There are plenty of credit cards out there from a handful of companies that want you to do business only with their cards. All the special features, payment options and extra amenities they brag about in commercials are part of their ongoing competition for your dollars. The real differences between the cards and the companies that issue them can help you to decide which option is for you.
Visa and Mastercard
With a reach that extends to more than 200 countries, the two most popular and widely used credit card brands in the world are not card companies at all. Visa and Mastercard govern the issuance of cards by banks and lending institutions but don't actually issue any cards themselves. They're at the center of a network of communications that make transactions easy for lenders, retailers and you. It's easier and cheaper for banks and retailers to pay a percentage to Visa and Mastercard to handle all of that than for them to do it themselves. Visa and Mastercard holders can pay in full each month, or make partial payments that include interest on the total balance.
American Express Cards
American Express is a financial institution in itself. It backs and issues cards with the American Express logo on them. It began as a courtesy credit line extended only to top tier clientele with a certain amount of assets. Over time, the card morphed into different categories from black to platinum to gold to green, each with its own set of approval criteria and limits. As of May 2012, they required users pay the balances in full at the end of the billing month. They were created with travelers in mind, so they come with features and special travel services also provided by the American Express company.
American Express Payment Network
At the time of publication, American Express also acted as a payment network similar to Visa and Mastercard. American Express arranges relationships between banks and retailers, and issues cards with an American Express logo backed by outside financial institutions. These cards allow customers to carry balances according to the terms set forth by the issuing institution. However, they're accepted in fewer locations than Visa and Mastercard because American Express charges a high percentages on those balances. The payment network cards also typically lack the member benefits granted to American Express card holders.
The Discover Card company came into being in 1986. It was launched as the only card that paid it customers a percentage of every purchase made. It is backed by Discover Financial Services, and every card with the Discover logo is issued by the company itself. As of May 2012, Discover wasn't accepted in nearly as many locations as Visa, Mastercard or American Express, which is something to consider. However, as of 2012 Discover still promoted a cash-back reward system for its members. Discover Financial Services also owns Diner's Club.
Robert Morello has an extensive travel, marketing and business background. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University in 2002 and has worked in travel as a guide, corporate senior marketing and product manager and travel consultant/expert. Morello is a professional writer and adjunct professor of travel and tourism.