This page was originally published in late 2022 and reflects the author’s financial decisions during that time. Card details may have since changed.

Key takeaways

  • You don’t have to be a rewards junkie to get the most out of your credit cards if you employ the right strategy.
  • For those just starting out, stick with reward programs you’re familiar with, avoid cards with hefty yearly fees and initially focus on one or two reward schemes.
  • Grasping the advantages and constraints of each rewards card and employing them strategically to enhance rewards and card benefits is crucial.

The passion and dedication of credit card rewards junkies blow me away.

While I carry several rewards cards, I don’t obsess over cash back, points and miles in the manner that junkies do. If anything, I’m more of a passive devotee of rewards.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I appreciate (and monitor) the rewards I receive from my travel cards: the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®*, a Southwest Rapid Rewards® card and the United Club℠ Infinite Card* for airline miles, and the Hilton Honors American Express® Card, the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® and The World of Hyatt Credit Card* for hotel points. While I don’t track my miles and points in a spreadsheet or an app, I do a decent job of maximizing those rewards as a frequent traveler.

Although I don’t qualify as a credit card rewards junkie, I do admit to being a card junkie. But that status probably wouldn’t save me from being kicked out of the Rewards Junkies Club for religiously figuring out the points and miles values for various transfer partners or religiously activating quarterly rewards categories.

So, how can someone like me extract the most value out of their credit card rewards without fixating on the ins and outs of cash back, miles and points? Well, I turned to two rewards junkies (and I call them “junkies” with the utmost respect) for their advice: Danny the Deal Guru and Jon Nickel-D’Andrea. Here’s their advice:

Stick with well-known card rewards programs

Danny the Deal Guru, who prefers not to publicly divulge his last name, is a points and miles fanatic who covers credit card rewards on his website. Danny says he’s been a rewards junkie for seven or eight years. He’s got more than 30 active credit card accounts whose rewards he puts toward travel and everyday purchases.

For someone who’s a newbie in the rewards game, Danny recommends sticking with basic cards or cash back cards and avoiding airline and hotel cards.

“If you’re not familiar with an airline program, for example, or if that airline doesn’t fly from your local airport, it doesn’t make sense to get that airline’s card,” Danny says.

He suggests beginning with a card that offers American Express Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards because the rewards never expire and come with varied redemption options.

The American Express Membership Rewards program allows you to redeem points to:

  • Book travel through the American Express Travel portal
  • Pay for purchases
  • Cover credit card charges
  • Get gift cards
  • Make charitable donations

In addition, you can exchange rewards for airline miles or hotel points with one of American Express’s travel partners.

Similarly, the Chase Ultimate Rewards program lets you redeem points to pay your credit card bill, get statement credits for purchases, obtain a gift card, pay for merchandise, book travel or enjoy dining or sports “experiences.” You also can trade your rewards for airline miles or hotel points with one of Chase’s travel partners.

Avoid high-annual-fee cards

Danny warns against journeying into junkie territory too hastily. Why?

“The best credit cards that offer big bonuses, benefits and better earning rates also come with big annual fees,” he says.

For instance, The Platinum Card® from American Express hits cardholders with a $695 annual fee, while the Chase Sapphire Reserve® card tacks on a $550 annual fee.

“If you’re not taking full advantage of the benefits, then you’re losing out by paying those fees,” Danny says. “On the other hand, you can definitely come out ahead and get lots of value for your points or miles — if you are familiar with hotels and especially airline programs, and if you take advantage of every benefit your cards offer.”

Focus on one or two rewards programs

Nickel-D’Andrea is a blogger at No Mas Coach!, which teaches readers how to take advantage of airline miles to snag first-class and business-class seats at little to no cost.  He doesn’t classify himself as a credit card rewards junkie but, rather, a points and miles “enthusiast.”

Nickel-D’Andrea instructs people who aren’t yet credit card rewards enthusiasts to start small when first swimming in the rewards pool.

“Instead of shotgunning your approach and trying to learn 12 different programs, my advice is to laser-focus on one or two,” says Nickel-D’Andrea, who uses about a dozen credit cards. “Get good at those and expand from there.”

Know your card’s benefits … and its limitations

He also recommends ensuring you understand the “DNA” of each of your rewards cards.

“Each card will have different benefits, and it’s important to maximize the categories for each card,” Nickel-D’Andrea says. “If one of your cards gives you a bonus for grocery stores, only use that card at the grocery stores.”

Furthermore, he says, you might consider ditching your debit card and using only credit cards for purchases. But if you adopt this tactic, you should pay off your credit card balances in full every month to avoid accumulating interest charges and big balances.

Perhaps most importantly, Nickel-D’Andrea suggests being mindful of a card’s limitations, as well as your own limitations.

“Charging too much in order to obtain a new customer bonus without the ability to pay off those bills can result in hefty interest charges,” he says. “Also, not every points program is for you. Just because a card offers a 50,000-, 80,000- or 100,000-point bonus doesn’t mean you have to get that card. Make sure the rewards make sense for your planned usage.”

The bottom line

There’s no need to have a fleet of credit cards you’ll never use or a detailed spreadsheet of rewards categories to get the most from your credit cards. By focusing on one or two simple rewards programs, you can get tons of value out of your cards and slowly build up to enthusiast-level with your credit cards.

The credit card you have may offer more than just cash back, points or miles. The benefits and limitations tucked away in your credit card’s terms and conditions can both tip you off to valuable perks and warn you of obstacles to your rewards. Ultimately maximizing your credit card comes down to knowing it well.

*The information about Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®, United Club℠ Infinite Card and The World of Hyatt Credit Card has been collected independently by Bankrate. Card details have not been reviewed or approved by the card issuer.