Illustration by Jade Schulz
By Jason Steele
Updated: December 5, 2019 10:43 AM ET | Originally published: December 4, 2019

With the holiday season here, chances are you’re looking for every possible way to save a few bucks. With a little know-how and planning credit cards can be part of your strategy.

First, you need to understand how credit card rewards work — what discounts they offer and what benefits they provide. Second, always remember never let the prospect of credit card deals lull you into spending more than you planned. Then you’re sure to come out behind, no matter what deals you snag.

That said, here’s how you can maximize your credit card’s perks to shop like a pro during the holidays:

Take advantage of seasonal credit card offers

Some popular rewards credit cards offer seasonal bonuses during the final three months of the year that can be very valuable. (Cards also offer deals at other times of year too.) But to take advantage of these offers, you have to go online and register for them.

For example, if you have the popular Chase Freedom card with no annual fee, then you should know that your department store, PayPal and Chase Pay purchases in October, November and December of 2019 will receive 5% cash back (on the first $1,500 of eligible spending, then 1% thereafter). And if you have a no annual fee Discover it card, then you’ll also receive 5% cash back on your first $1,500 spent at Amazon.com, Target and Walmart.com in the fourth quarter of 2019.

Don’t forget shopping portals

Another way to boost the value of the rewards you receive is to use shopping portals. These are websites that allow you to earn additional rewards when you go to a merchant website using a link from the portal. These shopping portals can be offered by the credit card issuer, by an airline or hotel loyalty program or by a company offering cash back.

For example, Chase offers its Shop Through Chase portal, while nearly every hotel rewards and frequent flyer program also has its own online rewards portal. On top of that, there are numerous cash back portals as well. These portals make money by receiving a commission from the merchants that they steer customers to.

How do you find the best one for your purchases? You can use one of several portal rewards search engines such as Evreward and CashBackMontor. These sites will tell you which online portal will deliver the most points, miles or cash back for your purchases at a particular merchant.

Pay attention to cardholder benefits

It’s easy to overlook cardholder benefits, but at this time of year they matter a lot. Shopping perks such as purchase protection, return protection and price protection can be extremely valuable. Purchase protection policies will typically cover your eligible purchases against theft and accidental damage for 60 or 90 days. A return protection policy will offer you a refund if a merchant doesn’t accept a return. This can be a great benefit for holiday shoppers, as gifts are frequently returned.

Price protection policies can offer you a refund of the difference in price if an item that you bought is advertised for a lower price within 60 or 90 days of purchase. And using your card’s extended warranty protection can allow you to decline the expensive optional policies often sold at checkout.

Look for targeted offers

Another way to save money on holiday purchases is to take advantage of targeted offers from your credit card issuer. Both American Express and Chase have “Offers” pages that show specific offers to customers, which they can opt into, and many of these offers are specifically tied to common holiday purchases.

American Express frequently offers discounts on purchases from select retailers. For example, some American Express cardholders are receiving offers for an additional point per dollar spent at Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and Saks Off 5th stores.

With both Chase and American Express Offers, you have to login to your account to view the offers, and opt-in to the ones you want to take advantage of.

Earn sign-up bonuses and meet annual thresholds

If you’re considering applying for a new credit card, then the holiday season can be a great time to do so. That’s because you can take advantage of your holiday spending to earn additional rewards from credit card sign-up bonuses.

When it comes to credit card sign-up bonuses, most reward credit cards offer valuable points, miles or cash back once you meet a spending requirement during a specified time period. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred ($95 annual fee) currently offers new customers 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 within three months of account opening. If this amount of spending isn’t in your normal budget, holiday shopping can help reach that amount.

And if you think it’s too late to sign up for a new credit card and use it for your holiday shopping, think again. Several credit card issuers, including American Express and some Barlcays cards will now provide you with account numbers online immediately after approval. Many credit card issuers offer instant approval when you apply online, but sometimes it can take a few days to review your credit history and credit score. But if you don’t receive instant approval when applying online, many card issuers will make a decision over the phone if you call to discuss your online application.

(An earlier version of this article misstated which Chase credit card has a special 5% cash back fourth-quarter offer. It is Chase Freedom, Not Chase Freedom Unlimited.)

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