What Should be in Your Wallet
These seven credit cards beat all contenders in their class. One of them is just right for you.
By Carolyn Bigda

(MONEY Magazine) – Some 5.3 billion credit-card solicitations have been mailed this year, and it probably seems like half of them landed in your mailbox. It's a veritable fantasia of marketing gimmicks: No late fees! Free miles! Elite cards! All too often, this flimflam disguises how ill-suited the card in question is to a person with your plastic habits--and how much that miscasting will cost you. So MONEY spoke with industry experts, scoured the fine print on rates, fees and rewards, and finally zeroed in on seven outstanding cards. Read on. One of them is best-in-class for the kind of credit-card user you are. (Rates quoted are variable unless otherwise noted, and widely available to average applicants.)

If You (Usually) Pay in Full

BEST CHOICE American Express Clear CONTACT 888-917-3030 WHY No annual fee; one-month grace period APR 12.99% ANNUAL FEE $0

WHAT TO LOOK FOR If you pay your balance off every month with near-religious fervor, congratulations--you're already a winner in the credit-card game, whatever card you choose. Plus, your virtue entitles you to more than one option: You could go for a card that offers rewards in exchange for your loyalty. (If so, see the pages that follow.) But maybe you're the type who doesn't want to establish a relationship with a piece of plastic--or devote even a minute to managing points and navigating the system for trading them in. And you'd rather not pay for what you won't use.

What you want, then, is a card that charges no annual fee and that gives you a long grace period before you're hit with interest on late payments or a late fee is levied. After all, even the best-intentioned can go astray for a week or two.

WHY THIS CARD Introduced in October, AmEx Clear has no annual fee and offers a one-month grace period, one of the longest in the industry. It does offer a loyalty reward, a $25 gift card after you've spent $2,500, but you'll get it automatically--without submitting forms or tracking points.

If You Carry a Balance

BEST CHOICE Pulaski Bank Visa Classic CONTACT 800-980-2265 WHY Ultralow interest rate APR 6.99% fixed ANNUAL FEE $35

WHAT TO LOOK FOR If you're among the 43% of American cardholders who don't pay their balance in full every month, you need to put one criterion ahead of all others: the interest rate. Forget cards that offer rewards, which typically charge at least a percentage point more than comparable cards without givebacks (or charge a hefty annual fee). Anytime you pay interest on a rewards card, you lose the value of the reward.

The hitch is that cards with the very lowest rates are available only to those with pristine credit histories and credit scores of roughly 720 or higher. So we picked two winners, one for those with sterling credit and another for more middling scorers. In either case, keep in mind that rates change frequently, so check for the best deals at Bankrate.com and at local banks, which often beat top national cards, especially for their own customers.

WHY THIS CARD The approval process for the Pulaski Bank Visa Classic is more stringent than for most major issuers. Still, says Justin McHenry of IndexCreditCards.com, "a good number of people qualify." Its 6.99% fixed rate is among the best available and comes with other friendly terms, such as a relatively mild penalty rate of 18% that drops back to the regular rate as soon as your account is current, not after the more common six months. All this justifies the annual fee of $35.

If you don't have near-perfect credit, the lowest rate available is through the "above-average credit" version of the Capital One Platinum MasterCard, which charges 8.9%. You should be able to sign on, the issuer says, if you have carried a loan or credit line for three years, have held a credit card with a limit of at least $5,000 and have not been late paying bills over the past six months. One caveat: You must sign up online, at capitalone.com.

If You Sometimes Pay Late

BEST CHOICE Amalgamated Bank MasterCard CONTACT 800-365-6464 WHY No penalty rate; low APR and penalty fees APR 11.25% ANNUAL FEE $0

WHAT TO LOOK FOR In an ideal world, you'd never miss a payment. But your job, your kids--in short, the real world--can get in the way of your best-laid plans. So you need a card that's not going to exact too great a penalty for minor infractions.

Issuers know that many credit-card users fall into this category and that everyone resents paying a fine for being a day or two late, so cards without late fees are all the rage these days. But what many of those seemingly sympathetic issuers soft-pedal is that they'll instead jack your interest rate sky-high the minute you miss a due date. Over the long haul (and even in the short term, if you carry a hefty balance), that can cost far more than a late fee or two. And the penalty rate can last six months or more for a single infraction.

Another bit of fine print to beware of: a so-called universal default policy, which allows an issuer to increase your rate if you're late paying another lender or if other signs of risk show up on your credit report.

WHY THIS CARD While regional banks offer some of the most consumer-friendly cards, often you have to be a customer to apply. But anyone can sign up for the Amalgamated Bank MasterCard, which doesn't have a penalty rate, a universal default policy or an annual fee. The APR ranges from 11.25% to 12.75%, depending on your credit history; there's a 25-day grace period; and late fees and over-limit fees are below average, at $25 and $20, respectively.

