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Credit Cards: Trip the plastic fantastic

FROM THIS week Barclaycard has begun offering its cardholders savings on gas and electricity bills. It's the latest broadside in the credit card wars - the battle to get your custom.

Cheap gas bills through a credit card is not a new concept, as Goldfish has been offering exactly that for some time. But the credit card companies are now battling so fiercely to attract new customers that they are even offering cash inducements. Alliance & Leicester, American Express and Birmingham Midshires all now offer cards that pay out cash to cardholders.

Sadly it's not a straight bribe - there's no wad of crispy tenners arriving with your new piece of plastic. Instead the amount paid out is governed by just how much you spend on the card.

With Alliance & Leicester's Money Back card you'll get 0.5 per cent of anything you spend up to pounds 3,000 and 1 per cent of any amount above that. Birmingham & Midshires' rate starts at 0.33 per cent on spending up to pounds 3,000 and 0.75 per cent above that. American Express's Blue card charges cardholders pounds 12 if they take out a card but pays it back if they spend just pounds 1,200 - the cashback is 1 per cent on all spending.

It's not just cash that's king when it comes to offering extras on cards. Other card providers offer loyalty points which can be used against a whole range of goods. GM card loyalty points, for example, can be used to get a discount on Vauxhall cars while Barclaycard's Ford card can get similar savings on Ford vehicles.

Barclaycard's new gas and electricity deal works in a different way. It has linked with utility company Eastern to encourage customers to take advantage of electricity deregulation, which allows you to buy your electricity from any company you like. Barclaycard claims that its customers could save up to15 per cent on bills by switching through special discounts. Anyone who switches will also have the benefit of having energy bills charged to their Barclaycard account, so automatically giving them up to eight weeks' interest free credit.