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The Beginner’s Guide to Points and Miles

by on Mon February 19, 2018 • 1 Comment
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So you’ve decided to get a travel-related credit card, focusing on those that allow you to earn rewards for free hotel nights, flights or other travel expenses. But with so many out there, how do you then decide which one to choose?

In this guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know to understand how to earn points and miles using rewards cards — and how to choose the right one for you.

First, let’s take a closer look at the three main types of credit cards that can help you earn miles, points and other rewards: airline cards, hotel cards and travel-branded cards.

Airline-branded credit cards offer perks including seat upgrades, lounge access, a free checked bag, priority boarding and baggage handling, discounts on in-flight food and beverages, bonus miles on airline purchases and the chance to qualify for elite status. They also offer benefits like extended warranty protection, access to roadside assistance and travel accident/cancellation insurance.

Hotel credit cards can earn you bonus miles used for overnight stays and flights. They may also allow travel with no blackout dates and offer the chance for room upgrades and late checkout, based on availability.

Travel-branded cards offer the best of both worlds. You can earn points and miles on major airlines and hotels and even travel-related purchases like rental cars, train fares and taxi or ride-sharing app purchases. Some travel cards offer perks such as unlimited double miles on all purchases, bonus miles when paying for airline flights or hotels, no foreign transaction fees and miles that don’t expire as long as the card is active.

Airlines

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iStock

Each airline has its own rules on earning points and miles. But it all starts by enrolling in a carrier’s loyalty program. If you’re not enrolled in an airline’s loyalty program, then you’ll likely not be able to capture the full benefits of the card. So make that your first step. Once you belong to a loyalty program, then sign up for that airline’s credit card, where you can earn miles and, on some, help qualify for that all-important elite status.

Here are the top five U.S. airlines (based on number of passengers carried in 2016) and their designated loyalty programs:

Southwest Airlines: Rapid Rewards®
American Airlines: AAdvantage®
Delta Air Lines: SkyMiles®
United Airlines: MileagePlus®
JetBlue: TrueBlue

What to look for in a good airline card

  • Earn extra miles for airline- and travel-related purchases
  • Ability to accumulate unlimited miles
  • Miles that don’t expire
  • No blackout dates (days when you can’t use miles to book travel)
  • Ability to earn elite status
  • Good bonuses for new cardholders

Pros and cons of airline cards

Pros:

  • Most carriers give at least 1.5 miles for airline-related purchases, which will help you rack up miles even faster.
  • You’ll often get a free checked bag, and those savings can add up if you travel frequently.
  • The more you fly and use the card, the faster you can earn elite status with airlines that allow it.
  • Many cards carry additional perks, like lost luggage coverage, trip cancellation insurance, priority boarding and in-flight discounts.

Cons:

  • Blackout travel dates may affect your ability to book miles-based travel.
  • Some cards have higher annual fees.
  • Some airlines can cancel miles if they aren’t used by a set time period, usually within a year.
  • There’s a chance that a card doesn’t help you attain that all-important elite status.

The fastest way to earn elite status on airlines

Frequent flyers do all kinds of things — like strange routings and mileage runs to name a few — in an ongoing quest to get elite status on airlines. The higher your status, the better the perks, so travelers do what they need to do to stay loyal to an airline. Those perks can include access to premium airport lounges, priority check-in, boarding and baggage handling, free upgrades into premium cabins when available, a dedicated phone line for assistance and similar status on airline alliance partners. The best way to earn status is to carry an airline-branded card and pay for travel with it to take advantage of higher points per $1 spent.

Check out our full guide to earning elite status on airlines here.

Redeeming miles and points with airlines

Airlines have moved their loyalty programs from simply counting passengers’ miles traveled to a more convoluted mix of tracking actual miles traveled along with the number of segments flown and dollars spent on tickets. Plus airline consolidation and capacity cuts have led to fewer available seats for reward travel, making it more complicated, but not impossible to redeem airline miles.

Here’s how:

Book travel on airline websites. Most airlines allow you to book reward travel directly on their websites. Once there, cardholders have the ability to pay for travel with straight miles or a mix of miles and money. For example, if you don’t have enough miles to cover an entire flight, you can make up the difference in cash. Their websites have calendar maps that allow you to choose seats based on availability on specific days.

Take advantage of airline alliances. Cardholders can get even more flexibility when choosing flights if the airline belongs to one of the global alliances — oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance. These alliances are partnerships among the world’s top carriers that make it easier for travelers to directly book flights on member airlines to hundreds of destinations around the globe.

