One downside to taking a no-holds-barred trip to the US is seeing the bottom line on the credit card balance when you get home. That’s especially so if the Australian dollar’s been off, which it was during the last school break. Every little bit hurts.

I know, I know. What can you expect if the children request multiple dinners at Nobu followed by other serious sessions at rarefied New York nosheries such as Masa and Del Posto? And while I was due for a spectacles update, I probably shouldn’t have crossed the threshold of Manhattan’s iconic eyewear boutique Morgenthal Frederics, even if I justified the unnecessarily glamourous gold-framed replacements as ‘a memento’.

Then there was that lofty four-figure sum I had to part with at the last minute to put the children front and centre of Broadway’s spectacular Spiderman production.

But, really, what price can one put on such memories? It all seemed rather sensible at the time.

It seemed less sensible, however, once I got home and set eyes on that number at the bottom of the Amex statement. No, it wasn’t a typo and I couldn’t blame the new glasses – they were for distance.

What could they do for me?

But rather than waste time berating myself for another sizeable spend, I got to thinking not about what more I could give that card company, but what payback that company could give to me. Credit card companies are forever vying for the favoured position in people’s wallets with endless inducements involving zero-interest-rate periods, free flights and enormous blocks of rewards points. But what value are these rewards to those who spend heaps? I wanted to know which cards – if any – gave big spenders the best rewards payback.

Working that out seems as complicated as comparing notoriously opaque mobile phone contracts. Fortunately, there are financial product comparison websites that do some of the hard number-crunching. Igot one such service,, to do the breakdown of the reward return-on-spend for me based on a not-unreasonable annual outlay of $250,000.

The findings surprised Mozo director Kirsty Lamont, who says even those spending serious money on their cards each month may not be earning very much back in rewards.

‘There’s a huge gap in the best and worst rewards cards, even when you’re spending a quarter of a million dollars or more,’ Lamont says. ‘That can make up to thousands of dollars in lost rewards each month.’

To prevent that happening, the well-to-do need to work out if they care about this stuff. And if they do, to determine where they believe they could get their best rewards payback. Then it’s a matter of being disciplined about how they gather those points and making sure they use them.

Pay attention to fine print

Overall, three in four rewards cards at the $250,000 a year level deliver a return-on-spend of less than 1 per cent, Lamont says. And holders can still end up with less rewards value than annual fees on some cards due to restrictive points caps and high annual fees.

Needless to say, close attention should be paid to fine print to ensure any benefits outweigh the cost. To my mind, that points-cap thing should be a deal-killer for big spenders. Anyone would feel ripped off if their card rewarded a $250,000 annual credit outlay with a maximum 75,000 points. That’s what some of Commonwealth Bank’s Gold Awards cards deliver, reports Mozo, though it should be said that CBA’s Diamond Awards Amex slides the reward-point cap up to a more acceptable 1 million a year.

But for reward hounds, perhaps Amex’s main advantage is the three-points-per-dollar-spent arrangement which could buy a return Sydney-London flight for purchases as low as $83,333, according to Mozo. Hell, you could take two friends with you (before taxes and surcharges) assuming our $250,000 a year spend. That flight doesn’t even come onto the radar for most other cards until the holder has parted with way more than $100,000 a year.

Mozo looked at 98 premium rewards cards and found affluent Australians generally do best with premium cards such as Platinum and Black cards linked to airlines. Assuming a point-per-dollar spend, the top two for $250,000 spenders were NAB’s Velocity Rewards Premium card (delivering $4610 in net annual rewards value) and Westpac’s Singapore Airlines Platinum card ($4438 net annual value). Invitation-only, ultra-premium cards such as the Amex Centurion card and JP Morgan Chase’s Palladium card are priced out of the competition here by their high annual fees ($5000 and $595 respectively). Their key benefits, rather than rewards, are membership features anyway, such as free VIP concierge services, airport lounge privileges and upgrades.

Status seekers and points chasers

For the rest of us, taking advantage of introductory and bonus-point offers can ratchet rewards earnings up faster. But such offers, says Lamont, while providing great value in year one, may prove extremely uncompetitive over time.

But we’re talking about affluent consumers here – people who run their lives through their cards. Would they really care about all this rewards stuff? Apparently some do.

Lamont says there are two types of premium credit-card holders: status seekers and the frequent flyer-point chasers. ‘If you’re looking at getting an Amex Black or other invite-only card, they are the financial services equivalent of wearing Gucci,’ she says.

As for points chasers: ‘Absolutely they care. People spend a lot of time collecting points and making sure they’re eligible for bonus offers. It depends on your personality, but if you’ve got the time and inclination to chase rewards, then you can get thousands of dollars back in value.’

Personally, I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

I’d rather focus on making the next exciting adventure a reality. I’ll make sure this one will be cheaper.

Posted by Jacqui Hayes – Australian Financial Review on 26th October, 2013