Image: woman swiping a credit card © Rubberball, Mike Kemp, Rubberball, Getty Images

Conventional wisdom says you should try to get 1% or 2% returns from your rewards credit cards. Air traffic controller Sam Ackland, 25, would feel like a slacker if he settled for that.

Ackland says he gets at least 4% back on every credit card purchase and often gets more, using six different cards plus a couple of online malls.

“I try to get 7% cash back average per year,” said Ackland, who lives in New York.  “I spend about $40,000 on credit card purchases. Forty thousand times 7 percent is $2,800.  Not a bad Christmas bonus every year!”

Ackland is among a cadre of serious rewards card enthusiasts who pride themselves on making the most of their points. They scour websites for new offers, trade tips with other reward virtuosos and carry wallets fat with plastic so they can deploy the right card at the right time.

You don’t need quite that level of dedication to get more from your rewards cards. Just taking a few pointers from these reward champions could dramatically improve your return.

“Getting rewards can be a complicated game, but at the basic level, anyone can play and win,” said Dan Ray, an editor at CreditCards.com. “I feel about credit card rewards the same way I do about not taking your boss's matching contribution in a 401k, or walking away from a poker game leaving your chips on the table: It's free money, people. Take it.”

To cash in like these credit card ninjas, you must:

  • Never carry a credit card balance. The math doesn’t work if you pay any interest on your purchases.
  • Have a great FICO credit score. The best rewards card offers are typically reserved for those with FICOs of 750 and above.
  • Spend, but with discipline. Ninjas typically put all or most of their monthly expenses, including rent, utilities and groceries, on their cards. But they warn against using a card if you have to pay a surcharge that wipes out the reward or if you’re spending just to get the points. “A common mistake that reward cardholders make is they get caught up in the excitement of earning rewards on everything they spend,” said Bill Hardekopf of LowCards.com, “which sometimes can lead to spending too much on their cards.”
  • Research constantly. CreditCardForum and the credit card recommendations at MyFico are two sites that can tip you off to special offers and new techniques for earning and using points.Sites dedicated to maximizing rewards include The Points Guy, Flyertalk.com, Milepoint and Frequent Flyer University, among others. Deal sites such as Dealnews, Slickdeals and FatWallet.com also can alert you to some of the bigger promotions. Deal sites such as dealnews.com, Slickdeals and FatWallet also can alert you to some of the bigger promotions.

It’s just as important to find the best way to redeem points, several rewards ninjas said. That often means exploring different options and doing some math.

“Sometimes (the most lucrative reward) is in the form of a statement credit,” said Gabriel L. Best II, a 32-year-old financial services supervisor in Nashville.  “Sometimes that means I need to redeem them for airline miles. Many times that means I should redeem them for gift cards to popular retailers and restaurants.”

Maximizing rewards may take more than one step. Engineer Arvind Kulkarni, 56, uses his Chase Freedom card to earn 5% rewards in different “bonus” categories that change every three months. Then he transfers the points to his Chase Sapphire Preferred account, which offers a 25% bonus on airline tickets booked via its Ultimate Rewards site.

“This means you can buy a $500 ticket from $400 rewards accumulated,” Kulkarni said. A 25% bonus on 5% means an effective yield of 6.25%, he said.

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