over 1,100 hotels in over 100 countries worldwide — with no blackout dates
  • Earn 2 Starpoints® for each dollar of eligible purchases charged directly with hotels and resorts participating in the SPG® program
  • Earn 1 Starpoint® for each dollar of eligible purchases
  • $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $65
  • Terms and Restrictions Apply.

My final test was this: The world’s best consumers of credit cards are management consultants at firms like McKinsey, Bain, and BCG. That’s because basically the only thing these consultants care about is points. Many of my friends have over a million points and are anal — even more than I am — about their choice of cards.

They love their credit cards more than their girlfriends! True.

I know a bunch of friends who work at these places, and every one uses this card. DONE!

Downsides with AMEX credit cards

Few things here.

One negative thing is that AMEX isn’t always accepted (it is about 95% of the time in NYC, less so elsewhere), so I have to carry a backup Mastercard/VISA.

Second, not everyone qualifies for AMEX. They are stringent about who they accept so you may be rejected.

Third, they give you a low credit limit. You can request a credit-limit increase in 60 days, then 6 months later, so if you do get this card, set your Google calendar reminders. (How I got around this: I paid it off multiple times/month so I could spend what I needed to.)

Places to read about this Starwood card

You should always do your own research. Here are 2 places to see what others have said, as well as understand the perks/rewards in great detail.

Other credit cards I recommend

If you are a weirdo and hate traveling, (1) get a life, and (2) the best cashback card is the Fidelity 1.5% cashback card. I have one of these, but only use it as a backup. Starwood is my primary.

Should you keep your old credit card?

My recommendation: If you’re looking for a good credit card, apply for this and if you get accepted, KEEP YOUR OLD CARD (don’t close it, which will negatively affect your credit). But start transitioning your auto-pays to this card and start accumulating miles.

Your goal should be to get at least 3 free hotel stays this year, but most of you will be able to do much more than that.

NEXT STEPS: If you want my favorite credit card

If you’re interested in getting this card, here’s a link to see if you’re approved.

Depending on their offer, you can usually get 10,000-30,000 points upon signup.

Example: Up to 25,000 Starpoints (use, e.g., for 2 free nights at a Category 5 Hotel like the Westin Maui Resort & Spa or Le Parker Méridien New York).

P.S. I have a few special, obscure tools I use with my credit card to optimize the experience. I’ll write about those in the future.

Tomorrow, the best savings account for 2014.

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48 Comments

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  1. My favorite credit card is the Citi Forward card. You get 5 Thank You points for the following categories:
    - Restaurants, bars/clubs, Starbucks (80% of my monthly expenditures)
    - Movie theaters
    - Book and music stores
    You also get the following features:
    - 1 Thank You point on every other purchase
    - 6000 bonus points after $250 purchases in the first 3 months
    - 2500 bonus points for signing up for paperless billing
    The Thank You points can be redeemed generally for $100 gift cards for 10,000 points. So you get 8,500 ($85) pretty easily in the first 3 months. I usually get Bloomingdales, CVS, or gas gift cards.

  2. The “Fidelity 1.5% cashback card” link actually takes us to “Fidelity® Investment Rewards® Visa Signature® Card.” It isn’t a cash-back card at this point.

    Just FYI.

  3. Ramit,
    Boy I wish I had been looking out for this 6 months ago. Just got done paying for a wedding on my Chase Sapphire (paid off in full every month) and going to 3 friends’ weddings (ending this weekend). With this I easily could have stayed on Maui for free.

  4. Any suggestions on a good travel card that is Master Card or Visa? There are not many AMEX vendors in the mid west.

    Thanks!

  5. If you are recommending a Fidelity card as a non-travel card, this one is way better:

    http://personal.fidelity.com/products/checking/content/amex_rewards_card.shtml

    AMEX & 2% cash back (into Fidelity account, not a check, but you have to have a Fidelity account to get the card anyways).

  6. Lovely series Ramit, I’ve been looking to switch checking accounts and have been on the look out for a better card than my Discover More. Would you also consider doing a best brokerage account?

  7. I’ve had this card for 5 years and agree, it is great! I just used my points to get the following discounts for my honeymoon: 2 nights free and the rest at half off. Pretty great for a luxury hotel. While there I waived the insurance when renting a car. Most places did accept the card, btw.

    I also paid for most of our wedding with it. So I have tons of points for our next vacation. It’s really like a secondary savings.

