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Comprehensive Guide To Free Travel Using Miles, Points, And Credit Card Rewards

Advertiser disclosure: The Miles Genie has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products.  The Miles Genie and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Editorial disclosure: Opinions, reviews, analyses, and recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed, or approved by any of these entities.

Introduction

Since 2013, Ryan and I have traveled the world using miles and points earned from credit cards.

From domestic flights…

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Spend your money on wine, not hotels and airfare

to business class long-haul international flights…

advantage miles business class to italy
Ciao, Felicia!

to luxury hotel stays…

Ritz Carlton Tokyo

we’ve figured out some of the best ways to redeem credit card miles and points. Our recent trip to Japan is a great example. We flew there in business class and we stayed at Ritz-Carlton properties. The value was over $13,000 but we paid just $388 total. You can read about how we booked everything here.

6 years, millions of points and miles, and dozens of trips later, we’re still doing this thing, so I’d say it’s sustainable. No matter what your travel goals are, miles and points make it possible to book free or extremely discounted travel.

This is written for beginners, but even if you already have a decent understanding of miles and points, you may still learn a thing or two.

how to use credit card miles and points

Learn from our first mistakes

One of the very first things to consider in the pursuit of award travel is the type of credit card rewards you want to earn. I’m going to explain how I got started because it paints a clear picture of why certain types of credit card points and miles are better than others.

Let me take you back to 2013

We were planning a trip to Whistler, Canada, so we needed to book flights from DFW to Vancouver. At the time, I only had one credit card, the Chase Freedom. I had never redeemed any of the points I earned on that card, so I decided to look into possibly using some points to help with our flights.

I quickly learned that 25,000 points on my Chase Freedom were worth $250 (1 cent per point each). I certainly could have redeemed those points to help save $250 on our trip, but I realized that I might be earning the wrong type of credit card rewards if free flights is the goal.

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It all started while planning a trip to Whistler
Most credit cards that earn points/miles that you can redeem for travel fall into one of 4 categories:

I’ll discuss the 4 types of credit card rewards for travel in more detail in a moment.

  1. Airline co-branded cards
  2. Hotel co-branded cards
  3. Cards that earn bank points
  4. Cash-back cards

The Chase Freedom and Chase Freedom Unlimited cards are cash-back cards.*

*Unless you also have one of the 3 transferable Chase Ultimate Rewards earning cards. The 3 transferable Ultimate Rewards earning cards are Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink Business Preferred, or Chase Sapphire Reserve. I’ll discuss transferable Ultimate Rewards in this post, but you can read more about why having one of those 3 cards plus a no annual fee CF or CFU is ideal here.

Cash-back credit cards have their place, but for the type of travel goal we had in mind (DFW-Vancouver flights), other cards would have earned more valuable points and miles.

how to use credit card miles and points for travel

Lightbulb moment #1– I’m using the wrong credit card

While shopping for flights, I saw an offer for an AAdvantage co-branded credit card, which prompted me to look at how many AAdvantage miles I would need to book the DFW-YVR. I learned that I could redeem 25,000 AAdvantage miles for a milesAAver economy ticket on the American Airlines flight.

If those 25,000 Chase Freedom points were AAdvantage miles, I could have redeemed them for 1 ticket. A paid roundtrip ticket from DFW-YVR is usually going to be at least $500, so 25,000 AAdvantage miles are worth more than 25,000 Chase Freedom points ($250) in this particular scenario.

I didn’t have 25,000 AAdvantage miles, but the AA co-branded credit card offer I mentioned was for 50,000 miles after spending a certain amount (I think it was $3,000 in 3 months). This led to…

Lightbulb moment #2– Opening credit cards is a quick way to earn miles and points

I had very little knowledge about award travel at the time, but my understanding was that I could open that card, meet the minimum spending requirement to earn the bonus, then book the tickets on the miles earned. My only out of pocket cost would be the annual fee of the credit card (which I believe was $95 at the time). I thought it was too good to be true, but I decided to try it.

Ultimately, my thinking was correct and we booked our 2 roundtrip tickets from DFW to Canada for $95 total. Keep in mind that redemptions are subject to availability, which I’ll discuss more towards the end of this post.

