Rewards Credit Cards 101
Rewards credit cards earn points for the money you spend. You can spend your points on a variety of perks and freebies, from flights and accommodation to merchandise and gift cards.
Basically, rewards cards reward you for doing your normal, everyday spending. That’s why in this guide, we’re going to help you understand how reward cards work, and how to make the most out of the bounty they offer.
How do you earn points?
Earning points is as easy as using your card for everyday transactions. If you’re super-savvy, you can use your card for expensive purchases – for example, a flat screen tv or a new couch – and pay it off immediately just for the points.
Here’s how you earn points on your rewards card:
- Use your card for everyday purchases. The ‘earn rate’ (the points per dollar you receive from your card) is applied to all eligible purchases on your rewards card. The rate is typically 1 point for every $1 you spend but can be higher or a little lower for some rewards cards.
- Take advantage of sign-up offers. Rewards card providers throw out huge one-off bonus points – as high as 200,000 points, which can equate to hundreds of dollars in real value – when you reach a minimum spend once you’ve signed up. Of course, you need to make sure you’re not overspending to reach the bonus point threshold, which is why it’s important to choose a card that suits your spending habits.
- Referring friends to sign up. If you’re winning with rewards, you can recommend a rewards card provider to a friend and earn big points if they sign up.
Is a rewards card right for you?
Before we go any further, you need to work out whether a rewards card is the right choice for you. Different cards suit different cardholders, and it’s safe to say rewards cards aren't for everyone. Let’s break it down.
Income: Your income is pretty important. It will determine whether you’re eligible for a rewards credit card, and whether you’re eligible for premium card rewards that suit your lifestyle and budget.
Spending Power: You earn points by using your card when you make purchases. If you don’t have the funds to spend on your card and pay it all off each month, it will make it hard to earn enough points to make your card worthwhile.
Repayment Habits: Rewards cards work best for people who pay off their card in full each month. The purchase rate for rewards cards is often higher, which means the interest you’ll pay on your debt could outweigh any rewards you’re earning. Unless you can change your habits, a low rate card would be a better fit.
Spending Habits: By thinking about where you spend the most on your credit card, you can choose the card that best rewards your spending. Think supermarket shopping, travel spending and more.
How do you choose the best rewards card for you?
Rewards cards come in all shapes and sizes, which means you’ll need to find one that works hardest for you. The best credit card for you may not be the best for someone else. Fortunately, CreditCard.com.au makes it easy to compare the options side-by-side. But, what should you look for when you compare?
This is a big one. How much you pay in annual fees will directly affect the real-world value of the points you earn. So, how do you weigh up the options?
Step 1. Estimate how much you’ll spend on the card each year.
Step 2. Work out what that spend equates to in points.
Step 3. Take a look at the rewards program to figure out what you would redeem your points on.
Step 4. Calculate the dollar value of that points redemption.
Step 5. Compare that dollar value to the card’s annual fee.
For example, let’s say you spend $7,000 per month on your rewards card with an earning rate of 1 point per $1. After the introductory 12 months, the annual fee is $149.
Over one year, you would accrue 84,000 rewards points. On your rewards cards online store, you see LG Tone Free Wireless Earbuds for 57,000 points, valued at around $200.
Considering the annual fee is $149 and you’ve already redeemed a reward valued at $200 with points to spare, your rewards card has indeed rewarded you well.
To get the most out of a rewards card, you need to pay it off in full each month, before interest is charged on the balance. If you trust yourself with regular repayments, you don’t need to worry about the interest rate because it should never apply to you.
If you’re not sure how well you can pay off the balance, find a low interest rate credit card instead of a rewards card, or one that offers low purchase rates with limited rewards.
A card’s earn rate will tell you how many points you’ll earn for each dollar you spend. You may have the same earn rate for all spending, or it may be tiered, like this:
- Earn 3 points per $1 on supermarket spending.
- Earn 2 points per $1 on petrol.
- Earn 1 point per $1 on all other transactions except government spending.
