Introduction to Rewards Credit Cards

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How do credit card points work?

Learn more about credit card points, how to redeem them and the rewards you might reap


You may redeem credit card points for a number of rewards. Find out how to make the most of your card whether it’s for cash back, travel, deals or donations.

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There are more than a thousand credit cards on the market today. Many are considered rewards cards, offering points, miles or cash back for all sorts of different categories.

You can maximize your spending if you use a certain card to buy groceries in the wintertime, or charge gas to a different card on your summer road trip. The more cards you have and the more diversified your spending, the more complicated it can get. “Who has time to figure all this out?” you might wonder. Is it really worth it?

Not everyone aspires to be a points maven, flying for free to Australia and trading points for hotel upgrades while you’re there. You can, however, make your current credit card work better for you with a little effort. Or, maybe you can find a new card that will help you get closer to your goals, whether it’s saving more money or traveling for less.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about credit card points and how to make them work for you.

What are credit card points?

Think of credit card points as a loyalty program designed to reward you for doing business with a particular merchant — only the merchant is the card issuer in this case.

“Points are an incentive for you to use the credit card,” says Kiara Martin, author of the blog Credit With Kiara.

If you have a credit card that gives you points for spending, you’ll earn points every time you charge a purchase to it. The number of points you will earn varies depending on the card.

While some cards offer cash back or miles instead of points, these can often be redeemed in the same way as points.

How are points calculated?

Generally speaking, you should earn at least one point for every $1 you spend. But cards tend to distinguish themselves by offering more points on certain types of spending. Here are a few examples:

  • The Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card* offers 5 percent cash back for every dollar spent at either Amazon or Whole Foods.
  • The Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express gives 3 percent cash back on the first $6,000 in U.S. supermarket purchases per year (then 1 percent), 3 percent cash back at U.S. gas stations (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1 percent) and 3 percent back on U.S. online retail purchases (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1 percent).
  • The Discover it® Cash Back offers quarterly bonus categories throughout the year — cardholders can earn 5 percent cash back on up to $1,500 on purchases in activated categories (then it’s 1 percent).
  • The Capital One VentureOne Rewards Card offers 5 miles per dollar spent on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, as well as 1.25 miles per dollar spent on all travel (no blackout dates).
  • Branded cards can offer even sweeter deals if you are willing to stick to that one brand. The Marriott Bonvoy Bold® Credit Card offers Bonvoy members up to 14X points on every Marriott stay.

What are credit card points worth?

Here’s the tricky thing about credit card rewards: They’re not all worth the same. The value of your points will typically depend on the card issuer, the specific card you have and even which rewards you earn and how you redeem them.

In general, each point is worth about 1 cent, and that’s typically the baseline for most cards. But some cards may offer more or less value depending on the redemption options and how the points are earned. For example, you could earn more than 2 cents per point by transferring rewards to one of your card issuer’s travel partners. Conversely, using rewards points for statement credits and online purchases (such as Amazon) often get you less than 1 cent per point in value.

Keep in mind that in general, points and miles tend to be worth more when redeemed for travel versus cash, gift cards or merchandise.

Expert tips for scoring credit card points

If you have a credit card that rewards you for spending money, you’re going to rack up points whenever you use it. But if you’re strategic, you can accrue points faster. You can accomplish this in a variety of ways, including the following:

Use the right card for the right purchases

If you’re about to order dinner from Postmates, charge it to a card that gives you extra points for restaurant purchases. That may be a different card from the one offering bonus points this fall at home improvement stores. Still, a different card may get you extra cash back at the gas station.

You don’t have to — indeed, you probably shouldn’t, if you’re being careful with your finances — own a card for every category. But if you have more than one card, pay attention to the specific rewards attached to each and use them accordingly.

Be aware of boosted redemption options

Some issuers will increase the value of your points if you redeem them in a certain way, often through the issuer’s own portal and usually for travel. The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, for example, offers card holders 25 percent more for their points when they redeem them for travel purchases through Chase Ultimate Rewards (so earning 80,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first three months, usually worth $800 is worth $1,000 in travel through the Chase portal).

Leverage sign-up bonuses

Many rewards cards offer bonus points for a minimum spend in the first few months of owning the card. If you use those bonuses strategically, you can earn big rewards on purchases you were already going to make.

“I always wait [to get a new credit card] until I have a big planned purchase,” says J.J. Haglund, a travel blogger with a family of six who pays for much of their travel with points.

