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Smart Money Podcast – Saving Money with Credit Card Rewards Points: Travel, Cash Back and More


Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions. In this episode:

Get answers to common questions that will allow you to maximize your credit card rewards points and avoid common point planning pitfalls with our Nerdy expert tips.

How can you travel more while spending less? How could changes in airline loyalty programs affect your travel plans? What are the benefits of co-branded airline or hotel credit cards versus flexible rewards cards? NerdWallet’s Sean Pyles and Erin Hurd dive deep into credit card rewards points, addressing a range of topics that will resonate with anyone eager to maximize their credit card points and travel perks. They discuss recent changes in airline loyalty programs, including Delta and Alaska Airlines, and explore the advantages and drawbacks of co-branded airline or hotel credit cards and the benefits of using flexible rewards cards.

They also present strategies for maximizing credit card sign-up bonuses while avoiding common mistakes that can lead to fewer rewards, and offer tips for how you can track and manage credit card points and perks. Sean and Erin also explain the pitfalls of carrying a balance on travel credit cards, the implications of credit card fees and surcharges at local stores, potential industry changes, such as interest rates and fee structures, and the potential impact of the Credit Card Competition Act on rewards programs.

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Episode transcript

This transcript was generated from podcast audio by an AI tool.

Airline points, restaurant points, retail points, rental car points, hotel points, points, points, points, points, points. Wrap them all up in credit cards and sometimes it can be head spinning.

My guidance is generally pretty similar for most people, even if they have pretty different travel goals, and that all really goes back to the idea of just earning flexible points. If you have a stash of flexible points that aren’t locked into any one travel brand, you have a lot of options.

Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money Podcast. I’m Sean Pyles.

This is the final episode of our nerdy deep dive into your money in 2024. Erin, we’re almost a month in, so how is your 2024 going so far?

So far, so good. I can’t believe we’re already into 2024, but all is going well.

It’s been alright so far. I’m just glad the days are getting longer at this point, however slowly. So, Erin, we’ve brought you back onto the show because you are a nerdy points pro. How did you come to be so interested in credit card points programs and do you have a degree in complex mathematical equations? Because sometimes it seems like you need one to figure out how to use all of these.

That sounds like it could be true, but actually it’s quite the opposite. I majored in English and math was always my least favorite subject. I’ve always been a deal seeker. I’m always looking for sales, I’m finding coupons, I’m figuring out how to get more, but how to pay less for it. So my husband and I have always loved to travel and I started dabbling in points and miles many years ago to help defray our travel costs so that we could travel more. But I really fell down the rabbit hole with the points and miles when we grew our family, and now we needed four seats on the airplane and in some circumstances, we need two hotel rooms for our family of four. So that’s when I really got serious about earning enough points and miles so that our family could travel more than just to the local campground, because that’s all that I would be willing to pay for.

Yeah. And when you’re wrangling kids, I’m sure you don’t want to spend time doing math, but the good news is nobody needs a math degree because all they have to do is go to the NerdWallet site, poke around with our very handy calculators, and all will be revealed. But let’s give everyone a rundown of things they might want to think about when managing their credit card points. Now, would you say that the start of a new year is a good time for listeners to take stock of where they are with their points programs? Or is that something they should be monitoring all year round?

Great question. Well, in a perfect world, ideally you do want to be giving your points some attention more than once a year, especially if you’re trying to save them up to take a big trip, because the amount of points that you’ll need for that trip can fluctuate. Often it requires more than you think that you’ll need and it can take time to earn those points and then to find great redemptions for them. But don’t fear, it’s never too late, so the new year is a fantastic time to check in if you haven’t been already.

Well, we are going to give everyone a head start by taking a look at what we can expect from 2024 in Point Land. But before we get started, a reminder that we always want to hear what you think, too, listeners. To share your ideas, questions, concerns around credit card points, or anything else, leave us a voicemail or text the Nerd hotline at (901) 730-6373. That’s (901) 730-NERD, or email a voice memo to [email protected]. Stay with us. We’re back in a moment with the future year in credit card points.

So Erin, let’s start with a look back at last year in Point Land and see if there are some lessons that we can learn from 2023 to take into this year. And before we get too deep into the conversation, I want to flag that we are going to mention some companies that are NerdWallet partners, but that does not influence the way that we talk about them. So, Erin, in this conversation, we’re mostly going to focus on maximizing credit card points, but I want to briefly touch on the fact that at least two of the major airlines, Delta and Alaska, changed their point reward systems toward the end of last year. What did that mean for flyers and were there any kind of bigger messages about point systems that came out of that?

