If you’ve done even a little research into credit cards, then you’ve likely run across a number of blogs and forums with stories about people using credit card rewards to earn big bucks and fund lavish vacations.
But what’s the real story? Are credit card rewards really all they’re cracked up to be? The answer is: maybe. As with most things in life, rewards cards have both pros and cons, all of which should be considered before you decide to fill out an application.
Pro: You Can Save on Nearly Every Purchase
For the rewards card novice, cash back credit cards are the most straightforward and user-friendly place to start. And the most obvious pro to cash back rewards is the ability to save on just about everything.
With most cash back cards, you’ll earn cash back with each purchase that can later be redeemed for a statement credit. Cash back rewards are like a rebate good for any credit card purchase.
The amount you can earn will vary based on the card you choose and how you spend, with some cards offering big bonus rewards for purchases in popular categories like gas and groceries. And some issuers even have options for credit-builders to earn cash back rewards, so a bad credit score doesn’t have to get in the way of saving on every purchase.
Con: Some Cards Have Annual Fees
The first major con you’ll encounter with some rewards credit cards is the annual fee. The more rewards, perks, and benefits a card offers, the higher its annual fee is likely to be — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, depending on the card, you can often come out ahead of even the highest annual fees.
For example, a credit card with a $100 annual fee might seem steep, but if that card offers a high rewards rate in a category you use frequently — say dining or groceries — then you could easily earn more rewards in one year than you spend on the annual fee.
Of course, if you won’t get more out of the card than the annual fee is worth, it’s easy enough to avoid; just select a card without an annual fee. Dozens of great rewards cards are available sans annual fee, so you don’t need to pay to earn rewards.
Pro: You Can Fly or Stay for Free
Another prominent pro of rewards credit cards is the same one you often read about: free travel. If you’ve mastered cash back rewards and want to up your rewards game (and you like to travel) then a points or miles rewards credit card can provide significant value.
That’s because points and miles often have variable value based on how you redeem them, with travel redemptions almost always providing the best rate. In most cases, the very best redemption value will come from transferring your credit card points to an airline or hotel loyalty program, which allows you to redeem for free flights and hotel stays with your favorite brands.
Most points and miles credit cards offer the ability to maximize your earnings with the right combination of bonus categories, allowing you to rack up rewards at a remarkable rate all year long for your big summer vacation. Plus, the majority of travel rewards credit cards come with large signup bonuses, many of which are valuable enough for free travel right off the bat.
Con: Carried Balances Accrue Interest Fees
Another caution of rewards credit cards is also true of any credit card: the interest fees. When you use a credit card, you are essentially borrowing money from the card issuer to make a purchase. Interest fees are the cost of borrowing that money. Since credit card interest rates can be high, especially if you have a low credit score, carrying a balance on your credit card can get expensive quickly.
However, you can easily avoid being charged interest simply by ensuring you never charge more than you can repay in a single billing cycle. The majority of credit cards operate with an interest fee grace period on new purchases. This means you won’t be charged interest on your balance so long as you pay it in full before your due date.
Pro: You Can Get Extra Perks & Benefits
As if savings and free travel weren’t enough, rewards credit cards have another big pro: extra perks and benefits. To start, all the major networks — Amex, Discover, Mastercard, and Visa — offer cardholder benefits for most of their rewards credit cards that can include perks like primary or secondary rental car insurance and concierge services.
Additionally, rewards credit card issuers also provide many money-saving cardholder benefits and useful perks, including things like cellphone protection and exclusive discounts. Travel rewards credit cards, in particular, are much-lauded for their extensive cardholder benefits that can include elite hotel or airline status, annual statement credits, and airport lounge access.