Sign-up bonuses: How to score big rewards

Banks frown on 'churning,' but you can still earn a heap of points with a new card

Tony Mecia
Personal finance writer
Rewards expert who writes the "Cashing In" reader Q&A column for

Some small businesses using rewards to retain workers

When it comes to reward credit cards, “churning” can often sound like a bad word. It implies aggressively signing up for credit cards, then canceling them, then repeating the process. 

Yet card issuers know that consumers are highly motivated by robust sign-up offers – that’s why they offer them. And you shouldn’t hang onto a card if you find it no longer meets your needs. 

So, on the one hand, card issuers have put in restrictions to discourage people from signing up for repeated sign-up offers, such as by limiting the number of cards they will approve and prohibiting earning the same offer on the same card. 

On the other, issuers keep offering high sign-up bonuses to encourage people to get and use their cards. 

So what are you to do? Here are some strategies for making the most of those big sign-up bonuses on rewards cards: 

Compare different sign-up offers

The size of sign-up bonuses has risen over the years, with many reward cards offering 30,000 or 40,000 points or more after spending a few thousand dollars over several months. 

Some business card sign-up offers dangle an even bigger bonus, like the American Express Business Platinum card (100,000 points) and the Chase Ink Business cards (up to 80,000 points). 

To compare offers, there is a lot of information available on issuers’ websites, and in addition, has a number of different resources to help you choose the right credit card, including CardMatch and a listing of top rewards credit cards

See related: Cards offering the best sign-up bonuses

Understand how points work

Reward programs work differently depending on the type of card and even the flexibility of points. 

If you earn 50,000 frequent flyer miles on an airline card, for example, you might have more difficulty using those than 50,000 points than if you banked points in the Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express Membership Rewards programs, which are more flexible. 

And Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards points – and even airline miles – are usually more valuable than 50,000 hotel points, as hotel points tend to have less value than the same number of points in other programs. 

Make sure you will use the points

If you don’t travel much and have no interest in travel, it probably doesn’t make sense to load up on sign-up bonuses for travel. 

Likewise, if a certain airline doesn’t fly to your city, you should avoid a credit card linked to that airline. 

Think about how you will use the points before pursuing them. 

Know issuer restrictions

Card issuers have cracked down in recent years on repeated sign-up bonuses.

The most well-known restriction is Chase’s 5/24 rule, which says that Chase will not approve cards for people who have received five cards from any combination of issuers in the previous 24 months, with some exceptions. 

Other companies, such as American Express, have limited the number of sign-up bonuses to once per lifetime on the same card. 

These restrictions mean you should choose reward cards wisely. 

See related: Issuer restrictions on sign-up bonuses

Consider annual fees

A lot of rewards cards waive annual fees for the first year. 

Other credit cards, particularly the most expensive reward cards at around $450 a year, do not waive their annual fee. 

Weighing the cost of the annual fee is an important factor to consider before signing up for a credit card, because the annual fee can eat into the value of your rewards. 

Make sure you can pay off your card

Don’t sign up for cards in at attempt to gain rewards if you cannot pay off your balance each month or cannot pay on time. 

“Churning” doesn’t have to be a dirty word. If you are not receiving value from a card, and the card is costing you money, then you should cancel it. (But first, make sure you won’t lose your points.) 

There is no limit to the number of cards you can have at once, but don’t sign up for more cards than you are comfortable managing – making sure you pay off all of your cards every month. 

You don’t have to be a serial credit card applicant to enjoy the rewards from these large sign-up bonuses.

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Updated: 03-21-2019