Are sign-up rewards bonuses seasonal?


Cashing In
Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for

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Question Dear Cashing In,
I like signing up for cards to get sign-up bonuses, but want to be strategic about when I get my next card, especially since some credit card companies don't allow churning. Is there a time of year when sign-up bonuses tend to be best? -- Brenda

Answer Dear Brenda,
It would be nice if issuers offered big sign-up bonuses on a predictable schedule. They know that dangling 50,000 or 75,000 or even 100,000 points is a huge incentive for people to take notice and apply for cards. 

There seem to be more of these big bonuses nowadays than in previous years. In the old days, if you could score 25,000 miles or points when you signed up and used a new card, you were doing well -- that was enough for a free round-trip domestic airline ticket. Now, banks occasionally offer 100,000 miles, as Citi did this spring and summer with the American Airlines Executive AAdvantage card ($450 annual fee). That would be enough for four round-trips, worth a total of hundreds of dollars if not $1,000 or more.

Before that, Capital One had a 100,000-point offer on its Venture card ($59 annual fee, waived first year) in March 2012. American Express offered 100,000 points on its Platinum card (annual fee: $450) in January 2013. In November 2013, Chase offered 100,000 miles on the British Airways Visa (annual fee: $95). Those were all publicly available offers that typically required spending a few thousand dollars on the card in the first few months. 

As you can see, on the very top end, those offers were spread throughout the year.

Michael Misasi, senior analyst with Mercator Advisory Group, says he has noticed no seasonality to generous sign-up offers. Typically, he says, card companies ramp up bonuses when they offer new products, which could happen anytime throughout the year. 

But he says that if consumers are considering a retail rewards card, they might want to pay attention at the end of the year, during the holiday shopping season.

"Because you have more shopping going on, there's more opportunity for those retailers to market their store cards as consumers come through," he says.

Ben Schlappig, who blogs about reward travel at One Mile at a Time, agrees that big sign-up bonuses can appear at any time. But he adds that the end of the year can be a good time, "as marketing departments push to meet annual goals."

There are a number of ways to keep up with credit card sign-up deals, such as blogs and social media. You might also pay attention to marketing offers in the mail or on email, as sometimes the best deals are targeting particular customers and are not publicly available.

Brenda, if you come across an offer that you find attractive, you might want to jump on it. Sometimes they don't last long. You might also consider how many cards you're comfortable having, and whether you would take advantage of a second great offer if it comes along soon afterward.

Most people don't have more than a few cards, but some people who are really into amassing points and miles have more than a dozen, and sometimes 20 or more. That can get unwieldy, and signing up for too many cards in short order can make it hard to hit minimum spending requirements. Also, make sure you understand the implications to your credit score before applying for too many cards.

You're right to think ahead. But the availability of these offers is so unpredictable that it can be hard to assemble a strategic plan for card applications.

See related: Sign up, max out, cancel, repeat: Rewarding, but dangerous to credit?, Professional award bookers promise 'free' flights for fewer miles

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Published: August 19, 2014

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