[Update: Some offers mentioned below have expired. For current terms and conditions, please see card agreements.]
There is a lot to love about credit card rewards. Cardholders earn points, miles, and cash back that that can be used for award travel or other valuable benefits. And other than annual fees, these rewards can be earned without any cost when cardholders avoid interest by paying their balances in full.
But many cardholders fail to appreciate that how they spend their rewards is at least as important as how they earn them. When you consider spending your hard-earned points and miles you should never do the following six things if you want to make the most of your plastic points.
1. Redeem points or miles for merchandise awards. Nearly every airline, hotel and bank rewards program has merchandise awards available. The products range from kitchen gadgets to high-end electronics, but there is one thing they almost all have in common –they are a terrible value.
Merchandise awards typically return only one cent in value for each point or mile spent, and that is only if you consider the product’s full retail price. In fact, cardholders are getting less than one cent in value for their points and miles when they likely could have purchased the items at a discount and received additional rewards from using their credit card for the transaction. In contrast, these points and miles can be worth several cents each when used for expensive last-minute flights and luxury travel.
2. Redeem rewards for statement credits. Cash is valuable, but many reward programs offer minimal value when used for statement credits. For example, Chase’s Sapphire Preferred and Ink Bold cardholders can redeem their Ultimate Rewards points for just one cent each as statement credits. But those same points are worth 1.25 cents towards travel reservations booked through Chase, or even more when transferred to points or miles with any of 10 different travel partners. Worse, American Express’s Membership rewards terms and conditions state that 20,000 points are necessary for a $100 statement credit, so cardmembers who choose this option only receive a half a cent in value for each of their points.
3. Allow points or miles to expire. There is nothing as devastating as attempting to redeem valuable points or miles only to learn that they have expired. Every airline and hotel program has its own rules, but retaining a co-branded credit card will usually keep the account active.
[Credit Cards: Research and compare rewards credit cards at Credit.com]
4. Lose rewards by canceling your credit card. Thankfully, points in bank-operated loyalty programs don’t expire the way airline and hotel points and miles can. Nevertheless, cardholders need to be aware that unclaimed rewards typically disappear when the account is closed. So if you are ready to cancel your credit card, make sure to redeem all of your points first.
5. Forfeit rewards by not keeping your account in good standing. In the fine print of most credit card agreements is a clause that allows the bank to withhold rewards when customers fail to make payments on time. So, in addition to incurring late fees, a penalty APR and damaged credit, cardholders can also lose reward points and miles when they miss payments.
[Related Article: The First Thing to Do Before Applying for a Credit Card]
6. Donate points and miles to charity. It is commendable to donate to charity, but our tax laws make it unwise to use points and miles to do so. Since you did not pay for credit card rewards, the IRS does not consider their donation to be tax deductible. Instead, use your points and miles for the most valuable rewards possible and donate the money you saved to the charity of your choice. In this way, you can still claim the deduction, and your tax savings will allow you to donate even more.
Credit card rewards can be simple to earn, but complicated to spend. By understanding how to avoid these pitfalls, cardholders can focus on finding the most rewarding uses for their points and miles.
Image: Thomas Northcut