Redeeming reward points can be frustrating


Americans racked up about $48 billion in reward points in 2010. Research shows the average household has 18 loyalty program memberships, but nearly one-third of those points are never redeemed.

Karen Stealey wanted a free exercise bike, so the working mom saved up her credit card points for years.

"I love spinning," said Stealey. "It's my favorite thing to do."

Melissa Cenker wanted a flight to Hawaii, so she paid for graduate school and business expenses with plastic to save enough miles.

"We were stockpiling and we were watching them, watching them add up," Cenker said.

But when Stealey and Cenker went to go redeem their points, they hit a dead end.

"I tried to buy the bike for about six months, and every single time I went on it was out of stock," Stealey said, who later found out the bike was discontinued.

Cenker says she picked the flight she wanted, and when she went to go book it, it was no longer available.

"That was the only date that worked for us," Cenker said.

Stealey and Cenker aren't the only frustrated consumers. Though the Better Business Bureau doesn't track complaints about points programs specifically, it does tell us that a quick review of its credit card files shows hundreds of complaints about rewards.

A recent survey shows each year, at least $16 billion in rewards points go unredeemed, which is about $205 wasted dollars per American household.

The top reasons people don't redeem rewards: They forget or don't have enough points, and some sites charge you a fee to sell or trade points.

The chairwoman of the Retail and Advertising Marketing Association does admit that not all programs make it easy for the consumer to claim their prize.

"It's really the fault of the business," said Kathy Doyle Thomas. "If we make it so hard for you to redeem your cards, then we failed you."

Before signing up for a program, know the rules about a company's program, then pick the one that has the lowest point requirement to get a reward. Then, stick to that retailer or use that one credit card to reach your goal faster.

The key is to use them and don't lose them, because anytime you don't cash them in, you're just helping the business' bottom line. Remember: It's your money and your reward, but it's up to you to keep track of them.

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