Should I get a travel credit card that earns points, miles, or both?

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When it comes to travel credit cards, the various currencies can get quite confusing for folks who are just starting out. Is it best to get a card that earns points, miles or both? The answer depends on your specific travel goals and habits.

If you’re loyal to a particular airline, it might make sense to get a co-branded credit card that earns miles and offers benefits that improve your travel experience. That said, airline miles can limit your redemption options and devalue at any time.

Points, on the other hand, offer more flexibility. Points give you more options because you can transfer them to several airline or hotel programs, often instantly.

Which type of travel credit card to get comes down to how you plan to use it. Let’s take a closer look at the difference between points and miles and which type of currency might work best for you.

What’s the difference between points and miles?

The difference between points and miles comes down to how they can be earned and redeemed. Miles are exclusively affiliated with airline loyalty programs, while points are issued by banks or hotel rewards programs. The only exception is Southwest, which calls its Rapid Rewards currency “points.”

Miles

Miles most often refer to frequent flyer miles issued by airlines. You can earn these by flying, through co-branded credit card spending, shopping online, dining out and other activities. Airline miles can offer terrific value if you know how to take advantage of the routing rules and award chart sweet spots.

They’re not great if you want flexibility or plan to use miles for flights during peak travel season. That’s when many airlines restrict award space or demand astronomical redemption rates for flights. This can make redeeming miles for the flight you want pretty challenging.

Many airlines also allow you to redeem miles for things like hotel bookings, magazine subscriptions and more. You’ll get significantly less value out of your miles this way, but these options do exist.

Hotel points

Hotel points are issued by major hotel chains like IHG, Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott. Their use is fairly restricted. You can earn and redeem hotel points on hotel stays. Some programs make it possible to earn miles on hotel stays or convert points to airline miles. Doing so is generally not a good value unless there is a promotion offering bonus points when you do.

Transferable points

Transferable points are the gold standard when it comes to travel rewards currencies. The four main transferable points you need to know about are American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Capital One Venture miles and Citi ThankYou points.

Each of these transferable currencies 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.

By providing more than one airline or hotel you can transfer to, transferable points allow you the utmost flexibility. You’re not tied to one program’s award inventory fluctuations.

Is it better to earn points or miles?

Most people are better off earning points instead of miles. Points are more flexible in terms of how you can redeem them and, if you don’t want to bother with figuring out complicated frequent flyer program rules, you can just use your points as a statement credit toward a flight booking.

The Amex Membership Rewards program allows cardmembers to use their points for travel bookings at a rate of 0.7 cents per point. The Chase Ultimate Rewards program is a little more generous at 1.5 cents per point for Chase Sapphire Reserve® cardholders and 1.25 cents for the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.

On the other hand, earning miles can make sense for a lot of people, too. For starters, airline credit cards offer perks beyond just miles. Cardholders are often rewarded with free checked bags, priority boarding and the ability to earn elite status through credit card spending. Southwest is a prime example of this.

With the various Southwest-branded credit cards, it’s possible to spend your way to the coveted Southwest Companion Pass. What makes this pass so special is that it allows you to fly a designated friend or family member free of charge (plus award taxes and fees) for a year. It can save you hundreds of dollars on airfare.

To qualify for the pass, you normally need to earn 125,000 points in a year, though credit card spending counts toward this requirement. So even if you’re limiting your redemption options by earning Rapid Rewards instead of transferable points, you still have a chance to earn a unique benefit that may be more valuable than any point-affiliated credit card can offer.

With these scenarios in mind, choosing whether to earn points or miles is a personal decision. It depends entirely on how loyal you are to a single airline, what your travel goals are and whether you’re looking for flexibility when it’s time to redeem.

Best travel credit cards for earning points

The market for travel cards that earn points has rapidly increased over the last decade. All the major banks offer multiple credit cards affiliated with their respective points programs. Chase Ultimate Rewards is perhaps the most well-known and also most newcomer-friendly program out there.

American Express Membership Rewards is an excellent choice for more advanced folks looking to maximize the value of programs like ANA Mileage Club, which offers bargain mileage fares to Europe and Asia. Capital One Venture has been expanding its mileage transfer partnerships, and the Citi ThankYou program offers terrific value thanks to its partnerships with Turkish Airlines and Avianca Lifemiles.

If you’re looking for a travel card that earns points, here are the top five to consider:

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great starter card for those looking to earn points, thanks to a reasonable $95 annual fee and a generous sign-up bonus. The card currently offers 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first three months. That translates to $750 worth of travel when booked through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal.