If You Gotta Have Cash Back

BEST CHOICE Blue Cash from American Express CONTACT 800-223-2670 WHY Maximum cash rewards for big spenders APR 11.99% ANNUAL FEE $0

WHAT TO LOOK FOR It's worth reiterating that you should not sign up for a rewards card if you carry a balance. Not even the best giveback program justifies the extra interest. Got that? Now if you're still looking for a rewards card, know that there's often a trade-off between the variety of givebacks offered and their value. The GM Card, for example, kicks back a generous 5%--but only to buy General Motors vehicles. The most efficient way to expand your options, says CardRatings.com's Curtis Arnold, is to go for a card that offers rewards only in cash.

WHY THIS CARD If you charge a lot, the best cash-back card is Blue Cash from AmEx, which, after $6,500 (and up to $50,000) in annual spending, kicks back 5% on everyday purchases (at supermarkets, drugstores and gas stations) and 1.5% on everything else. Rewards could top $1,000 a year. If your card usage is lighter--below about $15,000 a year--you'll do better with Citi Dividend Platinum Select (800-248-4226), which returns 5% for everyday purchases and 1% for anything else, but which caps rebates at $300 a year.

If You Want to Transfer a Balance

BEST CHOICE Discover Platinum CONTACT 800-347-2683 WHY No interest for a year on balance transfers and new spending; relatively mild penalty rates APR o% for 12 months; 9.99% ANNUAL FEE $0

WHAT TO LOOK FOR If you've resolved to pay off your credit-card debt, you may be inclined to consolidate it using one of the ubiquitous offers of 0% interest on balance transfers. These deals can be a useful tool for keeping your liabilities from spiraling out of control while you try to get on top of them, but there are pitfalls. First, transfer your balance only if you're committed to paying off the loan before the 0% rate expires and to paying on time every month (with many cards, missing a due date even once can wipe out the promotional rate and trigger a penalty APR as high as 30%). Also, unless the offer extends the 0% rate to new purchases, don't continue shopping: The new charges receive a separate APR, and your monthly payment usually goes toward the portion of your balance with the lowest rate first.

WHY THIS CARD Like other cards, the Discover Platinum offers a 0% balance-transfer rate for 12 months and a 0% rate on new purchases for the same period. But unlike many, it doesn't bump your rate into the stratosphere if you're late just once. Instead, it uses a tiered penalty system, imposing a comparatively low 17.74% rate for the first offense.

If Your Kid Needs a Card

BEST CHOICE Sovereign Preferred Student Visa CONTACT 800-551-0839 WHY Low interest rate; no annual fee APR 9.9% fixed ANNUAL FEE $0

WHAT TO LOOK FOR Learning to use credit cards wisely takes time, and chances are your college students will slip up a bit along the way, if only around exam time. So encourage them to focus on interest rates, fees and penalties when choosing a card--and to ignore rewards. (Student cards often start with a $500 limit, so any potential rewards would be minimal anyway.) If you want to monitor your children's spending online, you'll have to cosign for a card or put them on one of your accounts.

WHY THIS CARD IndexCreditCards.com reports that the average APR on student cards is close to 15%. But the Sovereign Student Visa charges a fixed 9.9% and carries no annual fee. Late payments do trigger a penalty interest rate, but at 19.99%, it's well below the industry standard.

If You Gotta Have Free Travel

BEST CHOICE Citi PremierPass MasterCard CONTACT 800-353-2484 WHY Points awarded for spending and flying; points good for free flights on any airline APR 12.99% ANNUAL FEE $0

WHAT TO LOOK FOR The whole rewards thing began with free travel, and for some people that's still the only reward worth thinking about, other considerations be damned. Fair enough. If you regularly fly on a single airline (maybe one with a hub at your local airport), it pays to use that airline's branded credit card so you can combine spending points and frequent-flier points, says Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com. But if you spend more than you fly, you spread your travel across multiple airlines or you worry that you'll lose your miles in one of the increasingly common airline bankruptcies, a card that allows you to collect points in one account and redeem them with any airline is your best bet. Plus, most such cards have lower annual fees and interest rates than airline-branded cards.

WHY THIS CARD Last year Citibank introduced the only major card that both awards points for spending and air travel and lets you use them on a large number of airlines. The Citi PremierPass awards one point per dollar spent using the card and one point for every three miles flown by you or anyone else whose tickets were purchased with the card. You need the industry standard of 25,000 points to collect a free domestic ticket. But unlike with most other cards, the ticket price has no cap.