    They are also very good about contesting unknown charges (I returned something and was not credited by the retailer). It only happened once, but was impressed with how quickly AMEX handled the situation.

    Well worth the minor annual fee.

  8. So can I ask — just how low is the AMEX “ridiculously low” credit limit? I might get one to pay for wedding deposits etc, but those are in the thousands of dollars… so if it’s only $1000 or so it wouldn’t be feasible for me.

    Love these recommendations, keep them coming!

  9. anyone else having trouble with the survey page not working?

  10. He is right the limit was really low to start. Like $500. It was a real pain to start because I wanted to use it to get points but I would always max it out and I could only pay off the balance online once a month. After 60 days they let me pay it off whenever I wanted so the limit was less of a big deal and they gradually increased it. I will say though that I have made significant use of the free hotels and they are really nice ones. I highly recommend it. Its very useful once you get past the annoying first few months.

  11. hard to pass up a 10% money market rate where your rewards get rolled into. kicker is you have to be a member of the credit union. http://www.kemba.org/platinumrewards.htm granted the rate can change at any time just like any rewards programs can but this card has been sweet.

  12. I got a bit anal like this earlier this year but came to a different conclusion. For me, I like the freedom of cash-back for one very important reason, miles don’t earn interest. I got the Capital One Venture card. The annual fee (waived the first year) is $59 but it pays 2% cash-back on all purchases. After spending $750/month, I beat even the 1.5% cashback cards with no annual fees. I typically spent 2-3 times thins much monthly so the justification is evident.

    the other card that I greatly considered was the Penfed Platinum card that pays 5% cash back on gas and 1% on everything else. It would be better for people with higher monthly gas bills than myself (gas guzzling cars, people in sales, etc.).

    Ramit, would you please go into a bit more detail as to the actual point system for your AMEX. Is it 1 point per $1 spent?

  13. I have an AAdvantage rewards card. I definitely agree that having a credit card should be used for rewards…and travel cc’s are best suited towards that. One should also look at the sign-up bonuses and promos.

    I was going to get the Starwood credit card but looked at the benefit of opening a AAdvantage during their promo: 75k bonus miles after $6k spent in 6 months. That’s enough miles for a round-trip ticket to Asia, or 2 round-trip tickets to South America. In the long run this might not be as good as some other cc’s with the standard 1 mile/$1 spent but I think the benefits outweigh it after all is said and done.

  14. Right now I get the ~1% cash back from my Visa, which averages about $25/month.

    I don’t fly often (about once every 2 years), but I would travel more if my flight was paid for with the extra points/miles I’m earning. Is this card worth getting if you don’t really plan on staying at many Starwood hotels?

    If this card could pay for 2 roundtrip tickets every 1 or two years, I think it would be worth it. But since I don’t travel much regularly, is it still worth it?

  15. The survey link isn’t working for me either

  16. not sure that link is going to where it should be. just takes you to the create an acct page, and even once you’ve created an acct it doesn’t go to anything that looks like something for you…then again, i’m not smart…

  17. I like a lot of what you say but your blinders are often a little narrow with what seems to be a referance point of a person living in a city with no children (I don’t know if that is actaully your situation). Myself, and many like me dislike traveling with young ( infant – 3 year old) children. Cash rewards cards are much better than a travel rewards card for people in this demographic. On top of which, when I do travel, we often don’t stay in hotels. We camp… because we like to. So again, useless. You have a broad audience. Respect that.

  18. Re: this: “Hilariously, Citi actually mailed out a note to cardholders trying to spin the reduction of benefits into something like ‘exciting new features’ — but it was obvious to anyone with a pulse that the most compelling rewards were being removed.”

    The not-for-profit car share service in Philly tried this when they got rid of their $0/month membership (and automatically changed everyone to a $15/month membership unless you opted out within a particular period of time, which is absolutely silly for people who might get a car once or twice a year to go to Ikea or the like…). The spin was something like “We’ve made everything simpler for you by simplifying our membership plans to just one!” It made so many of my friends (and me) furious that even though they’ve reinstated the $0/month plan now, no one will re-join!

  19. Lol, get a life, anyways very nice well written here is my question Ramit does that include Events. Like say the card give you a chance to stay at a private island meeting up with say bill gates?

    or sky diving from space back to earth? or trip to space?

