Under-the-radar credit cards

If you’re searching for advice on rewards cards, you’ve probably seen the same several cards pop up again and again in “best-of” lists. While those cards probably deserve their popularity, you can diversify your rewards game by adding some lesser-known cards.

We asked some rewards bloggers to name some of their favorite hidden-gem credit cards.

Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Credit Card ($75 annual fee)

Alaska Airlines cardYou might have overlooked this credit card from this often-overlooked airline because you don’t fly Alaska that much. However, both Howie Rappaport (editor-at-large with Frugal Travel Guy) and Geoff Whitmore (founder of NoobTraveler) emphasize that Alaska’s program is extremely flexible, thanks to its travel partners.

“The best part of Alaska Airlines’ MileagePlan is their partner network,” Rappaport says.

These partners include such giants as American Airlines and Delta, as well as international carriers like Emirates and British Airways. When you travel with these partners, you can earn Alaska Mileage Plan miles, and your elite status with Alaska will often apply with these partners, too.

What’s really compelling for rewards travelers, though, is that you can redeem your Alaska miles on flights with its partners. Whitmore and Rappaport say they’ve both used their Alaska points to book first-class flights on Emirates, for example.

Racking up Alaska Airlines miles with the card also has a lower barrier of entry, compared with other programs, Whitmore and Rappaport point out. Instead of meeting a spending requirement after getting the card, the sign-up bonus is yours upon account approval.

Lufthansa Miles & More Credit Card ($89 annual fee)

Lufthansa miles and more credit cardAnother airline card you may not have considered (Lufthansa is a German carrier, after all), this card from Barclaycard has some notable perks, including an annual companion ticket and two lounge passes per year.

The card is also known for consistently generous sign-up bonuses of 50,000 miles, Whitmore points out. And, because it’s part of the Star Alliance, you can redeem your miles on Star Alliance partners.

“In the past, I’ve redeemed my Lufthansa miles earned from their credit card for short-hop flights on Air New Zealand,” Whitmore says.

IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card ($49 annual fee, waived the first year)

IHG Rewards Club cardConsidering the size of IHG, its co-branded credit card gets considerably less press than rewards-guru darlings like the Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express (a CreditCardForum advertising partner).

Yet this under-rated card packs a lot of perks for a low annual fee, says Ralph Liberatoscioli, founder of PointsCentric. You get a 10 percent rebate on redemptions and automatic Platinum Elite status (the second-highest for IHG). While you’re not guaranteed an upgrade (these are subject to availability), Liberatoscioli has had some luck.

“A lot of the smaller properties in the IHG family don’t see too many Platinum members, so you will get treated better at these properties,” he says. “I’ve gotten the best room in a Holiday Inn in Brookline, Massachusetts, on an award reservation, so upgrades do happen.”

This card’s stand-out perk however, is its annual free night. Unlike with other programs, the free night has no category restrictions, which can make this card especially lucrative, as it has only a $49 annual fee (comparable hotel rewards cards will often charge $80+).

“I’m sure everyone would be willing to pay $49 for a hotel room annually, even if it’s just a Holiday Inn or Crowne Plaza,” Liberatoscioli says. “And there is still the option to redeem [the free night] for a $300-plus night at an Intercontinental hotel.”

Because the annual fee is so low, each member of a couple could get a card, yielding essentially two free nights, Rappaport points out.

“My wife and I are using our free nights at the InterContinental Bordeaux [in Bordeaux, France] this summer during a visit to see a game in the EUFA Euro 2016,” he says. (FYI – rooms at this hotel often go for above €700 a night).

U.S. Bank FlexPerks Visa Signature ($49 annual fee, waived first year)

U.S. Bank FlexPerks travel rewards visaWhenever rewards blogs rank their favorite generic travel rewards cards, this one is rarely invited to the party. But it has a unique (and potentially lucrative) tiered rewards structure than can make your points worth up to 2 cents each when redeemed for airfare.

A perk that Grant Thomas (credit card and travel blog at Travel with Grant) likes is the $25 airline allowance you get whenever you redeem FlexPoints for a flight. This allowance can be used toward baggage fees, seat assignments, in-flight food/beverages and Wi-Fi. Use your card to pay for those incidentals, and call U.S. bank to get reimbursed.

Thomas experimented with the $25 allowance on a recent flight.

“I tested out the process by going on a mini shopping spree onboard by buying a cheese and cracker snack box, a can of beer and two packs of gummy bears,” Thomas says. “The grand total came to $24.96, which I got reimbursed by U.S. Bank.”

AARP Credit Card (no annual fee)

aarp credit cardIf you’re under a certain age, this card probably isn’t even on your radar. In fact, it’s a common misconception that the under-50 crowd can’t apply. However, “anyone can join the AARP as an associate member if you don’t qualify based on your age,” points out Jason Steele, credit card expert for Compare Cards.

This knowledge could be very rewarding, as this no-annual-fee card gives 3 percent cash back at gas stations and restaurants.

“That’s the highest level of cash back offered on these two categories without limits,” Steele says.

Hilton HHonors Surpass Card from American Express ($75 annual fee)

hilton hhonors surpassThis major-hotel-chain card doesn’t get a lot of press from rewards chasers (in fact, its points are valued at far less than other programs’ points). But, for the luxury traveler loyal to Hilton, it’s worth considering.

The sign-up bonus is reliably good, Rappaport says, and the card automatically gets you Hilton HHonors Gold status, free breakfast at eligible properties and space-available upgrades. If you spend $40,000 a year on the card in a calendar year, you’ll get Diamond status for the remainder of the current year, the entirety of the following year, and through February the year after that. Rappaport and his wife both have the card – and Diamond status.

“While that’s most definitely a perk for Hilton loyalists, the overall perks might be something worth ponying up the $75 annual fee, if you’re looking for a solid card with excellent potential” Rappaport says.

NFL Extra Points card (no annual fee)

NFL extra points credit cardThis card is probably under the radar because its rewards system rewards only a specific type of consumer — sports fans. For football fans, though, that’s what might make this card particularly attractive.

“It offers rewards that can be redeemed for unique NFL experiences you can’t buy,” Steele says, such as access to post-game press conferences and being in the tunnel a the players enter the field. “You can also redeem your rewards for tickets to NFL games, including the Super Bowl.”

It’s wise to consider the per-point value you’re getting on these unique rewards. However, for super-fans, game tickets may be worth more psychologically (if not monetarily) than cash back.

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