Guide to Choosing a Rewards Credit Card

By Emma Diehl · June 12, 2024 · 10 minute read

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Guide to Choosing a Rewards Credit Card

A rewards credit card allows cardholders to earn incentives for purchases they already make. While the potential rewards credit card benefits are apparent, maximizing these benefits requires determining which rewards credit card is best for you. That’s because different rewards credit cards offer different types of rewards and have varying criteria for how to earn them.

Read on to learn more about how these cards work and how to choose a rewards credit card that suits your spending habits.

What Is a Rewards Credit Card?

A rewards credit card offers cardholders bonuses based on their spending. Bonuses can come in many forms, including airline miles, cash back, or points.

The benefits of a rewards credit card will vary based on the card type. For instance, one cash back credit card may offer a flat percentage back on all purchases, while another may offer higher rates in certain categories, such as gas or groceries, and a lower rate across other areas. Meanwhile, another rewards credit card could offer cardholders one or two points for every dollar they spend using the card, which they could then redeem for airline tickets or hotel stays.

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How Rewards Credit Cards Work

Rewards credit cards operate similarly to how credit cards work traditionally, with the bonus of rewards earned based on spending. These cards offer access to a revolving line of credit that cardholders can use to make payments. Cardholders can use the card to make purchases as long as they stay under their credit limit.

When the cardholder makes a payment by their credit card due date, their revolving credit is restored for the amount of their payment.

Where rewards credit cards differ from other types of credit cards is that a portion of each purchase will go toward the card’s designated bonus, whether that’s cash back rewards or points to use for a hotel stay. Card issuers pay out rewards on a specific term, such as by billing period, on a monthly cycle, or based on spending. Once the rewards hit the user’s account, they can redeem them.

There are a number of ways that cardholders can redeem the credit card rewards they earn. This could include as a statement credit, for merchandise or gift cards, for stays at hotels and resorts, toward airline tickets, as a direct deposit to a bank account, or in the form of a check mailed to the cardholder.

Types of Credit Card Rewards Programs

Rewards credit cards break down into six broad categories based on the earning and redemption processes.

Cash Back

With cash back rewards cards, users get a percentage of “cash back” on every purchase made with their card. Cash back rewards rates are typically around 1% to 2% of every purchase, but some cards may offer higher returns based on the spending category.

Cardholders can redeem cash back rewards in several ways, including as:

•   A credit against the card’s balance

•   Gift cards from select retailers

•   Donations to charity

•   A check sent by mail or direct deposit

Travel Rewards

Credit card issuers also offer general travel cards, where cardholders can earn points or miles through their spending that they can then put toward all manner of travel expenses. This could include everything from car rentals to hotels to flights, effectively allowing the cardholder to use credit card rewards to travel for less.

Typically, general travel cards offer points or miles on any purchase, often at a rate of 1 or 2 miles or points per dollar spent. However, general travel rewards cards may offer 2x or 3x points on specific spending categories, such as dining out or travel.

With general travel cards, users can typically redeem points through the issuer’s booking platform or transfer the value to a partner. Unlike co-branded cards that may restrict where cardholders can redeem their points, general travel cards usually allow redemption at a variety of airlines or hotels.

Points

Credit cards that offer rewards points can provide access to a variety of rewards, including options for cash back or travel redemption. Generally, a base rate of 1 point per dollar spent is offered.

However, the value of points can vary depending on the card issuer and how the cardholder redeems their points. Reward point cards could be redeemed for gift cards, travel, donations, or cash, depending on the issuer.

Gas

Gas cards help users save money on filling up the tank. Typically, these cards only offer rewards or redemptions for purchasing gas at a gas station. A cardholder could redeem their rewards as a statement credit or a discount at the pump.

Hotel or Airline

Hotel and airline-branded credit cards reward users when they spend with a particular company. For instance, booking nights at the same hotel brand could earn a cardholder points, bumping up their status, or give them access to room upgrades or a free night’s stay.

Similarly, airline credit cards reward users for traveling on their airline. They also can include opportunities for status upgrades, and being a loyal airline traveler could lead to receiving perks like lounge access in the airport or free bag check.

Retail

Retail credit cards is a broad designation that encompasses any credit card reward tied to a specific retailer or store. Rewards vary based on the card issuer and the store. However, they could include point-of-sale discounts with every purchase or the chance to earn points to use toward discounts and gift cards at the store.

Factors to Consider When Comparing Rewards Credit Cards

There’s a wide range of reward programs to take advantage of, and the policies of these programs vary from credit card issuer to issuer. This is why it’s important to take the time to compare rewards credit cards. Before applying for any rewards card, it’s worth looking at each of the following factors.

Annual Fees

Some rewards credit cards include an annual fee. This fee could be as low as $50, while other cards’ annual fees may soar into the thousands of dollars a year for super premium cards.

It’s important to consider whether the rewards you earn from the card will offset the cost of a credit card’s annual fee. Depending on how often someone uses the card, and how frequently they redeem rewards, they could determine that the fee is worth it.

Additionally, it’s worth looking into whether the card offers a lucrative opening bonus offer that essentially cancels out the annual fee, at least for the first year.

