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How to Get Started with Points, Miles, and Credit Cards 

15 minute read 07 April 2024
credit card travel
Written by: Adam Morvitz

Whether you’re a frequent traveler or a dreamer seeking distant horizons, understanding the basics of points and miles is key to turning your travel aspirations into reality. If you’re not familiar with how they work, don’t worry — we’ve got you covered.

Points and miles serve as currency in loyalty programs offered by airlines, hotels, and credit card companies. By taking advantage of earning points through credit card spending and maximizing the rewards you redeem for flights, it’s possible to take trips you’d never dreamed possible.

Setting your travel goals

Setting your travel goals is like crafting your own adventure wishlist — it’s all about turning your daydreams into a real-life itinerary. When getting started with points and miles, you’ll first want to figure out where you’d like to go. This is going to define your strategy moving forward.

Does a trip to Paris spark your interest? How about an idyllic vacation on the beaches of Mexico? Deciding what kind of trip you’d like to take is going to help you choose what airlines you’ll need to fly, which credit card points are going to get you there, and which hotel loyalty program is going to suit your needs.

What are points and miles?

Points and miles are the rewards you earn by spending on eligible credit cards or being part of loyalty programs with airlines and hotels. When redeemed correctly, points and miles can help you snag deeply discounted flights or free hotel stays.

However, it’s important to note that not all points and miles are created equal. Generally speaking, airline miles tend to be more valuable than hotel points. Transferable points — like the ones you’ll earn with credit card issuers, such as American Express, Capital One, Citi, Chase, and Bilt — are the most valuable of all. This is because the points they earn can be converted into a variety of hotel or airline points, making them especially easy to use.

Different types of points and miles

There are three main types of points and miles you’ll encounter while traveling.

Credit card points

Many hotels and airlines have co-branded credit cards that allow you to earn rewards on your purchases. For example, the United Explorer Credit Card will earn United miles whenever you use it to pay for purchases. The same goes for various airline and hotel credit cards.

As mentioned above, however, the most valuable points are those flexible points earned by certain Amex, Chase, Citi, Capital One, and Bilt credit cards. Because each of these cards has multiple hotel and airline partners to which you can transfer points, they’re much easier to redeem than others.

For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve earns Chase Ultimate Rewards. These Chase rewards points can be converted to United miles exactly like the one the United credit card earns, but they can also become points for Hyatt hotels, JetBlue flights, Marriott stays, and more. This flexibility is what makes them so much better than singular co-branded credit cards.

Airline miles

Joining an airline loyalty program is free and something you should do whenever you’re flying, no matter how often. This is because the miles you earn can then be redeemed in a variety of ways, including award flights.

There are a number of ways to earn airline miles, including flights, airline credit cards, shopping portals, hotel stays, and more. Just because you’re not a frequent flyer doesn’t mean you can’t earn miles.

You’ll also want to note that most major airlines are participants in an airline alliance. There are three major alliances: Star Alliance, SkyTeam, and Oneworld. Why is this important? Because members in these alliances can earn miles even when flying with a partner airline. This means that if you’re a member of American Airlines’ AAdvantage program and fly with British Airways, you can earn American miles for your flight.

Hotel points

Like airlines, hotel loyalty programs are free and easy to join. Earning hotel points is similar to airline miles; you can do so via hotel stays, dining programs, online shopping portals, credit cards, and more.

The easiest ways to earn points and miles

Welcome bonuses

Typically, a credit card issuer will entice new cardholders with a lucrative welcome bonus. These range from cash back to travel rewards, and the latter is what we’re going for here. Earning a credit card sign-up bonus requires you to meet a minimum-spend requirement within a certain period of time. This usually looks something like spending $3,000 on your new card within the first three months of opening the account.

To meet these goals, you’ll most likely want to shift all your spending to your new card. This can mean putting anything from groceries and dining to clothing, gas, and car insurance on your card and then paying it off each month.

Bonus spending categories

Different rewards credit cards are going to offer different points for your purchases. Maximizing these is going to make earning points much easier. For example, the American Express Gold Card will earn you four points per dollar spent on groceries and restaurants, so you’re best using that card to pay for those purchases.

That being said, if what you’re buying doesn’t qualify for elevated rewards with the Amex Gold Card, you’ll earn just one point per dollar spent. We always recommend holding multiple credit cards for this very reason.

The Capital One Venture Card doesn’t offer any bonus categories, but it does earn you two miles for every dollar you spend, even on everyday purchases. While you’d earn fewer points on travel or dining purchases than you would with the Amex Gold Card, you’ll earn more if you use the Capital One Card for, say, Amazon purchases.

