Editorial Review

PenFed Pathfinder Rewards Card: Travel Credits, No Annual Fee

Snag rich rewards, even in non-bonus categories, plus valuable perks not typically found on cards in its class. Membership is required, and redemption options are limited.

Sara RathnerFebruary 14, 2019

At NerdWallet, we strive to help you make financial decisions with confidence. To do this, many or all of the products featured here are from our partners. However, this doesn’t influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own.

Our Take

3.7

NerdWallet rating 

The Bottom Line: This card packs a big punch, even when compared with travel cards with annual fees. But point values vary, and you can't redeem for cash back.

PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express® Card

on Pentagon Federal Credit Union's website

on Pentagon Federal Credit Union's website

Annual Fee

$0

Regular APR

12.74% - 17.99% Variable APR

Intro APR

0% promotional rate for 12 months on transfers made now through March 31, 2020

Recommended Credit Score

Quick Facts

Annual Fee
$0
Annual Fee
$0
Intro APR
0% promotional rate for 12 months on transfers made now through March 31, 2020

Pros & Cons

Pros
  • High rewards rate

  • No annual fee

  • Intro APR period on Balance Transfers

  • No foreign transaction fee

Cons
  • Membership required

  • Can't redeem for cash back

Alternate Pick: Cash back if you want it

Discover it® Miles

1.5 miles per dollar on everything

This card earns 1.5 miles per dollar spent on all purchases. Miles can be redeemed for travel at a rate of a penny a point — or you can redeem them for cash back at the same value. The annual fee is $0, and there's a bonus offer for new cardholders that gets sweeter the more you use the card: Discover will match ALL the Miles you’ve earned at the end of your first year, automatically. For example, if you earn 35,000 Miles, you get 70,000 Miles. That’s $700 towards travel! The more you earn, the more you get.

Read our review

Compare to Other Cards

Annual Fee

$0

Annual Fee

$95

Annual Fee

$0 for the first year, then $95

Regular APR

12.74% - 17.99% Variable APR

Regular APR

17.99% - 24.99% Variable APR

Regular APR

17.99% - 25.24% Variable APR

Intro APR

0% promotional rate for 12 months on transfers made now through March 31, 2020

Intro APR

N/A

Intro APR

N/A

Recommended Credit Score
Recommended Credit Score
Recommended Credit Score

Full Review

Travel credit cards with top-notch perks are usually reserved for those willing to pay a high annual fee. But the $0-annual-fee PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express® Card is a notable exception.

Not only does the card reward you handsomely for travel purchases, but you'll also get valuable travel credits, benefits and protections that make it easier to get out of town. (Travel credits are exceedingly rare for cards with no cost of ownership.) And unlike a lot of other travel cards, you'll earn an elevated rate even on non-bonus-category spending. The card earns a spot in our roundup of best credit union credit cards.

You have to be a PenFed Credit Union member to get the card, and while it's not terribly difficult to join, there are some other potential drawbacks to consider when it comes to redemption options and values.

PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express® Card: Key features

Card type: Travel.

Annual fee: $0.

Sign-up bonus: 25,000 bonus points by spending $2,500 in the first 90 days of account opening.

Rewards:

  • 3 points back on travel purchases (4 points back on travel for PenFed Honors Advantage members).

  • 1.5 points back on all other purchases.

To earn rewards on travel purchases at the higher 4X rate, you must be a PenFed Honors Advantage member, which requires military service or a PenFed Access America Checking Account.

You can redeem rewards for travel, gift cards, merchandise, and charity donations. (Notably, cash back is not an option.) You'll get the most out of your rewards if you redeem for travel — an average value of 1.7 cents per point, according to a PenFed representative. This value can change depending on the dates you travel, dollar value of your ticket and other factors. Redeeming for gift cards or merchandise yields a value of 0.85 cents per point, though monthly promotions can increase point values for select gift cards.

APR: 0% promotional rate for 12 months on transfers made now through March 31, 2020, and then the ongoing APR of 12.74% - 17.99% Variable APR.

Foreign transaction fee: None.

Balance transfer fee: 3%.

