Intimidated by points and miles? Here are 8 steps for beginners looking to earn travel rewards

You can use rewards such as Amex points to book first-class flights on Emirates and other airlines.

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You can use rewards such as Amex points to book first-class flights on Emirates and other airlines.
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Phil Walter/Getty Images

  • Points and miles can seem intimidating. There’s a lot to learn, and sometimes it seems like it’s impossible to ever use those hard-earned rewards.
  • If you’re willing to put in a bit of effort and can boost your earnings with a rewards credit card, points and miles can be extremely rewarding. Think international first and business class and five-star hotels.
  • Even if you just want to dip your toes in the water, you can easily earn enough points and miles to cover domestic travel.

You’ve probably seen articles about seemingly average middle-class Americans using points and miles to go on trips that seem impossible – flying international business class to Australia, diving in the Maldives, or spending a week at a ski resort in Aspen – and you may wonder how you could do the same. Here are eight steps to get you started on your miles and points journey.

1. Decide what your priorities are

How many times do you travel each year? Do you want to add more travel, replace a trip that you usually take with something a bit more extravagant, or simply save some money on trips that you’d be taking anyway? Are you hoping to use points and miles to offset the cost of flights, hotels, rental cars, activities, or something else? (Flights and hotels tend to offer the best value, so that’s what we’ll focus on here.) All of these are important considerations to plan your strategy.

2. Do some research

Once you know where you want to go, find out what airlines fly there, what hotels exist, and how much their respective loyalty programs charge to redeem award flights or hotel stays. That will help you figure out which credit cards are the best fit for your needs.

Also, check out travel blogs to find out whether there are any specific issues you need to be aware of – for example, does the airline you want to book on only make first-class seats available seven days before departure? Does the hotel you’re eyeing require that you stay at least four nights to be able to make a reservation with points? These are good things to know before you start accumulating points that may be more difficult to use than you’d hoped.

3. Choose one or more credit cards that align with your priorities, and apply

If you can book the travel you want with Amex points, the American Express Gold Card could be a good pick.

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If you can book the travel you want with Amex points, the American Express Gold Card could be a good pick.
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American Express

If you know a specific airline is the best way to get where you’re trying to go, that airline’s credit card might be a good place to start to pick up a lot of miles with a signup bonus.

If you’re looking at a specific hotel, check out the hotel chain’s credit cards – typically they’ll offer either free night certificates or bonus rewards points for signing up, plus extra benefits like elite status in the hotel’s loyalty program.

And if you’re not sure about your plans – or you’ve got several options – many banks have their own rewards programs whose points can be transferred to several partner loyalty programs. For example, American Express’ Membership Rewards points can be transferred to 17 different airlines and 3 hotel programs or can be used to book cash tickets directly (so you don’t have to worry about availability restrictions). You can earn Membership Rewards points with cards like the Platinum Card® from American Express and the American Express® Gold Card, and these cards also offer other benefits like annual statement credits for airline incidental fees.

4. Spend wisely

Having a rewards-earning credit card isn’t an excuse to overspend – you won’t save any money that way! The rewards you earn – even from a credit card sign-up bonus – aren’t worth enough to offset spending beyond your means.

Rewards credit cards should be a way to enhance the benefit you’re getting from your everyday spending, not a reason to justify extra purchases or spending beyond your means.

5. Plan ahead

Airlines typically start making award seats available to book 10-11 months in advance, and most hotel programs also make rooms available around the same time. The most popular routes and times of year tend to get booked quickly, so if you start planning well in advance, you’ll have a better chance of getting the flight or room you’re looking for.

Even if you’re not vying for a super-popular date or route, booking flights in advance will save you some money (or points) -for example, American Airlines and United Airlines charge fees for award tickets booked less than 21 days before departure, while Delta Air Lines is known to require extra points for bookings in that time window.

6. Be flexible

This is the key to having a successful experience booking travel with miles and points. Can you leave a day earlier or later than you initially hoped? Are you willing to take an extra connection, a long layover, or an undesirable redeye flight? Can you fly out of an airport farther away from where you live, or into an airport farther from your destination? The more flexibility you have with your plans, the better chance you have of successfully booking your trip.

7. Pay attention to details

Airlines, hotels, and banks are able to offer generous rewards because they know a certain percentage of people won’t take advantage of them or will allow them to expire. Take a look at the little benefits booklet that came with your credit card – there are probably a lot of things in there you didn’t know you were eligible for! (And if the legalese gets a bit much for you, check out summaries on travel blogs to get an overview – just remember that little booklet is the ultimate authority.) Free tools like AwardWallet can help you remember to use your rewards before they expire.

8. Remember that there’s no such thing as entirely free travel

Even if you’re able to cover the cost of flights and hotels with your rewards points, there are always going to be expenses you need to pay for out of pocket like transportation, meals, activities, and souvenirs.

Most rewards credit cards have annual fees, typically starting around $90 and going as high as $550. And since your purchases could just as easily go on a credit card that earns cash back – at least 2%, if not more – by using a rewards credit card, you’re betting that you’ll be able to make better use of the points than you could with that cash in your pocket. So do the math, and make sure you’re striking the balance you want between quality experiences and your budget.

Curious about which cards I use and why? Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve, because it offers great rewards on travel and built-in travel insurance for when things don’t go as planned. It also offers great rewards on dining (3x points).
  • Chase Freedom Unlimited, because it offers 1.5% cash back (1.5x Ultimate Rewards points) on all purchases. It’s my top pick for purchases that don’t earn a bonus with another card.
  • Chase Freedom, thanks to its quarterly rotating categories that earn 5% cash back (5x points) on up to $1,500 in purchases each quarter you activate. A great way to rack up some serious points!
  • Platinum Card from American Express, because it gets me access to American Express’ wonderful Centurion Lounges and credit for Uber rides each month.
  • IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card, mostly for the one free night at IHG hotels every year (that costs up to 40,000 points) just for paying the annual fee.