Credit cards can offer more than convenience; they can also be a tool for earning valuable rewards points. According to a recent CreditCards.com survey, 40% of credit card users said rewards and cash back were their favorite benefits of the card they used most often. Sixty-two percent of cardholders aged 27 to 36 chose rewards and cash back as their top features. A different survey from CreditCards.com found that Americans are increasingly using credit cards to make smaller purchases. In that survey, 17% of those polled said they routinely use credit cards to pay for purchases of $5 or less.

Whether you stick to using your credit card for big purchases or also include small ones, you want to make sure you’re getting the most rewards possible on every purchase. With so many different cards from which to choose, however, finding the card with the best rewards program can be difficult. Keep reading to learn how rewards from three of the largest credit card issuers measure up. (For more, see How to Make Credit Card Rewards Worth It.)

Credit Card Rewards Points Go Head to Head

American Express, Chase and Citi are three of the biggest players on the credit card scene. All three offer rewards programs, but there are subtle differences that it pays to understand. Knowing the finer points of each program can help you choose the one that has the best rewards for your spending style.

American Express Membership Rewards®

The Membership Rewards® program from American Express (AXP) offers numerous opportunities to redeem rewards points earned with an eligible American Express credit card. For example, you can use your points to book travel through American Express Travel. Your rewards points are redeemable for part or all of the cost of flights, prepaid hotel stays, vacations, cruise bookings and Airbnb stays. The redemption value of each point varies based on how you're using them. 

For instance, when you pay with points for flights through American Express Travel, every 10,000 points is worth $100 towards your ticket. Each point is worth one cent. If you book an Airbnb stay, on the other hand, 10,000 points are equal to $70 in redemption value. In that case, each point is worth one-seventh of a cent. The distinction is important for getting the most mileage possible from your points. 

Membership Rewards® points transfer to participating airline and hotel frequent traveler programs, such as Delta SkyMiles, British Airways Executive Club, Hilton Honors™ and the Starwood Preferred Guest program. Points do not transfer on a 1:1 basis for every program. For example, 1,000 Membership Rewards® points are equivalent to 1,000 SkyMiles if you need to catch a flight, but if you’re booking a hotel, they’re worth 333 Starpoints at Starwood. (For more, see Top Airline Miles Credit Cards.

Points can also be redeemed for gift cards to partner brands, shopping at partner merchants, including Amazon.com and BestBuy.com, tickets to selected entertainment events, Uber fares, charitable donations or statement credit, but not cash. When you redeem for statement credit, the value of each point is six-tenths of a cent. Be aware that the type of card you have can affect the value of points.

Citi ThankYou

To participate in Citigroup's (C) Citi ThankYou program, you'll need to have a participating Citi credit card. Once you're enrolled in an eligible card account and you're earning points, you can use your rewards in a number of ways. 

Like the Membership Rewards®, Citi ThankYou members can redeem points for travel. Points can be applied to flights, hotel stays, rental cars, vacation packages and cruises booked directly through the Citi Travel Center. The value of those points varies based on how they're being used and the carrier you book travel through. For example, if you're booking flights, your points may be worth as little as one cent apiece on certain airlines while the value increases to 1.6 cents each when you fly American Airlines and on some codeshare flights with an AA flight number.

ThankYou points can also be transferred to a number of airline and hotel partners, including JetBlue, Hilton Honors™ and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. Again, the points don't always transfer on a 1:1 basis. For instance, you can redeem 1,000 ThankYou points for 750 TrueBlue (from JetBlue) points, 1,000 Asia Miles or 1,500 Hilton Honors points. You’ll need to compare the transfer options carefully to determine which one offers the most bang for your buck. (For more, see Credit Cards That Will Get You First Class Flights.

Gift cards, shopping, statement credit, charitable donations and cash are other available redemption options. Just remember that your points may not hold the same value when redeeming for one of these options versus travel. For example, points are worth one half of a cent each when redeeming for statement credit or cash. 

Chase Ultimate Rewards

The Ultimate Rewards program from JP Morgan Chase (JPM) applies to participating Chase credit cards. Members can redeem points for travel, including flights, hotels, cruises and rental cars. Chase offers a unique feature to provide more value for Ultimate Rewards members, compared to the other rewards programs profiled.

 When you book travel through the Ultimate Rewards portal, you’ll earn a 20% points discount on your booking. Ordinarily, the points redemption value would translate to one cent for each point. A $500 flight would cost you 50,000 points. With the 20% discount, you’d only need 40,000 points to book, increasing the value of each point to 1.25 cents. 

Card members also enjoy one-to-one points transfers to participating hotel and airline loyalty programs. Those partners include Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards®, United MileagePlus®, Marriott Rewards® and IHG® Rewards Club. These options are different than some you’ll have access to through American Express or Citi. The value of points may range from one cent each to four cents each, depending on which partner you're transferring points to. 

Aside from travel, you can also redeem Ultimate Rewards points for items in the Ultimate Rewards mall or for gift cards and cash. You get a slightly better value on cash back and statement credit redemptions compared to Citi. Each point is worth one cent each when you redeem for cash back or statement credit which is double what Citi offers. The number of points – and the corresponding value – required to redeem for gift cards or merchandise varies based on the card or item to which you’re applying rewards.

The Bottom Line

Choosing a winner ultimately depends on what you’re looking for in a rewards card. If it’s a big introductory rewards bonus, either the Membership Rewards® or Ultimate Rewards program is likely to be your best bet. Both feature cards offering new account bonuses of 50,000 points and up, while Citi’s highest bonus offer currently tops out at 40,000 points.

Comparing your redemption options and their associated value is another marker by which you can gauge the quality of each card’s rewards. For example, if you want the ability to transfer your points to a frequent flyer program, you’ll need to look at the airlines each card issuer partners with. As a general rule, you’ll get the most out of your rewards when redeeming them for travel; changing them into cash is likely to yield the least value. Taking in the full picture of each program’s pros and cons can help you narrow down your final choice.

 

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