You saw an irresistible credit card offer — tens of thousands of bonus points or miles easily worth a plane ticket or short hotel stay. You seized the opportunity, earned the sign-up points and enjoyed them to their fullest.
Now, you’re left holding a credit card that likely will never pay off that big again. No more five-figure points bonuses, just a syrup-slow process of earning miles as you shop, accumulating one or two points for every dollar you spend at a pace that probably won’t get you another free trip for years. Worse, you’re paying an annual fee just to hold the card. If you don’t earn those points or miles fast enough, your costs could outpace your rewards.
Many who jump at a credit card sign-up bonus end up here, and the credit card issuers count on it. After all, they’re in business to make money, and they don’t make it by handing out free travel to already-in-the-bag customers.
1. Get to know your card’s bonus categories
Many rewards credit cards pay you one point or mile for every dollar you charge. But more and more, these cards are adding bonus categories that double or triple the points you earn for certain types of purchases. Dining, travel, gas and groceries are among the more common bonus categories. They vary by card, so read the terms of your card to see where your spending will get you the best rewards.
2. Use your card for auto-pay services
Do you have Netflix NFLX, +0.01% , Hulu or any other video or music streaming service? Does your insurance company bill you automatically? Have an automatically renewing newspaper subscription or charitable donation? Do your utilities, phone, insurance or other ongoing bills offer auto-pay? Make sure the credit card they have on file is paying you points or miles for these recurring expenses.
3. Pay your bills with your card
Not every bill lends itself to set-it-and-forget-it automatic payment. But even the occasional doctor copay and Amazon AMZN, +0.05% purchase can accelerate your earnings if you put them on your rewards card. And many state and local governments let you pay parking tickets, taxes and auto registrations online with a credit card — just be sure the rewards you’re earning offset any fees you might incur for paying with a card.
4. Reach for your card, rather than cash
Some people feel silly pulling out a credit card for a cappuccino. But charging small purchases can help build up your points and miles balance. Beware, though: If paying in cash helps you resist impulse purchases at the register, using a card for a small purchase can be a bad idea. Also, watch for retailers such as gas stations that sometimes charge higher prices if you use a card.
5. Shop online through your reward program’s virtual mall
If you buy a $1,000 computer with your card, you’re likely to earn about 1,000 points or miles. But if you buy it through an airline or hotel’s online shopping portal, you could earn additional points. These “malls” are really just websites from which you navigate to the official website of hundreds of big-name retailers including Apple AAPL, +0.08% , Macy’s M, +0.09% and many more. It’s just like shopping at the store’s website directly, except a cookie in your browser triggers a miles or points reward.
6. Register your card with your hotel or airline’s dining program
It’s easy to overlook dining programs because, invariably, they pay at hundreds of restaurants where you’ll never go to eat. But if you register your card with your airline or hotel’s dining program, chances are you’ll eventually earn points or miles you weren’t even expecting.
7. Let loyalty pay off
Airlines and hotel brands encourage you to buy through their websites. Sometimes you’ll find better prices on a discount search engine like Travelocity or Trivago, but always comparison shop with the value of points in mind. If you can earn $50 worth of points by paying $25 more at a hotel’s own website, that’s a better deal than booking through the discounter’s website.
8. Negotiate before canceling a card
If you’re not happy with what your rewards credit card is earning and are willing to cancel it, call the issuing bank first to negotiate. The issuer might be willing to offer you extra points or perks to keep you a happy and active customer. There’s no guarantee it’ll work, but it could make your credit card worth holding on to.
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