Alliances can also give you the biggest bang for your travel buck. So, for example, if you want to catch a flight to London and American Airlines doesn’t have enough seats, you can check availability on its oneworld partner, British Airways.

Best cards for airlines

If you’re loyal to a particular airline, you may want to choose one of their branded cards to maximize miles earned from flying and spending. Some airline cards even help you achieve that all-important elite status, which leads to more benefits.

Methodology: We chose cards that let you earn unlimited miles that don’t expire and extra miles for airline-related purchases, achieve elite status and have no blackout dates for reward travel.

Southwest Airlines

southwest_plus

  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card: two points per $1 spent on Southwest airline purchases and Rapid Rewards® hotel and car rental partner purchases, and one point per $1 spent on all other purchases. No blackout dates or seat restrictions. Earn unlimited points that don’t expire as long as your card account is open. Ability to earn a Companion Pass, which allows you bring a companion along for free on every flight you fly for a year after earning 110,000 Rapid Rewards® qualifying points in a single calendar year via flying or using the credit card.
  • Fees and fine print: $69 annual fee. Can book on other airlines to destinations that Southwest doesn’t, but miles are diluted.

American Airlines

American Airlines

  • AAdvantage® AviatorTM Red World Elite MasterCard®: two AAdvantage® miles per $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases and one mile per dollar on all other purchases. Group 1 boarding for primary card members on domestic flights. Ten percent of your redeemed miles back at 10,000 maximum per calendar year. 25% in-flight savings on food and beverages on American Airlines-operated flights.
  • Fees and fine print: $95 annual fee. Earn only two AAdvantage® miles per $1 spent on American Airlines purchases and one mile per $1 spent on other purchases. No flight delay coverage.

Delta Air Lines

Delta Air Lines

  • Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express: No annual fee. Two miles per $1 spent on Delta purchases and at U.S. restaurants, and one mile per $1 spent on all other purchases. Twenty percent savings as a statement credit when using your card on eligible in-flight purchases of food, beverages and audio headsets. Earn Medallion Status via Medallion Qualification Miles.
  • Fees and fine print: $0 annual fee. Foreign transaction fee of 2.7% of each transaction after conversion to U.S. dollars. Membership Rewards don’t expire so long as you keep the card; Delta SkyMiles never expire.Terms Apply. See Rates & Fees.

United Airlines

United Airlines

  • United MileagePlus® Explorer Card: Two miles per $1 spent on United tickets and one mile per $1 spent on all other purchases. One free checked bag on United-operated flights when buying tickets with the card. Priority boarding and two free United Club passes a year. Miles don’t expire as long as your credit card account is open, with no limits on miles earned.
  • Fees and fine print: $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $95 a year.

JetBlue

JetBlue

  • JetBlue Card: Three points per $1 spent on JetBlue purchases, two points per $1 spent at restaurants and grocery stores and one point per $1 spent on all other purchases. No blackout dates or seat restrictions on JetBlue-operated flights. 50% savings on eligible in-flight purchases, including cocktails and food.
  • Fees and fine print: No annual fee. Miles can only be used on JetBlue and Hawaiian Airlines. Miles don’t expire.

Hotels

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iStock

Like the airlines, hotels also have their own loyalty programs. Join them to get the maximum benefits from the points/miles that you accumulate on the card, which can be used to pay for hotel stays, airline flights and car rentals.

Here are the top five U.S. hotel chains and their loyalty programs based on yearly revenue in 2016, according to Statista:

Note that each of these hotel groups have different brands under their corporate structure. That means just because you’re in the Hilton HHonors program, you don’t necessarily have to stay at a hotel with “Hilton” in its name. For example, Hilton hotels include brands like Homewood Suites, DoubleTree, Embassy Suites and Hampton Inn, which are all part of the Hilton HHonors loyalty program.

After signing up for a hotel-branded card, you can earn points and/or miles and pay for your stays, and some even cover airline flights.

What to look for in a good hotel card

  • Ability to choose from different hotel brands
  • Earn extra points for hotel-related purchases
  • Transfer points into airline miles
  • Accumulate unlimited points
  • Points that don’t expire
  • No blackout dates for booking rooms using points
  • Free elite status
  • Good bonuses for new cardholders

Pros and cons of hotel cards

Pros:

  • Most hotels give at least three points for hotel-related purchases.
  • Ability to get free room upgrades when available.
  • Cardholders can often get one free hotel night a year.
  • Points can be transferred into airline miles.
  • Some cards give you automatic elite status.

