Read the fine print and make major finds

Know the terms and conditions of your programs. A quick read of a program’s parameters helps you learn how it fits (or doesn’t fit) your lifestyle. Does your usage means you aren’t likely to earn enough to make it worthwhile? Do you know the points’ expiration policy? Are the rewards relevant to you? Travel is a category where knowing makes all the difference. Among legacy carriers only American Airlines has strong inventory of domestic-travel seats at the 25,000point level; most airlines require twice that.

Take count, then use the cards that count the most

Count the loyalty program cards in your wallet and on your keychain. Add the ones where you just give your phone number. Belong to more programs than you realized? Join the club. The average U.S. household belongs to 18. Spreading shopping over that many programs dilutes the rewards value you get back. Ask yourself, “Which brands or companies do our family like and use the most?” And, “Which brands or companies offer the highest-value programs?” For example, if you are the outdoorsy type, look at memberships in stores like REI or Bass Pro Shops. REI members get discount rentals, shop services, savings on travel, and an annual dividend that bumps up with an REI Visa Card.

Double your savings with combo deals

A loyalty program that doubles earnings in “twofer” deals helps rack up points fast enough to make adjusting your shopping habits worthwhile. For example, a Target REDcard® saves 5 percent on any purchase. But join Target Pharmacy® Rewards too, and prescription buys can double savings to 10 percent. Some grocery memberships do the same with fuel programs tied to their in-store pharmacies. Another example would be booking a flight with a loyalty program credit card where the purchase awards you both airline points and credit card points.

Treat yourself to soft benefits

Practically all loyalty programs come with soft benefits that add real convenience and save time. Banana Republic offers free alterations to its loyalty program members. Kroger offers a phone app which easily downloads coupons directly onto a member’s Kroger Plus Card. Zappos ships and accepts return shipping free of charge for program members. Look for addons like ease of use, member-only shopping hours and check-in lines, free shipping, and special access to events to maximize your time and minimize daily hassles.

Keep track, keep it simple

Go back to the basics of maximizing rewards – use what you’ve earned. In selecting programs, pay close attention to how easy or difficult it is to earn and redeem. Consider using the services of rewards-tracking web sites that help consumers manage their points and miles. COLLOQUY research shows the average U.S. household active in loyalty programs earns $622 a year in points and miles but fails to redeem $205 of those rewards. Don’t leave money on the table.