You’ll want to be mindful of which cards offer which bonus spending categories to ensure that you’re earning the most points possible on the money that you spend.

Finally, you’ll also want to be aware of annual fees that your credit card account charges. While there are certainly fee-free cards out there, the best ones will usually charge an annual fee of some type. These can range from $95 to $695 per year, though they come with additional benefits like access to lounges, travel credits, and insurance benefits.

Shopping portals

Did you know that many points and miles systems will grant you rewards for online shopping? Websites such as Cash Back Monitor will gather all of these sites and let you know which ones offer the best rewards.

This includes the ability to earn points with hotels, airlines, and even flexible point currencies, like American Express Membership Rewards.

Referrals

Taking advantage of referrals can be a rewarding strategy for accumulating points. Many credit card issuers incentivize cardholders to refer friends, family, or acquaintances to their card programs.

When sharing your referral link, you can earn bonus points when your referral successfully applies and is approved for the card. These referral points can add up quickly, serving as a valuable supplement to your regular spending rewards. Note that not all cards will offer referrals and many have a cap each year, but it’s still an excellent way to earn points.

Flights

This one may seem obvious, but any time you take a flight you’ll want to enter your frequent flyer program number or a partner airline’s frequent flyer number. No sense in missing out on free miles!

Hotel stays

Earning points on hotel stays can be a little trickier than flights. This is because most hotels won’t allow you to earn points on stays booked through third-party sites, such as Expedia, Priceline, and Hotels.com. Instead, you’ll need to book directly with the hotel itself to earn points for your stay. The nice thing about this? Many major hotel chains have price-match programs that’ll match or even beat the rates you see elsewhere.

Purchasing points

Purchasing the points and miles you need to travel can sometimes make sense, but you’ll always want to crunch the numbers first. In general, we don’t recommend just purchasing points, as they tend to be pretty expensive.

However, there are circumstances in which it can make sense. If you need to top up your balance, for example, purchasing a few thousand points can be a good idea. Or, if the points or miles are on sale and it’s cheaper to buy the points than to pay cash, that could be another workable option.

How to use credit card points for flights

There are a couple of ways to redeem credit card points for flights. Depending on how you’re traveling, you may want to choose one over the other.

If you’re earning a flexible point currency, such as Capital One Miles or Chase Ultimate Rewards, you’ll have access to your credit card issuer’s travel portal. These portals allow you to easily redeem your credit card rewards points for flights.

But while that may be the simplest method of redeeming points, it’s not necessarily the best — you’ll usually get a much better value by transferring your points to a partner.

The difference is stark. Here’s an example of a flight from New York (JFK) to Auckland (AKL) in business class for 55,000 miles, found via point.me.

The cash cost of that flight? $7,430.

If you’re looking to redeem rewards via, say, the Ultimate Rewards travel portal, the most value you’ll ever get per point is 1.5 cents each (and that’s only with the Chase Sapphire Reserve). This means you’ll need to redeem 495,333 points for your flight when booking through the portal.

The benefits of travel rewards credit cards for flights

This isn’t directly related to redeeming miles for flights, but it’s something to consider when you’re planning a trip: Many travel credit cards will offer you perks on the road.

For some, this means waiving checked-baggage fees — something you’ll often find when looking at airline credit cards. For others, it can mean granting you lounge access, which can be a huge boon when you’re trying to navigate a busy airport.

You’ll also find benefits, such as expedited airport security, waived foreign-transaction fees, complimentary flight upgrades, hotel elite status, and monthly dining credits, when looking at different travel credit cards. It’s certainly something to keep in mind when looking at which cards to acquire.

Earning points if you’re an infrequent traveler

You don’t have to travel often to earn points. As we broke down above, there are plenty of ways to earn points, but the most important thing to remember is to stay on top of your spending.

If you’re aiming to score sign-up bonuses, you’ll want to be sure that you’re meeting your minimum spend. This is especially important if you have multiple cards on the go.

The same is true for purchases after you’ve met the bonus — don’t leave credit card points on the table by missing out on bonus categories.

Since each airline has its own frequent flyer program, it makes sense to sign up for the ones you fly frequently. Within the United States, that mostly means United MileagePlus, American Airlines AAdvantage, and Delta SkyMiles, as well as Southwest Rapid Rewards and JetBlue TrueBlue if you fly with them.

Each program is going to offer different ways of earning rewards, gaining elite status, and redeeming miles for award flights.