Cons:

  • Blackout travel dates may affect your ability to book points-based rooms.
  • Some cards charge an annual fee.
  • Points can be cancelled if there is no account activity for 12 to 18 months.

Redeeming points with hotel cards

Hotels have taken a page from the airlines, creating loyalty programs that have been designed to keep customers coming back. The main lure for cardholders is bonus points for hotel purchases made with branded credit cards.

Hotels chains have different ways to redeem points, depending on how you want to use them.

Redeem points for free hotel stays. Most allow you to use points for free room nights with the number of points determined by the hotel category, ranging from budget to luxury. For example, with The Hyatt Credit Card, points can be redeemed at four different categories at hotel brands including Hyatt, Park Hyatt, Grand Hyatt, Andaz and Hyatt Place hotels.

Redeem for room upgrades or other perks. Points can be used for things like room upgrades, restaurants, spas, in-room movies, parking and transportation. You can also use a combination of points and cash for free night awards, and transfer points into airline miles. Some hotels allow customers to book rooms at points discounts. Others allow you to use points advances, which can book rooms even if you don’t have enough for a reward.

Best hotel cards

Methodology: We considered cards with low annual fees, unlimited points accumulations that don’t expire, a good variety of hotel brands, generous points programs and available reward rooms. We also favored those that offered extra points for hotel-related purchases, automatic elite status, room upgrades and no foreign transaction fees.

Marriott

Marriott

  • Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit Card: Five points per $1 spent at Marriott properties. Two points for every $1 at restaurants, tickets purchased directly from an airline and car rental agencies. Get a 20% discount when you convert Marriott Rewards points to United MileagePlus® award miles.
  • Fees and fine print: $0 intro annual fee for the first year, then an $85 annual fee. No foreign transaction fees. Points don’t expire as long there’s activity every 24 months.

Hilton

Hilton

  • Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card: A generous 12 bonus points per $1 spent on Hilton portfolio of hotels or resorts. Six bonus points for every $1 spent at U.S. restaurants, U.S. supermarkets and U.S. gas stations. Three bonus points for all other eligible purchases. Ability to use points in all four levels of Hilton properties – Luxury, Full Service, Limited Service and Lifestyle. Free Hilton Honors Gold status.
  • Fees and fine print: $95 a year. No foreign transaction fees. Points don’t expire as long as there’s card activity at least every 12 months. Terms Apply. See Rates & Fees.

IHG

ihg-club-premier1

  • IHG® Rewards Club Premier Credit Card: Ten points per $1 spent at IHG hotels, two points per $1 spent on purchases at gas stations, grocery stores, and restaurants, one point per $1 spent on all other purchases. Automatic 10% rebate on points redemptions. Automatic platinum status as long as you have the card.
  • Fees and fine print: $89 Annual Fee. Miles expire if there’s no account activity for 12 months.

Wyndham

Wyndham

  • Wyndham Rewards® Visa® Card: Three points per $1 spent on eligible purchases for participating hotel stays, Wyndham Vacation Rental North America properties, and on-property spend and maintenance fees at Wyndham timeshare properties. Two points per $1 spent on eligible gas, utility and grocery store purchases (excluding Target and Walmart) and one point per $1 spent on other purchases. Wyndham Rewards Platinum status.
  • Fees and fine print: $0 annual fee. No foreign transaction fees. No limit on total points earned as long as the program continues and the account is open, active and in good standing.

Hyatt

Hyatt

  • The Hyatt Credit Card: Three bonus points per $1 spent at Hyatt hotels and resorts, two bonus points per $1 spent at restaurants, on airline tickets purchased directly from the airline and at car rental agencies and one bonus point per $1 spent on all other purchases. Hyatt Discoverist status.
  • Fees and fine print: $75 a year. Points don’t expire as long as your account is open.

All-around travel

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iStock

If you aren’t loyal to an airline or hotel chain but are still looking for a way to earn rewards on all travel purchases, you might be better off simply getting a travel rewards-branded credit card.

These credit cards are travel-related, but aren’t tied to a specific airline or hotel brand, which gives card members more flexibility when it comes to redeeming points or miles. Once you sign up, you automatically get points or miles on your purchases, depending on the card. Eligible rewards purchases can include not just hotel stays and airfare, but also rental cars and train and taxi fares. The best cards offer points on dining and restaurants as well, which give frequent travelers even more bang for their buck.

