Make Points Add Up

David Knight flies for free. From 1997 to 2002, the 39-year-old former telecommunications consultant charged an average of $6,000 worth of airline tickets, hotel stays, and other incidentals each month on his corporate American Express card, earning him a point for each dollar spent through the card’s Membership Rewards program. Combined with the points he collected through the Delta SkyMiles frequent flier program, the points he accumulated each year were enough for three to four round-trip tickets to the Caribbean. In fact, Knight, his wife, and his grandmother made separate trips to his native Jamaica this year using tickets he had earned.

For credit card holders, these programs are the hot ticket to great escapes, fine dining, frequent flier miles, cash back, and more. According to The Nilson Report, only 35 million of the 300 million active credit and debit card holders in the U.S. participate in a rewards program. So what are you waiting for? We’ll show you what to look for in a card, ways to get the most out of your rewards program, and offer breakout charts on the best programs around town.

Let’s be clear. There is no real difference between calling what you can redeem from these credit card programs rewards, rebates, or even bonuses. It’s just industry lingo, says Curtis Arnold, public relations-marketing director for in Little Rock, Arkansas. What’s more pertinent, however, is the plethora of awards you can choose from to suit your fancy. BankOne, for example, has an Extraordinary Rewards Platinum Visa card that lets you choose the type of reward you wish to redeem, including cash, air, and brand name merchandise certificates.

As you choose a card, do so wisely. The plan is not to bust your budget to rack up points. Therefore, if you choose a card with a fee, “evaluate that cost in the context of your own spending,” advises Greg McBride, a senior financial analyst for in North Palm Beach, Florida. If you charge about $5,000 each year, it would take almost five years to collect enough points (about 25,000) for a free domestic airline ticket. Using a card with a $50 annual fee, you would in essence pay $250 for the ticket. For more tips on card selection, visit

When it comes to picking the best card, McBride says: “Best is like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder. Each consumer is going to value things a little differently.” Once you choose, here are some strategies to implement:

Pool your points. Allyson Park and her lawyer husband have individual American Express Gold charge cards linked to the same Membership Rewards account. They collect points rapidly and use them for a range of rewards, from flying to Hawaii for their 2001 honeymoon using 60,000 points, to recently buying patio furniture at Home Depot with 50,000 points redeemed as $500 in gift cards.

Commit to using the card. It’s the only way to collect the points. Park, a communications consultant at Jackson Spalding