Some credit cards have benefits that outweigh annual fees multiple times over. For example, the AAdvantage (and several other airline) co-branded credit cards allow you to check a bag for free. To this day, I still have an AAdvantage credit card even though I rarely use it for purchases.

The cards I use for most everyday spending are those that earn transferable rewards such as Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards points. That decision came after the third lightbulb moment…

Lightbulb moment #3– You do not have to have AAdvantage miles to book American Airlines flights (or United to book United, etc.)

After booking the Canada flights, I started researching how to use miles and points for other places we wanted to travel. I realized that earning miles and points that are transferable to multiple airline and hotel programs is key. Transferable Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards points are my favorites. I’ve also recently given transferable miles earned from the Capital One® Venture® Rewards credit card some attention and you can read about that here.

Rather than earning miles and points with just one airline or hotel, I can earn these bank points that I can transfer to several airlines and hotels. This makes it possible to stretch your miles and points. In other words, you can redeem them by transferring to whichever airline results in the best redemption price. This is the part that can get confusing for people, but taking a little time to learn about transfer partners is worth it.

how to use credit card miles and points for flights
Shortly after that first trip to Canada, I learned about what is still one of my favorite ways to book American Airlines flights

In early 2014, I was trying to figure out which credit card to open next. The Chase Sapphire Preferred was getting a lot of rave reviews but as a mostly AA flyer, I didn’t think I had a reason to open it. American Airlines AAdvantage is not a partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards. You cannot transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards (or Amex MR or Capital One Venture miles) to American Airlines.

If I live in DFW, an American Airlines hub, and thus mostly fly American Airlines, wouldn’t I want to earn AAdvantage miles? Since Chase Ultimate Rewards could not be converted to AAdvantage miles, I overlooked that card for a while. Then I learned about what I refer to as indirect transfer partners.

I learned how to use British Airways Avios to book American Airlines flights. British Airways Executive Club, the frequent flyer program of British Airways, is a partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards. To put it simply, I could transfer Ultimate Rewards to British Airways, and then use the British Airways Avios to book AA flights. The best part is that for this and several other routes, BA’s award ticket pricing resulted in a lower redemption price than AAdvantage. I’ll discuss award ticket pricing in the redemption section.

The amount of British Airways Avios required for DFW to Vancouver on a nonstop flight operated by American Airlines was 10,000 Avios each way. So for 20,000 Avios each, I could have booked the DFW-Vancouver roundtrip flights. Remember, AAdvantage requires 25,000 AAdvantage miles for this flight.

BA slightly raised redemption prices earlier this year, but using Avios to book AA flights is still a great way to book several American Airlines routes. This route would now be 11,000 each way, or 22,000 roundtrip, which is still better than AAdvantage’s price (currently still 25,000 AAdvantage miles). You can see the British Airways award table here.

Transferable points for the win

Here is a summary of why I decided to move away from cash-back and airline/hotel co-branded cards and towards transferable currencies such as Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards:

  • Cash back card– I started with the Chase Freedom and my 25,000 points were worth $250 and unable to transfer to any airline. $250 isn’t enough for a plane ticket between DFW and Vancouver.
  • Airline co-branded card25,000 AAdvantage miles from an AAdvantage co-branded card were enough for 1 plane ticket from DFW-Vancouver. Welcome bonuses on these cards are often 50,000 or more, so this was still a good deal. But an even better way to book would have been by using Chase Ultimate Rewards points
  • Transferable bank points (Chase Ultimate Rewards points earned from the Chase Sapphire Preferred)- I could transfer 20,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to British Airways (after confirming availability, of course) and then use the Avios to book the American Airlines flight from DFW to Vancouver.
Important takeaways

By earning Chase Ultimate Rewards (or other transferable currencies):

  1. I am not giving up the ability to book American Airlines flights.
  2. I can book several routes for less than what AAdvantage would require.
  3. If American Airlines or other AAdvantage partners didn’t have availability for my route and dates, I could have checked Chase’s other airline transfer partners for availability.
Paris is always a good idea
The Louvre

Ready to step up your your travel game with credit card miles and points?

