The Most Rewarding Credit Card? It Depends

In Capital One's seemingly omnipresent ad campaign, viewers are asked, What's in your wallet? A better question for consumers, however, would be, What do you want from what's in your wallet?

Because while there are cards catering to every need, if not every want, there's no single card that delivers it all. So when choosing a card, it's important to focus on which of the many available perks are worthwhile and which are extraneous -- not least because the cards' annual fees can reach a sobering $450.

With more options than ever, the choice is as difficult as it's ever been. And as crucial.

With the easing of the credit crunch, credit card issuers have been on a customer-acquisition binge, rolling out shiny new cards, adding luster to old cards with new benefits, and offering ever-more generous incentives to sign up for the cards.

And of all the species and sub-species of credit cards, those that award miles and points -- the travel-rewards cards -- have come in for the most attention.

Today, for travel-rewards chasers, miles and points are a given. But they're just the beginning. Want more miles, status, reduced fees, award discounts? There are cards for those, and other benefits as well.

Following are the key card-related benefits currently on offer for travelers, together with some of the cards that feature them, and the annual fees to keep them in your wallet.

Airport Lounge Access

Purchasing an annual airport lounge membership from one of the full-service airlines generally costs between $300 and $500. Or you could pay $399 to join Priority Pass, which affords members access to 600 airport lounges at around 325 airports.

Or you could sign up for any of several credit cards that feature access to the lounges of one or more airlines.

The American Express Platinum charge card (annual fee: $450), for example, gains cardholders entry into the lounges of American, Delta, and US Airways, plus Priority Pass membership.

With the Continental OnePass Plus MasterCard (annual fee: $85, waived the first year), cardholders are entitled to two day passes to Continental's Presidents Club lounges after the first and subsequent years. And the pricier Continental Presidential Plus MasterCard (annual fee: $395) comes bundled with full Presidents Club membership.

Annual membership in United's Red Carpet Clubs is also a featured perk of the Mileage Plus Club Visa card (annual fee: $375).

Card issuers are quick to point out that the high annual fees for these cards are offset by the value of the lounge memberships. True, in theory. But in practice, only true frequent travelers who actually have occasion to check into the lounges will get their money's worth.

No Foreign Transaction Fees

Foreign transaction fees can add as much as 3 percent to the cost of goods and services charged when traveling outside the U.S. So for international jet-setters, credit cards that don't charge the fees enjoy a significant value advantage over those that do.

Curiously, since it's never been known for issuing cards targeted at overseas travelers, Capital One led the industry in offering credit cards free of foreign transaction fees.

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