    Thanks Ramit

  20. I researched this versus the Amex Premier Rewards Gold Card and ended up going with the gold card. I wanted travel rewards but I rarely stay in hotels as I prefer to rent apartments, and the starwood seemed too hotel-heavy on the rewards.

    Also, the Gold has an unlimited balance (that’s what I was given anyway) so if the low limit is a problem for anyone they might want to choose the gold instead.

  21. Ramit,

    Do you think you can negotiate the annual fee?

  22. Will the referral form work for the Canadian version?

    Thanks.

  23. I had an AMEX for over a decade and was late on my payment ONCE and they wouldn’t waive the fee so that card is now locked up and hasn’t been used since. I’ve always found that Discover provided superior customer service, including answering the phone immediately when I call. I get tons of cash back bonuses because I put everything on the card and pay it off in full every month. I would never use AMEX again.

  24. I tried website for survey the day you sent this. No survey, says thanks for completing it but never took it. Then tried again, same thing. No email with link from you. What next? Even registered at survey monkey, to no avail. Says there are no surveys done….

  25. @19, maybe in your case, but the audience also includes people like myself who have toddlers and like to travel with them. Previously, I was mostly using a cash back AmEx, but now that I actually have to pay for the toddler to fly (she just turned 2, so she can’t fly on our lap anymore, and we have to buy her a ticket), travel rewards cards are becoming a more-appealing option. So the fact that it’s a broad audience works both ways . . .

    • I hear what you are saying, but the post reads in a factual way that it was the best way. Like most of Ramits posts, the reader is subjected to feeling like “they just don’t get it” if they don’t agree even though their own life situation and financial principles are sound.

  26. I wish you had a Canadian sister site.

  27. Ramit,

    What do you think about Debit cards?

  28. [...] Yesterday: The best credit card [...]

  29. Hey Ramit,
    My Dad received an AMEX business gold rewards with 75k points with an annual fee of $125. He needs to spend $1k in the next three months (which isn’t an issue). What do you think about that deal and that card?
    Thanks

  30. Survey link not working?

  31. I considered using CitiBank 12 years ago. At the time, the password for their online banking website was the same as your PIN for your debit card. There’s only 6,561 different 4-digit PINs. That’s enough to stop someone from casually guessing my PIN if they’re standing with my debit card at an ATM, but it’s a trivially low amount of PINs for that to be an online banking password. Writing a program to brute-force its way into someones account wouldn’t have been too hard.

    Just yesterday I read that Citibank’s credit cards had been hacked due to bad security on the Citi website. http://j.mp/lf3qwF and plain old Google http://www.google.com/search?q=citibank+credit+card+hacked

    I think it’s worth updating the original article to point out that though the credit card rewards might be great, the security of Citibank’s website is rather poor.

  32. What’s special about your special referral email link, other than you get bonus points for referring people?

  33. I would recommend checking out the nerds at http://www.flyertalk.com. They discuss in detail how to redeem travel points and get the most bang for your points. The only problem I’ve had with travel cards are reward and redemption availability. You must have a flexible schedule, or else it can be very difficult to redeem free flights.

  34. i prefer cash back as i can use it to spend on anything i want. that said, i have taken advantage of promos such as AA’s 75k miles and BA’s 100k miles – use it, get the rewards, cancel the card.

  35. [...] many credit cards offer rewards in the form of free hotel stays. These cards vary, as some offer higher rewards rates for any hotel stay, while others allow you to accrue bonus points for stays at participating hotel chains. Many cards [...]

  36. Ramit-

    I just started following your blog and I have begun to read your book. I am very interested in applying for this card. I filled out the survey for the referral link but I have not yet received it. Is there anyway you can look into this and send me the link via email. It would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks

  37. Matthew Borsick Link to this comment

    Ramit-

    When are you sending out the referral link ?

  38. Ramit – for your Canadian readers, the TD Bank Visa Infinite card is almost identical to the Starwood Amex. Instead of 1 Starwood Point for every $1.00, it’s 3 TD points for every $1.00. No TD account required (min income of $60,000 gross).

    A great comparison for Canadians:
    http://www.rewardscanada.ca/cccompare.html

  39. [...] for ING Direct. As you know, when I recommended my favorite savings account, checking account, and credit card, I named ING Direct as the savings account that I love and [...]

  40. [...] the rewards you receive exceed the amount of the fee, then it may not be a bad idea. Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You to be Rich likes the Starwood American Express card for its great travel perks. It charges an annual fee of [...]