For example, United Airlines offers five levels of elite status to its members, with the ability to earn miles for reward flights, complimentary upgrades, airport lounge access, and more. However, its miles aren’t considered as valuable as American Airlines miles, because you’ll be charged more for similar flights.

One example: A business class flight to Europe with United miles will cost you 80,000 miles (at its lowest), while a business class flight using American Airlines miles will cost you 57,500 miles (at its lowest).

That being said, if you live in a location where United flies more frequently, you’ll likely end up with more United miles by virtue of taking their flights more often. And that’s perfectly okay.

Even if you travel completely within the United States, you may want to consider signing up for an international airline frequent flyer program or two.

Why? As we said, different airlines are going to provide different benefits to their members. This expands to international programs as easily as domestic ones.

Thanks to airline alliances, you can never step foot on an Air Canada plane but still have Air Canada elite status and tons of Aeroplan rewards, thanks to its partnership with United. This is important because Air Canada might charge fewer points than United, even on the same flights.

As you can see here, Air Canada will charge you 60,000 points one way for a business class flight from New York (JFK) to Geneva (GVA), while United asks for 88,000 miles for the exact same flight.

Other popular international airline reward programs include:

  • Avianca Lifemiles for low-cost Star Alliance redemptions without surcharges;
  • British Airways for cheaper short-haul American Airlines flights;
  • Virgin Atlantic for bucket-list first class flights with ANA and cheap Delta One tickets;
  • Flying Blue for monthly rotating promo awards featuring 25% to 50% discounts on flights;
  • Turkish Airlines for ridiculously cheap United flights to Hawaii.

Ways to redeem points for travel rewards

Award flights

One of the most exciting parts of collecting miles is redeeming them. Finding a flight with which to use your miles is so gratifying — after all, the alternative is usually to spend your hard-earned cash instead.

Hotel stays

Whether you have a hotel credit card or one that earns transferable points (which we think is better), you’ll be able to redeem points for hotel stays. Depending on your hotel loyalty program, it’s possible to spend as few as 3,500 points per night for a room. Think of how far those signup bonuses can get you!

Travel-portal bookings

If you don’t want to fuss with transferring points, you can also opt to redeem points via your credit card issuer’s travel portal. The upside to this is that you can use points on more than just flights and hotels; often you’ll find cruises, rental cars, and even attractions available for redemption.

Travel purchases

Some travel credit cards allow you to wipe away travel purchases that you make. This includes cards such as the Capital One Venture X Rewards credit card, which will give you a statement credit for eligible travel purchases. The downside of this is that you won’t get more than 1.5 cents per point when redeeming this way.

Other redemptions

It’s possible to redeem your points and miles in other ways too, including online shopping, gift cards, limited-time travel experiences and more. This isn’t usually recommended since they aren’t a great way to use your points.

Frequently asked questions about points and miles

How can I earn points and miles?

Points and miles can be earned in a number of ways, including travel, online shopping, credit card spending, and more.

Can I use credit card points for flight booking?

Yes, you can choose to either redeem your credit card points in your card issuer’s travel portal or transfer out your points to an airline partner.

How do I use my credit card points for travel?

Redeeming your points for travel can be done in a number of ways, including transferring to hotel and airline partners, booking through a travel portal, or redeeming points for statement credits against travel purchases. You can even redeem your points for a flight for another traveler.

How many points do you need for a free flight?

The number of points you’ll need for a flight is going to vary based on where you want to go, when, how far in advance you book, and in which cabin you’d like to travel. Check out point.me’s Explore function to see how far your miles can take you.

How do I use my credit card points for air miles?

Many credit card points can be transferred to airline partners, such as United, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, and more.

Can I use Chase points on any airline?

Chase points can be used for any airline when redeeming through the Chase travel portal. Otherwise, you can transfer your points to any of Chase’s airline partners to make a redemption.

Can I use American Express points for airline tickets?

Yes, American Express points can be used for airline tickets, either through the American Express travel portal or by transferring your points to a partner.

Is it better to redeem points for cash or travel?

Generally speaking, you’ll get more value from your points when using points for travel.

Getting started on point.me

No matter how many points you’re sitting on, learning how to redeem them effectively can be overwhelming. This is especially true when it comes to using them for flights. That’s why point.me was created. Rather than sifting through 10 different websites and 30 different airline programs, we do the work for you.

All you need is your dates, your airports, who’s traveling, and where (we suggest the front of the cabin), and our real-time search and booking engine handles the rest. Try it today.

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