Web sites can help sift through the many types of reward cards

By Betty Lin-Fisher Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT) If you’re the type of consumer who pays off your credit-card bill each month, are you also earning a perk from that credit card? You should be. Some experts estimate that more than 700 credit cards offer perks _ such as cash back, free gas or saving on a new car. Many do so without charging an annual fee. Other cards reward your loyalty to an airline, a retailer or even a hotel chain. Newer perk cards even deposit rebate rewards into college savings plans. It’s mind-boggling to wade through all the cards and their perks, but a number of Web sites can help. I didn’t find one that claimed to have every card, but with new offers popping up every day, that’s probably an impossible feat. The most helpful sites I found were www.bankrate.com and www.cardratings.com. Bankrate.com’s site will give you a list of about 80 reward or cash-back cards. Links to the issuing banks’ sites are rare, if you want to see all the terms and conditions. Bankrate.com lists most of the important terms and conditions in a comment section, and a toll-free number is provided. Cardratings.com has some advertising, but the sponsored cards are clearly marked. Beyond that, the site has more than 11,000 staff-written credit-card reviews, which are very helpful in pointing out the pros and cons of a card. The site also has more than 10,000 consumer reviews of cards, which is also a nice feature because it’s helpful to know what others like or dislike about a card. Navigating the site takes a bit of time to get used to. To go directly to a search function, which will allow you to enter the type of card you’re seeking (i.e., rebate-airline, rebate-cash) and whether you are willing to accept any type of annual fee, go to www.cardratings.com/reviews.html. Here are a few other sites, but I didn’t find them as thorough. Some are clearly sites that list only advertisers, but they could be helpful in gathering more information about a specific card. www.cardweb.com www.cardoffers.com www.creditcardgoodies.com www.creditcardcatalog.com www.credit-land.com www.expertcredit.com www.creditcardmall.com Curtis Arnold, founder of www.cardratings.com, said he advises consumers who don’t know what type of rewards card to get to try a cash-back card first “just because of the flexibility of cash.” If you’re a frequent traveler or you frequent a certain retail merchant, then it might make sense for you to get a card that gives you a rebate for merchandise, he said. “But if you’re just doing everyday spending in a variety of places and you’re looking for a rebate that’s flexible, then for most consumers, the cash-back cards make the most sense,” he said. However, cash-back reward cards offer the lowest percentage rebate on your purchases. That’s because of the liquidity of cold, hard cash, said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst with Bankrate.com. “The consumer can take the cash and spend it anywhere. With a plane ticket, you can only use them on a plane, and they may have blackout dates, or they may have sold out of the freebie seats. There are strings attached,” he said. Plus, it’s to the advantage of the company to get you to spend your rebate in its stores or on its products or services _ it’s giving the perk in hopes that you’ll spend more than your rebate. Companies are not necessarily giving away the perks because issuing credit cards is tremendously profitable, but they’re giving consumers back a bit of that profit margin, said McBride. However, reward cards are not for everyone. Because they offer perks, they typically have a higher annual percentage rate for finance charges. “Don’t be deceived by the reward if you’re carrying a balance. The rate you’re paying more than offsets the reward,” said McBride. Similarly, credit-card experts don’t think you should pay an annual fee. After all, you want to get rewards without paying an annual fee for it _ especially when so many cards are available without annual fees. Annual fees are part of the reason that airline reward cards may not be the best choice for some consumers. The average airline reward card charges a fee of $50; I saw some that have a fee of $85. On top of that, you typically have to earn 25,000 points (1 point is typically $1 spent) before you can earn your first free flight. If you don’t travel a lot to rack up miles and are relying on your credit-card spending to earn the free ticket, you’ll have to spend $25,000 to do so. Then add on the annual fee. “If it takes you five years to get 25,000 points, that’s five years of paying an annual fee. That free airline ticket just cost you 250 bucks,” said McBride. (Travel rewards typically expire after a year or two.) McBride said credit cards that offer frequent-flier miles can also lead an otherwise savvy consumer to make bad decisions. “It’s easier to push you into spending more than you otherwise would. You start purchasing those miles instead of evaluating what those things would cost,” he said. Arnold said airline rewards also may not work for people who don’t travel a lot or who can’t redeem their travel rewards quickly, because such rewards typically expire after a year or two. McBride said consumers should evaluate their spending habits in deciding what type of card to get. “Reward cards are plentiful,” he said. ___ ‘copy 2003, Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio). Visit Akron Beacon Journal Online at http://www.ohio.com/. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.