RE­WARD Tips for YOUR­SELF mak­ing loy­alty and points pro­grams work

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Success - By Emily Rosen­baum

Loy­alty pro­grams and re­wards credit cards have their own rules, points sys­tems and fine print, and some seem to in­ten­tion­ally be con­fus­ing.

Per­haps you signed up for a loy­alty pro­gram at a ho­tel chain you fre­quent, but you have trou­ble keep­ing track of your points and how to use them. Maybe you got a re­wards credit card and you have enough points for a free flight, but then you hit blackout dates. You may start won­der­ing if it’s worth the has­sle.

Re­wards pro­grams can be ben­e­fi­cial, how­ever, if you are will­ing to spend a lit­tle time and em­ploy some tips to get the most out of them.

Think about what you want

Do you live for an up­grade to a ritzier room? In­ter­ested in a free flight or the use of the mem­ber lounge at the air­port? Think about what you want and then do a lit­tle on­line re­search. Wal­letHub.com and ThePointsGuy.com have com­pre­hen­sive lists of the best re­wards pro­grams out there based on var­i­ous cri­te­ria.

Opt­ing for a sim­ple cash-back credit card or a travel one with no blackout dates or for­eign trans­ac­tion fees may be the smart move for you. There also are credit cards with miles that never ex­pire and that al­low you to trans­fer travel points to other pro­grams, in­clud­ing South­west Air­lines Rapid Re­wards and the Mar­riott and Hy­att loy­alty pro­grams.

Sign up for pro­grams you ac­tu­ally will use

If you en­joy stay­ing at Mar­riott ho­tels, for in­stance, then it makes sense to be a mem­ber of the Star­wood Pre­ferred Guest pro­gram, which of­fers sev­eral ben­e­fits when you stay at any Star­wood ho­tel. Star­wood, Wyn­d­ham Re­wards and other pro­grams also of­fer credit cards that earn you bonus points you can use for travel.

If you are a big fan of cruises, then opt for a re­wards pro­gram from a spe­cific cruise line you en­joy.

Think about where you live

In­ter­ested in a co-branded air­line credit card? There are many out there with vary­ing points sys­tems and bonuses, but the most im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion might be where you live. If your lo­cal air­port is dom­i­nated by an air­line, such as United in Hous­ton, then that air­line’s card is prob­a­bly your best bet.

Other air­ports, such as O’Hare in Chicago, are served by many ma­jor air­lines, so you can choose be­tween sev­eral cards.

Read the fine print

What will the points get you and how can you use them? Do you get the most bang for your buck when you use points for travel or cash back? Are there blackout dates? How quickly do points ex­pire? Is there an an­nual fee for the credit card af­ter the first year? What’s the APR? Read all the fine print and de­cide if the pro­gram or card is right for you.

It makes sense to have only one or two credit cards to make it eas­ier to pile up your points. That also will help keep you from charg­ing too much.

Make sure you are get­ting a good deal

It’s easy to get hooked on the idea of get­ting some­thing for noth­ing, but you still are spend­ing money. It’s a trans­ac­tion, so be smart about it. If book­ing a do­mes­tic flight will get you heaps of miles to­ward an over­seas flight you have been sa­vor­ing, then go for it.

Al­ways pay off your bal­ance each month to avoid in­ter­est charges that could end up negat­ing the re­wards you got for your card pur­chases.

Keep track of ev­ery­thing

If you have mul­ti­ple loy­alty ac­counts and have trou­ble jug­gling all the de­tails, try AwardWal­let.com. It al­lows you to add and track your ac­count bal­ances for more than 600 loy­alty pro­grams, in­clud­ing Am­trak, Ama­zon, KLM, Kayak, Wal­greens, Petco, Hil­ton and Royal Caribbean. Ac­cord­ing to the Award Wal­let site, at least 20 per­cent of all fre­quent-flier miles never get re­deemed.

The ba­sic ser­vice is free and you can get alerts when points or re­wards are about to ex­pire.

Look into din­ing pro­grams

Din­ing pro­grams are an easy way to dou­ble your plea­sure be­cause you rack up re­wards for pay­ing with a spe­cific credit card and get ex­tra points when you eat at a par­tic­i­pat­ing restau­rant.

If you have a card that slides you bonus points on din­ing, such as Chase Sap­phire Pre­ferred, you can en­roll in an air­line’s din­ing pro­gram and pay with your reg­is­tered card. Sev­eral ma­jor air­lines and ho­tels also have din­ing pro­grams that are linked to their loy­alty pro­grams and co-branded credit cards.

Use the shop­ping por­tals

It doesn’t make sense to go to a re­tailer’s web­site if you can earn re­wards through a credit card, air­line or ho­tel’s shop­ping por­tal.

Mem­bers can scroll through an on­line mileage mall, such as AAd­van­tage eShop­ping mall, and get points or miles for what they spend. Those miles or points can be in ad­di­tion to the re­wards earned for us­ing the credit card.

Re­deem your points

This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to for­get what you’ve earned, es­pe­cially if the com­pany isn’t alert­ing you or you have no idea what you can earn.

You may have racked up points on a credit card and not be aware that you can get cash back or a gift card to Tar­get, L.L. Bean, Macy’s or an­other fa­vorite store. Re­deem those points.

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