Our Guide to Traveling With Points and Miles This Year

The ultimate crash course for beginners to traveling with points and miles.
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What are travel credit cards, and how do they work?

Travel credit cards are financial products that offer various rewards and benefits geared towards frequent travelers. They typically earn you points or miles for every dollar spent on eligible purchases. These rewards can be redeemed for flights, hotel stays, car rentals, and other travel-related expenses. Travel credit cards may also include perks like travel insurance, airport lounge access, and no foreign transaction fees.

How do I choose the best travel credit card for my needs?

Choosing the best travel credit card depends on your travel habits, spending patterns, and preferences. Consider factors like the type of rewards offered (points, miles, or cash back), the card’s annual fee, sign-up bonuses, earning rates, redemption options, and additional travel perks. Analyzing these features will help you find a card that aligns with your lifestyle and offers the most value.

What are the benefits of using a travel credit card over other types of credit cards?

Travel credit cards provide unique advantages for travelers, such as earning rewards specifically tailored to travel expenses. Additionally, many travel credit cards offer travel-related perks like free checked bags, priority boarding, and travel insurance. Some cards also waive foreign transaction fees, making them ideal for international travelers.

What is a sign-up bonus, and how can I qualify for it?

A sign-up bonus is a promotional offer provided by the credit card issuer to entice new cardholders. To qualify for a sign-up bonus, you usually need to meet specific spending requirements within a certain timeframe after opening the account. The bonus can be in the form of points, miles, or cash back, and it’s a great way to jump-start your rewards earning.

Do travel credit cards charge foreign transaction fees?

Not all travel credit cards charge foreign transaction fees. Many of the top-tier travel cards waive these fees, making them ideal for international travel. However, it’s essential to read the card’s terms and conditions to confirm this before using it abroad.

How can I maximize the rewards earned with my travel credit card?

To maximize rewards, use your travel credit card for everyday expenses and large purchases. Take advantage of bonus categories and special promotions to earn more points or miles. Consider combining your travel credit card with loyalty programs to stack rewards and get even more value out of your purchases.

So you want to start traveling using points and miles? You’re in the right place. 

In this comprehensive guide on how to travel on points and miles, we’ll show you how to leverage different airline, credit card, and hotel currencies to travel for free (or at least a heck of a lot cheaper). From the outside, it can seem complicated, and that’s why so few people take full advantage of the opportunities points and miles can afford them. But by simply being here, you’re taking a huge step towards an elite group of travelers with the world at their feet.

If you haven’t already, subscribe to our bi-weekly travel tips newsletter, Smart Points, where travel expert Steven will inundate you with the latest news and strategies—he’s made all the mistakes, so you don’t have to. Even better, sign up for our Smart Points course, so you can become an expert yourself. 

But without further ado, let’s dive into our guide to traveling with points and miles in December 2023.

Where to start with travel points and miles: What are your travel goals?


1. Be honest with yourself

Before you take your first steps forward into the world of points and miles, you need to take a few back and look at yourself.

Seems like strange advice, right? 

But it’s critical to remember you’re not playing with Monopoly money. Earning points and miles requires opening and using credit cards. This carries an inherent financial risk, where poor decisions and inexperience can lead you down a dark path.

To be effective, you need to have a strong credit score, pay off your credit cards every month, and never, ever, ever spend more than you can afford. If this isn’t you yet, wait a little while longer. Your time will come. No amount of free travel is worth plunging into debt. In fact, it’s not free travel at all.

If, however, you’re in a good place, read on and get ready to change your travel experience

 

2. Define your travel goals

Just because you’re ready to get rolling doesn’t mean you get to skip the self-analysis. Being an effective points and miles user requires strategy, and a plan is worth nothing without a clearly defined end goal.

Everyone has different perceptions of travel. Smart Points writer Steven travels full time, jumping from country to country each month. One of our other writers, Alexa, has her eye on frequent luxury travel. Both of those lifestyles require different strategies.

For someone like Steven, a first-class seat is less important. He wants to fly as much as possible for the least amount of money. Alexa may fly less, but she wants to do so in style before staying in a world-class hotel.

Before making any decisions, narrow down what you need. Are you aiming to cover flights and hotels for one big trip at the end of the year? Or are you hoping to cover flights for two or three shorter adventures across a more extended period? Does luxury matter to you? Does volume play a factor? Do you prefer certain airlines? Are you set on a single destination?

