The last no-brainer. The low annual fee credit card that offers great value for everyone.

The IHG card was it.  When talking to people new to points & miles I always mentioned this one.  The $49 per year IHG card used to offer a free night at any IHG property worldwide, every year upon renewal.  For just about anyone who travels at least once a year on their own dime, this card was a no-brainer.  And it was even better in two-player mode.  A couple could each get the card and enjoy a weekend getaway each year for $98 ($49 x 2).  Whether you used the free nights for $150 near-airport hotels, $300 Kimpton hotels, or $800 per night big city Intercontinental hotels, it offered great value.  Many other cards offered much more valuable rewards per dollar for spend, but this card offered great value to have and to hold.

For those wondering about my angle… No, I didn’t recommend this card for the affiliate commission — I recommended it because I truly believed the card to be the best no-brainer on the market.  We don’t earn a commission for the IHG offer that we display on this blog (found here) because the best offer is not available through affiliate channels.  We always display the best public offer even if it means no commission for us.

But now, Chase has changed the deal.  Going forward, the annual free night available to IHG cardholders will be limited to hotels that charge 40,000 points or less.  This means that free nights at nice hotels in expensive cities will no longer be an option.  Don’t get me wrong, the card is still pretty good.  In addition to the annual free night, it offers a 10% rebate on point awards and automatic IHG Platinum status.  So, it’s still an excellent card to have and to hold for many people.  It’s simply not the no-brainer it used to be.

Are there any no-brainers left?

For a card to be considered a no-brainer, it must offer significant value with little effort, and must have a very low annual fee or none at all.  There are many fantastic cards with high annual fees, but they are good only for those who are in a position to spend the money up front.

I scanned through our Best Credit Card Offers page to see if I could find any remaining no-brainers.  What will I tell the next person who asks about points & miles?  To be clear, my goal here is not to identify the no-brainer signup offers — that would be a different list.  The goal here is to find cards that offer value year after year for just about anyone who gets the card, and which costs very little.

Contenders

  • Amex Blue Business Plus Credit Card
    • Why it may be a no-brainer: No annual fee.  Earns amazing 2 valuable Membership Rewards points per dollar for all spend, up to $50K spend per year.  Amex business cards do not add to your 5/24 count.
    • Why it’s not a no-brainer: You must have a business of some kind to sign up. Membership Rewards points require fairly advanced understanding of airline loyalty programs to get good value.
  • Bank of America Travel Rewards
    • Why it may be a no-brainer: No annual fee. Earns fantastic 2.625% in rewards for those with a very large banking relationship with Bank of America and/or Merrill Edge.
    • Why it’s not a no-brainer: Requires $100,000 in investments to get top value from spend.
  • Barclays Uber Visa Card
    • Why it may be a no-brainer: No annual fee. Combination of 4% cash back for dining and 3% cash back for travel is excellent.
    • Why it’s not a no-brainer: Only 1% cash back for spend outside of bonus categories.
  • Chase Ink Cash Business Credit Card
    • Why it may be a no-brainer: No annual fee. 5X super-valuable Ultimate Rewards points for office supply purchases, phone, TV, and internet (up to $25K spend per year).  Can earn 5X by buying gift cards from stores like Staples or Office Depot.  Chase business cards do not add to your 5/24 count.
    • Why it’s not a no-brainer: You must have a business of some kind to sign up. While the card doesn’t add to your 5/24 count, it is subject to 5/24. That means that if you’ve opened 5 or more cards in the past 24 months you probably won’t be approved.  See: 3 Easy Ways to Count Your 5/24 Status.
  • Chase Hyatt Visa Signature
    • Why it may be a no-brainer: Annual free night at any category 1-4 Hyatt.  Many category 3 and 4 Hyatt properties are very nice in my opinion.
    • Why it’s not a no-brainer: $75 annual fee. Hyatt is a small chain compared to IHG, Marriott, etc. and so finding Hyatt hotels where you want to go may not always be easy.  Free night is capped up to category 4.  Even though Hyatt has a big footprint in Manhattan, there are no Hyatt’s there below category 5 at the time of this writing.
  • Citi Double Cash (or any other no-fee 2% cash back card)
    • Why it may be a no-brainer: No annual fee. Excellent rewards for all spend.
    • Why it’s not a no-brainer: Many of these 2% cards charge foreign transaction fees.
  • Discover It or Discover It for Students
    • Why it may be a no-brainer: No annual fee. Rotating 5% cash back categories. Redeem cash back for gift cards for even more value.  Student version includes $20 cash back per year for getting good grades.
    • Why it’s not a no-brainer: Only 1% cash back for spend outside of bonus categories.
  • PenFed Pathfinder Rewards
    • Why it may be a no-brainer: No annual fee. $100 annual travel benefit: Up to $100 per calendar year in incidental travel fee reimbursements. $100 Global Entry or $85 TSA PreCheck every 5 years. Earn 3X or 4X points for travel; 1.5X everywhere else.  Travel insurance included.
    • Why it’s not a no-brainer: Requires PenFed membership (one easy option is to donate $17 to National Military Family Organization or Voices for America’s Troops).
  • Alliant Cashback Visa Signature Card:
    • Why it may be a no-brainer: Card earns best in class 3% cash back first year, then 2.5% thereafter. No foreign transcation fees.
    • Why it’s not a no-brainer: $59 annual fee means that those who spend less than $12K per year are better off with a no-fee 2% cash back card.  Difficult to get approved.

