Award-winning writer covering consumer and small-business credit cards.
If you’re churning along collecting points and miles with no clear goal in sight, or if your rewards strategy hasn’t paid off, it might be time to hit the reset button.
“There definitely are times when you should re-evaluate both the cards you’re holding and the way you’re using them to earn rewards,” says Rosemarie Clancy, vice president of content and marketing for RewardExpert, which offers tools and advice to help maximize rewards.
Some cardholders have too many cards, own the wrong cards, accidentally let points expire or just try to do too many things at once, says Stephanie Zito, rewards expert and author of “Upgrade Unlocked,” a guide to earning and redeeming rewards.
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“You’ll make fewer mistakes if you start small and build based on how you spend money and where you want to go,” Zito says.
When to review your rewards game plan
If you fail to put a plan in place for your rewards cards and review it regularly, you could end up losing out on a dream trip, canceling out your points with hefty annual fees or getting so fixated on rewards that you lose sight of your financial big picture.
Experts typically recommend checking over your rewards strategy about once a year, but there are good reasons you might benefit from doing a rewards revamp right now. Here are a few common ones:
1. You started with no strategy.
Consumers often begin earning rewards with no plan for how they will “burn” them, Zito says. Cardholders then end up with miles and points scattered across many different airline and credit card programs.
“Haphazard earning may mean that you’ve got points but not necessarily the points you need to get to the destinations you want to go to,” she says.
2. You pay big annual fees.
Many cards that offer sign-up bonuses waive the annual fee during the first year, which can lull you into thinking the card is free. And some elite credit cards balance out the fee in year one with a huge sign-up bonus and high-end perks.
For example, if you were one of many consumers who paid $450 to snag the Chase Sapphire Reserve’s introductory 100,000-point sign-up bonus in 2016, it might be time for a rewards card recheck.
3. Your life has changed.
Maybe you decided to postpone that trip to Bora Bora with your spouse because you found out you’re expecting a baby. Or you just started a business and know it will be years before you can take a vacation.
If a plot twist in your life means you’ll need to stick closer to home for a while, it might make sense to swap that pricey travel card with perks for a simpler, cash back one that rewards you for buying diapers and filling the gas tank.
4. You lack the funds to travel.
Generating and using travel rewards requires money, in the form of annual fees, regular spending to rack up rewards and out-of-pocket costs of an award trip. Even with airfare and hotels covered, you still have to shell out for fees, meals and entertainment, says David Slotnick, a travel junkie and rewards blogger at The City Miler.
If you’ve built your rewards strategy around travel, but you’re working on paying off debt or tightening your spending to save toward a goal such as buying a house, it might be better to switch to a cash back approach, at least temporarily.
5. You just booked a trip with your rewards.
Congratulations, you reached a big rewards goal when you landed those plane tickets. Now you need to pick where to go next and alter your strategy to work toward reaching that milestone.
How to perform an rewards reset
If you’ve decided you need to hit the reset button on the way you earn rewards, experts recommend you take these steps to create a new strategy:
Set your sights on a goal.
“Start with your goal and work backward,” says Scott Grimmer, founder of MileValue.com, a miles-and-points blog about maximizing value. So decide what you want to aim for, whether it’s a romantic trip for two to Paris, a family vacation to Disney World or enough cash back to fund the holidays.
If it’s travel you want? “Define a dream trip,” Zito says.
Do initial research.
If your goal is to travel, figure out the best way to get to your destination using rewards.
“Say you want to go to India,” Slotnick says. “Play around on Google Flights and find different ways to get there.” See if there are direct flights, which airlines fly there, and which hotel chains have properties in cities you plan to visit.
Think about partner airlines and alliances, Zito says. And check rewards travel blogs for insider info on your destination so you don’t get surprised down the road by difficulty finding award seats.
One example: It can be nearly impossible to get a business class award flight from the United States to Australia, but it becomes much more doable if you have the time and flexibility to go through Hong Kong, Slotnick says. “That’s something you want to factor into a plan,” he says.
Choose the right cards.
You might need to apply for a new card as part of your retooled rewards strategy.
For example, you may decide to switch from an airline miles to a cash back card. Or if you’re planning a trip but don’t have a card that works with the airline you want to fly, you might need a co-branded airline card or a credit card that lets you transfer points to that airline.
Because big sign-up bonuses can turbocharge your earnings, bonus size should be your top consideration when looking for a new card, Clancy says. Also consider annual fee, earning ability, how many points you get per dollar spent, and which cards fit your spending patterns best.
Nix cards you no longer need.
Look at cards already in your wallet, and scrutinize those that charge annual fees.
For example, the huge sign-up bonus made it a smart move to get the Reserve, but is it still worth $450? Look at your statements and crunch the numbers based on your spending: How many more points do you earn at three points per dollar on travel and dining compared with the two you could get on another card? How much are those points actually worth?
“When looking at points, translate the word \u2018hundred’ to \u2018dollars,’” Clancy says. “If you got 400 points, that’s $4, so it’s not too much to get excited about.”
Then consider the fact that while you might have snagged two $300 travel credits in your first year, erasing the annual fee and then some, you’ll only get one $300 pass going forward. Remember that if you already got a $100 credit for your TSA Precehck application fee, you won’t need to reapply for five years, so that benefit won’t factor in your second year.
Finally, think about whether and how much you actually use any premium perks such as airport lounge access. “Maybe it sounded good, but you never get to the airport in time to use the lounges,” Clancy says.
If a card is no longer worth the fee, consider downgrading to one with no fee, rather than canceling the card, so you don’t hurt your credit score by lowering your amount of available credit. Or if you have two cards with one issuer, you might be able to roll them into one.
But watch out: Before you close an account or downgrade, make sure to use or transfer your points so you don’t lose your stash.
Set a timeline to your goal.
Look at the amount you spend each month that can be cycled through a credit card and how quickly you’ll accrue points with that spending. Factor in any sign-up bonuses you’ll have the chance to earn and figure out when you’ll realistically have enough points or miles to redeem for your desired reward.
Consider the fact that you might need to book tickets almost a year in advance depending on when your chosen airline releases its award seats. Planning will help you avoid missing out on your dream trip because you don’t have enough points or miles at the time you need to book, Slotnick says.
Plan your card use to maximize rewards.
Now that you’ve got the right cards, think about how you’ll maximize your rewards to get to your goal sooner. To track your progress, consider signing up for a tracker like TPG To Go or AwardWallet.
Multiply your points by shopping through card issuer online portals whenever you can, especially for big purchases, Slotnick says.
Set calendar alerts now to remind yourself to sign up for any rotating bonus categories on your cards. And keep an eye out for other ways to earn.
For example, Slotnick uses the United Mileage Plus X app, which lets him earn double, triple or more points per dollar in physical stores. “Say you go to the Nike store to buy pair of sneakers, and the total is $53.43,” he says. “You buy a gift card for Nike in that exact amount, and you get a bar code to scan at the checkout.”
A strategy is the surest way to get maximum points toward your desired reward. But what if you have no idea where you want to go, or you don’t feel like creating a rewards strategy? Don’t worry. You can still earn points in a smart way by sticking with a flexible card, such as one that earns Chase Ultimate Rewards, Zito says.
“Those are the easiest points to use in an earn-now-strategy-later scenario,” she says.