Write down everything you can about what you need. It’s what will dictate your next move. Now that you’ve defined your goals, we can dive into the nitty-gritty. 

Navigator Tip

Determine what type of travel you enjoy and where you want to go. Some cards may offer better rewards for specific airlines or hotel chains, while others provide more flexibility in redeeming points for various travel expenses.

What are travel points and miles?

In short, points and miles are currencies created by airlines, hotels, and credit cards to be redeemed by customers for travel (or other products).

Just like traditional currencies, their values vary and fluctuate often. Many are set at around 1 cent a piece, but, as you’ll discover later, they can be worth far more in certain exploitable situations.

 

1. Airline miles

As the name suggests, airline miles are currencies tied to a particular airline. Virtually every carrier has its own version, which can be redeemed for flights with said airline or one of its partners.

Some examples are Delta SkyMiles, British Airways Avios, United MileagePlus, and American Airlines AAdvantage Miles. Don’t get too hung up on whether a currency is named points or miles—they’re generally interchangeable.

You can earn points and miles in many different ways. The most straightforward is flying with the airline. The more you fly (and pay) with a given airline, the more points you earn. Of course, this may only be one or two flights a year for the average person, limiting earnings. A regular business traveler can earn hundreds of thousands.

The best way for most of us to earn airline points and miles is by using credit cards. Most airlines have co-branded cards that allow you to earn rewards currency by using the card. Many cards come with bonus spending categories that gift extra points for using the card to purchase specific things like groceries, restaurants, or flights with the airline. We’ll dig into credit card strategy later on.

One of our favorite cards for earning miles is the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. With a large welcome bonus, simple-to-understand points-earning opportunities, a low annual fee, and versatile redemption options, it should be a staple in your wallet.

75,000 Bonus Miles

after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of account opening.

Annual Fee: $95  |  Terms Apply  |  Rates & Fees

2. Hotel points

Hotel brands also have their own currencies. Companies like Hilton, Marriott, and Hyatt all have individual systems and operate similarly to airlines, rewarding customers for stays at branded properties or using co-branded credit cards, like the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card.

Of course, hotel currencies can be redeemed for stays instead of paying for flights. Depending on the hotel, the same amount of points could pay for multiple nights at a lower-end hotel or one night at a high-end property. 

Generally, hotel points achieve less value than airline miles. But that doesn’t mean they’re not useful—far from it.

Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card

Earn 130,000 Hilton Honors Bonus Points

plus a Free Night Reward after you spend $3,000 in purchases on the card in your first six months of card membership

Annual Fee: $150  |  Terms Apply  |  Rates & Fees

3. Transferable credit card points

By far, the most valuable points are those earned on general travel cards. Instead of being tied to a singular entity, these points currencies can be transferred to a number of different partners. American Express, for example, has 18 airline partners and three hotel partners, including British Airways, Delta, Hilton, and Marriott.

This flexibility is what makes these points so valuable. Instead of being tied to one carrier and its prices, transferable points allow the customer to shop around and deposit points into the airline or hotel account that offers the best value for that specific situation.

Cards like The Platinum Card® from American Express, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, and Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card all use transferable points currencies. These kinds of cards are the key to traveling like a pro. We’ll show you how to use them soon.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Earn 60,000 bonus points

after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That’s $750 when you redeem through Chase Travel℠.

Annual Fee: $95  |  Terms Apply  |  Rates & Fees

4. Loyalty points

One of the most confusing facets of loyalty programs is the similar names of companies’ loyalty systems and reward currencies. Airlines and hotels typically have two sets of earnings available—one can be redeemed for travel, while the other unlocks benefits.

For example, Delta’s points currency is SkyMiles. This is what customers use to redeem flights with the airline. But its loyalty members also collect “Medallions” or “Medallion Status.”

Becoming a gold, silver, diamond, or platinum Medallion member is achieved by regularly flying with the airline (or opening certain co-branded cards), but this can’t be redeemed for flights. Instead, these define elite members of the SkyMiles program. Higher-tier members receive perks like lounge access, free upgrades, early boarding, and increased earning opportunities.

These are all great benefits, but it’s important to remember you’re mainly gaining experiential value. Chasing elite status for the sake of it is usually costly and not a tenet of traveling like a pro.

