When Thornton, Co., resident Alice Deanda's daughter got married in Hawaii a few years ago, Deanda and three of her family members flew free — thanks to points redeemed from Deanda's credit card.
“I charged everything I possibly could on my United credit card, so I could get the mileage points,” Deanda said.
Deanda could be a role model for novices interested in getting the most value out of a credit-card rewards program. She uses only credit cards that offer rewards — either airline-specific mileage points, convertible points (which apply to various airlines) or cash-back rewards.
She religiously pays off each credit card every month and on time.
he monitors the number of points she has earned through her credit cards.
She is fanatically careful to avoid carrying debt or paying interest.
And that discipline repeatedly has paid off over the past 50 years or so.
“That's the right way to do it,” says Andrew Fielding, president and owner of Shrewd Travel, a bookings website that helps clients maximize their airline, hotel and credit-card reward points.
“There are so many different ways to take advantage of this stuff. I could spend two weeks discussing all the amazing deals and ways to take advantage of credit cards. For example, Chase had a card that once had 10 points per swipe. That meant you could buy everything in $1 increments, and essentially get 11 points per dollar — 10 bonus points, plus another for the one dollar.”
Sounds good, right?
But there's a caveat: Do not play this game if you carry any credit-card debt, or you risk getting into worse trouble financially.
“It doesn't make sense to do this unless you can pay your credit cards off every month, on time and in full,” Fielding said. “This only works if you already have the money that you're going to spend anyway. And even then, you need to think about the best way to maximize your rewards.”
For example, say your credit card offers 6percent cash-back rewards for grocery store purchases, and you've budgeted $500 to spend on holiday gifts — $500 that's in your bank account.
You could spend that $500 directly at Amazon.com. Or you could buy $500 worth of Amazon.com gift cards with your cash-back credit card at the grocery store, and get 6 percent ($30) of that $500 back. That's a pretty decent discount on a planned purchase.
“That $30 saved may be great during the holidays, but it doesn't work like that all the time,” Fielding warned. “What if you don't need to spend $500 at Amazon right away? Can you afford to have $500 sitting in Amazon gift cards? This is such a rich industry, with so many different options, and ways to get significant value out of your credit cards. You need to do your homework and have a reasonable expectation of what you're going to get. Be realistic.”
For example, with planning, you probably can earn enough points or miles in one year to earn a couple of round-trip domestic flight tickets. Doing the math is tricky. A point might be worth anywhere between 50 cents and $1.25 through different rewards programs.
And points are notoriously vulnerable to inflation rates that vary from one carrier to another.
“I've been leaning toward the top-notch cash-back cards as the best value now, because airline redemptions are disappearing as airlines devalue their points,” Fielding said. “We've had three airline-currency devaluations in the past two weeks.”
When United Airlines was going through economic dire straits recently and Deanda learned that her mileage points would be devalued or lost, she acted quickly.
“I had a lot of points to use, and it was better to use them than lose them,” she said. “I took my three daughters and my daughter-in-law to Florida, and we all flew free. Flights from Denver to Florida are expensive, so that was a good deal.”
Today, however, she's thinking about dropping the credit cards that offer the best deals on airline miles. Deanda currently is the primary caretaker for her aging mother, which means she has little free time for travel.
But she's planning on keeping the cash-back cards.
“Document all the steps when you apply for a credit card to make sure you receive the offer you signed up for,” says Shrewd Travel owner Andrew Fielding. That includes keeping a folder of screen shots of the best deals, which allows you to appeal if the company disputes the offer or the terms. “That's one of my must-do rules,” Fielding says. He laughed shortly. “What not to do — there's a five-page essay I could write on what not to do. But here are five things you've absolutely got to do with rewards cards.”
1. Pay off all your credit cards in full and on time every month. If you already carry credit-card debt, rewards programs may tempt you into continuing to overspend.
2. Meet the minimum spending requirements within the specified time when you sign up for a rewards card.
3. Develop a strategy to manage and use your mileage or convertible points. Think of airline miles as inflation-susceptible.
4. Do the math: If a merchant offers a discount for cash transactions, you might be better off paying cash and keeping your credit card in the wallet.
5. Monitor your points. Online services such as AwardWallet.com can track your frequent-flier miles, hotel and credit-card points by monitoring your mile balances and your account numbers. Some blogs, such as MileNerd.com, or the Shrewd Travel newsletter will alert you if your miles are about to expire or lose value.
How to get the most from your reward points
Want to get the most out of your credit-card rewards? Take this advice from Andrew Fielding, president and owner of the website ShrewdTravel.com, which helps clients maximize their reward points.
If you're planning to sign up for a new credit card, research the current offers. Fielding likes DansDeals.com, which keeps visitors updated on the best existing deals for credit card reward offers and sign-up bonuses.
“Right now, Chase Freedom offers a bonus of $200 and no annual fee if you sign up and spend $500 in the first 90 days,” Fielding said.
“That's a big thing, and you'd probably spend that on groceries.”
Before signing up for a credit card, Fielding recommends asking some questions, including:
Does the rewards program serve your interest? If you're trying to streamline your budget, a card that offers cash-back points for basics like groceries and gas may be a better choice than a convertible-points card.
Read the fine print in your credit- card agreement or on the reward affiliate's website to learn when your reward points expire. Many rewards points expire between 12 and 18 months.
If you choose airline-miles reward programs, carefully monitor all of your airline-mileage accounts. Fielding suggests AwardWallet.com. Some miles expire unless you make another purchase, such as buying a magazine through the mileage account.
Shred cards that don't offer cash-back, miles or points — after you've paid off any outstanding bills on those cards.