Start planning your holiday rewards strategy now

urfinguss/iStock/Getty Images

urfinguss/iStock/Getty Images

True, we’ve barely emerged from back-to-school season. But if you want to maximize your credit card rewards earnings over the holidays, you need to start planning even before you start seeing Santa in the mall.

Here are three things you should be thinking about rewards-wise in September.

1. Your shopping list

Hitting the mall last minute isn’t the best rewards strategy. Instead, make your list now so you can plot where to shop and earn the most rewards.

Rotating-category cards are often particularly holiday-friendly, offering 5 percent cash back on places holiday shoppers frequent – online retailers and department stores are past examples. If you don’t think you’ll maximize your card’s categories, consider buying gift cards and using them later, suggests Ralph Liberatoscioli, founder of rewards-maximization site PointsCentric.

Credit card shopping portals and card-linked deals programs also reward those who plan ahead. Via such programs, your card’s partner merchants offer extra cash back (beyond what you’d earn in their usual cash-back categories) or discounts. And they really ramp things up for the holidays.

“Merchants are willing to fork over a little more in terms of cash rewards because they know there’s a lot of competition around that time,” says Ben Mackinnon, founder of Kard, a browser extension that flags issuers’ card-linked offers. “So shopping portals and card-linked offers are of much, much higher value around the holidays.”

Shopping portals and deals programs function slightly differently from each other. For portals (which have more stationary offers), your best bet is to think about the retailers you will shop with this season and see which of your cards partners with these retailers, Mackinnon says. If you want to buy someone a TV, for example, and one of your cards partners with, say, Best Buy, you’ll want to keep an eye on that portal in the coming months.

Card-linked deals programs (Amex Offers, for example), are a bit more ephemeral, offering limited-time deals that may last only a couple days, Mackinnon says. If you have your shopping list ready in September and know you’d like to buy your mom a designer coat, you’ll be ready to pounce if you see a Tweet from your card’s deals program, offering a 20 percent discount or rewards boost on said coat.

“If you have access to that deal right now, why not take advantage now instead of waiting and maybe missing out on it?” Mackinnon says.

2. Sign-up bonuses you want to earn

Credit card sign-up bonuses are a great way to put extra spending to work because they require a (sometimes large) amount to be spent over a few months (which is probably what you’ll be doing around the holidays anyway). The pay-off? Tens of thousands more points than you’d earn via the card’s regular rewards program.

“This is a great opportunity to open a new travel rewards credit card that might offer 40,000 or 50,000 points for spending $3,000 in 3 months,” Liberatoscioli says. “If you do the math, the return on investment is much greater if you’re working towards always meeting a sign-up bonus.”

If the whole family is spending more, consider opening one card per adult in the household to simultaneously work towards two bonuses, Liberatoscioli suggests.

If you want to use holiday shopping to earn a sign-up bonus, the time to apply is September. That gives you plenty of time to get approved (and call the reconsideration line if you’re not instantly approved) and wait for the card to arrive in the mail so that you can start working toward the bonus.

And beware of returns. If you return a gift you bought with a card, that gets deducted from your spending progress toward the bonus, Liberatoscioli warns.

“Be very careful with the timing of any returns and ensure that even with a return or two, you are safely over the minimum amount of spend required,” Liberatoscioli says. “I advise my clients to always spend $200 to $300 over the requirement.”

3. Your holiday travel plans

Buying holiday travel (or travel in the new year) is another good way to harness your rewards.

While not necessarily card-related, airline miles programs will often offer extra miles if you spend a certain amount via their shopping portals during the holiday season – for example, you might earn 6,000 miles if you spend $1,250 via the portal.

“They tend to start right before Black Friday and continue through the holiday season,” Liberatoscioli says.

If you already have a bunch of credit card rewards heading into the holidays, you can often boost their value when you book plane tickets. American Express (a CreditCardForum advertising partner), for example, will sometimes make your Membership Rewards points worth more if you transfer them to a specific travel partner, Mackinnon says. Instead of being worth just 1 mile each, your MR points might be worth 1.25 miles each when you make the transfer. While programs do this year-round, you may notice more of these point-boosting opportunities around the holidays because rewards programs like to get points off their books near the end of the year, says Mackinnon.

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