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4 Low-Fee Credit Cards to Consider in 2021

Hello again, Miles & Points enthusiasts! It’s a new year, and that means it’s time to be on the lookout for new signups, new strategies, and new ideas to make your travel dreams in 2021 and beyond a reality.

As the on-staff cheapskate, I know how many of you hate annual fees. As a follow-up to my primer on avoiding annual fees, I’ll offer you here a New Year’s list of no-fee, low-fee, or first-year-free cards that you might not have considered before, which can nevertheless be useful for certain types of individuals. 

The cards listed here won’t be for everyone, but more than one of them can be useful for “niche” strategies. Besides, variety, as the spice of life, lies in trying new things to maximize value from every card you choose to hold.

1. National Bank World Elite Mastercard

National Bank World Elite Mastercard

  • Signup bonus: $300 cash back (offer available until January 31)
  • Disponible au Québec? Oui
  • Minimum spending: $4,000 in the first three months
  • Annual fee: $0 for the first year, then $150 (offer available until January 31)
  • Supplementary cards: $50
  • Earning rate: 
    • $0 to $40,000: 1.5 points per dollar spent
    • $40,001 to $80,000: 2 points per dollar spent 
    • $80,001 and over: 1.5 points per dollar spent
  • Perks & benefits: $250 travel incidentals credit, World Elite concierge service package, complimentary access to the National Bank Lounge at YUL, access to National Bank’s À La Carte travel agency
  • Insurance: Excellent

 

Until January 31, 2021, the National Bank World Elite Mastercard is offering a very strong $300 cash back statement credit upon meeting the $4,000 minimum spend in three months. On top of that, the annual fee, usually a bitter $150 to swallow, is waived in the first year.

As an added bonus, the National Bank World Elite also offers $250 in credits on “travel incidentals”, which are defined as baggage fees, seat selection, and even airport parking. 

That last perk, for me, would be the biggest appeal: even here in the more modest YEG, airport parking is wildly expensive. I’ve also heard many data points that these perks can be applied more liberally.

The actual earn rate of the card is in what I like to dub “monopoly money,” or the internal travel rewards points only usable on the National Bank travel portal. The earn rates indicate that unless you spend above $40,000, you’ll be earning 1.5 National Bank points per dollar spent.

The minimum spend to hit the bonus will only net you about $60 in points when applied to travel on the National Bank travel portal. You could also apply this as a statement credit for ~0.83 cents per point, but I mean why not go on a road trip before resorting to that?

There’s also access to the National Bank Lounge at Montreal Trudeau International Airport. Under normal circumstances, I’ve heard this is quite a nice lounge. This being the COVID boogaloo, it is, and shall unfortunately remain, closed indefinitely.

Finally, the National Bank World Elite comes with a very comprehensive travel insurance package: not only is there an impressive 60 days of out-of-province emergency medical insurance for travellers aged 54 and under, but the insurance covers you as long as you charge “a portion or the entire cost of the trip” to the card, meaning that it’s good for award trips as well.

Overall, this card offers really excellent value and is truly a bit of a hybrid between a traditional cash back and “monopoly money” travel credit card.

Warnings time: this card means having to deal with National Bank. Despite being a true bank, their physical locations are mostly confined to Quebec and Ontario. Their customer service, I have heard, can be a little frustrating to deal with, and I have also been informed that their internet and app infrastructure are similarly lacking.

On balance, I’d say the risks are heavily outweighed by the rewards, but then again I’m always of the opinion, in this game, to follow the words of Admiral Farragut: “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

2. MBNA Rewards World Elite Mastercard

MBNA Rewards World Elite Mastercard

  • Signup bonus: 30,000 MBNA Rewards points
  • Disponible au Québec?: Oui (reduced welcome bonus of 20,000 MBNA Rewards points)
  • Minimum spending: $2000 in the first 3 months
  • Annual fee: $120 ($50 cash back currently available at GCR) 
  • Supplementary cards: Free
  • Earning rate: 2 MBNA Rewards points per dollar spent
  • Perks & benefits: World Elite Mastercard concierge services, access to MBNA’s travel agency
  • Insurance: Good

 

This card, along with the National Bank World Elite, is what I’d describe as another “monopoly money” card.

The flat earn rate of 2 MBNA Rewards points can, in theory, be redeemed most efficiently for travel on the MBNA Rewards travel portal at a value of 1 cent per point (cpp) for a net 2% return. You could also redeem these points for statement credit at a valuations of ~0.83cpp, for a net 1.67% earn rate.

But frankly, these aren’t what I find interesting about this credit card. Heck, not even the fairly decent insurance or free supplementary cards particularly entice me, though they all have their merits, especially if you want to protect yourself from flight delays in these times.

What I like most about this card is that cardholders with MBNA are, usually, able to open new credit lines by severing credit from any MBNA card parked in a drawer and transfer it to a new account.

This means that, assuming you aren’t maxed out on hard pulls, you could hold this card whenever you feel its suite of insurances and services are most useful to your needs, without having to keep it open and incurring the annual fee. Don’t forget to obey the “5/6 Rule” when it comes to MBNA.

Did I mention that the the welcome bonus of 30,000 MBNA Rewards points has a book value of $300? And while annual fee waivers are hard to get, Great Canadian Rebates is now offering a $50 cash back on the card

This reduces the effective annual fee in your first year from $120 to $70. Combined with the $300 in points (when redeemed on travel) from the signup bonus, and the $40-ish in points from meeting the minimum spend, you could net a cool $270 in your first year of card membership.

