It doesn't always pay to avoid credit cards with fees

Credit Card bills
Adam Gault | Getty Images

Just how fee-laden is your credit card? It may not matter much.

The average credit card has six different fees, according to a new CreditCards.com analysis of 100 major cards. The most fee-laden cards have 12, and just one of the cards assessed had no fees whatsoever. (See chart below for a rundown of the cards with the most and fewest.)

"This points out how different credit card issuers and different cards can be, and drives home the importance of shopping around," said Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com.

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The fee landscape for credit cards has gotten friendlier in recent years. "Consumers are so much more protected than they were before the CARD Act" of 2009, said Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for Consumer-Action.org. That legislation included several provisions aimed at reducing fees, such as requiring set end-of-day payment deadlines to limit late fees. Still, she said, "There are always other fees."

Some are more prevalent than others: 99 percent of the cards charge a late payment fee (typically $35), according to the CreditCards.com analysis, while 77 percent tack on a foreign transaction fee (about 3 percent per purchase). On the rare side, only 5 percent of cards penalize cardholders who exceed their credit limit, and 5 percent charge a fee for expedited payment via phone.

Credit cards with the most fees

Card
Number of fees
First Premier Bank Credit Card 12
First Premier Bank Secured MasterCard 12
Credit One Visa Platinum 9
Fifth Third Bank Platinum MasterCard 9
Navy Federal Credit Union Platinum 9
Navy Federal Credit Union Cash Rewards 9
Regions Visa Platinum Rewards 9
SOURCE: CreditCards.com

Credit cards with the fewest fees

Card
Number of Fees
PenFed Promise Visa Card 0
ExxonMobil SmartCard from Citi 3
Spark Classic from Capital One 3
Capital One Spark Cash Select for Business 3
Spark Miles Select by Capital One 3
SOURCE: CreditCards.com

But hunting for a card with as few fees as possible isn't the right approach. More critical: the types of fees. "It's important that you know yourself," said Schulz. Someone who sets up automatic payments, for example, won't need to be worried about either late payment or expedited phone payment fees. But if you travel abroad, picking a card with a foreign transaction fee would be an expensive misstep.

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Even an annual fee often isn't a deal-breaker. "The knee-jerk reaction when it comes to credit card fees is that you should always avoid them, which is not always true," said John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at CreditSesame.com. Cards with annual fees tend to have higher credit limits, which can be a boon for your score, he said.

Fee-carrying cards often have richer rewards, as a way to justify the fee. "In the grand scheme of things, you might net ahead, even considerably ahead, because of what you're earning in the rewards program," he said. That value, again, comes down to assessing your habits. Ulzheimer said his $450-a-year American Express Delta Reserve card is a bargain, compared to the $2,000-plus he'd otherwise pay for perks like lounge access, flight upgrades and companion tickets.

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Keep in mind that issuers are often willing to waive or reduce fees if you just ask, said Schulz. According to the new CreditCards.com analysis, 40 percent of the annual fee carrying cards waive that charge for the first year. And last year, a site survey of 987 card-carrying adults found that of those who had asked for a late payment fee waiver, 86 percent got one. "You might be successful more often than you might think," he said.