To attract new customers, many cards offer sign-up bonuses for new card members that offer a large chunk of initial points or miles. But don’t let the bonuses distract you — choose the card that is going to fit your needs for the long haul.

You can maximize your membership in airline, hotel and car rental loyalty programs with these cards because they allow you to transfer points, with some at a discount. For example, the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express allows you to transfer your membership rewards points almost always at 1:1 to more than 30 airline miles programs. One caveat: You need to transfer two Starwood points to United Airlines MileagePlus program to get one mile. You also have the ability to choose between loyalty programs if you belong to more than one. Terms and limitations apply.

What to look for in a good travel card

  • Flexibility to use different travel brands
  • Low or no annual fees, unless you travel often enough to justify the fees
  • No foreign exchange fees, which can add up quickly if you travel abroad often
  • Extra points for hotel-related purchases
  • Accumulate unlimited points
  • Ability to instantly transfer points to airline or hotel partners
  • Points that don’t expire
  • No travel blackout dates
  • Good sign-up bonuses for new cardholders

Pros and cons of travel cards

Pros:

  • Earn at least two points for many travel-related purchases.
  • Cardholders can get one free hotel night a year with some cards.
  • Points can often be transferred and used to book airfare or hotel stays.
  • Often don’t charge a foreign exchange fee.

Cons:

  • Blackout travel dates may affect your ability to book flights or hotel rooms.
  • Some cards charge an annual fee, which will eat into your savings.

Redeeming rewards with travel cards

Travel-branded credit cards have built-in benefits that allow you to maximize points earned to use for airlines, hotels, car rental agencies and other travel-related partners.

Directly through the card website. You can book rewards directly through a travel partner’s or the card’s website. Some even offer bonus points rates when booking travel on the website. And you can’t ignore the benefit of transferring points directly to airline or hotel loyalty programs, giving you more options for reward travel.

Redeem for other perks. These credit cards have different ways of redeeming points to book airline flights, hotels and rental cars. For example, if you book travel directly on the Chase Sapphire Reserve® Ultimate Rewards® website, you get 1.5 cents per point, which is a generous 50% bonus. Other cards allow you to book on any website, pay with the card and get the actual miles used removed from your account statement. And with some cards, you can also buy airline tickets using a combination of points and money.

Best cards for all-around travel rewards

You can use these cards to maximize the miles or points you earn in airline and hotel loyalty programs. Travel reward cards also give you the flexibility to book any airlines and hotels — some with bonus points — via their websites.

Methodology: We chose cards that let you earn extra miles for travel-related purchases, allow you to accumulate unlimited miles that don’t expire and have no blackout dates for reward travel. We also looked for cards that let you transfer points to airline and hotel partners to boost your loyalty program numbers.

American Express

American Express

  • The Amex EveryDay® Credit Card: Two points for every $1 spent at U.S. supermarkets (up to $6,000 a year in purchases, then 1x) and one point per dollar spent on other purchases. Get 20% more points if you use your card 20 or more times on purchases in a billing period. Transfer points to Delta and 16 other airlines and earn 20% more points on those purchases. Ten thousand points is worth $100 in flights, hotels, car rentals or cruises booked on the American Express website. Ability to pay for travel with points and cash.
  • Fees and fine print: No annual fee. 2.7% foreign transaction fee. Points don’t expire as long as the card is active. Terms Apply. See Rates & Fees.

Chase

Chase

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card: Earn two points per $1 spent on travel and worldwide dining at restaurants and one point per per $1 spent on all other purchases. One-to-one point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs. 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards® website. No blackout dates or restrictions on travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. Unlimited points earned.
  • Fees and fine print: Introductory annual fee of $0 for the first year, then $95 a year. No foreign transaction fees. Points don’t expire as long as the card is active.

Capital One

Capital One

  • Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card: A simple two miles for every $1 spent on all purchases. Miles can be used for any travel purchase. Buy them with your card, then use your miles to erase some or all of the cost. Book any airline on any website when using the card. Rewards don’t expire as long as the account is open. There’s no cap on the amount of rewards you can earn on purchases.
  • Fees and fine print: $0 annual fee the first year; $95 a year after. No foreign transaction fees.