- Earn 0.5 points per $1 on government spending.
It’s a good idea to check the small print regarding the card’s earn rate, as there may be exceptions on what spending earns points and what doesn’t.
Points Shaping (point-earning thresholds)
Some cards shape points. This means the earn rate drops after you spend a certain amount on the card. So, while you may earn 2 points per $1 up to a spend of $10,000 per month, you will only earn 1 point per $1 for any spending over that amount. If you know you’ll spend more than that amount, points shaping could seriously reduce the value of your potential earn.
Similar to points shaping, points caps place a cap on the number of points earned per month or per year. That means if you spend over a certain amount, you stop earning points on your spending, which again reduces the value of your potential points earn.
When comparing rewards cards, don’t forget to look at the rewards on offer. Choosing a card that earns loads of points but doesn’t offer anything you actually want isn’t going to be the right card for you. Consider the rewards the program provides, taking into account the value of rewards on offer with regards to the number of points you have to redeem to enjoy them.
While some rewards cards are pretty basic, others offer the world in features, some free and some with extra costs added.
You may find these extras help to provide more value, but it’s a good idea to weigh up the extra cost of those features in terms of annual fees, and whether you will actually make use of them.
Extra features to look out for:
- Free travel insurance: some providers offer complimentary travel insurance for rewards card holders. There are a lot of conditions involved, and this feature is usually reserved for platinum cards, but it can be a handy bonus if you’re a frequent traveller.
- Contactless payment: PayWave, Paypass and digital transactions are pretty much standard these days, but it’s nice to know rewards cards are part of the contactless era. Many of them sync with Apply Pay and Samsung Pay to make checkout even easier.
- Extra deals: look out for rewards cards that just keep on giving, in the form of discounts on music, fashion, event tickets, travel, dining and movies.
If you want to focus solely on rewards, choose a card that allows you to do that. If you want more features and extras, compare what’s on offer and make sure your points earn still offers value.
How do you redeem your points?
Did you know you could get cash-in-hand for redeeming points? Or a free coffee machine or flight to your favourite city?
You’ll need to check the provider’s rewards program before you apply, because the rewards offers vary for each one. Having said that, the list of perks up for grabs is thrillingly vast.
- Travel: one of the best perks is discounted – or even free – travel and holiday purchases. You can book accommodation, flights, rental cars, tours and cruises to pretty much anywhere in the world.
- Retail merchandise: use your points for everyday items at retail stores. Think clothing, homewares, technology and beauty products.
- Gift cards: some rewards cards allow you to redeem points as gift cards, which gives you the flexibility of using the cash wherever you like (or give it as a gift).
- Cashback: you might be able to spend your points as money, which can take the form of cash in your pocket, a credit on your rewards card, or a payment towards your annual fee.
To redeem your points, you can:
- Use the provider’s online rewards store to buy products or gift cards
- Pay with your points at selected retails stores (and fill in any gaps with cash)
- Use an eligible travel agency or shop direct with airlines like Qantas and Jetstar
Step One: Check the credit card rewards balance
It is a good idea to look at the amount of rewards points in your account before deciding to make redemptions because you may find that you have more or less points than expected.
The most accurate points balance will probably be online, providing the credit card is linked to internet banking.
Some providers, including ANZ, Citi and Virgin Money, also have specific reward websites that can be logged into separately, so you can always check the points balance there before taking any further steps.
Step Two: Browse reward options
When you think you have enough reward points to make a redemption, log onto the rewards or bank website and browse the different redemption offers.
By keeping in mind the current reward points balance you will be able to filter out offers that require more points, or look for a “points-plus-payment” option.
For frequent flyer redemptions, it will be a matter of going to the frequent flyer website, logging in and searching for specific flights to see how many points they will cost, so it is better to have a destination in mind.
When a more general rewards card is in hand this step could take a little longer to get through depending on the variety of offers.
If there is a rewards website then you may be able to take advantage of search options, while if you are looking on a more basic list, you can flick through different categories to find what you want.