Interest Rates

Interest rate, or annual percentage rate (APR), is the amount of interest a person will pay on the money they borrow from the credit card issuer. If the credit card holder carries a balance month to month, they may owe interest charges on their outstanding balance.

Currently, the average APR is around 22%, though APRs on rewards cards tend to be on the higher end. A high APR on a credit card could translate to steep interest charges if the cardholder carries a balance. As such, keep an eye on the interest rate when comparing cards.

Tiered vs Fixed Rewards

Tiered vs. fixed refers to the way the card structures its rewards, which is another important consideration to keep in mind.

With tiered rewards, a credit card offers different points or values based on the category of purchase. For example, a travel card may offer more points for a travel-related purchase as opposed to groceries.

Fixed rewards, on the other hand, offer the same rate for every purchase. An example of this is a cash back rewards card that gives cardholders 2% cash back on every purchase, no matter the spending category.

The type of rewards structure that’s right for you will depend on your spending habits. If you know you spend mostly in one category, you could find that a tiered rewards card that prioritizes that category is the right fit. But if your spending doesn’t align with the highest rewards categories, fixed rewards may pay off more.

Cashback Rewards Caps

When researching cash back rewards cards, keep an eye on the fine print around rewards caps. Some cards may cap redemption after a certain amount of spending.

For example, it may offer 3% cash back on purchases up to a certain dollar value, then only offer 1% once the cardholder hits that amount.

If you’re between two cards, the one with the higher cap — or better yet, no cap at all — could help you determine which one will win out.

Guide to Choosing the Best Rewards Credit Card for You

While no two cardholders are the same, many can approach the search for the perfect card by considering the same factors.

Analyzing Your Spending Habits

Where or what a person spends the most on will directly impact which rewards card is the best fit for them.

Here’s an example of how that would play out in the decision between credit card miles or cash back rewards. If someone prioritizes travel and lives near an airport that’s a central hub for one particular airline, they may choose to get an airline credit card that rewards their travel spending with airline miles for future flights.

However, if someone travels very little, they may benefit more from earning cash back on their everyday spending rather than airline miles.

To figure out where you spend the most, look at your credit card and bank statements from the last quarter. Whichever spending category comes up the most may be the best fit for a rewards card. On the other hand, if there are no clear patterns, a standard cash back card may be the right fit.

Checking Your Credit Score

Checking their credit score may give credit card applicants a healthy dose of reality. Most rewards credit cards require a good or excellent credit score, which means a score of 670 or above. Those with a credit score lower than 670 may not be able to qualify for a rewards credit card.

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Pros and Cons of Rewards Credit Cards

Credit card rewards may sound too good to be true, and in some ways, they are. Here are some rewards credit card benefits and drawbacks:

Pros of Rewards Credit Cards Cons of Rewards Credit Cards
Rewards for everyday spending Often charge annual fees
Opportunity to earn more in certain categories, depending on the card Tend to have a higher APR
May come with additional perks like travel insurance or free credit monitoring Generally require a high credit score to qualify

Making the Most of Your Rewards Card

Ready to reward regular spending? Keep these final tips in mind make the most of your rewards credit card:

•   Spend within your means. It may feel tempting to overspend when every purchase means more points, but overspending can lead to debt, interest charges, and even a negative impact on credit score.

•   Aim to snag the bonus. Most rewards credit cards offer an introductory bonus when the cardholder hits a certain spending threshold within a specified period. Plan purchases strategically to hit this bonus.

•   Plan card opening around large purchases. Planning a wedding, buying a house, or making a large purchase? It may be the perfect time to open a new card, as a few large charges could mean hitting the bonus.

•   Use rewards wisely. Rewards are only really redeemed when they’re spent. Take time to read up on the fine print around redemption, as there’s often a strategy associated with getting the best value out of card rewards. That may mean redeeming them for a gift card of the highest conversion rate or booking travel through the card issuer’s platform to make miles stretch further.

The Takeaway

Rewards credit card benefits can make them very enticing for many credit card holders. However, consider a card with benefits that “pay” for themselves, meaning the benefits fit within the cardholder’s lifestyle and suit their existing spending habits. A card with a high annual fee and rarely used benefits likely isn’t worth someone’s time or money.

Whether you're looking to build credit, apply for a new credit card, or save money with the cards you have, it's important to understand the options that are best for you. Learn more about credit cards by exploring this credit card guide.

FAQ

What are the benefits of having a rewards credit card?

The main rewards credit card benefit is earning rewards — whether points, miles, or cash back — from everyday spending. Rewards credit cards can also offer additional perks, such as free credit monitoring, travel insurance, and purchase protection.

Are credit card rewards taxable?

In most cases, credit card rewards are not taxable, as they’re considered rebates or discounts. However, if a credit card reward is given without the user doing any spending to earn it, then those rewards may be considered taxable income.

What credit score do I need to get a rewards credit card?

Most rewards credit cards require a good or excellent credit score in order to qualify. This is typically 670 or higher.

What can I do with credit card rewards?

You can redeem credit card rewards for cash, statement credits, hotel and airline bookings, store discounts, or gift cards. Ultimately, what you’re able to do with your credit card rewards will depend on the type of card you have.


Photo credit: iStock/Hiraman

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

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