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The best rewards cards

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Getting started

Credit-card companies are back to stuffing your mailbox with offers for new cards, and the majority of them are for rewards cards, according to Mintel, a company that tracks direct mail. Many of them feature what issuers think consumers want during these tight economic times: more cash back and greater rewards for spending on everyday purchases like groceries.

If you’re in the market for a new rewards card, you might be able to score enhanced rewards and perks, such as introductory bonuses of cash, miles, or points. The best offers are reserved for people with the highest credit scores. "We see rewards deals getting sweeter but with the caveat that they’re only for people with good to excellent credit," said Bill Hardekopf, publisher of LowCards.com, a credit-card comparison website. "All the credit-card companies are going after the same customers." He says that a credit score in the mid-to-upper 700s would usually be needed to qualify for the best deals.

Of course, you have to read the fine print to know if any rewards card is as good as it seems. To find one that makes sense for you, weigh the rewards formulas, fees, and restrictions, along with your spending habits. But if you regularly carry a balance, rewards cards probably won’t be a good fit. They tend to carry higher interest rates than standard cards, so you could pay more in interest than you’ll earn in rewards.

We sifted through dozens of recent rewards-card offers to see how they stack up.

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Up-front bonuses

Cash bonuses of $50 to $100 just for signing up for a rewards card have become more common in the last few months, particularly from Bank of America, Chase, and Discover. These up-front rewards are typically tied to a certain level of spending within the first three to six months of receiving the card, though the amounts required aren’t prohibitively high—generally about $500 to $3,000.

Travel cards are also competing for your business with introductory bonuses. The best promotion we’ve seen in awhile was a Capital One Venture offer in 2011 to match up to 100,000 points in an airline frequent-flyer program linked to a credit card. That offer expired after Capital One reached its goal of matching a billion miles. They revived the offer in early 2012, but this time offered new customers twice as many points as they’d spent with a competing card in the prior year. So if you’d spent $20,000 on an American Airlines card, Capital One would give you $40,000 points for signing up. This type of promotion often has a short sign-up period. If you’re hoping to snag such a lucrative offer, you can learn more by monitoring websites such as FrequentFlier.com.

More typical are 30,000 or more points sign-up offers that major airlines like American and United offer for opening a card account. The value of mileage deals depends on whether the card is being offered by an airline or a bank. Airline cards have historically promoted 25,000 points as the equivalent of a round-trip domestic economy ticket. But you might have a tough time booking the trip you want for 25,000 points. That will usually get you a restricted flight, meaning you’re subject to blackout dates and airline-imposed limits on the number of seats allocated to rewards use, according to Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com.

To get the flight you want for 25,000 points, you might need to book many months in advance. Or you’ll have to book within two weeks of a flight, when airlines might make more seats available for rewards redemptions on undersold flights. You might have to use up to 50,000 points for an unrestricted flight on the exact dates you want. And of course you can only fly on that particular airline and its partners.

With travel cards offered by banks, the rewards are easier to calculate and use. Typically, 100 miles equals $1 in rewards, so 30,000 miles will buy you a $300 ticket. You book your travel however you’d like, say, through an online ticket broker such as Kayak.com so you don’t have to worry about blackout dates or capacity restrictions. After you make your reservation, you contact the card issuer to redeem your points to cover the expense.

There are variations on this formula. For example, the American Express Blue Sky travel card pays $100 in rewards for every 7,500 points earned, for an earn rate of 1.25 points per dollar spent.

Annual fees for added perks

A new trend in rewards cards is to offer two versions of the same card: one that carries an annual fee but earns a higher rate of rewards, and a no-fee version that pays a lower rate. The annual-fee versions generally offer a higher rate of rewards than no-fee versions do. For example, the no-fee Capital One VentureOne card pays 1.25 points per dollar spent. Another version, the Capital One Venture card, has a $59 annual fee (waived in the first year) and earns 2 points per dollar spent.

American Express recently introduced a "preferred" version of its Blue Sky card. It has an annual fee of $75 but each year it pays a $100 "airline allowance," which can be used for checked-baggage fees, in-flight food, drink, and entertainment, and legroom upgrades. The new card has a sign-up offer of 7,500 points, equal to $100 worth of rewards, and pays double points for dining, hotels, and car rentals.

Airline cards typically charge an annual fee, but some waive it in the first year. Some airline cards—such as those offered by United and American—provide perks like free baggage checking, that can offset the fee. And several premium travel cards, whether bank or airline, offer additional benefits, such as travel insurance, trip-delay coverage, rental-car insurance, and occasionally no foreign-transaction fees. If you travel a lot, those perks might make a premium card a better value for you, even with the annual fee.

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Maximizing your rewards

Reading the terms and conditions of rewards programs can be a headache, but doing so before you sign up can steer you away from rewards cards with spending limits, expiration dates on rewards, or other quirks that can limit your cash back or points. Most cards offer 1 percent cash back or points for standard purchases, which works out to each earned point being worth about a penny. Some rewards cards, such as the Chase Freedom and Discover More cards, pay 5 percent cash back in rotating seasonal categories. But they require that you opt in to the program each quarter.

Watch out for spending tiers, which can also limit your rewards. The Discover cards, which enticingly pay 5 percent in those rotating categories, offer only up to 1 percent in other categories. And the "up to" is operative—if you spend less than $3,000 a year you get only 0.25 percent cash back. And purchases at warehouse clubs such as Costco and Sam’s Club or discount stores such as Walmart pay only 0.25 percent cash back no matter how much you spend.

Shrinking rewards for gas

With oil prices climbing and the summer driving season just around the corner, gas prices could stay elevated for a while. Gas cards are not as rewarding as they once were, but they still might be worth a look if you drive a lot. Though several cards used to pay 5 percent back on gas, the norm is now 3 percent. One holdout is the PenFed Visa Platinum Cash-Back Rewards card, offered through the Pentagon Federal Credit Union, which still pays 5 percent back on an unlimited amount of gas purchases. Membership in PenFed is free for military members and their families; others can join by making a one-time $20 donation to the Military Families Association or $15 to Voices for America’s Troops, both nonprofit groups.

Rewards cards offered by oil companies might be worth having if you always purchase the same brand of gas. One gas card worth looking at is the ExxonMobil MasterCard, which gives you 15 cents back on each dollar you buy. At $4 a gallon, that works out to 3.75 percent back—a greater reward than most gas cards offer. Note that the reward counts as a statement credit toward future purchases at ExxonMobil stations. And watch out—the Shell, Citgo, and Phillips 66/Conoco cards carry some of the highest interest rates around at 25 percent.

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Claiming your rewards

Finding a card with a rewards formula that matches your spending habits isn’t the final step in choosing one. You should also check to see how easy it is to redeem your rewards.

Cash-back cards are often the simplest, because you can redeem rewards regularly and use the money to get the best deals on things you want to buy. With points cards, particularly airline cards, it often takes a long time to accumulate a sufficient number of points for a reward. So it’s more important to find out your points will expire.

Some credit cards let you redeem points only once a year. But last year, the American Express Blue Cash card changed its policy to allow redemptions for every $25 in points earned or $50 in cash.

Also consider your payment habits. Do you always pay on time? Some banks take away a month’s points if you miss a payment, and might charge you a reinstatement fee of $25 or so to get them back. That might be worth paying only in months when you’ve spent a lot. Discover takes away all your points if you miss two payments in a row. Setting up account alerts for due dates or arranging to have your bill automatically paid from your checking account can help you avoid losing points.

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Copyright © 2008-2012 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction in whole or in part without written permission.

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