Reward Card Buying Guide

Reward Card Buying Guide

Credit-card companies are still stuffing our mailboxes with offers for new cards, and often they are for rewards cards. Many feature what issuers think consumers want during uncertain economic times: more cash back and greater rewards for spending on everyday purchases like groceries.

If you’re in the market for a new rewards card, you might be able to score enhanced rewards and perks, such as introductory bonuses of cash, miles, or points. The best offers are reserved for people with the highest credit scores. "We see rewards deals getting sweeter but with the caveat that they’re only for people with good to excellent credit," said Bill Hardekopf, publisher of, a credit-card comparison website. "All the credit-card companies are going after the same customers." He says that a credit score in the mid-to-upper 700s would usually be needed to qualify for the best deals.

Of course, you have to read the fine print to know if any rewards card is as good as it seems. To find one that makes sense for you, weigh the rewards formulas, fees, and restrictions, along with your spending habits. If you regularly carry a balance, rewards cards probably won’t be a good fit. They tend to carry higher interest rates than standard cards, so you could pay more in interest than you’ll earn in rewards.

Up-Front Bonuses

Waiving the first year’s annual fee just for signing up for a rewards card have become more common. These are typically tied to a certain level of spending within the first three to six months of receiving the card, though the amounts required aren’t prohibitively high—generally about $500 to $3,000.

Travel cards are also competing for your business with introductory bonuses. We’ve seen some very tempting offers such as 100,000 points in an airline frequent-flyer program linked to a credit card. If you’re hoping to snag such a lucrative offer, you can learn more by monitoring websites such as

More typical are 30,000 or more points sign-up offers that major airlines like American and United might offer for opening a card account. The value of mileage deals depends on whether the card is being offered by an airline or a bank. Airline cards have historically promoted 25,000 points as the equivalent of a round-trip domestic economy ticket. But you might have a tough time booking the trip you want for 25,000 points. That will usually get you a restricted flight, meaning you’re subject to blackout dates and airline-imposed limits on the number of seats allocated to rewards use, according to Tim Winship, publisher of

With travel cards offered by banks, the rewards are easier to calculate and use. Typically, 100 miles equals $1 in rewards, so 30,000 miles will buy you a $300 ticket. You book your travel however you’d like, say, through an online ticket broker such as so you don’t have to worry about blackout dates or capacity restrictions. After you make your reservation, you contact the card issuer to redeem your points to cover the expense.

Annual Fees for Added Perks

A new trend in rewards cards is to offer two versions of the same card: one that carries an annual fee but earns a higher rate of rewards, and a no-fee version that pays a lower rate. The annual-fee versions generally offer a higher rate of rewards than no-fee versions do. 

Airline cards typically charge an annual fee, but some waive it in the first year. Some airline cards provide perks like free baggage checking, that can offset the fee. And several premium travel cards, whether bank or airline, offer additional benefits, such as travel insurance, trip-delay coverage, rental-car insurance, and occasionally no foreign-transaction fees. If you travel a lot, those perks might make a premium card a better value for you, even with the annual fee. 

Keep in mind that many credit card issuers waive the annual fee in the first year.  But in the following year, the fee could kick in. So you should consider whether the annual fee is worth paying. For travel awards, the answer depends how much you travel. If you are frequent flyer and the airline you fly charges you a fee to check in luggage, you may be better off paying the annual fee for the card and getting that perk for free.

Some airline cards that charge annual fees provide other benefits such as priority boarding. And several premium travel cards from banks and airlines offer additional benefits, such as travel insurance, trip-delay coverage, rental-car insurance, and occasionally no foreign transaction fees. 

If you have poor credit, however, the annual fee won’t be waived in the first year. Since you would be considered high risk, a credit card issuer may charge you an annual fee in order to provide you with a credit card.

Maximizing Your Rewards

Reading the terms and conditions of rewards programs can be a headache, but doing so before you sign up can steer you away from rewards cards with spending limits, expiration dates on rewards, or other quirks that can limit your cash back or points. Most cards offer 1 percent cash back or points for standard purchases, which works out to each earned point being worth about a penny. Some rewards cards pay 5 percent cash back in rotating seasonal categories. But they require that you opt in to the program each quarter.

Claiming Your Rewards

Finding a card with a rewards formula that matches your spending habits isn’t the final step in choosing one. You should also check to see how easy it is to redeem your rewards.

Cash-back cards are often the simplest, because you can redeem rewards regularly and use the money to get the best deals on things you want to buy. With points cards, particularly airline cards, it often takes a long time to accumulate a sufficient number of points for a reward. So it’s more important to find out if your points will expire.

Some credit cards let you redeem points only once a year.

Also consider your payment habits. Do you always pay on time? Some banks take away a month’s points if you miss a payment, and might charge you a reinstatement fee of $25 or so to get them back. That might be worth paying only in months when you’ve spent a lot. Setting up account alerts for due dates or arranging to have your bill automatically paid from your checking account can help you avoid losing points.