Review Summary: The PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express® Card strikes a unique balance between offering premium rewards and benefits while having no annual fee. It also has a sign-up bonus and promotional financing offer — and PenFed Credit Union has been a favorite of money expert Clark Howard for years. Just note that you have to join the PenFed Credit Union when you apply, although no military service is required.
How the PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express works
To apply for this card, you need to first join the Pentagon Federal Credit Union, which you can do during the application process. Many Americans can qualify based on their current or prior military service, civilian employment in a defense-related company or the eligibility of a family or household member. And even if you don’t qualify based on this, you can qualify by joining a military support organization for a small, one-time fee.
Once you have the card, you have the opportunity to earn 4x bonus points on your travel and commuter expenses if you’re a PenFed Honors Advantage Member. To qualify, you need to have a free checking account with PenFed or the primary applicant must be active duty, reserve, honorably discharged or retired U.S. military.
You’ll also receive a $100 annual air travel credit and a $100 credit toward the Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee every four years. There’s no annual fee for this card and no foreign transaction fees.
How to earn rewards
With this card, you earn at least 3x points on all travel and commuter expenses. This includes not just airfare, hotels and rental cars, but also commuter transportation like buses, subways, railroads, shared ride services and even tolls. And while nearly all credit cards that offer bonuses only give you one point per dollar elsewhere, this card features 1.5x points per dollar spent on non-travel purchases.
How to redeem rewards
Once earned, points can be redeemed for merchandise, airline and hotel reservations, or gift cards. Unfortunately, there’s no fixed value per point, and I’ve found values ranging from 0.85 cents per point when redeemed for gift cards and merchandise to around 0.85 to 0.90 cents per point for airfare and as much as 1.27 cents per point toward hotel awards. There’s a $15 fee for booking airfare online and $25 for doing so over the phone. That’s why I recommend redeeming these points for hotel awards to get the most value.
Additional cardholder benefits
The PenFed Pathfinder card features some impressive benefits normally found on premium travel rewards cards that have hundreds of dollars in annual fees.
- $100 annual air travel credit: Each year you’ll receive statement credits of up to $100 for charges like baggage fees, lounge access and on-board food and beverages.
- $100 Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit: Every four years you’ll receive up to $100 in statement credits toward TSA PreCheck or the Global Entry program, which includes PreCheck access.
- 24-Hour roadside assistance: $59.95 flat fee for minor services.
- Worldwide Car Rental Loss & Damage Insurance: Provides rental car insurance in all countries.
Alternatives to the PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express
- Barclaycard Arrival® Plus World Elite Mastercard®: This card offers you two miles for each dollar spent on all purchases, and these can be redeemed for statement credits toward nearly any travel expense. Barclays also gives you 5% of your miles back every time you redeem them. This means that you’re earning a 2.1% return on all of your purchases. The Barclaycard Arrival Plus offers you 70,000 bonus miles after making $5,000 in purchases within 90 days. That’s worth $735 in travel statement credits once you account for the 5% rebate on miles redeemed. Miles don’t expire, provided the account is open, active and in good standing. There’s an $89 annual fee for this card that’s waived the first year, premium benefits and no foreign transaction fees.
- Citi® Double Cash: This card offers up to 2% cash back on all purchases, with no annual fee. On the other hand, it has no sign-up bonus, lacks premium travel benefits and has a 3% foreign transaction fee.
PenFed was created to support members of the military and their families, but no military service is required to join and enjoy this premium rewards card with no annual fee. This card offers exceptional rates of return on qualifying travel and commuter expenses, while still holding its own with 1.5x points on all other purchases.