Yeah, those were big headlines in the travel world. Now, they were pretty different in scope. Delta changed the requirements to earn elite status in future years, this won’t actually take effect just yet, but they also put limits on some of the benefits that credit card holders can use, like airport lounge access.

Now Alaska, on the other hand, made big changes to its award chart and an award chart is what determines the number of miles you’ll need to pay for a ticket. But these are both examples of a bigger takeaway that we see over and over again, and that is that you should never have all your proverbial eggs or points in one basket. So what I mean by that is that even if you fly a certain airline often because that’s what serves your home airport, having only a credit card that earns points or miles for that one brand really limits your options. The truth is that, unfortunately, travel loyalty programs change or get devalued relatively often and sometimes with little to no notice. So that means if you’ve racked up a nice chunk of say, Alaska miles for an upcoming trip, but they suddenly change their award chart, as they just did, and decide that the flight you want to book will now cost double the miles, you’re pretty hamstrung if all you’ve got is a chunk of Alaska miles.

Yeah, having multiple different cards from different brands is a way of having credit card dollar cost averaging in a way, where you’re spreading your risk across different kinds of products. So, that is one way to offset the ups and downs of what these companies are doing. But I can see these changes making some folks wary of using these cards that are co-branded with an airline or hotel. Do you still think they’re worthwhile given recent changes?

I do. For travelers, carrying a co-branded airline or hotel credit card, it can be really beneficial for certain perks. Some of the airline cards, for example, will give you free checked bags for you and sometimes, depending on the card, up to eight traveling companions every time you fly. So, that can add up to a huge value if you’re flying relatively often, even if you’re flying a couple times a year and you’re checking a bag, that can make it worth it. And especially because you’ll earn, generally, a welcome bonus when you open up the card.

But I advise leaning more on what we call flexible rewards credit cards, and they can give you a lot more options for your travel, plus they often earn more rewards on everyday purchases.

Can you tell us what you mean by flexible points? How do they work and how do you earn them?

Oh, sure. As the term suggests, they are flexible. So, there’s a number of credit cards that have their own travel points. Instead of earning Delta miles or Alaska miles or Marriott points, for example, there are several Chase cards that earn points called Ultimate Rewards. There are many different American Express cards that earn something called Membership Rewards. There’s City Thank You points, ect. And the beauty of these flexible points is that they can be used to book all kinds of travel, not just a Delta flight or not just an Alaska flight.

So generally, these credit card issuers have their own travel portal and you can book your travel there and pay directly with your points and you don’t have to involve any cash. And many of these programs also allow you to transfer those points to certain airline and hotel travel partners, usually at a one-to-one ratio, which is great because often you can get more value from your points when you transfer them to the airline or the hotel and book directly. But really, the biggest benefit is just having so much more flexibility. So instead of being locked into a Delta flight, like you probably would be if you only had a Delta miles earning credit card, flexible points just give you lots of options.

Okay. Well let’s get to cards. First, anything from last year stand out to you? Any program changes you saw that were worth paying attention to or new ways to use them?

Yeah. Well, the good news is that we’re still seeing some pretty juicy bonuses offered for new card holders who sign up for a card and meet certain spending requirements in the first few months. And we’re excited that those seem to be sticking around. Years ago, it used to be that a credit card welcome bonus of around 30,000 or 40,000 points was really generous, but over time those numbers have crept up and up, and it became not uncommon to see bonuses of 60,000 points or 80,000 points or even 100,000 points offered to new cardholders.

Now, that trend continued throughout COVID, even when people weren’t traveling as much, the banks kept offering big bonuses to keep travel credit cards interesting. And we’ve been wondering, all this time, if we’d start to see the bonuses start to shrink back down as people return to travel, as inflation and recession fears crept in. But the good news is we have not seen that happen so far. Right now, there are several six figure welcome bonuses out there for various travel credit cards and welcome bonuses are an important part of the travel credit card strategy for a lot of people.

Now, I don’t open credit cards just for the welcome bonus. I don’t advise doing that, but I also know that I’ll earn more rewards from that bonus than I probably will from a year or more of regular spending on that card. So it’s definitely a factor.

Yeah. And these signup bonuses are often folks’ best chance at getting a huge amount of points since points can take a long time to accrue through daily purchases alone. And we’ve also seen new ways to use rewards, right? What’s the latest on that front?

As far as new ways to use rewards, we’ve seen a steady stream of options evolving to use your points to pay for merchandise at various stores. At Amazon, for example, when you check out, you may have noticed you have the option to pay using several different kinds of points, credit card points. It makes it really easy and it can feel like you’re getting stuff for free if you’re using points instead of actually charging your card or paying cash. But really be careful because the downside is that you’re often getting poor value for your points when you use them this way. You’re paying for convenience and they’re betting on people not really understanding or questioning the value of the points.

