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Free trips. Triple cash back. Or would you prefer first dibs on tickets for Beyoncé's world tour, or a private dinner cooked by a "Top Chef" winner?
As the economy strengthens, credit card issuers are rolling out their most lavish offers in years to woo new customers. But figuring out which card will deliver the best payoff for your personal spending patterns can feel like a calculus test. That is a reason so many Americans — more than a third, according to one recent survey — haven't changed their primary card in a decade.
"Many people have under-optimized wallets," said Matthew Goldman, the chief product officer for the credit card sites at Bankrate, which offers a variety of consumer finance comparison tools. "Right now, it's a really good time to be a customer, especially one with good credit. The issuers are really going after each other with lucrative deals."
So which card should you pick? Here is a guide to some of the most widely recommended cards and the online comparison tools and apps that can help you choose.
Cash isn't as exciting as a fantasy vacation, but for most people, it is the most lucrative choice.
NerdWallet crunched the numbers on a variety of cards and found a break-even point: $8,600. That is how much the average cardholder would have to spend annually on travel to earn more with a rewards card than a cash-back card. There is one big exception: People who go overseas at least once a year generally fare better with cards that waive foreign transaction fees, a common feature of rewards cards oriented toward travelers.
A 2 percent return has become the gold standard for cash-back cards, but most cards with a rate that high come with a few caveats.
The Fidelity Rewards Visa Signature card requires the rebate to be deposited into a Fidelity account. Citi's Double Cash card gives you 1 percent up front as you make purchases and the other 1 percent when you pay them off. Offerings from American Express, Chase and Discover have high cash-back rates limited to specific spending categories, like gas and groceries.
A new online comparison tool from Consumer Reports aims to help shoppers cut through the clutter. Plug in your monthly spending and it will cull through 55 cards to make a personalized recommendation.
"We haven't worked through all the details yet," said Michael Saccucci, the director of statistics for Consumer Reports, who tinkered for several years with an internal tool before releasing it to the public in June. "We're trying to make it more consistent, and one of my goals for future versions is to add a two-card optimization."
Sean McQuay, NerdWallet's in-house credit card expert, wrote a column in December about his decision to ditch his rewards cards and shift his spending to cash-back options. With two young daughters, he travels less than he once did and spends more on household staples like groceries. He settled on two cards for everyday use: the Citi Double Cash and the Discover It card, which offers 5 percent cash back on a rotating set of bonus categories.
So, 10 months in, has he stuck with his cash card resolution?
"No," he admitted, a bit sheepishly. He was wooed by the 100,000-point sign-up bonus dangled by the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the "it" card of the moment. His wife applied, and they are now using her card for many purchases.
"That bonus was too big to ignore," Mr. McQuay said. "I don't think it fits my long-term spending, but I think I'll spend enough to justify the card for the first year."
There is a reason so many cards focus their rewards structure on travel. It's aspirational — who doesn't like to daydream about jetting off to the tropics? — and it's cost-effective. Airline miles and similar benefits can be bought in bulk by card issuers for a fraction of their cash value.
But delving into the fine print of actually redeeming all those miles and points is a quick buzz-kill, which means that many accumulate and languish, unused.
Cards like Capital One's Venture and Barclays' Arrival Plus cater to those who hate complexity. They are travel cards that operate more like cash-back cards, letting customers use their points as a rebate against any travel expense.
The way to stretch the dollar value of your points and miles the farthest, though, is by jumping through the hoops and redeeming them for airline travel and hotel stays. For customers with a preferred airline or hotel chain, that brand's credit card is still typically the best deal, but travelers who bounce around are fueling a growing market for flexible cards with transferable perks.
Most of those cards carry annual fees, but like the sticker price of a new car, the listed rates rarely reflect what customers actually pay. Chase's new Sapphire Reserve nominally costs $450 a year, but it includes a $300 rebate on travel purchases, automatically applied on the card's monthly statement. For most customers, that effectively reduces the annual fee to $150. Its direct rivals, the American Express Platinum and Citi Prestige cards, also rebate some charges.
Dedicated points ninjas tend to juggle multiple cards to squeeze out the maximum bonus on each. Mr. Saccucci of Consumer Reports said his analysis found that average card holders could increase the yield of their rewards programs by about 30 percent by strategically using two different cards.
Unless you walk around with Excel spreadsheets in your head, you will need help deciding which card to whip out at the cash register. Wallaby is an app that tracks your various cards and makes recommendations about the best one to use for a given purchase.
Once you have amassed a stash of points or miles, figuring out how to use them is the next puzzle. RewardStock, a start-up in Raleigh, N.C., recently released a Web app designed to find the optimal route, using miles, to the places you want to go. Tell it you want to fly from New York to Honolulu, and it will estimate your options: 40,000 mileage points round-trip on American Airlines, 45,000 on United or 55,000 on Delta.
The app is still a beta version, with some flaws, but Jonathan Hayes, the company's founder, sees a big future in helping customers treat rewards points like the currency they have become.
"When you buy stocks, you have a broker," Mr. Hayes said. "People have a lot of points stored up in various programs, but they don't know how to get real value out of them. There's no system set up for this sector of personal finance. That's the role we hope to fill."
About 40 percent of American households carry credit card debt, according to the Federal Reserve's latest consumer finances study. For those working to pay down their bills, low interest rates matter more than rewards.
Many cards offer zero-percent financing for a limited time. The Citi Simplicity card has one of the longest grace periods, 21 months, for purchases and balance transfers, but like most cards, it levies a fee on transfers. Switching over a $2,300 balance — the median amount owed by a household carrying a credit card balance, according to the Fed study — would cost $69.
Another option, the Chase Slate card, has no balance transfer fee for the first 60 days and a 15-month window for its zero-percent rate.
Opening new credit card accounts does not, as many people fear, automatically sink your credit score. The credit check that lenders conduct does knock your score down a few points, but a bigger factor in your score is the percentage of available credit you are actually using. If you keep your spending steady, opening new cards — or raising the credit limit on your existing cards — lowers your utilization rate and generally lifts your score over time.
But if you decide to stop using an older card, it often pays off to keep it open. The age of your accounts factors into your credit score and closing older accounts takes a toll, especially if it reduces the total amount of untapped credit you have available.
If you want to drop a card with an annual fee without closing the account, ask if you can downgrade your card. Most fee-carrying cards have little-advertised sibling cards with fewer frills. Chase's Sapphire cards can be traded in for a fee-free Chase Freedom card, and Capital One's Venture Rewards, which costs $59 a year, can be swapped for a VentureOne card with a lower rewards rate and no fee.
And if you are trying to decide between similar cards — a common problem, since card issuers often clone their rivals' most popular features — it's worth digging into the fine print. Companies are increasingly offering extras like extended product warranties, travel insurance and enhanced rental car coverage.
"I don't think they've figured out yet how to help people understand all of those options and benefits," said Mr. Goldman of Bankrate. "It's a more nuanced thing to market, but we're going to keep seeing more of them, because there's an upper limit on rewards and cash."