"What's the best credit card?"

I have a lot of family and friends who typically find themselves somewhere between amusement, shock, and awe when I talk about this crazy game we play. But sooner or later when they foresee a big upcoming expense, whether it's a wedding, a move, or a remodel, they come to me and ask, "Alright hotshot, you're the expert, what's the best credit card?"

After all, here I am, a starving artist trying to push books out the door and get people to pay for a blog they can read for free, but I take long weekends a few times a month and three or four long vacations each year – in first class, whenever possible. Nonetheless, my answer is almost always the same:

It doesn't really work like that.

Sure, I'll pass along a particularly good signup bonus, like the 55,000 mile Chase United MileagePlus Explorer offer I recommended to my Polish friend, or the 50,000 mile Citi Platinum Select / AAdvantage offer I signed up for earlier this month, since those bonuses are so high even a rookie is sure to get a good enough value that I'll be able to sleep at night.

One Question

Mile-and-point-earning credits cards are not right for everybody, and in fact they're right for almost nobody. When my brother recently asked what credit cards his friend should sign up for, the only question I asked was,

"Is she a businessman who is allowed to charge business travel to her personal credit card, and/or is she crazy?"

If the answer to both is no, a mile-and-point-earning credit card is not right for her.

One Size Fits All? Cash Back.

The best credit for the average civilian is the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express card. It earns 2% cash back everywhere American Express is accepted, and has no annual fee. American Express isn't accepted everywhere, so our average civilian should carry a backup Visa, MasterCard, or Discover. I have both a Chase Freedom Visa and Discover it card, for example, and I'll be doing a product change to the Citi Dividend Platinum Select once I use up my ThankYou point balance from my current ThankYou Preferred card.

Even better, the rewards balance on Chase Freedom and Discover it cards can be used at their full value on Amazon.com purchases, so users can use their rewards immediately for online purchases, rather than waiting for them to accumulate. For example, Discover requires a $50 rewards balance to redeem for cash, the swine.

Foreign Transaction Fees

I would slightly lean towards the Discover it because it doesn't have a foreign transaction fee, so for the very occasional international trip the average user takes, that would provide some real savings. Discover cards are processed on the Diner's Club network, so they have quite good acceptance overseas, although somewhat less than Visa or MasterCard (and much better than American Express).

Of course a free Bluebird account also doesn't have foreign transaction fees, and can be used as an ATM card at many international ATMs, but does operate on the American Express card network so acceptance could be a problem depending on the destination.

The Exceptions

Of course, if you are a businessman who charges company expenses to your personal credit card, or you are crazy, travel hacking is an amazingly lucrative hobby that allows you to travel the world for pennies on the dollar. Buy my book! Read my blog! If you like it, consider setting up a monthly PayPal subscription! But when your friends ask, tell them the same thing I told my brother: a solid 2% cash back card is going to get them farther, faster, then messing around with co-branded credit cards that earn just one mile or point per dollar.