He acquired his latest credit card right before he purchased a backyard playset for his kids and the big expense took care of the bonus requirement. Still, he says, “I’m only using my credit cards for things I would buy anyway.”

Don’t forget about referrals

Issuers want you to spread the word about their cards and referral incentives by offering cash or point bonuses. You can generally earn up to $500 cash back or up to 100,000 points by maxing out your refer-a-friend options with your issuer.

“I love referrals,” Haglund says. He saw recently that one of his airline credit cards was offering a sizable referral bonus. He put a link to the card on his blog and got a few referrals out of it — enough, he says, to pay for a couple of free flights on the airline.

What can you do with credit card points?

Think of credit card points as bonus money. You can cash them in to pad your bank account or use them toward online purchases. You can even use them to make charitable donations.

Making vacations cheaper

Paying for travel, such as airfare, is one of the most popular ways to use credit card points and can often deliver higher redemption value per point, depending on your issuer.

Haglund and his wife once decided that they wanted to kick off the new year at Disney World. Thanks to their miles, though, they only had to pay for one round-trip ticket from Utah to Florida. In 2019, they also used points to finance a trip to Hawaii, paying for four of their six nights at a Marriott resort, as well as all their flights.

“Knowing how each program works, who the partners are, who the alliances are … that’s a complex game, but there are these goldmines,” says R. J. Weiss, a certified financial planner and founder of personal finance site The Ways to Wealth.

Weiss recently flew his family for free from Chicago to Florida to see his parents. He funneled his points to American Airlines via British Airways, where he was able to purchase American tickets for 7,500 points each way.

Cash back

Cash back credit cards allow cardholders to use their points as money, either as a statement credit toward the credit card bill, or as a check issued by the card issuer.

Many American Express cards allow users to convert points into statement credits. Chase cardholders can use their Chase Ultimate Rewards points as statement credits or have the card issuer deposit the money into their bank accounts.

Gift cards and online purchases

Card issuers will often run promotions that involve trading points for gift cards or using points to make purchases at merchants through the card issuer’s portal. If you choose to do this, Weiss says, be sure the deal you’re getting is at least as good as if you used the points for cash back or a statement credit.

Charitable donations

Some card issuers will allow you to use points as donations. Some Chase cardholders can use their points as statement credits to pay for charitable donations. Amex allows its cardholders to sign up for a program called JustGiving. They can then use their points as a statement credit toward a donation.

How do you redeem credit card points?

Each card issuer has an online portal where you can sign in to redeem your points, whether that’s for cash back, a statement credit, travel or another type of reward. Weiss recommends researching your options before you redeem your points: “Make sure you are indeed getting good value.”

Do credit card points expire?

The answer depends on your issuer. Some require you to have some activity on the card, whether that’s spending or redeeming a portion of your points, within a certain time period. This tends to be true for branded airline and hotel cards. Most credit card issuers offer points that don’t expire as long as the account is open.

How do you pick which rewards credit card is right for you?

Start small. Dip one toe in the water and see how it feels.

“Don’t start with a whole bunch of new credit cards,” Martin says. “Think: What do you need right now?”

Also, be aware that the better the rewards, the higher the credit score you will likely need to get approved for that card. And better rewards also often come with higher annual fees, sometimes ranging into hundreds of dollars a year.

So consider what would be helpful to your life, and balance that against what you can afford. Then, once you get your new rewards card, don’t spend just for the sake of accruing more points.

“Credit cards can start off as something amazing,” Martin says, “but if you’re not careful, you can find yourself overwhelmed and drowning in debt.”

Beyond those cautions, experts advise asking yourself what you’re trying to achieve with a rewards card. “People should start with what is the experience they are trying to have, and then reverse-engineer how they can use points for that,” Weiss says.

And value is in the eye of the beholder.

“The person who is the clear winner,” Weiss says, “is the one who is having the experience they want to have, and is doing that with points.”

Bottom line

Credit card points allow you to earn rewards you can redeem for gift cards, miles, purchases, charitable donations or cash back. Some cards make it easier and faster to earn points in certain categories than others.

This does not, however, imply that you must have a number of cards to benefit or earn points. Understanding how credit card points work, their value and your spending habits can help you in selecting the best credit card points for you.

All information about theAmazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card has been collected independently by and has not been reviewed or approved by the issuer.

Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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