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Published: 9/12/2006

Consumers need to read rewards credit-card rules

BY MARY-BETH McLAUGHLIN
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
About 75 percent of cards carry some sort of rewards deals.
About 75 percent of cards carry some sort of rewards deals.
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Travel agent Sarah Rosenberger doesn't disagree that she might be a likely candidate to use a rewards credit card to rack up points for free trips.

Yet the Central Travel agent said she hasn't even bothered to get such a card because of the difficulty in trying to help clients arrange trips by redeeming points from their cards.

"We usually have to charge them a service fee because it's a lot of work," she said. "Rewards cards are not necessarily easy to use."

With more than 6 billion credit card solicitations sent out every year, and about 75 percent of them carrying having some kind of reward program, according to CreditCards.com, at least half of all cards carrying some type of reward, consumers are increasingly seeking cards that give them something back for their spending, whether it's free trips, merchandise, or even cash.

But they need to educate themselves and pick the right cards for their lifestyles or they won't get the desired benefits, industry experts said.

"The only thing you really have to remember is that you have to read as much of the fine print as you can before you go ahead and get a card," said Justin McHenry, research director of industry-tracker IndexCreditCards.com.

About 80 percent of all rewards cards carry no annual fee, but the typical annual finance charge is about 14 percent, or four percentage points higher than the average credit card, according to CardWeb.com, Inc., an online research firm.

Dave Bowen, an executive vice president at National City Bank in Cleveland, said the bank added a rewards card because of customer expectations.

But, he noted, "A lot of programs you get only work if you change your behavior."

Ms. Rosenberger, the travel agent, said she has seen clients chagrined to learn that their dream trip to Hawaii needs to be booked a year in advance and requires 60,000 miles versus the 25,000 they need to travel to Atlanta from Toledo.

"When you get into these reward cards, it can be an absolute nightmare," she said.

Many programs have black out dates or only have select availability for certain times of the year, she said.

Consumers should take care if the words "up to" are included in the offer, rather than an offer for a "full" percentage rebate, Mr. McHenry said. The term "up to" usually means a card user will earn much less until his yearly purchases exceed very high levels.

Also, in most rewards programs a point earns a penny in spending power. If your card's program requires say, 10,000 points for a $50 gift card, look for a better offer, Mr. McHenry said.

Robyn Freedman Spizman, a national consumer advocate, said a survey of mothers conducted recently for Disney Rewards Visa Card from Chase found 31 percent unsure of what rewards the card offered.

"We're all so very busy and overwhelmed that we need to find cards that are easy to use and that have clear benefits that relate to our lifestyles," she said.

Contact Mary-Beth McLaughlin at

mmclaughlin@theblade.com

or 419-724-6199.



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