The best travel points and miles programs


The best airline reward programs

There is a level of subjectivity to what makes an airline or hotel reward program useful. A customer’s location, airline preference, and travel needs vary, impacting the perceived value of any given points or miles system.

But some programs are objectively more valuable than others. Here are some of the best programs and a brief overview of why they’re helpful. Remember, just because you’re using an airline’s currency doesn’t mean you must fly with that airline.

1. Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

This plan is widely regarded as the most valuable points currency out there, partly due to its considerable number of partners. With 23 other airlines to earn and redeem Mileage Plan Miles with, the scope is enormous. It’s also got some super high-value flight redemptions. The only downside is its lack of transferability from major credit cards.

2. British Airways Avios

While Avios are most associated with British Airways, it’s also the points currency for Qatar Airways, Aer Lingus, and Iberia. Points can be moved back and forth between any of these airlines, which is hugely valuable. Aside from that, it’s easy to earn Avios, as American Express, Capital One, Chase, and Bilt are all transfer partners. For redemptions, using British Airways has some fantastic sweet spots on short-haul flights in the US using American Airlines.

3. United MileagePlus

United’s points system has been devalued in recent years, but it still has a ton of outstanding redemptions thanks to its long list of alliance partners. Throw in some of its interesting perks like “The Excursionist,” which basically includes a free flight, and its value increases further. Availability is usually good, too, which can’t be said for every program. Chase cards like the Sapphire Preferred allow you to transfer points to a United account, making earning easy.

4. American AAdvantage Miles

AAdvantage Miles are among the most problematic travel currencies to earn, as they don’t allow transfers from any general travel cards. The best way to earn them is through a co-branded card or flying directly with the airline or a partner. Despite these issues, it offers some outstanding value redemptions for routes to the Middle East and Asia. Its off-peak offers for Europe remain some of the sweetest spots for transatlantic travel. 

5. Delta SkyMiles

Delta’s points currency is a tough one to deal with. On the one hand, its fluid value system means some reward rates are astronomical. On the other, its SkyDeals are some of the best redemptions out there when you can get them. If you enjoy flying Delta, it’s better to have points in an Amex account that can transfer to Delta. Otherwise, Virgin and KLM/Air France both allow customers to redeem their own points for Delta flights at far cheaper rates.

6. Southwest Rapid Rewards

Popular airline Southwest’s Rapid Rewards system operates differently from the others mentioned. Instead of using a rewards chart or being able to book other airlines using its points, it simply ties its currency to real-time cash prices. In short, the more expensive a flight, the more points you need. This makes it easy to use the points but remains limited in scope. Still, it’s a handy currency to have stocked up for last-minute domestic or Caribbean travel.

7. Virgin Atlantic

Setting itself up as one of the easiest rewards currencies to transfer and redeem, you can use Virgin points on over 20 partner airlines and transfer in from multiple general travel cards. Its partner redemption chart is distance based, offering some spectacular rates on airlines like Delta. Its transatlantic flights on Delta are among the best sweet spots in the points and miles game.

8. KLM/Air France Flying Blue

Flying Blue is a combined rewards program for Dutch carrier KLM and Air France (from France, obviously). It’s possible to transfer points from American Express, Chase, Capital One, Marriott, and Bilt, making it easy to earn. It regularly has the best deals on SkyTeam flights (including Delta), so always make them the first check if you’re a Delta loyalist. Bookmark the Flying Blue Promo awards—monthly deals that offer the best value at any one time.


The best hotel rewards programs

On the other end of the smart traveling spectrum are the hotel rewards programs. Operating in much the same way as the airlines, members of each program can earn and redeem points for hotel stays.

Hotel programs, as a whole, offer less value than airlines in mathematical terms. Simply put, you’ll usually enjoy more cents per point when redeeming for flights. But, when lounging by the pool in a five-star hotel you didn’t pay cash for, it’s hard to feel that difference.

As with airlines, brands have their own redemption rates, perks, and earning opportunities.  Here are a few of the most popular.

1. Hilton Honors

With a massive footprint, Hilton properties are found worldwide, making it a useful currency by pure convenience. Redemptions vary from as low as 10,000 points a night in small markets to over 100,000 points for luxury properties. Its fifth night free on reward stays is one way to maximize value. You can transfer points to Hilton from American Express at 1:2.

