There is a reason so many cards focus their rewards structure on travel. It's aspirational — who doesn't like to daydream about jetting off to the tropics? — and it's cost-effective. Airline miles and similar benefits can be bought in bulk by card issuers for a fraction of their cash value.
But delving into the fine print of actually redeeming all those miles and points is a quick buzz-kill, which means that many accumulate and languish, unused.
Cards like Capital One's Venture and Barclays' Arrival Plus cater to those who hate complexity. They are travel cards that operate more like cash-back cards, letting customers use their points as a rebate against any travel expense.
The way to stretch the dollar value of your points and miles the farthest, though, is by jumping through the hoops and redeeming them for airline travel and hotel stays. For customers with a preferred airline or hotel chain, that brand's credit card is still typically the best deal, but travelers who bounce around are fueling a growing market for flexible cards with transferable perks.
Most of those cards carry annual fees, but like the sticker price of a new car, the listed rates rarely reflect what customers actually pay. Chase's new Sapphire Reserve nominally costs $450 a year, but it includes a $300 rebate on travel purchases, automatically applied on the card's monthly statement. For most customers, that effectively reduces the annual fee to $150. Its direct rivals, the American Express Platinum and Citi Prestige cards, also rebate some charges.
Dedicated points ninjas tend to juggle multiple cards to squeeze out the maximum bonus on each. Mr. Saccucci of Consumer Reports said his analysis found that average card holders could increase the yield of their rewards programs by about 30 percent by strategically using two different cards.
Unless you walk around with Excel spreadsheets in your head, you will need help deciding which card to whip out at the cash register. Wallaby is an app that tracks your various cards and makes recommendations about the best one to use for a given purchase.
Once you have amassed a stash of points or miles, figuring out how to use them is the next puzzle. RewardStock, a start-up in Raleigh, N.C., recently released a Web app designed to find the optimal route, using miles, to the places you want to go. Tell it you want to fly from New York to Honolulu, and it will estimate your options: 40,000 mileage points round-trip on American Airlines, 45,000 on United or 55,000 on Delta.
The app is still a beta version, with some flaws, but Jonathan Hayes, the company's founder, sees a big future in helping customers treat rewards points like the currency they have become.
"When you buy stocks, you have a broker," Mr. Hayes said. "People have a lot of points stored up in various programs, but they don't know how to get real value out of them. There's no system set up for this sector of personal finance. That's the role we hope to fill."