Finding that rewards credit card is the first step; using it to earn rewards is the second — but the real payoff comes from redeeming your rewards.
If you use rewards credit cards regularly, it’s only a matter of time before you’re ready to start redeeming your points, miles or cash back. But it can sometimes seem as challenging to redeem your rewards for their maximum value as it was to earn them in the first place.
Since different rewards programs call for different strategies, here’s a breakdown of how to redeem each type of credit card reward.
Types of credit card rewards programs
There are several types of rewards you can earn with your credit cards, including cash back, points and miles. If you’re new to rewards and keen to travel, you may be considering your first travel rewards card.
Cash back is often the easiest type of reward to redeem, but each card issuer can offer different rewards redemption options.
Points and miles are the terms most commonly used in loyalty programs, and each one will have its own rules for redeeming rewards. Airline miles are very popular, but they can be difficult to redeem for award flights at the lowest mileage levels.
Hotel points can also have their challenges, but are usually somewhat easier than airline miles. And then there are credit card points that you can redeem for a variety of rewards and sometimes transfer to airline miles or hotel points, depending on the program.
How to redeem cash back
How you redeem your cash back rewards depends on the rules of the card issuer’s program. For example, Capital One offers several cash back reward cards, and you can redeem your rewards as a check or apply the amount to your account as a statement credit.
You can request your cash back online or by using Capital One’s mobile app. In fact, you can configure your account to automatically redeem your rewards every time you earn a preset amount, starting at $25. You can also redeem your Capital One cash back for other options, including gift cards and Amazon.com purchases, but it’s important to know that your rewards can be worth more (or less) when you redeem them for those options than what you would have received as a check or statement credit.
A notable exception is the Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi. With this card, your cash back rewards are only available in February of each year in the form of a certificate. You can use your certificate to make a purchase at a Costco store, or you can visit its customer service desk to redeem for cash.
How to redeem credit card rewards points
There are many credit cards that have their own proprietary loyalty programs that issue reward points. The most popular programs include Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards. When you’re ready to redeem your rewards with these programs, you have a wide range of options, including cash back, gift cards, merchandise, travel reservations, charitable donations and credits to stores like Amazon.com.
Many of these programs also offer you the option to transfer your rewards to airline miles or hotel points with select travel partners. When you’re able to find the ideal travel partner to transfer your rewards to and redeem those points or miles for expensive flights or hotel rooms, you can receive significantly more value than you would if you’d redeemed them for cash back or other options.
How to redeem hotel points and airline miles
Hotel rewards programs and airline frequent flyer programs offer points and miles that can be confusing to redeem. With airline frequent flyer programs, it can be extremely challenging to redeem your rewards for award flights at the lowest mileage levels. That’s because the major carriers — American, Delta and United — use variable pricing systems that increasingly correspond with the cash price of new reservations.
For example, it was once easy to redeem 25,000 miles for a domestic, round trip ticket in economy, regardless of how much the ticket was selling for. But today, you could be charged more than twice as many miles for an expensive ticket or less than half the number of miles for a highly discounted ticket. Or, you might find a few tickets available at a low mileage price, but not as many as you need.
Other carriers, however, such as JetBlue and Southwest, have frequent flyer programs that have more or less fixed values for their rewards. With these programs, you can redeem your rewards for any unsold seat, and the number of points required directly correlates with the price of the ticket. This makes it simple and easy to book as many awards as you want, but you never receive more than the nominal value of your points.
To make matters more complicated, the major U.S. carriers allow you to redeem your miles on flights operated by foreign carriers, which can mean tremendous value when traveling internationally. Most airline programs also offer options to redeem your points or miles for other rewards, such as merchandise, gift cards, hotel reservations and rental cars. But these nontravel options rarely offer as much value as award flights.
When it comes to redeeming hotel rewards, you’ll often receive the most value when using your points during the peak season, when rooms are the most expensive. However, you may need to book these award stays in advance in order to find available rooms.
3 common mistakes to avoid with rewards cards
While rewards credit cards present great opportunities to earn rewards, there are a few mistakes you should take care to avoid. One or more of these blunders can quickly reduce or even erase your gains.
1. Missed or late payments
You can incur costly interest charges and fees if you make a late payment, as well as endanger your credit score. So, your first priority should be to always make your payments on time, preferably in full, to avoid interest charges.
2. Missing the sign-up bonus deadline
Another common mistake is missing out on your new account bonus by failing to meet the card’s minimum spending requirement in time. Remember, these time limits are based on the day your card was approved, not when it was shipped, received, activated or used for the first time. There’s nothing more depressing than checking that third statement on your new credit card and realizing you were $80 short of scoring the 80,000 bonus points.
3. Trading travel points for cash or merchandise
Finally, one of the biggest mistakes reward card users tend to make is redeeming travel points for cash or merchandise. These cash back or merchandise rewards sometimes offer as little as a half cent in value per point or mile redeemed, as opposed to several cents in value for premium class award flights or hotel rooms during peak season.
There are many ways to maximize your credit card rewards. Savvy credit card users know that how you redeem your rewards is as important as how you earn them. By taking the time to study each program and learn how best to redeem your rewards, you can be sure to get the most value possible from your credit card points, miles or cash back.