3. PC Financial World Elite

President’s Choice Financial World Elite Mastercard

  • Signup bonus: Varies, up to 100,000 PC Optimum (PCO) points
  • Disponible au Québec?: Oui
  • Minimum spending: None
  • Annual fee: Free 
  • Supplementary cards: Free
  • Earning rate: 
    • 30 PCO points per dollar spent at retail partners (3%)
    • Additional 15 PCO points per dollar spent at Shoppers Drug Mart (4.5%)
    • 10 PCO points per dollar spent on all other purchases (1%)
  • Perks & benefits: World Elite Mastercard concierge services, 0.97% interest balance transfer promos, President’s Choice ecosystem promos
  • Insurance: Average

 

I want to be very frank on this card: it’s only really best for families who frequently shop at Loblaws stores. 

I’m not saying that to step on the lovely Amy’s toes, nor do I mean that to discourage you if the intermittent welcome bonus of 100,000 PC Optimum points (worth $100 in free groceries) appeals to you. But this card isn’t going to give you maximum value unless you use the Loblaws chain extensively.

The PC Optimum World Elite has all the typical World Elite requirements around income, but it is what I’d describe as a “hidden cash back” card – it earns fiat currency in the form of President’s Choice Optimum points.

These points can be redeemed at a rate of 10,000 points for $10 at participating stores, and you earn 30 points per dollar spent (3%) at most participating stores, which include the Zehr’s, Loblaws, Superstore, No Frills grocery stores and Esso gas stations.

You’ll earn an additional 15 points (1.5%) at Shoppers Drug Mart for a net bonus of 4.5%. All other purchases garner a modest 10 points (1%). Not the worst “everything” earn rate, but not the best, either.

So basically, being in a large family unit is your greatest chance for large returns. On top of that, the multipliers from promotional events (e.g., 20x points on, say, yogurt) will benefit you the most if you can leverage economies of scale (e.g., if your family just really loves yogurt).

This isn’t to say it’s impossible to have good PCO acquisition strategies with this card as a singleton – you’ll just have to get very creative. 

On a completely unrelated note, if you’re a gamer like me, you’re going to love this card. That’s because it offers extended warranty insurance, and Shoppers Drug Mart happens to sell the coveted Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 5, often on enormous multiplier days.

Picture entirely irrelevant

As for the weird caveats section: I found customer service to be decidedly mediocre. Not as bad as my experience with Simplii Financial below, but they somehow approved me for a World card and only upgraded me when I called in to ask as to the status of my pending application.

On top of that, they appeared to pull both my Equifax and TransUnion credit files. The TransUnion hit later disappeared. Why? Couldn’t tell you. Just one of the quirks of PC Financial.

4. Simplii Financial Visa

Simplii Financial Visa

  • Signup bonus: 10% cash back on the first $500 in restaurant and delivery purchases 
  • Disponible au Québec? Non
  • Minimum spending: $500 in the first four statement periods
  • Annual fee: Free 
  • Supplementary cards: Free
  • Earning rate: 
    • 4% at restaurants
    • 1.5% gas, groceries, and preauthorized payments
    • 0.5% on everything else
  • Perks & benefits: Having a card when the angry manager insists “NO AMEX!”
  • Insurance: Weak

 

This card is, as the name of the bank would imply, simple. The earn rate of 4% at restaurants and meal delivery services makes it eminently appealing to anyone who’s a bit of a gastronomic enthusiast. And, yes, I might be a bit of a cheapo, but like any stereotypical millennial, I’m a sucker for a good meal.

The consistent welcome bonus for this card is 10% cash back on your first $500 in restaurant and delivery purchases in the first four statement periods. This works out to an effective net bonus of $50.

This might not seem like much, but I’m both a monetary and temporal cheapskate. Which is to say, sometimes I say “screw it, too lazy to cook,” and just order Uber Eats. Under present conditions, you’d be surprised at just how quickly that $500 can rack up.

Of course, the Simplii Financial Visa is even better when used to generously pick up the tab for a group meal and ask for reimbursement later. Assuming, of course, that your friends aren’t like mine and also all stingy credit card enthusiasts trying to profit off wing night.

Finally, the Simplii Financial Visa also earns 1.5% back on the usual suspects: gas, groceries, and pre-authorized payments. For these categories, I’d say use other cards with better earn rates (like the Scotia Momentum for 4% back on recurring bills), or cards you’re working on minimum spends for.

Now for the caveats: first up, this card is only available to Simplii clients. That’s right, you have to sign up for Simplii Financial to even apply for this card!

Secondly, the card only gives its bonus as a statement credit on the December statement. So if you apply now in January 2021, you probably won’t see the bonus until this time next year. I have patience, but that might be a dealbreaker for some.

Thirdly, the customer service from Simplii is pretty lacklustre. By which I mean “I wanted to use my phone in such a manner as to keep drywallers over-employed” on more than one call whilst setting up my account.

It was only my personal experience, so make of that what you will. However, as the online-only branch of a major bank, in this case CIBC, I really feel like the service should be better.

Personally, I got this card as an afterthought after signing up for the $200 new chequing account bonus, and given the annoyance it took with customer service, I almost gave up.

Still, for me at least, this is my favourite “one trick pony” of a card to maximize returns on my dining habits without paying an annual fee.

Conclusion

To wrap up, I think each of these cards offers a different kind of value compared to the cards we usually talk about, and most of them do it without costing you the annual fees we’ve become accustomed to.

Nobody, and I do mean nobody, likes eating annual fees, so I’m hoping that in 2021, you can pick up a few of the cards I’ve mentioned here to balance your Player 2’s chagrin at paying fees with a few cards that are totally guilt-free.

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