Have you noticed how last spring's rising price of gasoline fueled a public outcry as it topped $1.83 for regular -- and now, customers seem teary-eyed-grateful for a buck-83?
Ira Stoller's not. The savvy traveling New Jersey salesman who averages $150 in gas purchases every month thinks today's pump prices are "highway robbery." And he does what he can to cut pennies per gallon. This column last May reported on how he was saving from 3 to 6 percent by keeping track of the best gas rebate credit card deals.
The best deal then was MBNA's AAA Platinum Plus Visa card, according to Stoller. It gave a 5 percent rebate on all purchases of any brand of gas -- no spending requirements, no rebate ceilings, just a straight-up cash-back card that paid rebates monthly.
"Nothing lasts forever," Stoller e-mailed recently.
MBNA notified cardholders this summer that its AAA card terms would change in August. Mid-Atlantic AAA Club members continue to get the 5 percent gas rebate but the daily rebate cap dropped from $3 to $2. All other AAA cardholders can earn up to 5 percent, but only if they charge enough non-gas purchases. The rebate is now capped at 2 percent of total monthly retail charges, even though, as before, non-gas charges earn no rebate.
So in a month when Stoller charges $150 on gas, to get that $7.50 rebate the card previously would've paid, he now must charge $375 total on the card.
"We changed the terms so we could continue to offer the rebate program even as gas prices continued to escalate," says MBNA spokesman Jim Donahue.
Over the past two years, Stoller has changed gas cards three or four times, he says, whenever better deals pop up or the good deals get canceled. Credit card agreements typically include fine print that says the deal can be amended or terminated at any time, with or without notice.
Credit card expert Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com, which reviews offers, says that's just how the industry operates. "Rebate programs get restructured constantly," he says. "Typically they get scaled back, though sometimes the rebate percentage gets better."
In the case of the AAA card, as gas prices went up, so did consumer awareness. "Word got out," says Arnold. "They got a lot more cardholders."
MBNA marketed the card hoping consumers would be attracted to the 5 percent gas rebate, get the card, then use it for other purchases that gave less of a rebate. "It wasn't working out the way they thought," Arnold says, explaining that too many cardholders were using the AAA card for gas purchases to get the 5 percent rebate and other cards offering better non-gas deals for other purchases. "Simply put, they were losing money on the deal."
Under the new terms, says Arnold, the AAA card has gone from "very simple and very generous" to "just a so-so gas card."
Both Stoller and Arnold have switched to a new gas card -- at least until its terms change. "The Citi Dividend Platinum Select card offers a 5 percent rebate on gas and on supermarket and drugstore purchases -- as well as 1 percent on everything else," Stoller says.
When the rebate account exceeds $100, Citibank sends a check to the consumer. The only drawback is its $300-a-year cap on rebates.
Arnold encourages consumers to comparison-shop for credit card benefits. Other gas rebate cards, such as the Discover Platinum Card (up to 5 percent rebate on gas with restrictions) and the Chase PerfectCard (6 percent rebate on gas for 90 days and 3 percent thereafter), offer good deals, he says.
"But none are more generous than Citibank's card," he says. "There are thousands of credit card offers out there, but if you are talking strictly gas rebates, that's what you're looking for."
Got questions? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details to firstname.lastname@example.org or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.