Loyalty programs and credit cards with rewards have their own rules, points systems and fine print, and some seem to intentionally be confusing.
Perhaps you signed up for a loyalty program at a hotel chain you frequent, but you have trouble keeping track of your points. Maybe you got a credit card with rewards and you have enough points for a free flight, but then you hit blackout dates. You may start wondering if it’s worth the hassle.
Rewards programs can be beneficial, however, if you are willing to spend a little time and employ some tips to get the most out of them.
Think about what you want
Do you live for an upgrade to a ritzier room? Interested in a free flight or the use of the member lounge at the airport? Think about what you want and then do a little online research. ThePointsGuy.com has comprehensive lists of the best rewards programs out there based on what you are looking for.
Opting for a simple cash-back credit card or a travel one with no blackout dates or foreign transaction fees may be the smart move for you. There also are credit cards with miles that never expire and that allow you to transfer travel points to other programs, including Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards and the Marriott and Hyatt loyalty programs.
Sign up for programs you actually will use
If you enjoy staying at Marriott hotels, for instance, then it makes sense to be a member of the Starwood Preferred Guest program, which offers several benefits when you stay at any Starwood hotel. Starwood, Wyndham Rewards and other programs also offer credit cards that earn you bonus points you can use for travel.
If you are a big fan of cruises, then opt for a rewards program from a specific cruise line you enjoy.
Think about where you live
Interested in a co-branded airline credit card? There are many out there with varying points systems and bonuses, but the most important consideration might be where you live. If your local airport is dominated by an airline, such as United in Houston, then that airline’s card is probably your best bet.
Other airports, such as O’Hare in Chicago, are served by many major airlines, so you can choose between several cards.
Read the fine print
What will the points get you and how can you use them? Do you get the most bang for your buck when you use points for travel or cash back? Are there blackout dates? How quickly do points expire? Is there an annual fee for the credit card after the first year? What’s the APR? Read all the fine print and decide if the program or card is right for you.
It makes sense to have only one or two credit cards to make it easier to pile up your points. That also will help keep you from charging too much.
Make sure you are getting a good deal
It’s easy to get hooked on the idea of getting something for nothing, but you still are spending money. It’s a transaction, so be smart about it. If booking a domestic flight will get you heaps of miles toward an overseas flight you have been savoring, then go for it.
Always pay off your balance each month to avoid interest charges that could end up negating the rewards you got for your card purchases.
Keep track of everything
If you have multiple loyalty accounts and have trouble juggling all the details, try AwardWallet.com. It allows you to add and track your account balances for more than 600 loyalty programs, including Amtrak, Amazon, KLM, Kayak, Walgreens, Hilton and Royal Caribbean. According to the Award Wallet site, at least 20 percent of all frequent-flier miles never get redeemed.
The basic service is free and you can get alerts when points or rewards are about to expire.
Look into dining programs
Dining programs are an easy way to double your pleasure because you rack up rewards for paying with a specific credit card and get extra points when you eat at a participating restaurant.
If you have a card that slides you bonus points on dining, such as Chase Sapphire Preferred, you can enroll in an airline’s dining program and pay with your registered card. Several major airlines and hotels also have dining programs that are linked to their loyalty programs and co-branded credit cards.
Check out shopping portals
It doesn’t make sense to go to a retailer’s website if you can earn rewards through a credit card, airline or hotel’s shopping portal.
Members can scroll through an online mileage mall, such as AAdvantage eShopping mall, and get points or miles for what they spend. Those miles or points can be in addition to the rewards earned for using the credit card.
Use your points
This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to forget what you’ve earned, especially if the company isn’t alerting you or you have no idea what you can earn.
You may have racked up points on a credit card and not be aware that you can get cash back or a gift card to Target, L.L. Bean, Macy’s or another favorite store. Redeem those points.