Conclusion

The closest thing I found to a no-brainer for everyone may be the PenFed Pathfinder Rewards card since it offers $100 per year in airline fee reimbursements with no annual fee.  Anyone who flies a few times per year can potentially benefit from getting reimbursed for things like checked bags, premium seat assignments, or even snacks purchased on-board.  Still, it’s hardly the type of thing that I would try to explain to someone in a casual conversation as I used to do with the IHG card.

Most of the no-brainers today depend upon your situation.  For example,if you own your own business (even something as simple as selling items on eBay) then get the Chase Ink Cash for its 5X categories, and the Amex Blue Business Plus to earn 2X everywhere else.  If you’re a student, get Discover It for Students.  If you eat out a lot, consider the Barclays Uber Visa Card.  And so on.

For me, the devaluation of the IHG card’s annual free night has ended the easy answer.  Do you want to know how to get great value from credit cards?  Sit down, this is going to take a while…

About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

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escot
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escot

Caught your reference “to have and to hold” the IHG card…. Concur with your take on the past, but my wife and I are both rethinking this one. You didn’t mention that Chase & IHG much upped the annual fee too, causing even more pause. The point-breaks program was also recently gutted, with more hits sure to come there. The 10% points back doesn’t matter much anymore if we’re rarely, if ever, staying with IHG (for a host of reasons….). And it’s seriously been a while since that “Platinum status” meant anything serious. (last time for us was Springdale, Utah — got the Presidential suite there — cool, but such an exception.) But more often than not of late, having IHG platinum “status” gets us the weakest room in the building with a small portal view of the brick wall next door, if that, especially if you’re using the “free night”…. (as happened to us recently at the over-hyped “The Willard” — or two years ago at the decaying HI Aruba.)

Hey, an idea for another “no brainer” card add…. which might be of interest to you especially….. how ’bout the Sears/Citi card? (h/t/ to DoC for being on that beat of late) No fee and tremendous promotions throughout the year…. (for those of us who still know how to make good use of SYWR points. 🙂 — in part thanks to you and Nick. )

escot
Guest
escot

Alas, the instant rejoinder to even mentioning the Sears card is the every present threat of Sears/Kmart ceasing to be…. kinda like the threat of Brezhnev dying…. SYW points indeed, not meant “to have and to hold”….. the card, tempting.

Nick Reyes
Editor

Chase isn’t upping the annual fee on existing cardholders. If you’ve got the $49 annual fee version, the letter said that there would be an exciting upgrade offer, indicating to me that upgrading will be a choice. I imagine there will come a day when the $49 card gets discontinued altogether, but it hasn’t yet…and so at this point, it’s still not a bad deal since it’s pretty easy to get much more than $49 in value from a night at a hotel up to 40K….but it’s not a no-brainer since that won’t much matter to you if all of your travel is to places where there are only higher-category hotels.

Audrey
Guest
Audrey

I received notice awhile back that my Sears Citi Master card would begin earning Thank You points. The points from my purchases on that card are, indeed, going into a Thank You points account. Not sure if this true with new applications. But if Sears/Kmart eventually does go under, I would guess that holders of that card would be product changed to a different card that earns Thank You points. (Possibly the no AF version of the Premier/Prestige line.) Also, one of the transfer options of those Thank You points is to transfer to SYWR. Not sure if that is true of all Thank You points or just the ones from the Sears Citi card.

