Best credit cards for holiday shopping

Image courtesy of Capital One

What do you get when you combine low APRs, no annual fees and generous cash-back benefits? This year's list of the hottest credit cards, according to CardRatings.com.

The credit card comparison website is out with its first round of winning cards for 2011, based on their features, perks and overall value to consumers.

After a couple years laying low, credit card companies are back in full force, making up for lost time and aggressively marketing new offers. Nearly 60 percent of cards advertised in the second quarter of this year offered an additional incentive, up from just 20 percent in 2007. Extra incentives ranged from bonus airline miles to cash back rewards, among other enticements. 

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For example, American Express recently introduced its Blue Cash "Preferred" Card, which offers up to a whopping 6 percent cash back on purchases.  (The catch, of course, is a $75 annual fee, but if you're one to spend more than $1,250 on groceries a year, your cash back earnings will cover the fee.)   

Now I'm not one to get overly excited about credit cards, but if you routinely pay your card's balance on time and in full every month -- and have a decent credit history -- you may be interested in some of CardRatings.com's selections. Here are their top cash-back and low-interest credit card choices:

Best cash back credit cards

-- Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express. Existing Fidelity account holders can use this card to help save for retirement. You receive 1.5 points for every dollar of the first $15,000 in purchases per year, and 2 points per dollar in purchases thereafter.  Points turn into cash. Every 5,000 points equals $50 cash, which can then be automatically transferred into your Fidelity IRA or other eligible investment account with the brokerage. There's no annual fee and no limit as to how much you can earn. APR is 13.99%.

-- Capital One Cash. The editors at CardRatings.com call this a "no-nonsense rebate program" that gives cardholders 1 percent cash back on their purchases as automatic statement credits. Then, each year, on the anniversary of the day you opened the card, you earn a 50 percent bonus on the cash back you've received all year. There's no annual fee and no cash-back limit. APR is 0 percent until November 2012. After that, it becomes a variable rate ranging between 12.9 percent and 20.9 percent.

-- Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express. Earn a 1 percent rebate on all purchases, as well as double rewards at gas stations and triple rewards at grocery stores with this card. (CardRatings.com says that the "Preferred" version of the card, which gives up to 6 percent cash back, is superior, although it's proven tough to qualify). There's no annual fee. APR is currently 0 percent for the first six months. After that it will be a variable rate between 17.24 percent and 22.24 percent.

Best low-interest credit cards

-- Iberia Bank Visa Classic. "They're quietly recruiting high-income Americans to a no-frills, low interest credit card with a variable rate that's been as low as 7.25 percent," according to CardRatings.com. Indeed, based on your credit rating, the APR on Iberia's Visa Classic begins at 7.25 percent and runs up to 13.25percent. The average rate on a low-interest rate card is about 11 percent, according to Bankrate.com.

-- Simmons First Visa Platinum. During 2011 the card offered a 7.25 percent variable APR. It carries no annual fee and no rewards or perks (except the standard travel and car rental insurance). Simmons First is a regional bank located throughout Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri.

-- USAA Rate Advantage. The card's variable APR has dipped to as low as 6.9 percent. It can be as high as 23.9 percent depending on one's credit worthiness and the prime rate.

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    Farnoosh Torabi is a personal finance journalist and commentator. She is the author of the new book Psych Yourself Rich, Get the Mindset and Discipline You Need to Build Your Financial Life. Follow her at www.farnoosh.tv and on Twitter at @farnoosh.

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