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How to keep track of all those rewards points

Websites, phone apps help you make all the rewards points count

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The marketing pitch sounds simple: Sign up for a new card, start charging and reap rewards such as merchandise, travel or cash.

The idea of earning free stuff is so alluring, though, that many consumers now have too many reward programs to keep track of. The average U.S. household belongs to 14 loyalty programs, but actively pays attention to only six, according to a 2009 study by Colloquy, a trade magazine serving the loyalty industry. The figures include reward programs offered by credit cards, airlines and retailers. How to keep track of all those rewards points

If you don't keep track of your reward programs, you could miss out on chances to redeem your points. Or even worse, your points could expire before you use them -- negating the purpose of joining a rewards program in the first place.

Technology to the rescue
Luckily, technology has come to the rescue. There are plenty of services available, such as websites and smartphone apps, that can help you organize your reward programs. Developers of the services say that because reward points are like currency, people should monitor them the same way that they might watch their household budget or bank account. (See rewards tracker comparison chart.)

"It's something that makes sense to keep track of and understand how much value you actually have in these kinds of rewards programs," says Todd Mera, co-founder of AwardWallet.com, a tracking site. "Setting goals for your points spending is difficult unless you know what you have."

At their most basic, the services allow consumers to store IDs and passwords to multiple programs in one place and see their reward balances on one screen. Say, for instance, that you use a Citi Forward card, belong to Delta Air Lines' SkyMiles frequent flier program and use the Delta SkyMiles American Express card, belong to the Marriott Rewards program and make restaurant reservations through OpenTable. Ordinarily, you would need to have IDs and passwords handy to track each of those four accounts and log into four different websites.

One login, multiple programs
But with a reward tracker, you enter your login information for those four programs just once. After that, all you need is to log in to the tracker, and it automatically scrapes the information on your award balances from the four programs' websites.

From there, different trackers do different things. Some, such as TripIt Pro, are oriented toward frequent business travelers and can assemble itineraries and monitor flight times and departure gates. Some, such as AwardWallet.com, specialize in making sure your points don't expire. Others include information on miles or points as part of financial management services, such as Bank of America's "My Portfolio." Others, such as Points.com, thrive on delivering plenty of information on how to maximize your points spending, including allowing you swap points between programs.

Christopher Barnard, Points.com's president, says providing helpful, organized options on how to optimize rewards points is important nowadays, because often busy consumers don't keep up with vital information.

It's something that makes sense to keep track of and understand how much value you actually have in these kinds of rewards programs. Setting goals for your points spending is difficult unless you know what you have.

-- Todd Mera
AwardWallet.com

"There's a large bulge in the middle of the bell curve that doesn't really know exactly how to maximize their participation," he says. "They intellectually know there's more to be done and they could do more, and they're frustrated that they're missing out on opportunities. We offer services that assuage some of those fears."

Not for everyone
Still, reward trackers aren't for everybody.

Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com, a Web publication for frequent travelers, says using one makes sense only if you belong to more programs than you can get your head around. It typically makes sense to minimize the number of rewards programs and devote your spending to those, rather than diluting your spending and ending up with what Winship calls "orphan" miles or points -- those that are too few to convert into rewards.

"People really need to have an overarching strategy when they participate in these programs," he says.

AwardWallet.com says its average customer belongs to 7.27 rewards programs. One customer belongs to more than 200.

Another concern is security. Before signing up for one of these services, consider whether you want to share your IDs and passwords with sites that will use that information to log you in and pull your information. Reward tracking sites typically say they take plenty of security precautions, such as keeping information on their own servers using industry-approved encryption techniques.

5 WELL-KNOWN REWARD POINTS TRACKERS
Name Key features
Cost
AwardWallet.com Has the most comprehensive list of compatible reward programs, including travel, retail and credit cards (totaling more than 160). Specializes in keeping miles/points from expiring. Smartphone app expected this summer. Free for basic service; enhanced expiration features available for a donation (you decide how much)
MileageManager Oldest reward tracker, founded in 1987, when customers would mail in paper statements to be consolidated. Works with more than 90 loyalty programs, mostly airlines and hotels. Provides alerts when airline award tickets become available. $14.95 per year
MilePort.com Works with more than 100 loyalty programs. Focuses mainly on travel programs. Tracks elite-level status on airline frequent flier programs. Includes travel news through partnership with USA Today. Free
Points.com In addition to tracking, allows you to trade points/miles among different programs. Site works with reward programs to give users information on spending their points. Compatible with 20 reward programs, but relaunch expected this summer to make site work with more than 120 reward programs. Free
TripIt Pro Geared toward frequent travelers. Works with more than 70 reward programs. Manages travel itineraries, sends text alerts for flight delays and gate changes. Available as app for iPhone, BlackBerry and Android phones. Free 30-day trial, then $49/year

See related: Compare rewards credit cards, 4 rules to winning the credit card rewards game, Got rewards points? Here's how to spend them wisely

Published: July 16, 2010


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