Enjoy Fine Food
Guest
Enjoy Fine Food

Hey Escot & wife —
We just used 165k and an anniversary night to stay 4 nights in Paris. Fourth night free would have given us the same result. Although my typical IHG stay isn’t at a 55k hotel or as long as 4 nights, I think we can make this change work. Stop limiting our free night thinking to “aspirational” properties. Start thinking “one-night-stands” [in the 40k or less style]. Plan 4+ night aspirational stays. I keep the $49 classic; my wife gets the $29/$89 version. We’re also rethinking this one.

SDO
Guest
SDO

No Chase Freedom card??

David
Guest
David

My thought as well.

Kim
Guest
Kim

I agree that AMEX Biz Blue Plus is and should be first on your list and not just because AMEX is first alphabetically. Any meaningful conversation with someone who is newish about miles and points must include a discussion of convertible points from AMEX, Chase, etc, and as you’ve done in one of your series the Chase rule 4/24. To preserve your AMEX MR for future use, you need to have either the AMEX Everyday card, which fills a 4/24 slot, or this one, which does not.

Scottman
Guest
Scottman

What about the two US Bank Club Carlson cards? Both business and personal versions give 40,000 points annually for a $60/$75 fee respectively and the points remain in your account until used. Pretty easy to find good redemptions for that (especially Radisson Blu properties in Europe.)

AllenB
Guest
AllenB

Target Visa card for shopping at Target. No annual fee. 5% off all purchases at Target, except gift cards and pharmacy. Extended return period. Free shipping from Target .com. No foreign transaction fee. Chip and PIN.

Pretty much only useful for Target, but I found the Chip and PIN feature nice when buying metro tickets or other unattended kiosks outside the US. Used mine recently for buying metro tickets when in Montreal.

Enjoy Fine Food
Guest
Enjoy Fine Food

Even though I use it weekly, I had never considered the Target Card as one of the few real chip/pin cards from the U.S. that could be used in Canada/Europe. Great wake-up for me! Thanks, AllenB

CaveDweller
Guest
CaveDweller

My Hawaiian airline card works great in EU that’s why I keep it and NO FEE now.. . Chase Bank likes it too

Peter
Guest
Peter

Some of us stock up on gift cards the first Monday of December at 10% off (+5% if Discover/Freedom have target as a 5% category like last year). 15%>5%, but of course if you spend more than $600/year/person at Target then better to do both.

GC.
Guest
GC.

Only thing with that is the Target Visa (now Mastercard) is no longer open for new apps.

Chucks
Guest
Chucks

Stop with these clickbait headlines please. I shouldn’t have to click the article to see the card. Using these verbose headlines that hide the lead is just shameful.

Josh
Guest
Josh

Whaaaah! I *deserve* for you to give me free content, with almost zero effort on my part and to no benefit to you. I want you to do all the research in this hobby, build and maintain the site at your expense, and personally answer my questions…all so I can do nothing yet still benefit from all of your hard work.

Get over yourself. This site is great and has been for years. Greg is one of the few who has done a spectacular job of creating unique content without stealing from other bloggers or selling out the community.

Clicking on the article requires little of you. If you don’t want then content, then don’t click. If you don’t already know what others do and want their knowledge, then STFU and pay the laborious “price” of clicking. It’s how bloggers are able to continue to provide such content to us.

…Rant over

Ivan X
Guest
Ivan X

If you’re into cash back, the Double Cash + Uber seems like an unbeatable no-brainer combo, as it not only gets between 2% and 4% for everything, with no annual fee, but it also offers no foreign transaction fee, and secondary chip+PIN. Individually, they’re ok, but together, they’re fantastic. Only downside is getting 1% on some purchases while traveling (because you have to use the Uber card to avoid the foreign transaction fee).

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Leonardc2
Guest
Leonardc2

The FNBO Travelite is also a no annual fee card with $100 annual travel credit…a true no-brained!

Frank
Guest
Frank

Another good article, Greg. Thanks. My wife & I have each had the IHG for years, and will probably keep them (or upgrade), also we have 5 Club C cards at $60/$75 fee each year and we used to get great value at The Martinique in Manhattan but that looks like it’s going away (Europe is still great value for Radissons anyway and we go 1X or 2X a year. We also get reasonable value out of our free nights with the Marriott cards at $85 which is like a discounted night (usually used these for $150 – $200 value nights. Similar (but better) are our Hyatt cards which we also keep. No real spending on any of these, except each year I have MSed a free Radisson night.

Remember that you also save on taxes when you use the free nights and usually “resort/extortion fees” as well.