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Where some of the best rewards cards can be found

Some credit card issuers are actually sweetening reward offers

By Pat Curry

Credit card issuers may be tightening their belts on some rewards programs, but there are still good deals and interesting perks to be had from the nation's top reward card issuers.Where some of the best rewards cards can be found

Want to lease a Lamborghini or take a tandem skydiving jump? Both those options are on the table with rewards points. But so is the ability to use points to pay for the basic necessities of life, including gas and groceries. You can even apply points or the cash back from a rewards card toward your mortgage or your credit card bill.

Chart: Compare credit card rewards offers

Rewards programs are "just the price of entry" for credit card issuers to attract customers, says Nancy Beaver, vice president of rewards marketing for San Francisco-based Wells Fargo Bank. "Consumers are very, very savvy," she says. "We continually find that customers raise the bar on rewards programs."

Here are some programs that are new and exciting from some of the nation's top reward card issuers:

We continually find that customers raise the bar on rewards programs.

-- Nancy Beaver
Wells Fargo VP of rewards marketing

The name of the game at Citi Financial's Thank You Network rewards program is leverage. By aligning with Expedia.com for travel and Amazon.com's vast retail network, the Thank You Network ranks as the largest credit card rewards program in the country, based on the number of offerings.

"The fact that we have over 5 million reward items is a differentiator," says Nancy Gordon, executive vice president of Citi's Thank You Network.

The Amazon relationship was launched in October 2008, and Gordon says that it was an immediate hit with Citi's customers, who could go to www.thankyou.com, see their points balances and find a "sophisticated Web interface that mirrors what you would expect on Amazon.com within the Thank You brand.

"What's great about partnering with Amazon.com is they're the experts," Gordon says. "We can leverage that and pass along the benefit to our customers. We've been able to leverage some of the expedited and discounted shipping."

Like some other credit card issuers, Citi also has recently added the ability for customers to use rewards points toward their mortgage payments. "We don't limit it to Citi," she says. "They can use it with any financial institution. That's gotten a lot of use; the amount of customers using it has exceeded our expectations."

Customers also can use points to make payments on their credit card bills or student loans. 

Bank of America is pumped about its expanded Add It Up program available to online banking customers using their BofA credit cards and check cards. BofA spokeswoman Betty Riess says the program was recently expanded to allow customers to earn cash rewards for purchases at more than 270 online retailers, including Target, Zales, Alloy and JCPenney's. Customers also have the ability to have their cash rewards deposited into their checking account or as a credit in their credit card statement. 

"We also recently expanded the program to include cash rewards for purchases at select brick-and-mortar locations of participating merchants," Riess says. "Customers get up to 20 percent cash back from participating retailers, in addition to earning rewards points under the World Points program."

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Getting the most from rewards cards

The most popular feature today with the American Express Membership Rewards program is Pay with Points, which allows members to redeem their rewards points for travel "anytime, anywhere," says American Express spokeswoman Mona Hamouly. "It gives you the ultimate flexibility." The partial pay feature allows members to apply points to a trip and pay for the remainder in cash. "It's a great way to use your points for upgrades," she says.

While the Membership Rewards catalog has always been heavy on glitz and glamour -- AmEx is the issuer that offers the Lamborghini lease -- the card issuer recently added such utilitarian items as the Express Rewards Gas Card, available in $50 and $100 denominations. It's also expanded its list of casual dining partners, such as Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Legal Seafood, as well as adding Old Navy as a retailer.

"It's under what we call Practical Points," Hamouly says. "It's very much in line with our philosophy with providing rewards that are relevant to people's lifestyles. We thought our members would really appreciate it. We also added large appliances. The things people need the most are the things we hate to buy."

Capital One is "really focusing on providing flexibility and choice" with its reward cards program, says Pam Girardo, spokeswoman for the McLean, Va.-based issuer. "People want to accumulate rewards in different ways."

In recent months, she says, the company has seen consumers "gravitating more toward merchandise redemption" to use their rewards points. A new merchant rewards program offers enhanced rewards with certain retailers at certain times; during the holidays, those offers showed up on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, two key shopping days.

For customers who are watching their budgets, but still want to contribute to their favorite charities, Capital One launched a No Hassle Giving site, where rewards cardholders can use their rewards points to contribute to any 501(3)(c) organization in the country, and Capital One will pay the transaction fees. "It's nice on a couple of levels," Girardo says. "It's a nice gift for the person who is hard to buy for, and with the economy the way it is, every penny counts for the giver and the charity."

[Consumers are] gravitating more toward merchandise redemption.

-- Pam Girardo
  Capital One spokeswoman

Wells Fargo has "some bells and whistles we're pretty excited about," Beaver says, including a full 1 percent cash back to the customer with no cap, no expiration and no annual fee. "A lot of the programs do have those," she says. Recently, the cash back program allowed cardholders to also earn 25 cents on every dollar of eligible linked check card spending. When the rebate reaches $25, the cardholder can channel the money into their checking account, a savings account or into a loan account to pay off a debt. If they have a Wells Fargo home mortgage, they can channel the rebates toward paying down the principal.

"Over time, it makes a difference," Beaver says. "We're trying to help them partner to save or pay down debt and we think that is important to people today."

Like many card issuers, Wells Fargo offers customers the ability to use their rewards points to support favorite charities; they also can use points to purchase renewable energy certificates to offset the production of carbon-based fuel.

There's nothing particularly new at Discover Card, but Discover More Card spokesman Matthew Towson says that Discover remains "the only rewards program that lets you increase, or even double, your rewards" when they are redeemed for gift cards or instant "eCertificates" from its 100 Cashback Bonus retail partners, such as Bed, Bath and Beyond or FTD Florists. Or, card members can choose to electronically deposit their rebate funds in a bank account or use it to pay down their Discover Card account. The Motiva Card actually rewards customers for good credit behavior by giving them a month's interest as a Cashback Bonus payment after six on-time payments in a row. 

USAA, which provides financial services to members of the U.S. military and their families, will be adding some new features to its rewards card program soon; spokesman Benjamin Larkin said cardholders should "look for changes in a couple of months."

See related: Chart: Compare credit card rewards offers, Debit card rewards programs gaining acceptance, Which is better: Frequent flier or cash reward programs, Trips and traps of credit card rewards programs, Give more with less through charity credit cards

Published: February 12, 2009


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