Credit Cards With Potentially Confusing Rewards Programs

These cards aren't the simplest or most straightforward, but some of them may be ideal for maximizers who don't mind a little legwork in exchange for outsize rewards.
Sara Rathner
By Sara Rathner 
Edited by Kenley Young

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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.

  • 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 Sept. 30, 2021, for instance, the quarterly bonus categories are grocery stores and select streaming services.

Oh, and you can also earn 5% back on Lyft rides through March 2025. That's potentially a lot of value — but also a lot to track.

U.S. Bank Cash+® Visa Signature® Credit Card
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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. (See full list below.)

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

  • 1% back on other purchases.

  • Fast food.

  • Home utilities.

  • TV, internet and streaming.

  • Department stores.

  • Cell phone providers.

  • Electronics stores.

  • Sporting goods stores.

  • Movie theaters.

  • Gyms/fitness centers.

  • Furniture stores.

  • Ground transportation.

  • Select clothing stores.

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.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Another U.S. Bank-issued card — the U.S. Bank Shopper Cash Rewards™ Visa Signature® Card — can be complicated for the same reasons. It, too, requires you to enroll in bonus categories on a quarterly basis in order to lock in the top rewards rates. And it, too, has three rewards tiers and various spending caps to keep track of.

Bank of America® Customized Cash Rewards credit card

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

  • Earn 3% cash back in one of these categories: gas/EV charging stations, 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.

Yotta credit card

Unlike most cash-back cards, the Yotta credit card is a prize-linked financial product. That means you don’t earn guaranteed cash back with each purchase. Instead, you merely earn a 2% chance to have your most recent purchase refunded (the odds increase to 20% if you use the card at participating “Lucky Deal” merchants). You must have a Yotta account to have this card, and any refunds you win will be sent to that account.

The Yotta credit card is a starter card, providing a way to build credit without the risk of getting into debt or making late payments. There’s no credit check as part of the application process, and instead of the security deposit you’d make with a secured credit card, you set your credit limit by moving money in your Yotta account into a “bucket” dedicated to your card. Whatever’s in that bucket is yours to spend, and payments are automatically made on the 15th of each month. So you can’t overspend and you can’t pay late.

These are helpful guardrails if you want a card that keeps you disciplined, but they leave you ill prepared to manage a more traditional credit card where you can get into debt. But it’s those other cards that offer guaranteed cash-back rewards, not just the random chance of a refund.

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.

Travel rewards cards

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 might 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 airline 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.

Store credit cards

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

  • 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.

Shop Your Way Mastercard

Formerly branded as the Sears credit card, the Shop Your Way Mastercard offers valuable rewards rates across several categories:

  • 5% back in points on purchases at gas stations (a spending cap applies).

  • 3% back in points on eligible restaurant and grocery store purchases (a spending cap applies).

  • 2% back in points on eligible Sears and Kmart purchases.

  • 1% back in points on other eligible purchases.

Those are competitive earnings rates — especially for a store credit card for no annual fee. But there are several caveats to keep in mind. For one thing, the 5% and 3% rates apply only to the first $10,000 in combined gas, grocery store, and restaurant purchases per year. After that, all spending in those categories falls back to earning just 1% back. Secondly, those rewards don't come in the form of cash back. They are issued as Shop Your Way points, which have poor redemption values and come with a host of complex redemption terms. For example, most points expire 12 months after issuance, but certain targeted offers may issue points with a shorter redemption window.

And when you go to redeem your points, you'll be limited to shopping with the card's marketplace partners (primarily Sears and Kmart) or redeeming points for a gift card from the Shop Your Way gift card mall.

Also worthy of mention ...

When it comes to store credit cards, the fine print makes the difference between whether you're actually saving money or simply being tricked into spending more.

The Victoria's Secret Credit Card, for example, manages to boost its appeal with perks like 15% back in rewards on bras. The real secret, though, is that rewards are automatically issued in $10 increments, and once issued, those $10 rewards expire in 90 days. That makes it nearly impossible to save up points and cover the full cost of a purchase. In fact, given the prices of most Victoria's Secret apparel, you could easily end up spending more than you save.

The American Eagle Credit Card carries a similarly complicated rewards structure, with earnings rates that vary widely based on your loyalty level and even what you buy. Rewards are issued in $5 increments with an even shorter redemption window of just 60 days. None of this makes for a user-friendly experience for American Eagle's target demographic of young shoppers.

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