Credit Cards With Potentially Confusing Rewards Programs

These cards aren't the simplest or most straightforward, but they may work well for maximizers who don't mind a little legwork in exchange for outsize rewards.

Sara RathnerMarch 17, 2021
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There’s no shortage of rewards credit cards that offer enticing perks worth real money — potentially hundreds of dollars each year.

But if the rewards program is complicated to navigate, it can be tough to get value out of your card. Instead of saving money, you’re left with a pile of points that were hard to earn and even harder to cash in. That’s why the Nerds consider how easy it is to use a rewards program when making our picks for the best credit cards.

There will always be those who relish the challenge of optimizing more complicated cards, especially if it means earning outsize rewards. These cards fit that bill well.

Cash-back cards

Chase Freedom Flex℠

Chase Freedom Flex
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The Chase Freedom Flex℠ essentially combines two rewards structures into one card. You get tiered rewards that are fixed, on top of 5% bonus categories that change every quarter:

  • Earn 5% cash back on travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.

  • Earn 3% back at drugstores and restaurants.

  • Earn 1% back on everything else, except when you ...

  • Earn 5% back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in bonus categories each quarter you activate (1% back after that).

Through March 31, 2021, for instance, the quarterly bonus categories are wholesale clubs, select streaming services, and internet, cable and phone services.

Oh, and you can also earn 5% back on Lyft rides through March 2022. That's potentially a lot of value — but also a lot to track.

U.S. Bank Cash+™ Visa Signature® Card

The U.S. Bank Cash+™ Visa Signature® Card takes the quarterly bonus cash-back concept and mixes in the ability to customize your rewards categories. You'll earn:

  • 5% cash back on two categories of your choice from a list of several options (on up to $2,000 spent per quarter on combined purchases).

  • 2% back on an everyday category of your choice, such as gas, groceries or restaurants.

  • 1% back on all other purchases.

As with the Chase Freedom Flex℠, you'll have to activate your bonus categories every three months and keep track of multiple categories. But with the U.S. Bank Cash+™ Visa Signature® Card, your customizable options are narrower. "Fast food" may qualify for 5% back, for example, not all restaurants. Or "select" clothing stores may net you 5% back, but not every single one.

Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card

Bank of America® Cash Rewards Credit Card
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The Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card also offers the ability to customize your quarterly rewards:

  • Earn 3% cash back in one of these categories: gas, online shopping, dining, travel, drugstores or home improvement/furnishings.

  • Earn 2% back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs.

  • Earn 1% back on everything else.

But those 3% and 2% cash-back earnings are capped each quarter at a combined $2,500 in spending. After that, you’ll earn 1% back in those categories. While your spending caps are measured by the quarter, you can actually change your bonus category once a month.

Redeem your rewards in the form of a statement credit, check, direct deposit into a Bank of America® checking or savings account, or as a contribution to a qualifying Merrill cash management or 529 account.

Speaking of having an existing relationship with Bank of America® or Merrill, if you’re a Preferred Rewards member, you can earn 25% to 75% more cash back on every purchase.

Also worthy of mention ...

Sometimes, a card's complications come less with earning rewards and more with burning them.

For instance, the Fidelity® Rewards Visa Signature® Card technically earns 2X back on all purchases — but only if you opt to deposit your earnings into eligible Fidelity accounts. If you redeem for travel, merchandise, gift cards or a statement credit, point values will vary.

Or consider cards like the SoFi Credit Card and the Sallie Mae Accelerate, which offer cash-back programs that incentivize paying down your student loans and investing. But there are caveats to their seemingly straightforward rewards rates:

  • The SoFi Credit Card earns 2 points per $1 spent on eligible purchases. Those points are worth 1 cent each when deposited as cash into your SoFi Money or Invest account, or as a payment toward your SoFi personal or student loan. If you redeem for a statement credit, though, your points are worth half as much.

  • The Sallie Mae Accelerate earns 2.5% cash back for the first year (on up to $20,000 in spending), then 1.25%. You’ll get a 25% bonus on those points — but only if you redeem them to pay down any federal or private student loan.

Travel rewards cards

Orbitz Rewards® Visa® Card

Comenity Capital Bank Orbitz Rewards Visa Card Credit Card
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You’ll earn up to 9% back with the Orbitz Rewards® Visa® Card, but exactly how much you’ll earn depends both on what you purchase with the card and on what platform you do so.

  • Earn 9% back on eligible hotel stays and activities booked on the Orbitz app.

  • Earn 8% back on eligible hotel stays and activities booked on Orbitz.com.

  • Earn 7% back on flights and travel packages booked on the Orbitz app.

  • Earn 6% back on flights and travel packages booked on Orbitz.com.

  • Earn 5% back on all other qualifying Orbitz purchases.

  • Earn 2% back on all other purchases.

Got all that? Whew.

Rewards are earned in the form of “Orbucks,” and each Orbuck equals $1. But you can redeem them only for hotel bookings through Orbitz.

