Five things to look for when choosing credit cards

credit cards1 Five things to look for when choosing credit cards

I have three credit cards; John has many credit cards.

When we first got in financial trouble – remember the obscene amount of debt we had and paid off – I did what many people who had to change their habits rapidly do: I went anti!

I did the same when I stopped smoking.

Thing is, that sometime later (and after the dust had settled, so to speak) I adopted much healthier attitude to credit cards:

Credit cards are a tool and any tool is as good as the person using it!

Now, I use credit cards again. It is just that this time I do things right: I spend on my credit cards only money I already have in my bank account and I pay my cards in full every month.

Trivial and boring but it works: using credit cards doesn’t get me in trouble any longer, they are a convenient financial instrument.

Thinking about convenient financial instrument made me consider the way in which I selected my credit cards.

What I came up with is not very flattering because:

  • I remember having to argue with my bank to get my first credit card. It was early in the 1990s, I had recently moved to the UK and I needed the card mainly for work related travel.
  • Once my bank decided that I am ‘a good customer’, namely I use my card and I pay interest, they offered me another one with higher credit limit. I accepted.
  • I applied for my third credit card because it had 0% interest transfer facility and this was welcome at the time. Now this card has zero balance and has not been used for a long time.

So you see, I have three credit cards; two of these are with the bank where all our other accounts are and one is not used.

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that this is not a great way to choose; from what I know credit cards have moved on a bit since the mid-1990s.

This is what got me thinking about the things we need to consider when choosing a credit card.

As a start, I had a look at the results from the Uswitch.com credit card awards 2014. This survey collected the opinions of 7440 credit card users (customers, if you wish) and came up with a clear winner.

American Express came clearly on top as the best credit card provider. Interestingly, other winners include Marks and Spenser, Tesco and Sainsbury’s. Even more telling, particularly for me and my use of credit cards, is the fact that none of the big four banks won any awards at all.

Things the credit card awards used as criteria?

Credit card customers were invited to vote in many categories. I believe the four that are most relevant when deciding on which credit card to apply for are the rewards that the credit card offers, the quality of the on-line services, customer service and value for money.

1. Rewards

This is something we didn’t look for 25 years ago but the level of rewards – particularly cashback and air-miles – is increasingly becoming the field of intense competition for credit cards providers.

None of my credit cards give me cash back. None of them give me air-miles.

Here, American Express won for a good reason: their cashback reward programme is particularly generous. Let’s put it this way – bar one, all other credit cards offer half the cashback per year that American Express does.

Having looked at all that, I can see I may have made a mistake sticking with my bank issued credit cards. What do you think?

2. Quality of online services

Just like you, I have grown to value the on-line services that different financial services providers offer.

In today’s dynamic world when we move around so much, ensuring that the credit card you apply for has really sterling service.

3. Customer service

Don’t know about you but one thing that make me hit the ceiling guaranteed is when I have to phone one of the credit cards providers I use and start being asked to press different buttons and am forced to listen to very bad renditions of well-known music.

After all that I used to get to a person who is controlled by ‘the system’. Translated this means that the person on the phone was only able to check my records on the database and couldn’t or wouldn’t show any willingness to consider imaginative solutions. After all, when someone has the staying power to go through the buttons and bad music they probably need help.

According to the survey by Uswitch.com, credit cards providers vary vastly according to the customer service they provide.

Make sure that you test the customer service when taking out a credit card; you really don’t want to be feeding a coin operated telephone in a jungle and have people tell you that the system tells them your credit has been cut the day before and they can’t do anything about it.

4. Value for money

This is straight forward, really: what you get for your buck?

Here, in my experience, it is important to weight the benefits that a credit card (or a bank account) brings against paying a modest fee.

Yes, I know that some credit cards come ‘free’; mine do. Then again, I don’t get much apart for being able to borrow money without interest for several weeks.

It is different with our bank account: we pay a modest monthly fee and for that we get free travel insurance and access to airport lounges (very important for me with all the travelling I do), free insurance, we have this provision where we can call out emergency maintenance people any time should we need to do so and on and on…

Going for ‘free’ is not necessarily the best; look whether there is value for money.

Things that are also important

5. Coverage

I still remember going to Albania and mid-1990s with a colleagues of mine. He was about 60 at the time, a former civil servant wearing a pinstripe suit.

His dress sense is not what I want to tell you about, though. We finished our work, we saw some splendid beaches covered in bunkers (yes, these are everywhere in Albania) and the time to pay the hotel bill came.

Except that he couldn’t pay his: he decided it is prudent to bring to Albania traveller’s cheques from a very local bank in the UK and he couldn’t change them.

I ended up using my credit card to pay his bill.

When choosing a credit card, do make sure that you won’t be caught short and you won’t have to stay longer and wash dishes – this really doesn’t pay well.

Finally…

These are the five things one should watch about when choosing a credit card that I managed to come up with.

Can you think of anything else?

As to me, I am on the case looking.

photo credit: J.G. Park via photopin cc

6 thoughts on “Five things to look for when choosing credit cards”

  1. The Lloyds Bank Amex card I have enables me to collect Avios points (used to be called Airmiles). It usually takes me a couple of years to save up enough points to get to my chosen destination (Hong Kong) but it’s worth it to get a return flight for just £160 (air carriage fees).

    1. @Weenie: Not bad! We probably should look into this one again as well – we used to collect Air-miles and later Avios points. Using them became a bit difficult when our son was young because you have to be flexible; so we got out of habit, I suppose. Time to revisit :).

  2. Amex have one of those awful press loads of buttons to get through call centres. And they don’t have the same customer service level as ten or twenty years ago i.e. in the past you could call up, speak to a real person and change one’s charge card (e.g. go from platinum to gold or whatever) and it would be done and old bill and new card would arrive in the post. Now one is treated like a new customer and one has to fill in request for new card on line just like a new customer. I assume some bean counter thinks this is better customer service, but surprise, it is a customer loser. And a bitter one too ;-)

    1. @Mark: I hear your angst and undertand it from experience. Automation needs to reach some limit where humans sit again! And humans who can be flexible enough to help you with your problems.

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