How Rewards Credit Cards Work
Rewards credit cards earn points or cash back every time you use the card. Some cards earn high-rate rewards on certain purchase categories, like travel or groceries. Others earn unlimited flat-rate rewards on every dollar you spend, regardless of the category.
Branded rewards cards are a great option for loyal customers because they usually offer higher rewards rates, or premium benefits. For example, the earns 2X miles per dollar spent on Delta purchases only. But cardholders also get perks like free bag checks, priority boarding, and seat upgrades.
|Earning points||Redeeming points|
Whether it’s points, miles, or cash back, high-rate rewards cards usually earn anywhere from 3% to 5% on rewards categories, and 1% on everything else. Flat-rate rewards cards generally earn 2%.
Remember that cards with rotating bonus rewards categories usually change each quarter. You will need to activate the bonus every quarter to take advantage of the higher rewards rate.
Credit card rewards points can be redeemed for a variety of things, including travel, vacation packages, gift cards, cash back, and statement credits.
It’s important to remember that not all card issuers value their points equally — and sometimes the value changes. For example, The Points Guy’s valuation puts Capital One rewards at 1 cent per point, while Chase Ultimate Rewards® are valued at 2.1 cents per point.
What are credit card rewards points?
Most cards have unique names for their rewards currency. For example, Delta calls its rewards ‘Delta Skymiles’ and American Express calls them ‘Membership Rewards.’ But regardless of what they’re called, rewards are generally redeemed for two things: travel or cash back.
With travel, we’re talking about anything from points that can be redeemed for a wide range of options around the world, to miles that can only be redeemed for airfare at a handful of airlines. Cash back options are also pretty varied. Some cards earn cash back and gift cards that you can spend at certain online retailers. There are even cards for those who want the best of both worlds.
Can I get a rewards card with bad credit?
The best rewards credit cards have the nicest features — low interest rates, lucrative rewards, and great perks. They can also be tough to get.
It usually takes a credit score of around 700 or more to qualify for cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card. (That’s considered “good” by FICO® and VantageScore, two of the major credit scoring models.)
If you’re in the process of building or repairing your credit, secured credit cards could be a better option. Unlike regular credit cards, secured cards require an upfront deposit. If you put down $500, then your credit limit will also be around $500, minus the fees.
Secured cards are easier to qualify for because secured cards are bankrolled by you, not the lender. But that doesn’t mean you’ll always be approved. If you have bankruptcy or multiple missed payments on your credit history, it might be harder to get approved — even for a secured credit card.
How many credit cards is too many?
It’s not really about how many cards you own, but how much you owe that matters most. Your credit utilization ratio is one of main factors that influences your credit score. As long as you keep it below 30% on individual cards and collectively across all cards, you avoid the risk of damaging your credit score.
Your credit utilization ratio is the percentage of your total active credit. For example, if you have a card with a $10,000 limit and a $2,000 balance, your credit utilization ratio is 20%.
What are rotating cash back categories?
For rewards credit cards that offer cash back, you may be able to receive extra cash back in certain categories during a set period of time. For instance, both the Discover it® Cash Back and the Chase Freedom® offer 5% cash back in rotating bonus categories up to the quarterly maximum each time you activate.
In order to receive this cash back bonus, you must activate the categories through your account, then spend up to a certain limit at the selected stores.
How to save more money by maximizing points and miles
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all card that delivers superior points or miles on every conceivable spending category and has the most flexible point redemption options.
Owning two or three cards is the right number to get the most points or miles and still keep the cards active (assuming you’re paying off the balances). You’ll be able to take advantage of the bonuses and ongoing rewards without major limitations.
Here are the best rewards credit cards
- Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card: Best no intro fee rewards card
- Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card: Most versatile
- Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express: Best perks
- Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Credit Card: Great all-around card
- Discover it® Cash Back: Best cash back bonus
- Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express: Best for gas & groceries
- Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card: Best Bank of America® card
- Chase Freedom®: Best cash back program
- Discover it® Miles: Great first-year bonus
- Bank of America® Cash Rewards Credit Card: Honorable mention
- Bank of America® Premium Rewards® Credit Card: Honorable mention