So for example, if you use Chase Ultimate Rewards at Amazon to check out, they’re worth 0.8 cents each, but those same points can be worth up to 1.5 cents each when you use them to book travel through Chase, depending on which card you have, or often even more than 1.5 cents each if you transfer them to travel partners.

Wow, that breakdown is really eye opening. I’ve seen that at Amazon checkout and I’ve been a little tempted to use my points in that context, but after that, I definitely won’t be doing so. So, thank you for that. So Erin, I think one of the most common questions people have is how to know which card and point program is not only best in class, but best for them and their specific situation. So, if you’re looking to maximize points, how do you figure out which card to get in the first place?

Yeah, it’s a great question and there are so many options, and I know it can be really overwhelming for people who aren’t immersed in credit cards all day long like we are here at NerdWallet. And it may seem like there are many different factors, maybe you think it’s going to be different if you want to use points for travel, which airlines are most convenient for you? What style of travel do you enjoy? What kind of trips are you planning for? But really my guidance is generally pretty similar for most people, even if they have pretty different travel goals. And that all really goes back to the idea of just earning flexible points. If you have a stash of flexible points that aren’t locked into any one travel brand, you have a lot of options.

So I also encourage people who really want to get the most from their points to not get scared off by credit card annual fees. I know it can seem silly to pay a fee just to have a card, I hear resistance from people, and I get it, but the rewards and the perks that you get from the cards that charge annual fees often far outweigh the fee itself. In a lot of cases, you get what you pay for, and yes, there are lots of excellent no-fee cards out there, but if you really want to up your points game and take it to the next level, it’s really worth considering the more premium cards that do charge a fee.

Yeah, I, for a long time, was really opposed to annual fees on credit cards because I just didn’t want to pay for access to a credit card and the fee-free option seemed to be sufficient for me. But I recently actually acquired a travel credit card that does have an annual fee because I looked at all of the perks that it was going to offer me and then compared that to how much the card costs on an annual basis. And the perks, by far, outweighed the cost. So you’re really getting something that’s worth more than you’re paying an annual fee if you make it worth it. You do have to do a bit of work to make sure you’re taking advantage of all of the benefits that these cards offer you.

So Erin, since you are deep in the points world, I would love to hear how you have approached this thought process in the past. Are you the type to be selective with cards in your wallet, or do you have a small collection of cards at your disposal?

Well, both. So personally, I am selective, but I have also collected a pretty large portfolio of cards over time. Our family does travel a lot, and so we make pretty full use of the credits and the perks that the cards give us, but I also reevaluate each and every year to make sure every card still makes sense for me and for our family. And I really recommend that people go slowly and have a strategy. It’s really easy to get excited by the big welcome bonuses and people can be tempted to open lots of cards all at once, but please just slow down. Be aware that each credit card issuer has their own set of guardrails. They won’t extend excessive amounts of credit to any one person, and they want to make sure that you’re going to be a good long-term customer.

One issuer, for example, won’t approve you for a new credit card if you’ve opened more than five cards across any card issuer in the past 24 months. So I really like to hammer home that this is a long-term game and it pays to have a strategy. Don’t just go opening cards willy-nilly without a plan.

And then with the cards that you use, how do you keep track of the points and perks that you have and the fees associated with them? Do you have a spreadsheet? Are you using a notebook? What’s your process for that?

Yeah, I have a simple spreadsheet. As a credit cards Nerd, I’m also pretty engrossed in it all day long. NerdWallet has a lot of resources to keep everyone up to date, we cover all the news. So you can always check NerdWallet, but I recommend just a simple spreadsheet, taking note of what cards you have, when you opened it, what signup bonus you earned when, and then just what categories that bonus is on.

So another tip is to make sure you can meet the minimum spending requirements when you do open a new credit card. In order to earn the bonus, you’ll typically need to spend anywhere between $1,000 and $5,000 or even more on that card in the first three to six months. Make sure you have a plan to meet those spending requirements without spending any more money than you intend to or would otherwise.

Yeah, and one big thing to watch out for is bonus categories. You can look for specific spending areas, say travel or groceries or gas, and get more points for those than for other purchases. Walk us through how to make sure we’re using each card in the most efficient way to rack up those points and rewards.

Yeah, that’s a great point. And honestly, that’s another reason why many brand-specific cards, like a Delta card, probably won’t be your best bet because they tend to offer only 1x rewards on most everyday spending categories, except purchases on their brand. So if you really want to ramp up your points earning, don’t just blindly use one card for every purchase. I like carrying a few cards that can work together to earn the most rewards across many different categories. So you could use one card for groceries, but have a different card for restaurants.

