8 tips to maximize your credit card rewards

Do you want your credit cards to be more rewarding this year? The key is to make sure they still align with your spending habits and goals. Whether you’re a rookie or a veteran cardholder, following these eight tips can help you earn more, save more, and get more value from your rewards.

1. Take an inventory of your cards Start by evaluating the current plastic in your wallet. Have you been earning airline miles but want to switch to a more flexible cash back? No longer using the benefits of a card enough to justify your annual fee? Is the card you opened for a balance transfer offer no longer useful? The good news is that it is not necessarily stagnant. You may be able to request a “product exchange” from your card issuer. This process allows you to upgrade or downgrade to a different product within that issuer’s portfolio, for example a card with better rewards or no annual fee. The process can vary, but in most cases there is no new application and therefore there is no thorough investigation on your credit report. Often times, you keep the same account number and, as such, the same account history. All of this is beneficial to your credit scores. However, a downside to a product switch is that you are generally not eligible for the sign-up bonus on the product you switch to. (After all, you are not opening a new account.) So if you are considering a large number of bonus points, a separate application might be worth it. Still, you may want to keep your old card and account history, especially if you’re not charging an annual fee. Just be sure to use it at least a few times here and there, maybe to pay for a recurring monthly subscription. That way you will avoid having it closed due to inactivity. Request a Hold Offer After taking inventory, you may have a card that you are undecided about. Instead of getting rid of it entirely, consider looking for a hold offer, an incentive an issuer can give you to keep you as a customer. Call your issuer and tell them that you are considering canceling your card, but before you do, you would like to know if there are any hold offers available. You may be offered a statement credit, bonus points, or an annual fee reduction or waiver. Any of the above could make it worth staying. See Also: 7 Credit Card Advantages You Should Insist On This Year. However, listen to the terms carefully. There may be minimum spending requirements to qualify for the retention bonus, just like when you open a new card. Often times, if you accept the hold offer, you will be forced to keep the card open for another year. Focus on flexibility If there’s an airline, hotel chain, or retail store you’re loyal to, it may make sense to carry your co-branded credit card, given the benefits those cards can bring. But these cards also tend to lock you in their own rewards systems, meaning your points or miles can’t be used beyond that brand’s limits. However, general rewards credit cards are much more flexible. For example, if you have a card that earns Chase JPM, -1.46% Ultimate Rewards or American Express AXP points, -1.13% Membership Rewards points, you can redeem them in a number of ways. Travelers especially value these types of points because they can be used to book travel directly with the card issuer, or transferred to many different airline and hotel loyalty programs, often generating inordinate value. Tracking Your Rewards Tracking your credit card points, including knowing exactly how many you have on multiple cards, is critical to planning your reward journey. If you only know that you have “a lot” of Marriott MAR, -0.08% points, for example, you can assume it is enough to cover that anniversary trip to Paris. But you might have a rude awakening when you find that the fancy hotel you want in peak season is selling for a hefty 100,000 points a night, and your reservation was really only 150,000 points in total. See also: Keep an eye out for these credit card trends this year. Another important part of tracking points is knowing when they expire. Many travel points on general rewards credit cards do not expire as long as you have the card, but this is not always the case for hotel points and airline miles. And it can be difficult to keep track of the policies of each program. Even if it’s just on a simple spreadsheet that you update multiple times a year, tracking your points helps you set goals and make sure you can take the trip of your dreams. Know the value of your points It can be difficult to think of them this way, but points and miles are a form of currency. By starting to recognize rewards as real money, it can help you make the best redemption decisions. In some rewards systems, the points are worth an industry-standard penny each, which makes it fairly easy to determine the value of your reward pool – 100,000 points in such a system would be worth $ 1,000. The problem is that the point values ​​in many other reward systems are not concrete. They can fluctuate a lot and their value can be subjective depending on your goals. Still, with a little research, you can often find a “baseline” value, that is, the value per point that you can reasonably expect to achieve and should be striving for. Any value below that baseline is bad business, and any value you can extract beyond it is pretty good. Get in the habit of questioning redeeming your rewards before you do, too. Ask yourself, “Am I getting a good value for these points?” 6. Save more with card offers These can be easy to miss if you’re not looking for them, but many credit cards from major issuers offer unique money-saving offers with other merchants, although they are not automatic. You’ll need to log in, click to add the offer to your card, and then use the card to make a qualifying purchase at the retailer. You will then get the advertised discount, statement credit, or bonus rewards, although it may take some time for them to appear on your statement. Read next: Planning to take a cruise in Pandemic Year 2? You will not be allowed to board without a COVID-19 vaccine. There is no penalty for activating offers that you don’t end up using, so feel free to add as many of these built-in coupons to your card as you like. Stack Your Rewards One simple step before you shop online can earn you even more rewards. Instead of going directly to the retailer’s website, click on a shopping portal first. Shopping portals generally receive affiliate income for sales made through their platforms, and pass part of that income to you in the form of points or cash back. Cashback Monitor is a website that tracks the reward rates on tons of these shopping portals, showing you which one is currently paying the highest rewards at the store you want to shop at. Get out of your comfort zone As with most things in life, the easiest road is usually not the most rewarding. To take full advantage of your credit card rewards, sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone. For example, when using American Express Membership Rewards points for Amazon AMZN, purchasing + 1.27% is a breeze. The problem is, you will only get 0.7 cents of value per point that way. Instead, consider using Membership Rewards points for travel, in which case they can be worth at least a penny each and sometimes much more if you transfer them to an AmEx partner airline. In that sense, most airlines are members of an airline alliance partner program. Often times, if you do a little research and take the extra step of booking travel through an airline’s alliance partner (rather than directly with the main airline), you could get a cheaper fare and therefore keep more of your valuable miles. . More from NerdWallet Erin Hurd writes for NerdWallet. Email: ehurd@nerdwallet.com.