I have never been a fan of frequent flyer mile programs and rewards points. Perhaps I don’t fly enough to benefit from the former, it always seemed to have the greatest pay off for people who travel for business and then get reimbursed for the expense they charged on their card. Then credit cards started offering rewards points programs, it got confusing, you could earn miles without traveling, but by using your credit card. Still, I was suspicious. In the “you never get something for nothing” mindset, there had to be a catch. Sometimes the credit card company thought they could charge a higher annual fee because of this perceived benefit.

I am pathological about managing my accounts. I look at myself as a small business which occasionally have needs that need to be financed outside of the income I can expect from a salary. Thus, I have a few reserve credit cards that I keep for such times. I keep a few, yes, the idea being that typically if I make a large purchase that I need to self-finance, I will later transfer that balance to another of my cards, one of which is always offers a 0% transfer program. Hey, it works. I managed to pay for moving my household (including my car) to Europe, and a wedding, using my self-financing method.

The credit card industry went into a form of lock-down back in 2008, using the excuse of the financial crisis as a reason to raise rates, fees, reduce credit, reduce benefits, basically anything they could do to draw out as much cash from unsuspecting clients who had worked with them for years. We had a few consecutive months back then of receiving our statements with shocking fees for transactions that had never been charged before. We learned quickly. Moved any remaining dept to the few (at the time, there were just three) accounts that were not doing these fraudulent practices. Four years later, the other companies are trying to win us back by reverting some of those practices and offering low interest balance transfers and other incentive programs. Burn me once, shame on you, burn me twice…

Through it all, we stuck with American Express. Not always as consumer friendly as they would like to be perceived there are definite benefits to using AmEx. My husband and I both acquired large Membership Rewards points balances, a program offered at no additional cost, and seemed to rack up points pretty fast because we use our AmEx cards for everyday expenses as long as we were not carrying a balance). But when we were doing a little belt-tightening of our household finances, I tried to see how I could use our points towards a vacation. This was not so straightforward.

I really wanted to use it for an upgrade, as I was happy to pay for the economy-class upgrade to visit my family stateside, I could not justify the ridiculous cost of flying business class. Rewards points to me are a great treat when you can get yourself a nice luxury like this without spending real money. However, while we had enough points to qualify for the upgrade, we could not buy them for flights that do not originate in the United States. In fact, we could not buy any tickets at all with our rewards for the same reason. It seemed that most of the offers had different kinds of similar restrictions that always made my choices unavailable to me. We finally used our point at a hotel in London, paying for half of the week we stayed there.

So, Sunday I was just checking out some of my iPhone apps, I clicked into the AmEx app just to see what it offers. Account balances, check, current statements, check, membership rewards balance, check, oh, and shop membership rewards… I checked it out and within two clicks I found an iPad 2 16G (yes, I know the iPad 3 is expected to come out this Spring, I don’t care). My husband had been talking about getting one. It is one of those “I really have no genuine need, but I am constantly thinking of new, cool ways I would use it” kind of purchases. Our frugal side asked why do we need an iPad in a household with three computers, three smart phones, two adults and one cat.

But if he could buy it with points.

Years of faithfully using our AmEx cards for everyday purchases, the points accumulation was almost an achievement alone in an “Up In The Air” inspired manner. There is a small hesitation that goes into cashing in all those points, even if it means you can buy something kind of frivolous for free. We also noticed some really weird goings on on the AmEx website, in which different entryways to the shop rewards section resulted in different prices and/or discounts. I found two different prices for the same iPad through my web browser, as did my husband. When he first tried to place the order, his session told him he could not because he did not have enough points for the complete transaction (his points did cover the sales tax that was calculated during the transaction), and they would not offer him the option to charge the remainder on his card (as is the standard practice).

Finally, we both thought smart, smartphone that is. We checked out our Smartphones. He found the deepest discount through the AmEx mobile site on his Android, 30% over the just 20% I found through my laptop’s browser. He bought it. Fast, easy, simple, using Android. Done! He got it. We are so excited, and yes this will encourage us to continue to use our AmEx cards for everyday expenses to start building this balance again. It is not easy to find uses, nor can I explain the peculiar architecture of the americanexpress.com website to understand where there were different prices in different places for the same product. Click around the site, try different entry ways into their shop, check out all your accounts because there could be differences between you and your partner’s accounts.

But in the end, we just bought an iPad for free.