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Over the past few years, rewards and points cards have become the smart shopper’s best friend. Since we all have to shop anyway, it makes sense to collect points along the way – points that can then be used to save on future purchases, get free travel, or scoot to the front of the line for concerts and reservations.

As competition among vendors intensifies – Aeroplan moved from CIBC to TD last year, and CIBC subsequently launched its own Aventura program – consumers are faced with a number of tough decisions: Which cards are better than others? How do we choose whether cards with annual fees are worth it over free offerings? Do we go for the basic hotel or airline card that simply earns points for that particular loyalty program? Or do we hit up our bank for a travel points credit and/or debit card that more comprehensively lets us redeem points for travel, rewards or even bank charges? Or do we choose a hybrid of the two?

Our wallets aren’t big enough to carry them all, and we all have different spending habits and needs. Some of us travel, while others stay closer to home and would rather collect points while shopping. Or filling the car with gas.

So how do we choose which cards make the most sense for us? It largely depends on who we are, and how we spend our money. Let’s take a closer look:

Busy parent

You’re running the kids from one activity to another, paying for everything from child care to gas to entertainment and groceries. You’ll ideally carry a retail points card, preferably for the store or stores you use most often; bank-issued credit card for everything else, and a grocery store loyalty card to cash in on all that food you’re buying. Optimal choices include:

  • Club Sobeys. With groceries making up a large – and growing – proportion of the typical family budget, this one is a no-brainer. This no-fee offering lets you accumulate points and use them for rewards or free groceries. A partnership with Aeroplan allows direct conversion for future travel. If you’re a President’s Choice fan, look into the similar PC Plus card, and if you don’t want to be locked into a specific store, opt for the MBNA SmartCash credit card.
  • Scotia Momentum Visa. This $99/year card returns 1% cash back on all eligible purchases, 2% back on eligible drug store purchases and recurring bill payments, and 4% back on many gas and grocery payments. Other cash back cards have different payment schedules which may match your own spending habits more closely.
  • BMO Air Miles Credit Card. This no-fee card lets you earn points on every credit card purchase, then redeem them for travel and gift cards. BMO’s CashBack MasterCard is a no-fee card that earns a flat 0.5% cash rebate on all purchases, and 1.5% from all Shell locations.

Business executive

The term frequent flier describes you to a T. You spend significant amounts of time away from home, and your reward for all that business travel is an occasional getaway for yourself and your often-lonely family. Ideally, you’ll have three cards in your wallet, including a travel rewards card, preferably with a company-paid annual fee, a points-gathering credit card to ensure you always have a second payment option when abroad, and a hotel-issued loyalty card. Here’s what we’d recommend:

  • American Express AeroplanPlus Gold. This card’s $120 annual fee gets you access to upgraded reservations at concerts, and also includes flight delay insurance. If you’re a road warrior, you can earn Aeroplan points on all your business-related expenses – which can get you that free vacation that much sooner.
  • RBC Visa Infinite Avion. With a $120 annual fee, built-in multipliers let you earn points faster. When it comes time to spend them, you’ll bypass the booking restrictions on flights that stymie other cardholders. You can also convert your points to other loyalty programs.
  • Starwood Preferred Guest credit card. Pay for your lodging with this card and rack up the points. Membership is free for the first year, and $65/year afterward. Points can be converted to most airline frequent flyer programs and travel accident and car rental insurance is included for free.

Avid traveller

Like the business executive, you log lots of time on planes, as well. But you pay your own way, and you’re there for fun, not work. You’d be best off with a combined travel points and American Express charge card, free or low-fee bank-issued credit card and a hotel loyalty card.

  • American Express AeroplanPlus. Like any standard Amex card, you’ve got to pay the balance in full each month. But its relatively modest $60 annual fee includes purchase protection – no more buying overpriced in-store extended warranties – and emergency travel assistance.
  • MBNA Rewards World Elite MasterCard. Its $89 annual fee includes automatic extended warranty coverage and purchase protection. If you hate making your own travel arrangements, membership gives you free access to MBNA’s concierge service.
  • Marriott Rewards. This free-to-enrol loyalty program covers a wide range of affordable hotels and includes free breakfast at most properties.

According to an American Express Canada survey released in October 2013, 60% of Canadians collected points through their existing bank’s credit card-based program, while only 15% bothered to do any research into which card made the most sense for them.

If you’re happy with your bank’s services, it may make sense to stick with its baseline offerings to take advantage of any bundling discounts. If you don’t like what your bank is offering, feel free to browse the growing number of competing cards. To sweeten the deal, many card issuers offer signup bonuses of 15,000 or more points, which could see you taking your first trip before you’ve even made your first purchase.

Take the time to assess your needs – travel, everyday spending, and the services that are most valuable to you – before deciding which cards deserve a permanent place in your wallet.