The best travel and rewards credit cards offer a tantalizing game of risk. If you can charge your purchases and rack up rewards without carrying a balance or paying interest, you usually win. If you overspend with credit and wind up in debt, on the other hand, you lose the game — and will pay through the nose.
Still, there are more facets to this game that extend far beyond the risk of debt. If you choose your rewards and travel cards wisely and use them strategically, you can earn a lot more points and miles over time. Staying loyal to a brand can also help you make the most of your efforts, but only in certain situations.
This is why it’s important to know when loyalty pays off. Here are some scenarios where sticking to one rewards credit card or one loyalty program can work in your favor.
When you can reach your redemption goals faster
Staying loyal to a rewards brand can pay off by helping you reach optimal redemptions faster. For example, let’s say you mostly stick with flexible rewards programs that let you transfer points to your favorite airline loyalty program. If you were to focus all your spending with one brand of cards that lets you transfer miles, your collective efforts with a single card brand would let you rack up points you can transfer a lot faster than attempting the same thing with several cards from different brands.
Or perhaps you’re loyal to a single airline or hotel loyalty program. So, imagine you want to fly first class with a particular airline to Europe for 115,000 miles round-trip. It might be difficult to secure this redemption if you were earning miles and sign-up bonuses with several airlines within a year. However, it would be a much easier task to earn the miles for this flight if you specifically used that airline’s co-branded credit card, cashed in any sign-up bonuses, and flew mostly with that airline for a while.
When you can earn free hotel stays
There are also situations in which pooling your points can help you earn better redemptions. One example is with hotel loyalty programs that let you earn a fifth night stay for free. With fifth-night-free promotions, keeping all your hotel in points with one brand makes a lot of sense since you get to book five nights for the price of four. (See also: 6 Ways My Family Scores Free Travel With Credit Cards)
However, this only works when you have enough points to book four consecutive nights, which may not happen if you’re enrolled in several hotel programs at once.
When you can earn category bonus points
If your goal is earning a ton of points and miles, you need to make sure you’re maximizing the travel cards you have. By and large, this means using the right card for the right purchase and making the most of category bonuses when you can (e.g. using a card that offers bonus points on dining when you eat at a restaurant).
Take the guesswork out of that by downloading an app like Reward Summit. This service will take a look at your rewards cards before you make a purchase and tells you which card would be optimal based on the rewards you will earn.
When you strategically pursue sign-up bonuses
While ongoing rewards can be lucrative, credit card sign-up bonuses are where the real value is at. Many cards let you earn bonuses worth $500 or more just for spending $3,000 or $4,000 on your card within a few months.
To get the most out of these offers, expect to sign up for a new rewards card with your preferred card issuer or rewards program every year. This way, you’re always working toward a minimum spending requirement and a big chunk of cashback, airline miles, or flexible travel rewards.
When you get your spouse or partner on board
Remember that you don’t have to chase sign-up bonuses or ongoing rewards alone. Your spouse or partner can earn the same rewards you are, including sign-up bonuses — and this is true even if you share the same address.
When you get your spouse involved, you can easily earn double the rewards in the same amount of time. You could even do better if you’re able to pool your points with a spouse for optimal redemptions. (See also: 9 Surprising Ways Marriage Can Make You Richer)
When you pay all your expenses with credit
Don’t forget the importance of paying all or most of your bills with credit — at least the ones that don’t charge a fee for paying with plastic. This should include bills like groceries, gas, insurance premiums, utility bills, and dining out. The more expenses you can pay with a rewards card, the more points and miles you will rack up by default.
When you pay your balances in full
It’s important to remember the ultimate credit card hack: Paying your balances in full every month. None of these tips and tricks will work in your favor if you’re carrying a balance and paying credit card interest every month. With the average credit card now charging over 17% APR, that interest will wipe out your rewards and then some. (See also: 15 Ways Your Life Is Better When You Have Good Credit)