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

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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…

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