Learn more: How to choose the right card

Fees and fine print to watch out for
Hotel cardsAirline cardsTravel cards
Annual fees ranging from $0 to $550Annual fees ranging from $0 to $550Annual fees ranging from $0 to $550
Room blackout datesTravel blackout dates
High spending to get bonus pointsHigh spending to get bonus milesHigh spending to get bonus points
Foreign exchange fees of up to 3%Foreign exchange fees of up to 3%Foreign exchange fees of up to 3%
Points that expireMiles that expirePoints that expire
Limited number of award roomsLimited number of award flightsPoints redeemed at lower levels
Lower points earned for non-hotel spendingLower points earned for non-airline spendingLower points earned for non-travel spending

Now that you’ve seen the travel card options, it’s time to decide which card is the right one for you. But before you make a final decision, here are some key questions to to ask yourself about the three categories — airline, hotel and travel.

Am I willing to pay a fee?

Fees for travel-related credit cards range from $0 to $550, with many offering a free year before fees kick in. A general rule of thumb: The higher the fee, the better the perks and benefits. For example, the Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card has no annual fee, but you can only earn three points on every $1 spent on travel if you book travel via its website. But the Choice Privileges® Visa Signature® Card offers perks like 15 points per $1 spent at eligible locations and automatic Gold status. But in the end, you have to decide if the perks and benefits offset the annual fee.

Is there an offer for bonus points/miles for new cardmembers?

Most cards offer bonus miles and points for new card members who spend set amounts in the first three months. But you have to weigh if the spending needed to get the bonus justifies the boost to your miles and points account.

How often do I fly this airline or stay in this hotel chain?

If you’re not loyal to one airline or hotel chain, it may be more beneficial for you to choose a travel-branded credit card. Because these cards have different airline and hotel partners, they give you more flexibility in redeeming points for flights and hotel rooms.

Does this card fit my travel and lifestyle habits?

If you’re not someone that travels regularly, again, you may want to consider a travel-branded credit card. These cards allow you to earn points for non-travel related activities, and can be used later for booking a flight or a hotel room via the brands of your choice.

Which card offers the best points/miles for credit card spending?

You want to look for a card that offers bonus points/miles per $1 spent for travel-related spending. You also want a card that offers bonus points/miles for things like dining and groceries.

Can I get elite status in a loyalty program?

Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard® If you belong to an airline or hotel loyalty program, you want to get a card that helps you attain elite status. For example, those with the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard® can earn 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) after spending $40,000 in eligible purchases that post to an account during a calendar year. And Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) and award miles can only be earned on base fares paid for a ticket, including any carrier-imposed fees. Hotels including IGH, Wyndham and Hyatt offer automatic elite status for card members.

Can I transfer miles and points to other travel partners?

For travel-branded cards, the answer is yes, based on the airline and hotel partnerships they have. For the airline and hotel cards, the answer is yes, but be absolutely sure and check what partnerships they have before making transfers.

What travel perks does the card offer?

The higher the fee, the better the perks. For airline cards, look for things like reward seats with no blackout dates, a free checked bag, priority boarding and baggage handling, upgrades to premium cabins, airport lounge access, discounts on in-flight services and 24/7 dedicated phone assistance. For hotels, you want a good variety of brands, no blackout dates, extra points for hotel-related purchases, automatic elite status and room upgrades.

For travel-branded cards, you want ones that let you earn extra miles for travel purchases, allow you to accumulate unlimited miles that don’t expire and have no blackout dates for reward travel. You also want cards that allow you to transfer points to airline and hotel partners to boost your loyalty program numbers.

Can I accumulate unlimited miles?

It depends on the card, so check the fine print.

Do my miles or points ever expire?

Again, it depends on credit card. Some points/miles never expire as long as the card remains open. And some require activity between 12 and 24 months to keep them from expiring.

Am I better off with an all-around travel rewards card?

You may be. If you don’t belong to an airline or hotel loyalty program, or don’t travel a lot, this type of card may be best for you.

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Benét J. Wilson is Associate Editor, Credit Cards at MileCards.com. She's also the founder of Aviation Queen LLC, an aviation/travel writing, multimedia and consulting business.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Miles dont expireas long as card is open
Learn more

Partner Offer

50,000 bonus points

Intro Offer

$0 introductory annual fee the first year, then $95

Annual Fee

Yes

Foreign Transaction Fee Waived

Yes - transfer to United MileagePlus, Southwest Rapid Rewards, Marriott Rewards, and more

Points Can Transfer to Airline Miles ?

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