Other benefits:

  • $100 annual air travel credit, for use toward baggage fees, lounge access, and onboard food and drinks.

  • Statement credit every five years for reimbursement of application fee for TSA Precheck ($85) or Global Entry ($100).

Highlights of the PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express® Card

High rewards rates, broad definition of travel

When it comes to rewards, the PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express® Card offers the best of both worlds. You'll earn an elevated rate in a bonus category — at least 3 points back on travel purchases, and potentially 4X back if you qualify — but you'll also earn a higher-than-normal flat rate of 1.5 points back on everything else you buy. That's unusual among tiered rewards cards, which normally offer just 1 point back in non-bonus categories. Among travel purchases eligible for the highest rewards rate: airfare, hotels, car rentals, cruises, bookings with travel agencies, tolls, tour operators, bus lines, and taxis or rideshare services like Uber or Lyft.

Travel credits and perks

The PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express® Card offers two standout travel features not generally available on a card with a $0 annual fee: a $100 annual air travel credit, and a statement credit to cover the application fee for TSA Precheck or Global Entry. You'll also get travel assistance, car rental insurance, roadside assistance and other protections while you're on a trip. You also won't be charged a foreign transaction fee for using the card internationally — although because it's an AmEx, acceptance may be limited.

0% intro APR offer on balance transfers

The PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express® Card offers this rate on balance transfers: 0% promotional rate for 12 months on transfers made now through March 31, 2020, and then the ongoing APR of 12.74% - 17.99% Variable APR. That's a decent window of time if you're looking to pay down a higher-interest balance.

Drawbacks of the PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express® Card

Membership is required

You must become a PenFed credit union member when applying for the card if you aren't one already. Everyone is eligible to join, but it does require a few extra steps. You'll have to submit an application and open a PenFed savings account with a $5 deposit.

LIMITED REDEMPTION OPTIONS, So-So Point VALUE

When you redeem points for travel with the PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express® Card, you'll typically get a value higher than the industry standard of a penny per point. But for anything else, points are generally worth less than one cent each, which doesn't compare favorably to other no-annual-fee travel cards. Plus, unlike a lot of those other cards, cash back is not a redemption option. If you want a travel card with more flexibility, consider the Discover it® Miles. It, too, has an annual fee of $0, and it earns 1.5 miles per dollar spent on all purchases. It doesn't offer perks like travel credits, but you can redeem points for travel or gift cards at the same value of a penny each. The card also has a generous welcome offer: Discover will match ALL the Miles you’ve earned at the end of your first year, automatically. For example, if you earn 35,000 Miles, you get 70,000 Miles. That’s $700 towards travel! The more you earn, the more you get.

other travel cards offer more (for a fee)

The PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express® Card costs nothing to carry, which is great for a travel card. But annual fees are not necessarily deal breakers, and in many cases you'll still come out ahead, thanks to higher ongoing rewards rates, larger sign-up bonuses, and more valuable or flexible redemption options.

The Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, for instance, charges an annual fee of $0 for the first year, then $95. But in return, you'll earn an unlimited 2 miles per dollar spent on all purchases. There's also a big sign-up bonus: Enjoy a one-time bonus of 50,000 miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $500 in travel.

With the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, you'll pay an annual fee of $95. But you'll earn 2 points per $1 spent on travel and dining, and 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases. Plus, points are worth more when you redeem through the Chase travel portal, and you can transfer points to multiple airline and hotel loyalty programs. There's a rich sign-up bonus, too: Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.

you'll need a backup card overseas

The lack of foreign transaction fees with the PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express® Card can be beneficial for purchases in other countries — but American Express cards aren't as widely accepted around the world as are Visa and Mastercard products. Always travel with a backup card.

Should you get the PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express® Card?

If you travel a lot (domestically), don't mind joining a credit union and aren't interested in paying an annual fee, the PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express® Card is among the best picks around, especially if you're eligible to earn the card's highest rate on travel purchases. But travelers who frequently go abroad or want a little more flexibility in their redemption options may want to consider other possibilities. To see how this card compares against the competition, take a look at NerdWallet's roundup of top credit cards.