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3 trends shaping today's rewards credit cards

By Erin Peterson

For people who use their credit cards primarily for rewards, there's no shortage of good card options. From miles to merchandise to mortgage payments, rewards can take almost any form -- though that doesn't necessarily mean that card issuers will make racking up rewards painless.

Today's cards benefit big spenders and attentive card managers. For those willing to monitor their cards and spending closely, there are more ways than ever to get rewards and maximize points. Here are three trends that are shaping credit card rewards offers -- and what you'll need to do to take advantage of them.

1. Cash is king, but it's not always easy to maximize

3 trends shaping today's rewards credit cards

Card issuers have rolled out plenty of new rewards cards, but many have the same theme. It turns out that almost nothing beats cash, says Nancy Beaver, vice president of rewards management at Wells Fargo. "Cash has always been a traditional favorite, and it continues to be a favorite," she says.

While 1 percent cash back is standard with many cash-back cards, some cards are boosting rewards -- selectively. Discover has long been the standard-bearer in this regard. For more than six years, it has offered 5 percent cash back bonuses on rotating quarterly categories from gas to dining, says Discover spokeswoman Kathryn Henry. Others, including Chase Freedom and Citi Dividend Platinum, have followed suit with similar offerings. It's a great deal -- as long as you're willing to sign up each quarter, and you're not stymied by the limits (typically about $1,500 in purchases) that can curb your earnings.

Because companies want their card to be at the front of your wallet, they're taking care to give you better deals on your most frequent purchases. "We have card members who are passionate about earning cash back on their everyday spending," says Chase spokesman Rob Tacey. It's why his company -- and others -- offer greater rewards year-round for the most common credit card purchases, such as gas, groceries, dining, and travel.

But you'll need to do some serious number-crunching to see if it's better to get 3 percent back on gas and 2 percent on groceries (BankAmericard Cash Rewards) or 3 percent on groceries and 2 percent on gas (Blue Cash Everyday Card). If you're a traveler, you might like Chase Sapphire preferred, with double points on travel and dining. The most diligent juggle several different cards, keeping track of the best offerings on spreadsheets or sticky notes attached to specific cards with great deals.

2. Introductory bonuses grow, but ...

To lure in high-spending customers, card issuers have ratcheted up introductory bonus and early spend offers, with cash and travel awards worth hundreds of dollars.

Some come easy -- you can earn up to six free nights at a Marriott property after a single purchase with the Marriott Rewards Premier Visa Signature Card, for example. Southwest Rapid Rewards Visa, meanwhile, offers enough points for two free flights after the first purchase.

However, many require big spending requirements. To get $500 in travel spending from the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, for example, you'll need to make $3,000 in purchases in the first three months to qualify. An introductory offer from Citi ThankYou Premier will net $399 in airfare -- after $2,000 in purchases within 3 months.

Of course, once you've earned your bonus, card issuers hope you'll stick around. Don't get too starry-eyed at the promise of an early payday, says Capital One spokeswoman Sukhi Sahni. "Take advantage of higher-than-average introductory rewards rates and sign-up bonuses, but use the permanent rewards earnings as a basis for comparing cards," she says.       

3. Loyalty is rewarded

Many of the top reward cards have hefty annual fees after the first year, including The Premier Rewards card from American Express ($175) and Citi Platinum Select AA Visa ($95). Combined with the eye-popping introductory bonuses to new cardholders, it's increasingly tempting for cardholders to hop from card to card, avoiding fees while still reaping plenty of loot.

To entice customers to keep a card, issuers have begun offering loyalty bonuses. A Southwest Rapid Rewards card offers 3,000 miles on a cardholder's anniversary -- with a value that's almost enough to offset the annual fee. Other cards provide yearly bonuses based on rewards earnings.

Some card issuers offer bonuses to customers who use more than one of the bank's products. Several Bank of America cards, for example, offer customers a 10 percent cash bonus on cash rewards if they deposit them into a Bank of America checking or savings account. According to spokeswoman Betty Riess, it's a strategy that benefits both consumers and the company. "[We] are focused on rewarding customers when they bring more of their relationship to us," she says.

