Navigating the world of travel credit cards can be tricky, especially if you’re new to the points and miles game. The card you choose needs to fit your travel habits and spending.
If you’re a frequent flyer loyal to a certain airline, an airline miles card may be your best bet. Likewise, hotel credit cards tend to work well for travelers looking to rack up points at a specific hotel chain. On the other hand, travelers who value flexibility could prefer a card that earns multi-purpose points.
Points and miles aren’t always one-size-fits-all. When it comes to choosing between a points card or a miles card, it’s important to know how the card will benefit you both as a traveler and a consumer.
What’s the difference between points and miles?
Like cash back, points and miles are types of credit card rewards. They’re similar, but with a few key distinctions.
Miles—sometimes called “air miles”—are earned with co-branded credit cards offered by a partnership between an airline and a credit card issuer. Miles are typically redeemed toward tickets, in-flight purchases and other air travel expenses with the partner airline.
- Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card, issued by American Express with Delta Air Lines
Co-branded points are earned with a co-branded credit card associated with a particular hotel chain or airline. Redeeming them usually involves booking rooms and making other purchases at the hotel chain’s participating properties.
- Hilton Honors American Express Card, issued by American Express with Hilton
- Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card, issued by American Express with Marriott
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card, issued by Visa with Southwest Airlines
These points are earned with a travel credit card not tied to one specific airline or hotel chain. Issuers typically offer several redemption options, which may include booking travel through their online portals or transferring points to a partner airline or hotel.
What are credit card points?
Credit card points reward the user for making eligible purchases. Typically issuers will offer at least a 1:1 conversion, meaning that you’ll get a point for every dollar you spend, although that point conversion could differ depending on the issuer.
The earning rate could also vary based on the type of purchase. You might earn more points for purchases directly related to travel—airfare and hotel stays—than everyday purchases such as dining or groceries.
How to earn credit card points
When it comes to earning credit card points, the most important thing is choosing a card that rewards your spending habits.
For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card has a tiered category program that earns 5X points on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3X points on dining and 2X points on all other travel purchases, plus 1 point per dollar on all other purchases. By contrast, the Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card earns a flat rate of 1.5 points per dollar on all purchases.
How to redeem points
Redeeming your points is fairly simple, according to Leslie Tayne, a debt relief attorney and personal finance expert.
“You will likely need to log into your credit card account online or the rewards portal tied to your credit card,” says Tayne. The portal will display your points earnings and guide you toward the various redemption options.
“Points can be used for various rewards, such as hotel stays, online merchandise, cash back and gift cards,” Tayne adds. “Other options can include transfers towards a hotel or airline loyalty program or charity.”
What are credit card miles?
With an airline miles card, you’ll earn miles for eligible purchases. Miles are typically associated with frequent flyer programs. They can function much like points in terms of redemption options, so depending on the issuer, you may be able to redeem your miles for travel benefits and perks in addition to airfare.
If you’re loyal to a specific airline, a miles credit card tied to that brand could offer you exclusive travel perks and discounts you may not be able to get with a points credit card, such as a free checked bag.
How to earn miles
Depending on the credit card and the rewards program, you could earn miles on any purchase not directly related to air travel.
Like points, miles can come in tiered and flat-rate categories. If you’re interested in earning miles on all purchases, a flat-rate card like the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card may be a good choice. You’ll earn an unlimited 1.25X miles on every purchase, and they won’t expire as long as your account remains active.
If your spending aligns more closely with certain categories, a tiered card may be a better choice. A card like the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card earns 2 miles for every dollar spent on eligible purchases made with Delta Air Lines, at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets. You’ll also earn 1 mile for every dollar spent on all other purchases.
How to redeem miles
Redeeming your miles is similar to redeeming points, and you’ll likely need to log into your account on your issuer’s website to access the redemption portal.
“Miles are typically used toward airline travel but can come with certain stipulations. For example, you may need a minimum number of miles to use them toward airfare, or your miles may only be valid for travel on a specific airline” says Tayne.
When redeeming your miles it’s important to be aware of these stipulations. “Some miles can also come with blackout dates or expire if not used within a particular timeframe,” says Tayne. When it comes to miles redemption, make sure you’re aware of any potential blackout dates and expiration dates.
Other ways to earn points and miles
Another way to earn points or miles on top of your spending is through a sign-up bonus offered to new cardholders. The sign-up bonus, sometimes called a welcome offer, can earn a generous amount of miles or points once you meet the spending requirement within the specified amount of time after opening your account.
Some hotel cards also offer “anniversary” bonuses that grant you a fixed amount of points every year on your anniversary of becoming a cardholder.
How to choose the right travel card
When you’re deciding between a miles card and a points card, it’s important to be aware of a few factors, says Tayne:
- “Do your research. When searching for different credit cards, be sure to read the fine print and reviews for possible restrictions on rewards, such as certain blackout dates when they cannot be redeemed.”
- “Think about your credit card balance. If you can’t pay off your full balance each month, interest can add up. You might end up paying more on your bill each month, which could make the rewards less lucrative.”
- “Determine which rewards are most valuable. Choose a card that offers rewards most valuable to your lifestyle. Does free checked luggage mean more than points toward a gift card?”
Whether you should choose a card that offers points or miles is a decision that depends greatly on your spending and travel habits and consumer preferences. Are you loyal to a particular airline or hotel chain, or do you prefer flexibility in how you fly and where you stay?
The most important thing is to do the proper research to ensure that your card is bringing value and improving your overall travel experience.