If you want to avoid being taken for a ride by your next credit card, be sure to have your reading glasses handy. Credit card agreements are notorious for their copious fine print.
A consumer protection law passed in 2009 made things a little easier, requiring clearer disclosure statements and curtailing overlimit fees and other questionable charges. Still, many shoppers admit they don’t fully grasp all the terms in their agreement.
The best way to sidestep shopper’s remorse when it comes to credit cards is by doing your homework ahead of time. Here are some factors to watch.
1. High Annual Fees
If you use your credit card sparingly, you’re probably better off with an account that has either a low annual fee or none at all. However, the threshold of acceptability can vary greatly depending on how many rewards you’re accumulating.
Take the Platinum Card from American Express, a product geared toward travelers. At first glance, the whopping $450 annual fee looks like an easy “no, thank you.” But with a $200 annual airline rebate, privileges at three airport-lounge groups and the ability to earn points based on how much you spend, it’s an enticing card for frequent fliers (see Credit Card Review: Platinum American Express).
The key: If you’re getting the card primarily for its rewards, make sure the benefits you actually receive outweigh the annual fee. It doesn’t hurt to do some basic calculations before completing an application.
2. Excessive Rates
Instant gratification is a temptation that’s hard to overcome, and credit cards are no exception. Many card offers these days promise no interest for the first several months, which makes them appear like no-cost loans. They’re not.
Eventually, the standard interest rate will kick in, which is what you’re stuck with over the long haul. Consumers should always know what they’re in for once that initial free ride ends.
How do you know you’re getting competitive terms? One thing you can do is look up the average rate for different types of cards – from student cards to low-interest offerings – at CreditCards.com. That way, you have a reference point for any card offer you may be considering.
3. Rewards You Can’t Use
The number of cards offering special incentives based on how much you spend – and on what types of goods – seems endless. But before you settle on one card over the other, make sure you’ll actually benefit from those rewards. For more on this, read Rewards Credit Cards.
The safest bet is a card that offers cash back on virtually every purchase, as is the case with Discover (see Find the Top Cash Back Credit Cards). Cards that reward you with specific products or services are a bit trickier. For example, if you’re in the market for an airline-affiliated card, choose a carrier that has a nearby hub and travels to the destinations you have in mind so you get the most bang for your buck. And make sure you’re clear about the rules for redeeming miles ahead of time. For more, see Credit Cards That Offer the Most Airline Miles.
For cards that provide points, you’ll want to find out if every purchase you make results in new points or whether only certain items qualify. If you’re in doubt, contact the customer service department for a clear explanation.
4. Crummy Customer Service
Checking on rewards (above) will give you a chance to take customer service for a test run. There’s nothing more frustrating than having a question about your card rewards or trying to dispute a charge, only to run into a poor customer service team. Sticking with companies with a strong reputation in this area can save a lot of heartache.
Each year, J.D. Power publishes a survey on how card issuers stack up across six key factors and overall. American Express and Discover perennially excel in overall satisfaction, as well as in customer interaction and did in the 2015 survey, as well. GE Capital Retail Bank/Synchrony Bank and Citi trailed the pack in providing customer care.
5. High Foreign Transaction Fees
If you travel outside the country frequently, look for a card with no foreign transaction fee. Many cards will charge you extra – typically 3% of the transaction amount – every time you make a purchase abroad. So if you buy an item worth $500, you may have to fork over an extra $15. Over time, that can add up.
Fortunately, there are a number of credit card comparison sites that make it a lot easier to find cards without this fee. CardHub.com and CreditCards.com, for example, allow you to filter offers based on foreign transaction fees and a variety of other features. (See Top Credit Cards with No Foreign Transaction Fee.)
The Bottom Line
There are literally hundreds of credit cards to choose among, so it’s crucial to do your research before applying. Give closest scrutiny to the individual features that matter most to you.