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Just a couple more weeks of holiday shopping remain. As you make those last minute purchases, keep in mind it’s not just how much you spend, but how you pay for your purchases, that matters.

With reward credit cards, you may be able to treat yourself after the holidays by earning cash back, points or airline miles. Bonus points for certain types of purchases can add up to sizable rewards. At the same time, be careful about maxing out reward cards during the holidays. If you go overboard, you may risk a drop in your credit scores. “Try to use no more than 10 – 25% of your available credit on each card,” advises Credit.com’s Community Director Barry Paperno, a credit scoring expert. “If you do spend more than that, pay the bill as quickly as possible — even before the due date if you can,” he adds.

Want to earn travel rewards? Remember, you aren’t limited to the airline rewards cards offered by the airlines. Those cards can be attractive, especially for travelers who frequently fly a particular airline. The Gold Delta Skymiles Card from American Express, for example, offers cardholders a free checked bag for up to nine people on your reservation, which can add to considerable savings when families travel.

But the recent winner of Credit.com’s Best Credit Cards in America: Airline Miles category is not affiliated with a specific airline. Chase Sapphire Preferred was chosen because it is flexible and offers generous benefits. New applicants can earn 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $3,000 within three months of opening an account, plus one point per dollar spent on most purchases, double points on travel and dining expenses, and triple points when they book their travel through Chase’s web site. Points can be transferred to miles with United, Korean or British Airways which are partners of Delta, US Airways and American, respectively; or into points with Southwest airlines.

Online shoppers should opt to pay with a credit card, rather than a debit card, because they offer greater protection. Under the federal Fair Credit Billing Act, if an item purchased with a credit card is not delivered as agreed, the cardholder can dispute the purchase through the credit card issuer. The same is not true of debit cards.

Let’s say you buy an electronic item online that doesn’t come with the promised features. You can dispute the charge and use your credit card company’s clout to help you get a refund. One Credit.com reader was able to get a $3000 refund from a purchase of a “silk” Turkish rug that wasn’t silk because of this law. Had she used a debit card or paid with cash instead, she would have been out of luck.

While you are usually protected if a scammer gets a hold of your credit or debit card, you should report loss or theft of your card immediately to avoid being held responsible for those charges. American Express, MasterCard, and Visa all offer zero liability for most fraudulent purchases made with any card sporting their logos (credit, debit or prepaid), but those losses must be reported promptly. There is more risk with debit cards than credit cards, since the money will come out of your checking account. While you’re waiting for your financial institution to credit your account, you may have trouble paying bills, for example.

Looking for a better credit card? One with richer rewards, or a lower interest rate, or a great balance transfer deal? You can shop for a credit card at Credit.com. With Credit.com’s free Credit Report Card, you can get your credit score for free, then automatically be matched with cards for which you are most likely to qualify.

Image: natloans, via Flickr

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