Find the right card for travel rewards

Cali Lewis hasn’t paid for a vacation in eight years.

Last year Lewis and her husband traveled to Florida, Louisiana, New Mexico and Colorado, all on rewards points they earned from their credit card. The couple has also ventured overseas to Scotland and Italy using credit card rewards.

“We stayed in a $1,200 room in Rome [for free] — that was a pretty good deal,” says Lewis, who lives at Lake Lanier. “We’ve had some really magical experiences. And when it’s free, it’s even better.”

Credit card rewards and cash-back programs seem to be springing up everywhere. But sometimes they come with debilitating restrictions. Blackout travel dates (like holidays or even weekends) can work against you, such as when you want to visit family for Christmas. And some points systems are so stingy you’d have to travel practically every weekend to reap significant benefits.

Enter Lewis, who says the system can work for you — if you know how the system works.

In addition to vacations, Lewis and her husband also take occasional buying trips for their business. They had tried a couple rewards programs, but thought each required too many points to earn free lodging, even at the cheapest hotel properties. Lewis says they found the right match for their particular lifestyle when they signed up for the Starwood Preferred Guest program through American Express.

“Once we started using it, we realized how easy and how great it was, then we just put all of our bills on auto-pay,” Lewis says. “We even bought a car with American Express. They wouldn’t take the full amount, but they took a good chunk of it.”

Using the card for more day-to-day purchases like groceries, insurance and gas also help boost their points each month. But, Lewis says, such credit cards are not for the reckless.

“We use it whenever we can because we just pay it off every month. You have to be pretty responsible.”

Comparing programs

Before signing up for a credit card deal, consider your individual needs and spending and bill-paying habits. Here’s a look at a few of the many programs available:

Capital One Venture Rewards: Earn two miles per dollar spent using the card; redeem miles for travel expenses. Spend $1,000 the first three months, get 10,000 bonus miles. Redeem for airline travel; no blackout dates, no limit on miles. Free for first year, then $59 annually.

Citi Platinum Select/AAdvantage Visa Signature: Earn one mile per dollar spent, or two miles on eligible American Airlines travel expenses. Spend $1,000 the first three months, get 30,000 bonus miles. Perks include one free checked bag and priority boarding. Free the first year, then $95 annually.

Starwood Preferred Guest (American Express): Earn two points per dollar spent. Get 10,000 bonus points with first purchase, another 15,000 for spending $5,000 within six months. Redeem for airline travel and lodging; no blackout dates. Free for first year, then $65 annually.

Cash-back sites

Want rewards without the hassle of a credit card? Make purchases via these websites. (Similar stores cited for comparison.)

Ebates.com: Get a $5 or $10 bonus card just for signing up. Current cash-back offers include 6 percent off Target, 2 percent off Chico’s and 2.5 percent off Brooks Brothers.

FatWallet.com: Current offers include 3 percent off Chico’s, 2.5 percent off Brooks Brothers, and 1.5 percent off Walmart.

MrRebates: Current offers include 3 percent off Chico’s, 4 percent off Target, 5 percent off Brooks Brothers and 3 percent off Walmart.

– By Lauren Davidson, Atlanta Bargain Hunter


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9 comments Add your comment

B-Bro

April 17th, 2012
6:02 am

Sounds much better than my card which my reward points stop at 7000 monthly and many times with my material purchases I go over that monthly.

Frequent Traveler

April 17th, 2012
6:36 am

I agree that SPG is the best card out there. With their cash/points program, a person can cop a hotel room for as little as $30 and 1,600 points. So, even a person with a small amount of points feels like they are able to participate. Going to Spain in a couple of week and staying at the LeMeridian for free.

Sluggo

April 17th, 2012
6:58 am

Discover works for me. It’s ca$h back. No points to count. No system to work. The card gives me back the money in a straight foward fashion. I use the card for any expense that will accept the card. At the end of the year, the money adds up.

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Tommy

April 19th, 2012
8:38 am

SPG is by far the best card for hotel stays. The customer service is unreal. You can also book stays for friends or family members as a gift. We have been members for 5 years and have not paid for a hotel stay since 2007.

Lauren

April 22nd, 2012
11:17 am

The guys at Wise Bread agree with the Amex SPG card. See here for more details:
http://www.wisebread.com/best-rewards-card-the-starwood-preferred-guest-from-american-express