Step Three: Select and submit
When you have found the rewards that you would like to collect, simply select them online and hit the redeem button.
Follow the prompts for the specific program and enter any further details before confirming the order. Then it is simply a matter of waiting for the rewards to arrive.
What purchases won’t earn points?
You’ll see the phrase ‘eligible transactions’ a lot in the small print, and that’s because not everything you buy will earn points on your rewards card.
Here’s what most rewards cards won’t give you points for:
- Cash advances. A cash advance is a withdrawal of money from your credit card, and it attracts immediate interest, but no rewards.
- Balance transfers. Popping your debt from a credit card onto your rewards card won’t earn any points.
- BPAY payments. Online BPAY payments don’t count towards point earnings either, unfortunately.
- Government payments. Most rewards cards won’t accrue points by making payments to the ATO, although a very small selection do. You’ll need to check the rewards program and the small print.
Rewards Credit Cards - Frequently Asked Questions
Rewards cards carry a higher annual fee than other card types because the annual fee subsidises the different features that they come with. By using a rewards credit card the idea is the benefits you receive will outweigh the cost of the card as these services and offers would be more expensive if you paid for them separately.
We can’t say which rewards credit card will be best for any particular person or situation, and we do not give financial advice. We do, however, display a range of options on our rewards card table for you to consider and compare based on your own needs and spending habits.
There is no specific amount, and different rewards cards have different minimum income requirements. Some, such as the Citi Rewards card, require $35,000 per year as your minimum income; some may require as much as $100,000. Where minimum income requirements are available and we have access to the relevant information it is displayed on each card’s feature page.
Yes, there is a range of options from the banks; some offer a linked airline account and others their own rewards program. There are also store credit card options, such as Coles, Woolworths or David Jones credit card. With these different types of reward cards, the points earning ratio will likely be different, so you should check this closely on each reward program when comparing.
There are a couple of reasons for this.
1) With two different card options, there is more chance purchases can earn points, because where American Express cards are not accepted Mastercard or Visa can often be used.
2) Apart from the ability to use either credit card more often, American Express often offers the chance to earn more points by using that card.
Yes, some rewards cards come with a balance transfer option. Where there is one available, and we have the relevant information, the balance transfer column of our table will display the promotional balance transfer rate and the features page will include information on the terms of the offer.
For those interested please see here for more specific information on balance transfer credit cards.
Rewards come in a number of forms:
- Gift vouchers or merchandise – often similar to a department store range – i.e. cosmetics, homewares, kitchen wares, outdoor and sports equipment, electronic goods, gift packages, hampers and more.
- Cash back offers on purchases
- Entertainment – live event tickets, movie or theatre tickets or sporting event tickets
- Travel rewards – such as free flights, points towards air travel, hotel booking, accommodation, rental car services).
Some programs have more than 3000 options to redeem points, so there will almost always be a lot to choose from.
Some credit card reward programs allow you to support a charity via giving up some of the annual fee or points, or to use your points to offset carbon emissions.
If you are interested in airline miles or travel, you could also consider whether a frequent flyer credit card is a better fit for your spending and needs.
A bank’s own rewards program will generally give members access to a selection of its own partner retailers, and will have its own separate points system. For example you may earn two different amounts of points spending the same amount of money with an airline branded frequent flyer campaign versus a bank own branded card. For example 100 St George Amplify points is not the same as 100 Qantas Frequent Flyer points. The bank’s own rewards program may sometimes have higher points value per $1 spent, but the partners may be different. It is worth considering where you spend your money and how you would use your points before deciding which type of rewards program to choose.
There are different types of rewards card designed to suit different types of credit card users – often aimed at the amount of money the customer is likely to spend on the card each year. There are often different tiers of rewards cards, which have more perks as the tiers go up. Many of the banks will offer up to three levels of rewards cards. Standard, platinum, diamond or premium cards are all examples of rewards card tiers. Distinguishing between standard and platinum can be hard, but diamond or premium cards are widely considered the most exclusive.
