1. If you have an airline, hotel or retailer credit card, look first at the rewards linked to that company. Typically, credit card reward programs give back rewards of about 1 percent of what you spend — if you spend $20,000 in a year, expect about $200 back. But it’s possible to beat that rate by using cards affiliated with other companies. For instance, if you have a Best Buy RewardZone MasterCard from HSBC Bank, you can get back at least 2 percent in gift certificates, and the card’s rewards with Best Buy are probably better than any other card’s rewards at that electronics chain.

Similarly, if you have an airline rewards card, you can find good deals on plane tickets — especially expensive ones. For instance, if you have a Delta Air Lines SkyMiles card from American Express, you can get a round-trip business-class ticket to Beijing in August for 240,000 miles — a ticket that costs nearly $9,000. That’s a nearly 4 percent return (and probably higher, considering some of those miles come from mileage bonuses and flights, not spending). Redeeming for cheap tickets, though, is often not as good a deal.

2. Compare awards on multiple cards. The average American has 1.9 reward credit cards, according to the Colloquy study. If you have more than one card and are looking for a rental car voucher, for example, see how many points that rental costs on each card. One could be a better deal.

“You need to do the math between the cards you have,” says Kelly Hlavinka, a partner with Colloquy.

3. Find smaller awards. Don’t think you have to stockpile points to get a decent reward. There’s been a big shift in recent years toward making awards available on the cheaper end, such as low-value gift cards and music downloads, says Paul Walczyk, senior vice president of client services with Carlson Marketing, which works with 500 banks on their rewards programs.

For instance, Citi’s ThankYou network, for customers who have cards such as Citi Forward, offers one MP3 download from Sony Music for just 100 points. Some of the best sellers on Chase’s Ultimate Rewards include books, video games and DVDs, says Chase spokeswoman Laura Rossi.

Reward programs are also increasingly allowing customers to pay for items using a mix of points and cash, Walczyk says.

4. Consider gift cards. There’s a reason gift cards are the most popular reward, accounting for about 55 percent of all reward redemptions in March 2010, says Carlos Dunlap, practice director of loyalty consulting for Kobie Marketing, which designs and manages reward programs. Gift cards are flexible, and people can easily understand how much they’re worth. Compared with redeeming your points for merchandise, gift cards can offer a better value.

For instance, say you want an inflatable mattress for your daughter. If you have a Chase credit card, you could redeem 9,600 Ultimate Rewards points for a 50-inch-by-25-inch AeroBed. Or you could get the same AeroBed by spending 7,500 points for $75 in gift cards at Wal-Mart, where it sells for $65. Redemption of gift cards also tends to spike in November and December, when people give them to others for the holidays.

5. Look up the price of what you’re eyeing. Points are a different currency than real money. Using the 1 percent reward rate as a guide, look online for the price in dollars to help you figure out if it’s a good deal for the points. Credit card companies typically pay less than retail price for merchandise because they’re buying in bulk, but that doesn’t mean they make the products available cheaply to you.

“It’s almost like spending cash: Be mindful of the real value of what you’re getting,” Dunlap says. “Don’t overspend just because it’s points.”

6. Check out the specials. Just as you would at a store, look for sales in your rewards program. A lot of rewards programs offer a changing list of specials — typically items that aren’t moving and they want to get rid of.

7. Combine your points with someone else’s. An increasing number of rewards programs allow you to transfer your points to others, which means two people could share a gift that neither could reach individually. For instance, if you and your die-hard hockey fan buddy each had 20,000 points in RBC Bank’s rewards program, you could share a team autographed Carolina Hurricanes jersey, which at 40,000 points would have been otherwise out of reach.

8. Look for cash-back options. Redeeming points for cash back or a statement credit might not be flashy, but it could make sense for you if you want help paying your bills. If this appeals to you, be aware that there’s been huge growth in the number of cash-back credit cards in recent years that give you money back automatically. The return rates on those cards are often greater than the cash returns on more general rewards cards.

Future rewards: mobile, customized
Going forward, experts say rewards programs will continue to evolve by using technology to make reward offers more timely and relevant.

You could be out to dinner and use your smartphone to instantly display a $50 off restaurant certificate, which your waiter could scan and debit from your account instantly. Or, using GPS technology, your rewards program could know you’re in a department store and shoot you a coupon offer on the spot in exchange for points.