With this season’s flurry of purchasing—and the pileup of points on your cards—knowing how to work those rewards programs can make a difference. But who has the time to wade through the details? Real Simple asked Matt Schulz, a senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com, a marketplace and resource center, to short-list the best strategies.

By Yelena Moroz
Updated November 25, 2015
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Credit card rewards
Credit: Pgiam/Getty Images
Credit card rewards
Credit: Pgiam/Getty Images

Play Your Cards Right.

Some credit cards offer generous rewards for specific spending categories—groceries, gas, movies, home repair—so using certain cards for certain purchases makes sense. A free app called Smorecard will do the thinking for you. Download it, then indicate which cards you carry. (It won’t ask for card numbers, just names.) It uses a GPS to find you the best return based on your location. If, for example, you’re at the supermarket, it will show you which of your cards has a grocery cash-back program in play.

Get Gift Cards Instead of Merch.

Some retailers, like Amazon, sync with your credit card to allow you to pay for purchases with points. But first check the point-to-dollar ratio; it’s not always favorable. If a $50 item costs 6,500 points, you’re better off redeeming rewards for a $50 gift card to the retailer—for probably just 5,000 points. While each card has its own dollar-to-point formula, you’ll probably get about $1 on a gift card for 100 points collected.

Work Your Way Up.

The most, er, rewarding rewards cards go to people with great credit. You might be tempted to apply for one of these even if you’re unlikely to be approved. What’s the harm, right? Well, if your credit isn’t top-notch, there is harm. Application rejections temporarily ding your credit score and thus put you further back in line. To see which cards pair well with your score, go to Score Match on FinanceGlobe.com, a free financial-advice service.

Use Points to Pay Down Your Balance.

Yes, trading in points for a $100 gift card is cash in your pocket, but it doesn’t make sense to put cash there when you owe it to the card company—typically at an interest rate of 15 percent. If you’re living with credit-card debt month to month, check the rewards page to see if your card lets you use points toward the balance.

Friend Your Card Company.

Your credit card probably has a social presence—find it. (The best way is to go through the company’s official site, so you know that you’re following a valid account.) Not only will you be privy to tips on special perks—say, off-menu treats at a restaurant when you show a participating card—but you might also be handed extra points for participating in surveys.