Everything you need to know before choosing a frequent flyer rewards card

Like many of life's finer experiences, the easiest way to access all the perks of an airline Business Class fare is with a credit card.

Not just any credit card, though. The key to the kingdom of luxury we speak of is a rewards credit card that rewards frequent flyer points for your chosen airline program per dollar spent and, hopefully, comes with an attractive sign-up bonus.

Naturally, 'tooling' the system to attain the points for a premium cabin fare is easier said than done. Because credit card companies purchase points from airlines to award to their banking customers, they have to spread the odds with caveats to earning to ensure everyone is a winner.

If you're thinking of changing frequent flyer programs or looking to reassess your credit options, here are some factors to consider in your quest for that flatbed seat with free-flowing champagne.

Rewards (with a catch)

The premise of every rewards credit card is the same: to award the cardholder points for every dollar spent. But don't think it's as simple as a one-to-one reward ratio.

Earning rates can vary between 0.75 to 1.5 or more and can be capped or reduced once you reach a monthly threshold. For example, one card may award 1 frequent flyer point for every dollar spent up to $7000 per month, then drop to 0.5 points per dollar spent for every dollar after that.

Like a bookie at a horse race, banks structure reward systems to ensure the balance of return is always in their favour. While one particular card may offer a higher rate of reward points, the fees attached to that card may be proportionately higher, and vice versa.

Be aware that there is also a difference between a rewards card that awards points for the bank's rewards program versus points toward a frequent flyer program, and that you may be required to choose which reward you want on sign-up.

Sign on the dotted line

An appealing aspect of many rewards credit cards is the sign-up bonus: a large sum of frequent flyer points awarded to the cardholder upon opening a new account. Some cards also award lounge access passes on sign-up.

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The sign-up bonus amount can vary widely – anywhere between a few thousand to 200,000 points or more – but can equate to a free flight or two, depending on your location.

Lounge passes are likewise a handy bonus, granting the holder of a pass instant access to the world of plenty behind the golden gates. Be mindful that some airlines can restrict pass holders in peak periods or during renovations, where space is limited.

The fine print

Like any credit lending arrangement linked to a rewards program, there are stipulations to be aware of regarding both your rate of reward and the award of bonuses.

It's not uncommon to encounter a minimum spend to qualify for a bonus, which could also be required within a set time period. Bonuses may also be triggered at anniversary points to ensure users keep accounts active or may simply require a regular monthly spend to qualify.

Likewise, pay attention to fees. These figures – such as the annual fee and overseas transaction fees – vary greatly between banks and cards, so consider how you plan to use a card before deciding on the appropriate bank and plastic.

Status vs. Points

Of course, once you've accumulated enough points to travel to your destination in style, your next goal should be to climb Status ranks. The easiest way to earn status is in the air. 

While a premium cabin fare will get you lounge access and a pipe of your favourite bubbly once you're nestled into your pod on board, retaining these privileges at lower seat classes requires Status.

With carefully planned spending and travel, it's possible to cycle points into regular flights to maintain your Status, ensuring you get the most out of your rewards card.

All details correct at time of publishing – may be subject to change without notice. Always check the terms and conditions before making a financial commitment.

On any given day, you'll find Mark Gambino exploring the worlds of luxury travel, technology and alcohol; putting his spin on the experiences that define life's most memorable moments. He finds no greater pleasure than being behind the wheel of a luxury vehicle or sequestered in a basement bar to indulge a bibulous vice.

Follow him on Twitter.

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