There are some basic principles that everyone needs to learn before diving in.

Earn more, redeem less.

To put it simply, the goal is to earn more miles and points. Then when it’s time to redeem, you want to spend the least amount of miles and points possible.

While valuable redemptions are fun to write about, maximizing your earning potential is just as important.

Earning Miles and Points

3 main ways we earn miles and points:

1. Welcome bonuses from credit cards  

Depending on the airline, hotel, or bank credit card, welcome bonuses are usually anywhere from 40,000-100,000 points. You may have to pay an annual fee and/or meet minimum spending requirements to earn the bonus.

Annual Fees

Most of the best credit cards for travel have an annual fee, but earning valuable points and miles more than makes up for it in many cases. Also, some cards have benefits that outweigh the annual fee. You may receive benefits such as lounge access, free checked bags, or a free hotel night. If the card provides enough benefits (such as airport lounge access or a free hotel night), we will keep the card and continue to pay the annual fee even if it is a card that we aren’t using very often.

Minimum Spending Requirements

It is also important to note that most credit cards will have a minimum spending requirement you must meet before your bonus points are awarded.  It is usually about $1,000-$4,000 within 3 months of opening the card. Once you meet this spend, the welcome bonus points are awarded. Plastiq is a bill pay service that makes meeting min spend easier!

When do welcome bonuses post?

Usually you will receive the bonus points shortly after the statement period in which you meet the spending requirement closes.

2. Everyday spending on credit cards

We put everything on a credit card that we possibly can.  It is also important to know which cards have category bonuses.  For example, my American Express Gold Card earns 4 points per dollar at US restaurants while several other cards only get 1-2 points per dollar at restaurants. It may not sound like a big deal, but extra points per dollar add up very quickly.

3. Shopping portals

Chase Ultimate Rewards and several airlines have online shopping portals. Ordering through a retailer on a shopping portal earns bonus points per dollar. Ryan doesn’t love all of the boxes we end up having to break down and put in the recycling bin, but he does love all of the points we earn by ordering everything we can online!  You can order from Target, Sephora, and several other retailers you probably shop on a regular basis. The bonus points add up.

Credit card tips for miles and points beginners
It only takes one credit card welcome bonus (per person) for a roundtrip economy ticket to Italy!

Out of these 3 things, welcome bonuses yield the most points by far. With that said, don’t be fooled by big numbers.

Common Mistake: Opening a credit card just because you see a six figure welcome bonus. It is important to remember that not all points are equal, so just because a welcome bonus of 100,000 is offered, it may not necessarily be a great deal.

You do not have to be a big spender to become successful at award travel, but you do need to be strategic

Obviously you want to earn as many points as possible, but it’s just as important to make sure you open the best cards that will earn the right type of points and miles for your specific goals. For example, 60,000 AAdvantage miles are useless if the flight you want to book is operated by United.

Chase’s 5/24 rule is another factor to consider. It is important to plan your credit card application strategy wisely.

Before you apply for your first credit card

First of all, if you cannot pay off your credit cards in full every month, no judgement, but this hobby isn’t for you.

I am not a financial professional but I encourage responsible credit card use

As long as you can pay off your balance each month, your credit score will not suffer (it will probably go up), plus you will not have to worry about paying interest.

Opening credit cards does not hurt your credit score in the long run.  Your score may drop a few points initially because of the inquiry, but over time it has boosted our credit scores.  Because we have several open credit cards, we have a very high credit limit. Since we do not keep balances on our card, our credit utilization ratio is very low, which helps raise credit scores.

What will hurt your score is if you miss payments and/or run up high balances that you cannot immediately pay.

Travel credit cards tend to have high interest rates.  But you should not even be looking at the interest rate because you should never keep a balance on your credit cards.  If you cannot pay your balance in full each month, the amount of money you will pay interest will probably negate the value of the miles and points you earn.

If you have plans to buy a house or take out another large loan in the near future, wait until that is complete before you start applying for credit cards. Bookmark this post and then come back to the website after closing!

Determine your Chase 5/24 status

You can check your 5/24 status (and your credit score) for free on CreditKarma.com.