But if you really want to maximize your points, you can transfer them to one of 14 airline and hotel partners at a 1:1 ratio. Options include United MileagePlus, Southwest Rapid Rewards and the World of Hyatt program.

Chase Sapphire Reserve

The Chase Sapphire Reserve has a higher annual fee ($550) and lower sign-up bonus than the Sapphire Preferred: 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 within three months. So why get this card? It comes with a $300 annual travel credit, Priority Pass membership and higher category bonuses: 10 points per dollar on Lyft rides and Peloton equipment, 3X points on travel, 3X on dining and up to 10X on Chase dining and select travel booked through Chase.

Citi Premier® Card

The Citi Premier Card rewards spending with generous category bonuses and an increased sign-up offer: 80,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in purchases within the first three months of account opening. Citi has many airline and hotel partners you can transfer these points to at a 1:1 ratio, including Avianca Lifemiles, Flying Blue and JetBlue TrueBlue.

The card earns 3 points per dollar spent at restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air and travel hotels. That just about covers most people’s main spending categories, making it easy to earn ThankYou points beyond the sign-up bonus.

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

The Capital One Venture earns a flat 2 miles per dollar spent on everything and you can transfer points to 19 different airline partners. That makes this card incredibly versatile and a solid option for both advanced users and those who are still learning about points.

New cardholders also receive 60,000 miles after spending $3,000 within three months of account opening. At a minimum, this is valid on $600 in travel when used for statement credits.

The Platinum Card® from American Express

The Platinum Card from American Express is a premium card packed with travel benefits like lounge access, Global Entry/TSA Precheck fee credit and up to $200 in airline fee credits (annually).

The current welcome bonus is pretty substantial if you want to give your Membership Rewards balance a boost: Earn 100,000 points after spending $6,000 within the first six months of card membership. For context, you can transfer 88,000 points to ANA Mileage Club and book a round-trip business class ticket to Europe. That’s an incredible deal, considering business class tickets to Europe typically cost $4,000 or more.

Best travel credit cards for earning miles

When deciding between travel cards that earn miles, you should consider several factors. If you fly a specific airline frequently but not enough to earn elite status, getting an airline credit card might be worthwhile. These cards offer benefits like free checked bags, priority boarding and the ability to earn credit toward elite status via card spending.

Credit card sign-up bonuses are also worth taking into account. If you see a great offer (i.e., above 50,000 miles) and anticipate needing those points for a future flight, then it’s a good enough reason to get a travel credit card that earns miles. Here’s an overview of some of the best current offers:

Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card

If you’re looking to stock up on Delta SkyMiles, this is a great option. At the moment, it’s offering 50,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after $3,000 spent within three months.

Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card

The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature may not sound like a great card, considering Alaska is mostly known as a regional carrier. However, the airline recently joined the Oneworld Alliance and boasts an impressive line-up of international airline partners. You can earn and redeem miles on a lot more than just flights to Alaska and the West Coast.

Cardholders earn 40,000 bonus miles plus Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare™ from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22) with this offer. To qualify, make purchases of $2,000 or more within the first 90 days of opening your account. This bonus is enough for at least two round-trip economy class tickets within the U.S. You can also splurge and use this for a one-way business class ticket to Europe or Asia, with a free stopover included.

United℠ Explorer Card

United’s MileagePlus loyalty program is a good option if you want to earn miles that are easy to redeem for both domestic and international travel. The United Explorer card offers 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in the first three months of account opening.

AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®

If you want to earn lots of American AAdvantage miles, the Barclay AAdvantage Aviator Red is the best way to do so quickly. The card offers 50,000 bonus miles after making a purchase and paying the $99 annual fee within 90 days. This is in stark contrast to most airline credit cards, which have spending requirements of $2,000 or higher.

As an added bonus, the card comes with an annual Companion Certificate every year you spend $20,000 or more. This lets you book a flight for a companion for just $99, plus taxes and fees.

Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card

For business owners, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance is a great way to stock up on Southwest points and make progress toward the Companion Pass. The card offers 80,000 points after you spend $5,000 within the first three months of account opening. That’s enough for about $1,040-$1,120 worth of flights and gets you a significant way towards the 125,000 points needed for a Companion Pass.

Which type of travel card is right for you?

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.

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 card perks) and the sign-up bonus is high enough, then getting a card that earns miles can still be worthwhile.

Written by
Ariana Arghandewal
Travel rewards writer
Ariana Arghandewal is a personal finance expert specializing in credit cards and travel rewards. She is passionate about helping people leverage credit card rewards to realize their travel goals.
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