Key takeaways

  1. Your credit score will help determine which cards you qualify for
  2. Credit card fees, interest rates, and other terms vary widely
  3. Decide whether you want points to pay for travel, cash back, or free retail products
  4. Consider less obvious perks, such as travel insurance or concierge services
  5. Use your points carefully and intentionally to get the most value

Your friend just took a week-long trip for free, paid by credit card points. Another friend brags about how much they get in cash back every quarter. The credit card you’ve had for years hasn’t really paid off for you the way others have for your friends. It may be time for a new card.

With so many credit card options available, it can be difficult to decide which one is right for you. Do you go for a travel card that's linked with an airline or hotel chain? Or perhaps one that offers rewards towards the latest technology, like a new phone? Maybe you're after a card that pays maximum cash back? On top of all this, there are perks for signing up and transferring balances from other cards to consider. The list of choices seems endless.

The short answer is that it’s easier than you think to find a card that matches your lifestyle, values, and the life you’re working towards. Here’s how to get started.

Start with your credit score

While you’re deciding what credit card to choose, credit card issuers are determining whether or not they should choose you. Specifically, they’re looking at your credit score. Your credit score is a single number, generally between 300-850, that quantifies how well you handle credit. 

Multiple factors impact it; some of the major ones are:

  1. Do you pay your bills on time?
  2. How much do you owe on loans? 
  3. How far back does your credit history go?
  4. Do you have a balance on one or more credit cards?
  5. Have you opened multiple new credit accounts recently?

Credit cards generally require a credit score of 700, though some higher-end cards may require scores over 740. A higher credit score may also earn you a lower interest rate on your credit card balances.

Many websites, banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions make it possible to check your credit score for free. Checking your score through your bank or credit union or using an online tool is considered a “soft inquiry” and will not affect it. When applying for a credit card, the issuer will make a “hard inquiry,” which could affect your credit score by a few points. In most cases, the impact will be negligible, and the damage to your credit score usually drops off for good in a year or so. 

If your credit score is less than 700, many credit cards may not be available to you. Check with your current bank or credit union; they may have looser requirements for existing customers. Another option is to get a secured credit card. These cards require a cash deposit, which then “secures” the card. 

Choose your perks

Credit cards that offer rewards programs typically fall into three broad categories, General points, Specialty, and Travel. Here are some key points to consider while deciding if any of these options fit into your lifestyle and spending habits.

General points

  • Type of Offer: Cash back or flexible rewards/points that can be used for various perks.
  • Perks Included: Typically a fixed percentage of cash back or points on all purchases or different amounts of cash back or points for different spending on things like restaurants, groceries, rental cars, and more.
  • Best For: People who don’t necessarily travel a lot but plan to use their card for everyday spending at a variety of different businesses and want to earn cash back or points on qualified purchases.


  • Type of Offer: Rewards tied to a specific company or retailer offering points towards the company’s products or services. 
  • Perks Included:  These tend to vary from business to business but usually include discounts on products and services, special offers toward events or early access, and occasionally member services like free shipping or discounts to partnered brands.
  • Best For: People who frequently spend at a specific retailer or company or purchase more expensive items from a specific company, even if it is less frequent.


  • Type of Offer: Rewards towards hotel stays, airline tickets, TSA precheck, and other travel expenses.
  • Perks Included: These can be generally related to all travel or offer rewards for a specific airline, hotel chain, or rental car company. They often include extra perks such as accommodation or seat upgrades, companion tickets, lounge access, free checked bags, priority boarding, and more.
  • Best For: People who often travel for leisure or business. 

It’s important to carefully examine any credit card you’re considering and take note of the restrictions on points. For example, do they expire after a certain period of time? Do you need to use your card regularly to retain your points? Are there certain dates, commonly called “blackout dates,” when you can’t use your points? Keep in mind that each offer varies slightly, so it’s crucial to gain a comprehensive understanding of the benefits and weigh the trade-offs between different cards before making a decision.

Finally, look at any signup and annual bonuses a card may include, such as 10,000 points for opening an account or 5,000 points every year. Most will require you to spend a certain amount to qualify, but it can be a great way to earn lasting benefits from your credit card of choice.

Research the “hidden” perks

Many cards include other “hidden” benefits that aren’t advertised as heavily but still help you out. For example, some cards include insurance coverage if you use that card to pay for a rental car. Others offer early access to concert and event tickets which may be otherwise difficult to get, or other things you might not even think of as perks, like fee waivers when using your card in other countries. These benefits will be included in the cardholder agreement, which you can review before you choose a card.

Check the terms

Two other factors to keep in mind are fees and interest rates.

Generally, cards that charge an annual fee offer more robust rewards. Do the math to see if the extra rewards make up for the fee. Some cards with higher fees often have more luxurious perks, such as concierge services or lounge access, but are otherwise similar to cheaper options from the same carrier.

When you carry a balance on your credit card, the issuer charges interest on that amount – essentially loaning you money and adding interest to it. If you routinely carry a significant balance, research interest rates carefully. If you pay your bill in full each month or typically carry a low balance, interest rates are a non-factor compared to the other benefits a card may offer.

Use your points wisely and enjoy

While it may be satisfying to watch your points build up, there’s a powerful argument for using them sooner rather than later: points lose value over time. So unless you’re saving up for a bucket list trip or some other major purchase, most experts advise using points soon after accumulating them. This is especially true if points have an expiration date. Some cards offer value multipliers when you use points on qualified purchases. Depending on the card, this can be 1.5x or more the face value of your points, which can save you even more.

So check your credit score, decide what perks and rewards are most important to you, talk to your financial planner, and start researching the credit cards that best match what’s most important to you. You’ll be able to narrow down your list, find the right card, and be confident that you made a wise choice that will enable you to benefit even more from your everyday spending.