Cash vs. miles vs. points "With reward cards, it's not necessarily one-size-fits-all," Arnold says. "It depends on your spending habits and personal preferences."
Arnold says he favors cash programs because they're straightforward, and the average person tends to reap a bigger benefit with them.
There are exceptions, he adds, such as airline reward cards that waive fees and allow you to quickly earn a couple of round trips.
But points that can be used to purchase items can be complicated, Arnold says, and the merchandise is usually marked up. You would be better off many times earning a cash reward and using the money to buy the item for less at a store, he says.
Don't carry a balance If you don't pay off your credit cards in full each month, you need a card with the lowest possible interest rate — not a reward card.
Reward cards typically charge a higher rate of about 1 percentage point over cards without such perks, Arnold says. By rolling over a balance month to month, the interest you'll pay will wipe out any reward you earn.
Don't be late Some issuers won't pay rewards for the month if your payment is tardy. Or you can lose some or all of your rewards if you fall into arrears, Harzog says.
If you're struggling to pay a bill, says LowCards' Hardekopf, at least make the minimum payment on time so you don't lose rewards.
Maximize rewards If you shop online, check out whether the card company has partnerships with retailers. By accessing these retailers' through your card company's website, you might get a discount on merchandise, free shipping or extra cash back.
Best credit cards
Chase Freedom Visa: $200 bonus cash back after spending $500 in the first three months; 5 percent cash back on certain categories; 1 percent on all others. Ten percent cash back if you shop at selected merchants through Chase website. Annual percentage rate: 15.99 to 22.99, variable. Annual fee: none
Chase Sapphire Preferred: Earn 50,000 points, worth $625 toward air or hotel, after spending $3,000 in the first three months. Two points earned for every $1 spent on travel and dining; plus extra point if using Chase online booking. Annual fee: $95, waived the first year. APR: 15.24, variable. No foreign transaction fee.
Simmons First Visa Platinum: APR: 7.25 percent, variable. Annual fee: none. Perks include $1 million in travel accident insurance. Foreign transaction fee: 2.7 percent.