5 Questions to Ask About Credit Card Rewards

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TV spokespeople are quick to tell you why the credit card they’re shilling is better than the rest.

Double points! No blackout dates! No annual fee!

They make it seem so easy to rack up points and trade them in for free flights and top-shelf resort stays.

But there’s no such thing as a free lunch — even if you’re earning points on it.

That’s not to say there aren’t benefits to using reward credit cards. You can earn free travel and other perks — but you have to be strategic to make them work for you.

What Are Credit Card Rewards?

Credit card rewards are perks that credit card companies offer on some cards as an incentive for cardholders to use the card. The rewards can come in the form of travel miles, points, or cash back.

Cash back is pretty straightforward — it’s a direct cash reward. Travel miles can be redeemed for things like airline tickets for a distance equal to the amount of miles you’ve accrued. Points can be redeemed for items like gift cards or other purchases, so they’re like a more limited version of cash back.

Before you apply for that hip new card you’re seeing in commercials, ask yourself these five questions first.

Credit card mail offers.
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1. What Does That Credit Card Agreement Actually Say?

Be sure to read through all the details of a credit card agreement before signing up. It’s important for two key reasons.

First, you want to have a clear view of interest rates, annual fees, late fees, expiration dates, foregin transaction fees and other conditions of use.

Second, you want to make sure the benefits of the card are worth it.

For example, it would be a waste of time to use a card to earn flight rewards if you can’t actually use the points or miles on your favorite airline.

2.  Does the Credit Card Offer Cash Back or Reward Points?

Some credit cards offer cash back rewards, while others award you points redeemable for things like flights and hotels.

Cash-back cards are often a better option. They hold their value better than points, provide greater flexibility and your rewards are easier to use. On some cards, you can set up an automatic transfer to an account — even that credit card — when you accrue a certain amount.

There’s also several good cash-back rewards cards without an annual fee, which is another big plus.

How Does the Point System Work?

If you opt for a rewards card that accumulates points on purchases, make sure you understand:

  • How many points you earn for certain purchases.
  • The cash value of each point.
  • What you can redeem your points for.

Each credit card company operates its point system a little differently, so certain purchases can help you earn rewards faster than others.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred card, for example, offers five points for every dollar spent on travel booked directly through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, along with three points per $1 on dining and two points per $1 on all other travel expenses.

Meanwhile, the Citi Premier card offers three points per $1 spent at restaurants,  supermarkets, air travel and gas stations, as well as one point per $1 on all other purchases.

Most credit card programs let you directly redeem their points via an online portal.

Many programs also allow you to transfer your points to partners and then redeem them for flights or hotel stays, which is another smart way to get more bang for your points.

Looking for ways to put some extra cash in your pocket? Check out these strategies to maximize your credit card rewards.

Credit card mail offers.
Aileen Perilla/ The Penny Hoarder

3. Are the Rewards Redeemed Automatically?

Many, if not most, rewards cards require you to log into your account, access a portal, and go through a process to redeem your points or cash back rewards. This is obviously not ideal — especially if the rewards have a time limit or expiration date. Companies do this in the hope that you’ll forget about the rewards, which would save them money.

On the other hand, some cards let you set up a schedule to automatically redeem your rewards. This is a major perk — depending on how likely you are to remember, it could be the most important perk of all, since it guarantees you’ll redeem your rewards.

4. Is There an Annual Fee?

Some reward credit cards require a yearly fee for the right to access their benefits.

Annual fees usually start around $50 and can jump to $600 or more for premium-level cards. However, the exact fee varies, depending on the credit card company and the level of perks and rewards offered.

The Platinum Card from American Express is one of the priciest, with an annual fee of $695.

But credit card writer Beverly Harzog says annual fees aren’t all bad.

“Be sure the rewards you earn are far going to outweigh their fee,” she said.

Many cards waive the annual fee for your first year, and you can always call to ask them if they’ll waive it a second time.

So, is an annual credit card fee worth it? Here are some factors to help you decide.

Not all reward cards charge an annual fee. If you’re just starting out, focus on those offers when shopping for a new card.

Some popular rewards credit cards without annual fees include:

A woman calculating monthly expenses.
Aileen Perilla/The Penny Hoarder

5. Is Your Normal Spending Enough to Earn the Sign-up Bonus?

The real value in miles and points comes from welcome offers, which earn you far more than the typical 1% or 2% reward.

If you’re just using your card for your usual expenses, it may be difficult to get enough points or miles for substantial rewards. Here’s a trick to get around having to be a big spender to get rewards without drowning in debt.

Use your rewards credit card to pay for nearly everything you buy. Then log into your account each day, or every other day, and pay off the balance in full.

This helps keep your credit card balance small and manageable. You’re also less likely to splurge on things you can’t afford. After all, you’ll have to pay for whatever you just purchased within the next couple days.

If you’re constantly aware of your credit card balance and you pay it off several times a week, you can still take advantage of those sweet rewards points without racking up debt and interest.

Before you sign up for a rewards credit card, look at your budget and see how much you normally spend in a month.

If you usually spend about $1,000 a month on all your expenses, you can easily hit a sign-up bonus that requires you to spend $1,000 in the first three months.

But if the sign-up bonus requires you to spend $5,000 in the first three months, well, you should probably go with a different card that offers a more attainable bonus.

Some bills, like utilities and rent payments, often charge a fee if you pay with a credit card instead of a checking account. Use your debit card to cover these expenses and use your rewards credit card for everything else.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Credit Card Rewards

There are plenty of questions about credit card rewards and we’ve gathered the answers to those most commonly asked.

Are Credit Card Rewards Worth It?

Rewards credit cards are worth it if you are a disciplined user. Sure, they offer nice perks, including travel points and cash back. But if you’re not careful, you’ll easily negate the rewards with interest. To make the rewards worthwhile, you need to pay the card off completely on a regular basis.

How Much Are Credit Card Rewards Fees?

Rewards credit cards can have annual fees ranging from $50 per year for basic cards to $600 per year for premium cards. The exact fees vary from provider to provider and card to card. To save this money, look for cards with no annual fees.

What Credit Score Do I Need For Rewards Credit Cards?

Rewards cards tend to be premium cards, and so you typically need good credit (or better) to be approved for them. A FICO score of 670 or higher is considered “good credit.”

What Is the Cash Value of Rewards Points?

The cash value of your points varies from card to card, but the most common cash value is 1 cent per point. Note that when redeeming them through the credit card provider for approved rewards, they may be valued higher — the value of 1 cent is only if you want to cash them out.

Rachel Christian is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance and a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder. Lisa Rowan is a former senior writer for The Penny Hoarder and contributor Dave Schafer updated this report.