Getting your hands on the best travel credit card can be an overwhelming task. From co-branded cards to points, miles and cash back, the choices are vast, and it can be hard to tell the difference between the various rewards currencies.
Essentially, points are more flexible, transferable award currencies — ideal for people who aren’t loyal to any one brand for airfare or hotel accommodations. Also, these points can be redeemed for things other than travel spending.
Miles, however, work well for those who are ok 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 still have the potential to get more value for your miles while gaining access to certain status upgrades in your loyalty program of choice.
So, how do you choose a rewards card that will work for your travel goals and spending habits? Here’s a breakdown of how different travel rewards currencies work and which one is best for you.
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 are typically redeemed towards award accommodations for airfare. In some cases, miles may also be transferred to other airline travel partners or even hotel nights and car rentals.
Miles are typically associated with certain travel loyalty and frequent flyer programs and are the designated currency of co-branded airline cards. If you have a rewards card associated with a hotel loyalty program, the rewards will be called points, but they are similarly tied to the brand.
When you earn miles in these programs, you’ll typically get the most value out of your rewards when redeeming them for flights or other spending related to the brand. You could also get access to free perks and status upgrades, if you’re earning via a co-branded credit card.
You can earn miles by flying, spending, shopping online, dining out and doing other activities designated by the card issuer. Airline miles (and hotel points) can offer great value if you know how to redeem them within the loyalty program they are associated with.
Credit cards that issue general travel rewards offer more flexibility because you can transfer points to multiple hotel and airline loyalty programs.
Like with 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. But, for the sake of this analysis, we’ll refer to flexible rewards offered by a credit card issuer instead of a loyalty program as “points.”
With points, you’ll have many more redemptions options than a co-branded credit card for one hotel or airline frequent flyer program. By using points instead of miles, you also won’t have to worry about being tied to one program’s award inventory fluctuations — especially during high-demand travel seasons.
Travel credit cards that earn miles
Both airline and hotel credit cards could be in this category. The main idea is that the rewards are most valuable when redeemed for brand-specific spending on travel accommodations. Here are some co-branded travel cards to consider:
Travel credit cards that earn points
The four main transferable points currency include American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Capital One miles and Citi ThankYou points. So choosing a card by any of these issuers will help you earn those flexible rewards points. Here are some specific travel cards to consider:
Each of these rewards programs has at least a dozen airline and hotel partners you can transfer your points to. This flexibility comes in handy for last-minute bookings or times when award space might be limited.
Pros of points
- Flexible redemption for travel accommodations in terms of scheduling
- Can be used towards travel or other purchases
- Some cards allow you to combine points from multiple cards to boost rewards earnings
Cons of points
- May miss out on some perks that come with co-branded cards like free checked bags
- Redemption values may not be as high with a brand-loyal credit card
Pros of miles
- Perks like upgrades and free extras
- You may be able to redeem miles at favorable rates
- Some cards may come with certain status upgrades in the related loyalty program
Cons of miles
- Some programs have limited award availability during peak travel times
- You may not be able to redeem miles at favorable rates for cash, statement credits or off-brand travel
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 general travel card (points) versus a loyalty-based travel card (miles).
Points are better if you:
- Want to redeem points for things other than travel
- Want to take advantage of transferable points
- Are not loyal to any hotel or airline brand
Miles are better if you:
- Are brand-loyal
- Want extra perks and status upgrades for loyalty programs
- Like to get the most value out of your rewards
If you feel like you fall more into one group than another, then you’ll choose a card based on how you identify. From here, you can take a look at our top picks for co-branded credit cards and travel credit cards that could work for you.
Choosing the best travel credit card
The right type of travel card 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. You’ll have lots of transfer partners to choose from, but if you want to simplify things, you can charge flights to your card and redeem points for a statement credit.
Even if you’re an advanced travel expert, it’s important to have a diverse points portfolio. A card that earns transferable points can offer that so you don’t have to get multiple credit cards and incur hundreds of dollars in annual fees.
For many people, it makes sense to have both: A card that earns points that can be transferred to multiple hotel and airline programs, and an airline card that earns miles but also offers added benefits when flying with that specific airline or staying at a particular hotel brand.
If you’re still uncertain about where to go from here, take a look at Bankrate’s spender type tool to get personalized travel credit card recommendations based on your credit score.
The bottom line
Whether you’re new to travel credit cards or a seasoned pro, there are many intricacies to consider when deciding which type of card to get. Diversification is important at all levels, and cards that earn points and miles can help you achieve it.
Cards that earn points you can transfer to various airline and hotel programs are the most flexible option. But if you can benefit from airline credit cards in other ways (such as travel perks) and the sign-up bonus is high enough, then getting a card that earns miles can still be worthwhile.