Key takeaways

  • Some travel credit cards earn miles that work with a specific airline or airline alliance, whereas others offer flexible rewards points that can be used in more than one way.
  • Generally speaking, co-branded credit cards that earn miles are best for frequent travelers who are loyal to one brand.
  • Meanwhile, flexible rewards points are a good choice for people who love trying different travel brands and want to shop around for redemptions before they make a booking.
  • While you can choose to earn points or miles, earning both can help you score better redemptions and more perks over time.
Finding the best travel credit card can feel like an overwhelming task. The choices are vast — from co-branded cards to points, miles and cash back cards — and it can be hard to tell the difference between the various rewards currencies.

That said, knowing how different types of rewards work is the key to figuring it all out. Essentially, “points” generally refers to more flexible, transferable award currencies that are ideal for people who aren’t loyal to any one brand for airfare or hotel accommodations. An added benefit to this type of travel rewards is that they can often be redeemed for things other than travel spending.

Meanwhile, “miles” work well for those who are fine with limited redemption options — that is, award bookings within a loyalty program for a given travel brand. Even though you’ll forgo some flexibility using miles, you’ll still have the potential to get more value for your miles while gaining access to certain status upgrades in your loyalty program of choice.

Points vs. miles: What’s the difference?

The difference between credit card points and miles comes down to how the issuer designates its rewards currency. Miles commonly refers to airline miles that can be redeemed for free flights (less any taxes and fees). In some cases, miles may also be transferable to travel partners such as hotels or redeemed for travel-related purchases (like car rentals) through airlines’ vacation websites.

Credit card points, or transferable points, on the other hand, are usually issued by bank credit cards and come with more flexible redemption options, including both travel accommodations and a variety of other purchases. Note that, although hotels often use the term “points” to distinguish their rewards, they typically work the same way as miles for particular loyalty programs.

Airline miles and hotel points

Miles are typically associated with certain frequent flyer programs, and they’re earned through spending on co-branded airline cards (or through transfers from other travel rewards programs). When you earn miles in these programs, you’ll typically get the most value out of your rewards by redeeming them for flights or other spending related to the airline brand. You could also get access to free perks such as a free first checked bag and status upgrades if you’re earning miles via a co-branded credit card.

You can usually earn miles by flying, spending, shopping online, dining out and doing other activities designated by the card issuer. Airline miles can offer great value if you know how to redeem them within their loyalty programs.

Hotel points can be earned through co-branded credit cards, though they can also be earned through nights spent at a particular brand, shopping trips or dining purchases. Like airline miles, they are earned within a specific loyalty program, and you’ll get the most value by redeeming them within that program. Depending on the loyalty program, you may also be able to transfer hotel points to select travel partners, or transfer points from more general travel rewards programs into your hotel loyalty account.

Transferable points

Credit cards that issue general travel rewards in the form of transferable points usually offer more flexibility than co-branded cards. That’s because you can transfer these points to multiple hotel and airline loyalty programs, instead of being restricted to a single loyalty program.

As in the case of miles, the actual terminology the card issuer uses may vary. Some travel cards, like the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card, use the term “miles” for their rewards instead of “points.” But, for the sake of this article, we’ll refer to the flexible rewards offered by a credit card issuer instead of a loyalty program as “points.”

With general travel rewards cards, you’ll usually have many more redemption options than you will with a co-branded credit card for one hotel or airline loyalty program. With transferable points, you also won’t have to worry about being tied to one program’s award inventory fluctuations — especially during high-demand travel seasons.

You can earn transferable to flexible points from several banks, including Chase, American Express, Citi and Capital One.

When to choose a points-earning card

Just about anyone can benefit from having a stash of flexible points that can be used for a broad range of travel programs and bookings.

For example, take the points offered in the Chase Ultimate Rewards program. These points can be used for redemptions like cash back, gift cards and merchandise, but they can also be used to book airfare, hotels, car rentals and more directly through the Chase Travel portal.

As a Chase cardholder, you may also be able to transfer your points to Chase airline and hotel partners at a 1:1 ratio. Chase partners include British Airways, Southwest Rapid Rewards and United MileagePlus, as well as hotel programs like Marriott Bonvoy and World of Hyatt.

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Given this, you’ll want to choose a transferable points-earning card if:

  • You want more flexible redemption options
  • Loyalty with a specific travel brand doesn’t matter to you
  • You’re not as interested in program-based rewards like elite status, free checked bags or priority boarding

When to choose a miles-earning card

While credit cards that earn transferable points are highly valuable, there are situations where a miles-earning card could leave you better off. This is particularly true if you frequently fly with a single airline or airline alliance, or if you want to earn elite perks like priority boarding, priority check-in at airports, free checked bags and lounge access.

Many airline credit cards let you earn elite-qualifying miles toward elite status, which isn’t something you can do with a points-earning card. For example, some Delta credit cards offer a perk called “Status Boost” that lets you earn a specific number of Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs) when you reach certain credit card spending thresholds. Note, however, the MQMs aren’t the same as the airline miles you can spend on award flights. Instead, MQMs help you work toward Delta Medallion Status and make it easier to reach the higher tiers without having to fly with the airline as much.

With these details in mind, you’ll want to choose a miles-earning card if:

  • You want airline perks like free checked bags and early boarding
  • You are loyal to a specific airline or airline alliance
  • You have no problem earning airline miles that may have a limited scope of use

Which type of travel card is right for you?

If you aren’t sure which type of travel rewards card to get, take a look at who would benefit the most from a card that earns transferable points versus a loyalty-based, miles-earning travel card.

Points are better if you:

  • Want to redeem points for options other than travel
  • Want to take advantage of transferable points
  • Aren’t loyal to a specific hotel or airline brand

Miles are better if you:

  • Are loyal to a particular brand
  • Don’t mind having more limited redemption options
  • Want extra perks and status upgrades

Once you have a sense of which type of card will work best for you, take a look at our top picks for co-branded airline credit cards, hotel cards or general travel credit cards.

Another idea: Consider getting both a miles-earning card and a points-earning card. Having access to transferable rewards currencies can make it easier to book the travel you want when you need to, while your miles-earning card will give you airline benefits and ensure you’re earning miles with your favorite airline.

How to choose the best travel credit card

The right type of travel card for you depends entirely on the type of traveler you are and what you hope to get out of a credit card. If you’re new to points and miles, a credit card that earns transferable points could be a good option for you since you’ll have lots of transfer partners to choose from. That said, if you already know you’re loyal to a particular airline or hotel brand, choosing their co-branded cards may help you quickly score discounted travel and status-related benefits.

As you grow in your usage of travel points, you may start to see the value in building a diverse points portfolio. Before that, however, choosing a card that earns transferable points gives you some flexibility without requiring you to get multiple credit cards and incur hundreds of dollars in annual fees.

If you’re still uncertain about where to go from here, take a look at Bankrate’s Spender Type Tool to get personalized credit card recommendations.

The bottom line

Whether you’re new to travel credit cards or a seasoned pro, there’s a lot to consider before you decide on a travel credit card. Diversification is important at all levels, and cards that earn points and miles can help you achieve it.

If you can’t decide between a credit card that earns points or miles, consider getting both. Having more rewards to spend is never a bad idea, and having both types of cards can make finding award availability a much easier task.