 But no matter how focused you are on maximizing your rewards earning, it's critical to remember that the rewards are meant to redeemed. "Building rewards," says Capital One's Sahni, "is only worth it if you actually use them."

Credit card rewards chart

Travel Cards


Card

APR

Annual Fee

Rewards

Capital One Venture RewardsCreditCard

13.9% to 20.9%

$59 after the first year

2 miles per dollar (each mile is equivalent to 1 cent)

StarwoodPreferredGuestCreditCardfromAmericanExpress

15.24% to 19.24%

$65 after the first year

Up to 25,000 introductory bonus; up to 5 points per dollar spent at participating Starwood Preferred Guest  hotels; 1 point everywhere else

MilesbyDiscover

10.99% to 15.99%

$0

1,000 bonus miles (each mile is worth 1 cent) each month you make a purchase in the first 12 months; double miles on your first $3,000 in travel and restaurant purchases each year; 1 mile for everything else

BankAmericardPrivilegeswithTravelRewards

14.99% to 22.99%

$75 after the first year

2 points for every $1 spent on every purchase; 10,000 bonus points after $500 in qualified purchases

 

Loyalty Bonus Cards

Card

APR

Annual Fee

Rewards

CapitalOneCashRewards

12.9% to 20.9% variable

$0

1% cash back on purchases; 50% cash back bonus on rewards every year; new account holders receive a one-time $100 bonus after spending $500 in the first 3 months

BankAmericardCashRewards

12.99% to 20.99%

$0

3% back on gas station purchases, 2% back on grocery store purchases, 1% on all other purchases; 10% bonus on all rewards deposited into a Bank of America checking or savings account.

CitiThankYouPremier

13.99% to 22.99%

$125 after the first year

30,000 points after $2,000 in purchases, 1.2 points per $1 at gas stations, supermarkets, drugstores, commuter transportation and parking, and $1 everywhere else; anniversary bonus of up to 5% on all rewards

 

Cash-Back Cards

Card

APR

Annual Fee

Rewards

DiscoverMore

10.99% to 19.99%

$0

5% cash back on rotating quarterly categories; 1% back on everything else

BlueCashPreferred

17.24% to 22.24%

$75

6% back at supermarkets, 3% back at gas stations and department stores, and 1% everywhere else. $150 bonus after spending $1,000 in 3 months.

ChaseFreedom

12.99% to 22.99%

$0

$100 cash back after spending $500 in 3 months; 5% cash back on rotating quarterly categories, 1% cash back on everything else

 

Introductory Bonus

Card

APR

Annual Fee

Rewards

ChaseSapphirePreferred

15.24%

$95 after the first year

Introductory bonus of 40,000 points after spending $3,000 in 3 months; two points on travel and dining costs including airfare and hotels, taxis and rental cars, trains and cruises, and dining

SouthwestRapidRewards

15.24%

$95 after first year

50,000 bonus points after first purchase, enough for two free flights, then 2 points per dollar on Southwest and partner hotel and car rental purchases; 1 point per dollar on everything else.

CitiDividendPlatinumSelectVisa

12.99% to 22.99%

$0

$150 in cash back after $500 in purchases within 3 months; 5% cash back on rotating quarterly categories; 1% back on all other purchases

CitiPlatinumSelectAAdvantageVisaSignatureCard

15.24%

$95 after first year

30,000 American Airlines miles after $1,000 in purchases in the first 3 months; 1 mile per $1 spent

 

Miscellaneous

Card

APR

Annual Fee

Rewards

WellsFargoHomeRebateCard

11.15% to 25.99% variable APR

$0

$25 is credited to a Wells Fargo home mortgage loan principal after every $2,500 in net purchases

AceRewardsVisa

13.99% to 23.99%

$0

5% in rewards for every $1 spent at Ace hardware stores, 2% for gas and grocery purchases, 1% everywhere else

GMCard

13.99 to 22.90 percent

$0

5% earnings on all purchases toward an eligible, new GM vehicle

See related: Trading in unused credit card rewards

Published: June 11, 2012



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Updated: 10-31-2014

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Low Interest 10.37%
Balance Transfer 12.82%
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Cash Back 14.98%
Reward 15.07%
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