The marketing pitch sounds simple: Sign up for a new card,
start charging and reap rewards such as merchandise, travel or cash.

The idea of earning free stuff is so alluring, though, that
many consumers now have too many reward programs to keep track of. The average U.S. household
belongs to 14 loyalty programs, but actively pays attention to only six,
according to a 2009 study by Colloquy, a trade magazine serving the
loyalty industry. The figures include reward programs offered by credit cards,
airlines and retailers.

If you don't keep track of your reward programs, you could
miss out on chances to redeem your points. Or even worse, your points could
expire before you use them -- negating the purpose of joining a rewards program
in the first place.

Technology to the rescue
Luckily, technology has come to the rescue. There
are plenty of services available, such as websites and smartphone apps,
that can help you organize your reward programs. Developers of the services say
that because reward points are like currency, people should monitor them the
same way that they might watch their household budget or bank account. (See rewards tracker comparison chart.)

"It's something that makes sense to keep track of and
understand how much value you actually have in these kinds of rewards programs,"
says Todd Mera, co-founder of AwardWallet.com, a tracking site. "Setting goals
for your points spending is difficult unless you know what you have."

At their most basic, the services allow consumers to store
IDs and passwords to multiple programs in one place and see their reward
balances on one screen. Say, for instance, that you use a Citi Forward card, belong
to Delta Air Lines' SkyMiles frequent flier program and use the Delta SkyMiles
American Express card, belong to the Marriott Rewards program and make
restaurant reservations through OpenTable. Ordinarily, you would need to have IDs
and passwords handy to track each of those four accounts and log into four
different websites.

One login, multiple programs
But with a reward tracker, you enter your login information
for those four programs just once. After that, all you need is to log in to the
tracker, and it automatically scrapes the information on your award balances
from the four programs' websites.

From there, different trackers do different things. Some,
such as TripIt Pro, are oriented toward frequent business travelers and can
assemble itineraries and monitor flight times and departure gates. Some, such
as AwardWallet.com, specialize in making sure your points don't expire. Others
include information on miles or points as part of financial management
services, such as Bank of America's "My Portfolio." Others, such as Points.com,
thrive on delivering plenty of information on how to maximize your points
spending, including allowing you swap points between programs.

Christopher Barnard, Points.com's president, says providing
helpful, organized options on how to optimize rewards points is important
nowadays, because often busy consumers don't keep up with vital information.

"There's a large bulge in the middle of the bell curve that
doesn't really know exactly how to maximize their participation," he says.
"They intellectually know there's more to be done and they could do more, and
they're frustrated that they're missing out on opportunities. We offer services
that assuage some of those fears."

Not for everyone
Still, reward trackers aren't for everybody.

Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com, a Web
publication for frequent travelers, says using one makes sense only if you
belong to more programs than you can get your head around. It typically makes
sense to minimize the number of rewards programs and devote your spending to
those, rather than diluting your spending and ending up with what Winship calls
"orphan" miles or points -- those that are too few to convert into rewards.

"People really need to have an overarching strategy when
they participate in these programs," he says.

AwardWallet.com says its average customer belongs to 7.27
rewards programs. One customer belongs to more than 200.

Another concern is security. Before signing up for one of
these services, consider whether you want to share your IDs and passwords with
sites that will use that information to log you in and pull your information.
Reward tracking sites typically say they take plenty of security precautions,
such as keeping information on their own servers using industry-approved
encryption techniques.


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