Some credit cards are also labelled by the bank’s own rewards program, for example Westpac Altitude, or St George Amplify, or CBA Awards. These can fit into any tier depending on the individual card features.
A standard rewards credit card will typically feature rewards points, however the points per $1 spent earning power may not be as high as for a platinum or diamond card, or may not apply as widely.
Standard rewards cards may also have limited options including travel insurance or purchase protection. In some cases, you can have the option to purchase additional insurances or features such as repayment protection, for an extra fee. The card’s terms and conditions will usually explain this, or you can ask the bank if you already have a rewards card.
Platinum credit cards often feature the same types of rewards points as gold cards; however the earning potential per $1 spent may be higher or at least higher with partner retailers compared to standard cards.
Platinum cards can also have features such as global customer service, lower international fees or certain fees waived or further travel insurance cover such as transit accident or flight inconvenience. Generally, these types of cards may include special platinum cardholder offers, or access to tickets or events before others. Many platinum cards also have a higher credit limit than standard cards.
Diamond or ‘Super Premium’ credit cards
The Diamond or ‘super-premium’ credit card is the highest tier of rewards credit cards. These often come with exclusive, executive style perks, outstanding concierge services and special access; however they will also have the highest annual fee and a much higher minimum income requirement than the cards in the lower tiers.
How much you travel, whether you have easy access to rewards partner outlets, how much you spend on your credit card in general and whether you are interested in features such as travel insurance and concierge services can also have an impact.
With so many choices when it comes to redeeming points, it can be hard to work out whether the reward you are thinking of redeeming holds real value. Something worth $50 in the store can be redeemed for a different amount of points depending which rewards program it is with.
There is a neat trick you can do, though, to find out the currency of points to redeem rewards when you know the recommended retail price. The formula can also be applied to different rewards in different points programs. Simply divide the number of points required to redeem the reward by the recommended retail price. This gives you the right idea of points required to redeem $1.
So, for example, to compare a reward’s dollar value, you can look at the number of points required to claim it, and then the standard purchase value of it. If a gift worth 3500 points costs $25 in-store you would divide the number of points required by that value:
=140 points per 1$
You can do this calculation for points in a different reward program when you know the number of points needed to redeem the same reward and the price.
In the example above, 140 per $1 is the real value of the reward, and can give you an indication of whether it makes sense to use points to claim it.
You use a rewards credit card in the same way you would use any other type of card when it comes to making purchases. Choosing when and how often to use your card can make a difference to how many rewards points you end up earning, and how quickly you can redeem points. For more information on this, see ‘what types of rewards cards are there’?
Some rewards programs will advertise ways to earn points by paying regular expenses using your card. This usually involves a direct debit coming out of the credit card account to pay monthly bills.
Other ways people use rewards cards include paying for groceries, petrol and everyday expenses using the card (some even have their rent come out to classify as a direct debit). People who do this are always disciplined and pay off the full balance of the card each month, however. Leaving an unpaid balance on a rewards credit card can mean that some or all of the value in holding the card is wiped out when purchases attract an interest charge.
Some people decide that they only want to earn points towards air miles with their credit card, so they choose a Frequent Flyer card with airline points and sometimes other travel related perks as a package.
You should consider how much you are likely to spend on a card per year, and the points value per $1 spent, as defined in ‘How do I work out what rewards points are worth, and whether individual rewards are worth it?’ when comparing rewards credit cards and thinking about how you are likely to use one. The annual fee on some of these cards may mean that some cardholders don’t get enough value versus the cost of their card.
Not necessarily, however a range of credit cards with rewards programs will let you earn points for paying BPay bills using that card. This is something you need to check in the credit card terms and conditions for the card you have.
The expiration of your rewards points depends entirely on the provider. Some offer no expiry date on points, some lapse unless you redeem at least some points within a certain timeframe, and others will disappear entirely if there’s no action on your account.
It’s important to check the expiry policy of your provider, particularly if your goal is to amass a large amount of points for travel, for example.