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Rewards Credit Cards - Compare & Apply

By Joe Taylor Jr.

Ryan Bingham, the main character in Jason Reitman's film "Up in the Air," spends most of the movie using airline credit cards to help achieve his goal of earning ten million frequent flier miles. While George Clooney's character might not exactly know what to do with all that free travel, you can use some of his mileage-maximizing tricks to earn yourself a free vacation or other travel rewards.

Traditional frequent flier miles and travel points programs

Free airline credit cards grew in popularity as carriers struggled to differentiate their brands. Here's how to get the most "mileage" out of your airline rewards card:
Fly consistently on the same airline. As you earn various stages of "elite" status on major airlines, you'll need fewer points to collect free travel vouchers.
Rely on your airline's preferred hotel and car rental partners. This strategy may require you to become less finicky about where you sleep, but it's an easy way to multiply your frequent flier miles.
Focus all your spending through a single airline credit card. Bingham maxed out his expense account nightly, just to accrue extra miles. Don't waste food, though. Instead, try using your airline credit card at the grocery store or the gas station to earn bonus miles.

A new crop of credit cards with miles promotions have offered signup bonuses that can earn you a few free flights after your first few months as a cardholder. Airline credit cards with no foreign transaction fee can save you even more money if you travel overseas.

New credit card points programs emphasize flexibility

Meanwhile, banks have recognized how online booking sites, smartphones and discount airlines have changed the way Americans travel. In highly competitive markets, a one-way plane ticket may cost only marginally more than the service fees airlines charge for redeeming miles. Some of the best credit card reward programs now use a "miles" metaphor for points you can redeem on any airline, and at any hotel or car rental chain.

Here's how this new breed of airline credit card works. Your credit card issuer sets an "exchange rate," making your miles or points like a form of currency. For instance, one popular credit card lets you exchange 100 miles for one dollar of statement credit. Book your trip using the least expensive website you can find, using any carrier you want. Submit your receipt to your awards program, usually with an online form, and you'll receive a rebate for the amount you spent on your trip.

What to watch out for with points and miles

Signup bonuses among points and miles credit cards have become so generous, many applicants overlook the total cost of owning these new accounts. Watch out for some of these potential pitfalls:

  • Higher than average interest rates. Banks often offset the cost of travel rewards by offering airline cards with slightly higher APRs than their "no-frills" accounts.
  • Expiring rewards. Some airlines and credit card reward programs set their point balances on self-destruct every few years. Look for cards with no expiration date, or with alerts that warn you about redemption deadlines.
  • Reimbursement policies. Many government employers and some corporations have placed new restrictions on using personal rewards credit cards to pay for meals and transportation. Check with your employer to ensure that your expenses can count toward your miles balance.
  • Annual fees. Many airline credit cards waive the first year of service charges for new accounts. Make sure you're going to earn far more in rewards than you'll pay in extra fees.
  • Unexpected airline mergers and bankruptcies. You can't always predict when market conditions will destroy your favorite carrier. Look for rewards programs that let you redeem unused miles for merchandise, gift cards or travel credit on partner airlines.

If you're spending enough time on the road to mistake your roll-aboard luggage for your closet, compare the rewards credit card deals here to find one that may fit the way you travel.

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