Americans absolutely adore their credit cards, and the data proves it. According to NerdWallet, Americans were carrying $747 billion in credit card debt as of the end of the third quarter of 2016, working out to an average of more than $16,000 owed per household!

But there's another side to credit cards that can be quite "rewarding," at least according to a new telephone survey of 1,003 adults conducted by CreditCards.com.

Smiling woman holding a credit card.

Image source: Getty Images.

Americans really, really love their rewards cards

According to the new survey, 40% of respondents listed rewards and cash back as the preferred benefits that enticed them to open a credit account. By comparison, just 21% wound up citing a low interest rate as the key benefit, and an even lower 18% admitted to signing up for their credit card because of a low APR.

The population is a bit more mixed, however, when it comes to finding the right rewards or cash-back card. Some 42% of respondents told CreditCards.com that they'd switched their preferred credit card over the past three years. This large figure shouldn't come as a surprise with the rewards and cash back landscape seemingly getting more competitive by the day.

What might come as a bit of a shock is that 38% of respondents haven't switched from their primary credit card in a decade, or ever! The survey noted that age tended to play a pretty critical role here, with younger individuals more inclined to seek cash back rewards, as well as switch preferred credit cards, if a better offer came along. Conversely, baby boomers and the silent generation were far more likely to stay loyal to their preferred credit card, even if a new offer came available.

If you're opening a rewards card, here are four things to consider

While it's encouraging to see so many cardholders beefing up their pocketbooks with rewards, it also raises a number of concerns. Here are four key things you should always consider when opening a rewards- or cash-based credit card, or when changing your preferred rewards card.

A man examining figures while on his laptop.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Will you be carrying a balance?

The most important question you'll need to answer is whether you'll be carrying a balance on your preferred card from month to month. While cash-back offers and rewards can be enticing, credit card companies are primarily making their money from the fees and interest they charge their consumers. If they can offer a $50 cash-back sign-up bonus, but charge you 19.99% APR on any carried balance, chances are that the credit card company is getting the better of you in the long run.

If you regularly carry a credit card balance, your top priority should be the lowest interest rate possible. Yes, this could mean forgoing the best rewards card, but you'll also owe far less in interest, which is in itself a "reward."

2. What about credit card protection?

When searching for a new rewards or cash-back card, don't forget about the extra protections that credit companies provide. For example, as pointed out by CreditCards.com, some credit providers offer rental car protection, extended purchase warranties and price protection, and insurance against damage, loss, or theft of purchased merchandise.

If you're thinking of switching preferred rewards or cash-back cards, or opening a new account, pay attention to these added protections, because they can substantially reduce your costs, and your hassle, should you need them.

3. Are the fees reasonable?

Another consideration to make is whether the annual cost of a rewards card surpasses the value of the rewards themselves.

Surprised woman holding a credit card and looking at her laptop.

Image source: Getty Images.

Obviously, the good news here is that there are plenty of rewards and cash-back cards to choose from that have no annual fee. Yet there are still numerous others offering significant rewards and/or cash back, but they have a hefty annual fee attached. It's up to you to run the math and discover whether it's worth it.

With most cash-back cards likely netting the consumer between 1% and 1.5% on aggregate purchases, this means spending $30,000 to $45,000 a year just to make up an annual fee of $450, as an example. Check your spending habits to decide if a card with an annual fee is really for you.

4. Keep good-standing accounts open

Lastly, an aspect that younger consumers could be overlooking when switching from one rewards card to the next is ensuring that they keep their good-standing accounts open. Even if you plan to make a new card your preferred rewards card, it's in your best interest to keep good-standing accounts (i.e., your now displaced rewards card) open for a long time.

Woman cutting up a credit card.

Image source: Getty Images.

Why, you ask? Your credit score, also known as your FICO score, factors in the average length your credit accounts have been open when tabulating your credit score. If you close existing accounts, you'll shorten the length of time your accounts have been open and hurt your credit score.

Plus, closing an account means reducing your available aggregate credit, which can increase your credit utilization ratio and potentially hurt your credit score, too.

Long story short, be mindful of what credit card companies are offering you. If it seems too good to be true, it just might be. 

The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.