2. Marriott Bonvoy

As the largest hotel brand in the world, Marriott also has huge availability across the world—somewhere in the realm of 1.5 million rooms. It also has a fifth-night free perk which adds enormous value. You can transfer points to your Bonvoy account from American Express or Chase. You can also transfer points out of your account to Alaska Airlines—valuable in itself.

3. World of Hyatt

While Hyatt is miles behind the likes of Hilton and Marriott in terms of size, it has the best value awards program. Room redemptions are far cheaper than its competitors, and its member perks are outstanding. The only downside is the comparatively small number of hotels. 

4. Wyndham Rewards

Wyndham’s program slots into an interesting hole in the market—smaller cities in the states. It’s unlikely to be your go-to for a Maldives break, but it can offer tremendous value if you’re a regular domestic traveler or business road warrior.

5. IHG One

Despite being a significant player in the hotel industry, IHG’s rewards program is comparatively weak. It has improved, but dynamic pricing means most redemptions aren’t phenomenal value. It has added a fourth-night-free perk, which is better than Hilton and Marriott’s offer, and fits the bill for loyalists to the brand.

Navigator Tip

Consider diversifying your points portfolio. While it’s tempting to focus solely on one airline or hotel rewards program, diversifying your points portfolio can offer significant benefits. By spreading your loyalty across different programs, you can maximize your options and capitalize on the unique advantages of each program.

How to earn travel points and miles 

Now for the important parts: how to earn and, eventually, use points and miles.

As alluded to earlier, understanding your travel preferences is critical. Those preferences dictate the points you should collect and how you earn them. We’ll break down individual processes in another article, so for now, we’ll dissect the main ways to earn.

If you’re serious about earning free travel, you’ll make this your financial mantra: No dollar spent without maximum points return.

1. Credit card bonuses

Credit card bonuses are the bread and butter to travel like a pro. No other method allows us to earn so much in such a short amount of time. You can use airline and hotel co-branded cards or transferable general travel credit cards to do this, but the latter are more valuable.

Credit card companies offer introductory points bonuses as an incentive for customers. It encourages them to a) open a card and b) keep using it. Remember, credit cards make money from annual fees and vendor fees every time a card is used. They want you to use the card and will reward you for doing so.

The introductory fees are usually large sums of points awarded to a cardholder after spending a specified amount of money within a period of time. It’s vital never to open a card with a spending threshold you can’t responsibly pass. Your value diminishes with every interest fee and debt you dig yourself into.

As an example, the American Express® Gold Card currently has a 60,000-point intro bonus. A cardholder must spend $6, 000 within six months of opening the card to achieve that bonus. The 60,000 Amex points are worth around $1,200 in travel, making that a massive return on your spending.

Before opening a card for the intro bonus, ensure it’s with an airline you can use to reach your destination. For example, the Amex Gold bonus could be transferred to Virgin Atlantic. With those points, you could book a Delta flight to Europe.

Don’t make the mistake of opening a Southwest card hoping to fly to Tokyo. You can’t transfer those points, and Southwest doesn’t fly there. Always check back to your initial travel goals.

American Express® Gold Card

60,000 Membership Rewards® Points

after you spend $6,000 on eligible purchases with your new card within the first 6 months of card membership

Annual Fee: $250  |  Terms Apply  |  Rates & Fees

2. Daily earning and spending categories

If you’ve already earned a bonus or are between new cards, you must ensure you’re maximizing your day-to-day spending.

All travel credit cards come with preset earning rates for everyday spending. A basic card might earn 1 point for every dollar spent on the card. Some will include this basic earning rate but add some bonus categories. For instance, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card earns 5x points per dollar on the Chase Travel Portal, 3x points per dollar in restaurants and supermarkets, 2x points per dollar on travel, and 1x points per dollar on most other purchases. Airline or hotel-specific cardholders can earn huge rates on purchases with the specific company, but it’s vital to remember those points can only be used with that brand.

Some cards, like the Capital One Venture X, set a flat rate of 2x miles per dollar on all spending. This is a happy medium—you don’t get significant earnings on specific purchases, but you earn a higher rate than other cards do on everything else. 

More advanced cardholders have multiple cards in rotation to maximize every purchase. They might use one card for restaurants, one for groceries, and one for everything else to guarantee the most points.

Smart strategy can earn thousands of points in this way.

Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card

75,000 Bonus Miles

after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of account opening

Annual Fee: $395  |  Terms Apply  |  Rates & Fees

3. Shopping portals

Shopping portals are an excellent way to maximize individual purchases regardless of what credit card you use.

Many airlines, hotels, and credit cards host these portals on their websites. They’re not shopping sites like Amazon but are gateways to other stores that track your cookies and add extra points to your account when making a purchase.

If you need a new pair of shorts from Lululemon, check the American Express shopping portal before heading directly to the website. You’ll likely find an offer specific to the brand. It may be an elevated bonus earning opportunity, like 6 points per dollar. A huge volume of these portals is available, and it’s likely many of your specific stores are featured somewhere. Check any airline or credit card you’re a member of, as well as cash-back and points websites.

 

4. Buy flights and hotels

It may sound self-explanatory, but purchasing flights and hotel stays earns you a good haul of points. Booking direct with the airline is usually the best way to guarantee you’ll earn the points. Become a member of all the loyalty programs you might use, and never forget to attach your partner membership numbers.

How to use travel points and miles 

The points have landed in your account. What now? It’s time to redeem them for travel.

Statistics suggest that only 8% of people with points in their accounts use them. That’s most likely because they have no clue where to start. Airlines purposely make it complicated to redeem points for the best value, but for the tenacious among us, there’s a literal planet to explore for pennies on the dollar.

Here’s a step-by-step guide as to how we’d suggest a basic search.

 

1. Identity your destination and dates

Nailing down where you want to go and when is the first step. Flexibility is a superpower in this world, as it gives you far more options, but a rough timescale and destination are essential. Suppose you want to visit Paris in October and have 80,000 American Express points.

Next, you should assess the airlines operating Paris routes at your nearest airport. Is it Delta-heavy? Is it a small regional airport? You can do this by checking SkyScanner or Google Flights. Note the best flights, the carriers that operate them, and when.

 

2. Analyze redemption rates

Your search shows Delta operates the best and most frequent flights to Paris. Log into Delta and search for the flight using SkyMiles. Note the cash and SkyMiles rates, then repeat the process with Delta’s partners, like Virgin Atlantic and KLM/Air France.

Here’s what you find for a roundtrip from New York to Paris from each carrier on the same Delta flight:

  • Delta – 74,000 SkyMiles and $94
  • Virgin Atlantic – 24,000 points + $250
  • KLM/AirFrance – 55,000 + $177


But which is best? Delta uses the most points with the lowest fee, while Virgin has the opposite.

If you pick Delta, this trip is cheaper, but you lose the chance to save on more flights. But if you choose Virgin, you’re left with 56,000 American Express points. If you transferred those points to British Airways, that’s enough to fly to South America or the Caribbean twice, with fees as low as $5.50. 

That shifts the value immensely. But the final decision lies with you.

 

3. Transfer points and book your flight

When you’ve made your decision, you can transfer your points. On the American Express portal (it’s similar for Chase and Capital One), you’ll find a “Transfer to a partner” section. From there, you’ll find a list of partners. Select your desired airline, be it Delta, Virgin, or KLM, and transfer the required points.

Remember, the points only go one way, so only send the exact number you need. Also, keep an eye out for transfer bonuses. Sometimes you’ll find bonuses as high as 30%, which can sway the value of a transaction hugely and make your points even more valuable.

The points should arrive quickly, and you’ll be on your way in no time.

Frequently asked questions

Yes, using credit cards to earn points and miles carries financial risks. It is crucial to maintain a strong credit score, pay off credit card balances every month, and avoid spending beyond your means. Plunging into debt is not worth the promise of free travel.

Before delving into travel hacking, determine your travel preferences and goals. Consider factors like the number of trips, luxury preferences, preferred airlines, and specific destinations you want to cover.

Transferable credit card points can be converted and transferred to various partner airlines or hotels, offering more flexibility in redeeming for the best value.

Airlines and hotels often have loyalty status levels that offer various perks, such as lounge access, free upgrades, and increased earning opportunities. Loyalty status is different from reward currency and is earned through frequent travel or certain co-branded cards.

To use points and miles, identify your destination and travel dates, compare redemption rates with different airlines or hotels, transfer points if needed, and book your flight or hotel stay accordingly. Flexibility and careful planning can enhance the value of your points and miles.

Ask the Navigators: What's the best travel credit card?

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone. This post contains references to products from one or more of our partners and we may receive compensation when you click on links to those products.

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