Hotels.com Rewards Visa Credit Card

You know how some coffee shops give out those punch cards that let you caffeinate yourself toward a free 12-ounce medium roast? Sub out the coffee for hotel stays, and you’re closing in on how the Hotels.com Rewards Visa works. But it gets complicated pretty quickly.

  • With the credit card, spend $500 in purchases to earn a “stamp” valued at $110.

  • However, credit card aside, you also earn stamps just by being a member of the Hotels.com loyalty program and booking a stay through Hotels.com. These stamps are valued at the price you paid for the room.

Once you accumulate 10 stamps, you earn a hotel stay — but not for any kind of stay you want. The value of your "reward night" is worth the average value of those 10 stamps you collected. And that average value can vary, depending on how you accumulated your stamps. If it was entirely via credit card spending, you get a hotel stay worth $110. But if not? You may need a calculator handy.

Nerdy tip: You can only redeem the 10-stamp reward by booking a stay on Hotels.com. You’ll pay taxes, fees and any cost of the room that exceeds the value of the reward. If the room costs less than the value of the reward, you lose out on the difference.

Barclays’ cruise line credit cards

Barclays issues several co-branded credit cards for cruise lines, including:

Terms and conditions vary slightly among the cards, but in general, you redeem rewards in the form of a statement credit to cover eligible purchases, which can include cruise bookings, onboard purchases and, in some cases, airfare.

Simple enough on the surface, but here’s where the water gets choppy: The value of your points can range from 1 to 2.5 cents each depending on how large of a statement credit you request, and on what you choose to redeem the rewards for. For example, with the Holland America Line Rewards Visa® Card:

  • Redeem $50 to $499.99 for a statement credit redemption value of 1%.

  • Redeem $500 to $1,499.99 for a redemption value of 1.25%.

  • Redeem $1,500 to $2,000.99 for a redemption value of 1.50%.

  • Redeem $2,001 to $4,000.99 for a redemption value of 2.00%.

  • Redeem $4,001 and up for a redemption value of 2.50%.

But that’s only when you redeem to cover the cost of a Holland America cruise. You can also redeem for airfare or cruises on other World’s Leading Cruise Line brands (including Carnival, Costa, Princess Cruises and more), but the redemption value in that case will only be 1%.

Most travel credit cards do not feature such complex tiered point redemption values, instead offering points that have a fixed redemption value.

Also worthy of mention ...

Several Citi-issued credit cards earn Citi ThankYou rewards, and while such rewards can be valuable — especially for travelers — the rewards program itself can be hard to navigate compared with similar programs from major issuers.

  • Point values are hard to nail down: Redeeming ThankYou rewards toward travel can potentially earn you outsize value, but redeeming them for cash back/statement credit will slash the value in half.

  • Transfer partners and transfer ratios vary widely: Depending on your card, you may be able to transfer your ThankYou points to partner airline loyalty programs. But some cards have only one transfer partner, while others have more than a dozen. The transfer ratio, too, can vary. In most cases, it's 1-to-1, meaning 1,000 ThankYou points would be equal to 1,000 airline miles in a partner program. But in other cases, 1,000 ThankYou points may equal only 800 airline miles, depending on the loyalty program. Also, Citi has only one domestic travel partner — JetBlue — so if you aren't ready to learn the ins and outs of Avianca, Cathay Pacific, Etihad and Turkish Airlines, your ThankYou points may be hard to use this way.

A head-scratching store card

Sam's Club® Mastercard®

Synchrony Bank Sams Club Mastercard Credit Card
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The Sam's Club® Mastercard® earns up to 5% cash back at Sam’s Club, but there are several caveats.

First, to earn that rate, you must be a Sam’s Club Plus member, which costs $100 a year. (At the lower-tier Club membership level, which costs $45 per year, you’d earn only 1% back on Sam’s Club purchases, quite a poor rate. Any number of cards earn at least 1.5% back on all purchases.)

Secondly, the card's 5% rate at Sam's Club is actually a combination of rates: 2% back for being a Plus member, and 3% back for using the Sam's Club® Mastercard®. And that split means there's even more to keep track of:

  • While the 3% back from the card applies to Sam's Club purchases in-store or online, the 2% back via your Plus membership doesn't apply to purchases made via samsclub.com.

  • The 2% rate you earn as a Plus member is capped at $500 in rewards a year. (Total rewards-earning ability for all purchases is capped at $5,000 a year.)

  • The 2% is also subject to a $2,000 overall "maximum balance." Once you hit that, you must reduce that balance (by redeeming rewards) in order to earn any more.

As if all that weren't enough to manage, the card also earns 5% back on gas on up to $6,000 in spending per year (then 1%). Plus, you'll earn 3% back on dining.

And unlike many other rewards credit cards, your earnings with the Sam's Club® Mastercard® are awarded to you only once a year, in the February after the calendar year in which you earned them.