Six ways to get the most points out of your rewards card
After nearly two years spent sitting on the tarmac during the pandemic, Australians are hitting the skies and travelling abroad again in big numbers.
Roughly 1.5 million overseas departures were recorded by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in June which, while not quite back to pre-pandemic levels, is the highest level since January 2020.
The recent outflow of travellers matches up with new research conducted by American Express which revealed a much stronger appetite for travel this year than in 2022.
"After the height of the pandemic, there has certainly been a renewed enthusiasm for travel as we saw in American Express' 2023 Global Travel Trends Report," says Liana Kohn-Gardner, vice president of loyalty and partnerships at American Express.
"In fact, two in three Australians reported they have plans to go on more trips this year compared to last year."
With travel well and truly back on the agenda, some people may be wondering what to do with any rewards points they've built up, or if they haven't got one already, how to find a rewards credit card that can earn them points to put towards their future travel plans.
According to Kohn-Gardner, using points for flights, hotels and car hire was far and away the most popular points redeeming option for American Express members in Australia in the past 12 months, with 60% of all redemptions going towards travel.
So whether you're looking for a new rewards card or just want to earn and redeem points as effectively as you can with your existing card, here are six tips worth considering.
1. Choose the right rewards program
Steve Hui, founder and chief executive of iFLYflat, says that picking the right card is like selecting the right golf club: it all depends on what you want to do with it. Specifically, it's about how and where you plan to spend the rewards points you earn.
"Different cards earn different points. Some cards will earn you Qantas Points, some earn Virgin Velocity Points and then with some cards, like American Express and American Express Points, you'll be able to transfer those points to different airlines later.
"Therefore, to decide on a card, you have to decide where you want to fly, because there's no point in picking up a Qantas card and earning Qantas Points for 24 months only to find out that Qantas doesn't actually fly to where you want to go."
2. Be mindful of point caps
Hui also recommends taking into account any restrictions on monthly points earning that come with a card, and matching that up with your typical spending. Not all cards come with a cap, but many do.
"Some cards have a points cap so, for example, for the first $3,000 you spend you'll earn 'x points' and then you'll earn less points after that. Other cards will allow you to earn points for the first $10,000 you spend, and then no points," he says.
"So it all comes down to how much money you spend, because you can pick a card which earns a lot of points, but then the annual fee is higher as well."
3. Weigh up bonus offers against ongoing earn rates
"If you're thinking about getting a new card, look out for special sign-up offers. For instance, you can potentially earn tens of thousands of points simply by applying for a new card and spending a certain amount on eligible purchases in a specified timeframe," says Kohn-Gardner.
While bonus offers can certainly be alluring, Hui suggests that it's also worth taking into account the ongoing points earning rate attached to the card.
"Bonus points are very attractive because if you can earn 100,000 bonus points straight up, then you don't have to spend $100,000 or $200,000 to earn the same number of points. But is it the right card for your ongoing needs? That's the question.
"Unless you just plan to get the credit card for the bonus points and then move on, you'll also want a card that earns you good points on every dollar you spend."
4. Where you spend matters
When it comes to earning points for your regular spending Hui can't stress enough how different each credit card provider and even each individual card can be.
"Some cards will earn you 2.25 points per dollar, while others may earn a lower rate of 1.5 per dollar. Some earn double points at supermarkets and department stores and even triple points on overseas purchases, and with some you'll just earn the same points everywhere regardless."
Not all spending will net you your normal earn rate either. For instance, depending on the card, payments to government bodies may come with a reduced earn rate or no points at all.
For Kohn-Gardner, one of the most effective ways to ensure that you're earning a steady stream of points is just using your card for general purchases and subscriptions.
"If you already have a card linked to a loyalty program, one of the quickest and easiest ways to increase your points balance is to use your card for everyday purchases like groceries, eating out and utility bills.
"And a hot tip is to save your card as your default payment option for online subscriptions like Stan, Spotify, Amazon Prime and Netflix to start banking up points hassle-free."
5. Business class provides bang for buck
So when it comes to actually redeeming the points you've earned for your next trip away, what are the most effective options? In Hui's opinion, purchasing a business class seat is currently up there in terms of value for points.
"In my mind flying international business class is the best bang for your buck because you're getting a high price item and service. For example, business class flights to Europe these days are around $15,000 return, so you can swap that for around 300,000 points on average.
"International business is the highest value, but that's followed by first class. First class comes second because it's a bit harder to find, so you're not always going to be able to book first class.
"And then economy comes third. Sometimes there's not too much difference than the price of buying a ticket because you have to pay airline fees and taxes."
6. Prepare to be flexible
For both Kohn-Gardner and Hui, one of the keys to redeeming points for flights is flexibility. Rewards seats won't be available on every flight or even every day, so if you can be agile with your travel plans you may have a better chance of success.
"Once you have enough points in your points bank, a good return on your investment is to transfer them across to an airline rewards partner program linked to your card. Being flexible with timing and open to letting the deal dictate the destination, can also help in reaping the best return," Kohn-Gardner says.
"There are transfer bonuses on offer from time to time across both hotels and airlines which means people can quickly boost their points. Plus, they often come with additional perks like room or seat upgrades and flexible check-in/check-out times."
Hui believes flexibility has become even more important as demand for travel has returned, but airlines haven't gone back to flying at their pre-pandemic capacity.
"In terms of the number of points needed to upgrade, I don't think there's been much of a change since before COVID, but what has changed is that every single seat seems to be sold these days.
"Upgrades rely on the fact that there are empty seats that go unsold or are cancelled, and then those empty seats are then given to the list of people who want to upgrade. If every single seat's full, then there's nowhere to upgrade to."
Of course, there's more to think about with a credit card than just earning reward points. So for a more comprehensive run-through of the other features and costs to consider check out our beginner's guide to credit cards and ASIC Moneysmart's guide to choosing a credit card.
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