Now, the good news is many of the major credit card issuers offer several cards that have synergy. They all earn the same bucket of flexible points for you, but one card is better for some categories and another is better for different kinds of purchases. Now, in the show notes, we’ll include our articles about some three-card combos you can have that can really help you ramp up your rewards.

But I know there’s a lot of people out there who don’t want to futz with having a lot of cards, and that is completely fine, but I would ask you to at least consider two cards. That way, if the largest spending in your budget is on grocery stores, say, you could choose a card that earns good bonus rewards at grocery stores, and then you could use another card that earns a flat 2% on all other purchases, and you’ll be good to go.

When you’re thinking of which card to use or which card to take out, it really helps to know yourself and where you’re spending the most amount of money. So the card is helping you earn points on those categories that you’re spending on.

So Erin, what are some common mistakes that people make when trying to maximize their points? Can you run down a few of those for us?

Absolutely. I think one of the problems I see a lot are that people don’t really understand the value of their points. And please do not feel badly if this is you, because it is a pretty complex scenario. Not all points are created equal.

The good news is NerdWallet has a full breakdown of baseline values for your points, and it shows you how you should expect to redeem them. Consult that guide before you redeem your points and it’ll help give you a gut check to see, is this a good use of my points or is this a poor value? I think it helps to think of points like a currency, right? So there are many different kinds of points and they all do have some kind of value, and that value is equivalent to an amount of money. And once you start thinking of them like a currency, and not just something that you get for free, you’ll be apt to spend them more wisely.

And we should also mention that carrying a balance on a credit card that offers points, especially travel credit cards, can be a really costly mistake. Credit card interest rates are really high right now, and paying interest on your balance can negate any benefit that you get from the points that you earn.

Yes, that is the number one rule in this game. The interest that you’ll pay on balances that aren’t paid in full every month will far outweigh the rewards that you’ll earn. Now, if you need a breather on interest, there are many cards on the market that offer a 0% intro APR period, and they also earn rewards. Another reminder is that it also rarely makes sense to pay more in order to use your credit cards. Like sometimes at local stores or restaurants, you may have to pay a surcharge in order to use that credit card, and the reality is that that surcharge that you’ll pay usually outweighs the reward that you’ll earn.

That’s a great point and something that I am guilty of, because I just want the convenience of using my credit card and getting those points. But like you said, it negates the point of doing that in the first place. So, I’m taking that with me into 2024.

So Erin, if you could look into your plastic credit card crystal ball, is there anything you think is worth watching for this year in particular besides possible changes in interest rates?

Yeah, we’ve seen several cards raise their annual fees, creep up the fees in exchange for adding more perks and benefits to the cards. And I think that’s a trend we could see continue. But just be careful because oftentimes these perks require some hoops. For instance, some offer credits towards certain purchases, but those credits are doled out monthly or quarterly, and they’re use it or lose it in that short timeframe. So just make sure you’re taking a look at the value you personally receive from a card each year when it’s up for renewal and not just its potential value on paper. If you are not using the perks, then it may not make sense for you any longer, even if it still makes sense for others.

Erin, I also want to ask you about the Credit Card Competition Act, which has been making headlines for over a year at this point, but it seems like we might finally see some movement on this legislation that could change how we use points. Can you give us a rundown on that and what it might mean for point fanatics?

Yeah. So, the Credit Card Competition Act is definitely something we’re keeping close tabs on here at NerdWallet. For those who aren’t familiar, this is proposed legislation that could really affect the rewards you earn from your credit cards.

See, merchants pay transaction fees as a cost of doing business for accepting credit cards. They’re called interchange fees, and this is where a lot of the money comes from that fund the credit card rewards. So if credit card issuers get less money from these fees, they may be forced to cut back on the rewards that they offer to consumers. So, we could be having a pretty different conversation about credit cards this time next year if it passes.

We will all be keeping close eyes on this, and folks listening, we’ll let you know what happens as there’s any updates on this. Well, Erin Hurd, thank you so much for joining us and getting to the point.

Thanks, Sean. And that’s all we have for this episode. Do you have a money question of your own? Turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at (901) 730-6373, that’s (901) 730-NERD. You can also email us at [email protected] and also visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more info in this episode. And remember to follow, rate, and review us wherever you’re getting this podcast.

This episode was produced by Tess Vigeland and Erin. I helped with editing. Kenley Young helped with fact checking. Kaely Monaghan mixed our audio. And a big thank you to NerdWallet’s editors for all their help.

And here’s our brief disclaimer. We are not financial or investment advisors. This nerdy info is provided for general education and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstances.

And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.



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