Here is a comprehensive post about 5/24. Do not apply for any credit cards from any bank until you’ve familiarized yourself with the 5/24 rule.

Chase’s 5/24 rule

Chase limits the number of credit cards one can open in a 24 month period.  Your 5/24 status is how many cards you have opened in the past 24 months.  If you have opened 5 or more cards from ANY bank (not just Chase) in the past 24 months, you will need to wait until your 5th newest card is 24-25 months old before you can apply for any Chase 5/24 cards.

Determine your travel goals and spending habits

Some credit cards have bonus categories and extra points can add up quickly.  As I stated earlier, the American Express Gold Card earns 4 points per dollar at US grocery stores (on up to $25,000 per year) and at restaurants.  We spend a lot on dining, so it makes sense for us to have a card that earns bonus points in that category.

It is also important to determine your spending habits because of minimum spending requirements. If you have a business or lots of expenses that you can put on a credit card, minimum spending requirements should not be much of a problem. If you do not have a lot of living expenses, you may find it tough to meet the minimum spending requirements to earn welcome bonuses.  Here are a few tips, but do not take on more than you can handle.

Your travel goals will help determine which miles or points you need to be earning.  The next step is to decide which credit cards are best for you.  Knowing which miles or points you need helps determine which credit cards are right for you.

how to book flights with credit card points
St. John, USVI

Make sure you know exactly what kind of points or miles you’re earning

There are 4 different types of credit cards that earn points/miles that you can redeem for travel

Click here for more information.

  1. Airline co-branded cards
  2. Hotel co-branded cards
  3. Cards that earn bank points
  4. Cash-back cards

Cards that earn bank points are my favorite because I like having the option to transfer to multiple airline and hotel partners.  I tend to use these cards for my everyday spending.

Airline and hotel cards are great for welcome bonuses and sometimes they’re worth keeping for benefits.

Cash back cards are great for welcome bonuses but for everyday spending, I prefer cards that earn miles and points.  Cash back cards eliminate the need to learn about loyalty programs because you just use your ‘points’ as cash to book travel however you please.  The problem is, your points are worth a fixed value.  Every card is different but most earn 2% or less. I can often get a much higher value with Ultimate Rewards or Amex Membership Rewards by transferring them to airline miles or hotel points.

Diversify your points and miles

Cards that earn transferable points are a way to increase your redemption options without having to collect multiple reward currencies.

Programs such as Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards have transfer partners.  This means that you can earn one type of currency (Amex Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards) and then transfer to multiple airlines or hotel programs.

For example, you could open a United credit card if you typically fly United.  However, you could open a Chase Sapphire card that earns transferable Ultimate Rewards and transfer those points to United.  This is possible because United is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards.  Why earn only United miles when you can earn points that can be transferred to United plus other airlines?

See also: 4 reasons the Chase Sapphire Preferred is better than Southwest credit cards

Transfer partners

Diversifying your points by using cards that earn transferable points means you will have lots of options when you’re ready to redeem.  

Even if an airline is not a direct transfer partner it still may be possible to book. For example, as I wrote in the beginning section, I can book American Airlines flights with British Airways Avios, a Chase transfer partner.

Credit card tips for beginners
Solta, Croatia

Important: Not all miles and points have equal value

American Express Membership Rewards points and Chase Ultimate Rewards points are the two credit card currencies I value the most.  But other award currencies aren’t as valuable.  Keep that in mind when you see 100,000 point welcome bonuses. Speaking of welcome bonuses…

Don’t be deceived by large welcome bonus offers

It is important to remember that not all miles and points are equal. A 100,000 point welcome bonus doesn’t always mean it’s a great deal (looking at you, Hilton).  A good way to decide the value of a welcome bonus is to figure out the redemption potential.  

100,000 Hilton points can be redeemed for one night at a Hilton property that is in the highest category (90,000 points per night).  On the other hand,  60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred to Hyatt and then redeemed for 3 nights at the Andaz Costa Rica (a potential value of over $1800).  Chances are, 1 night at even the most expensive Hilton property will not cost $1800.

I’m not saying you should never open a Hilton co-branded card. But there are more valuable offers that should take priority.

Andaz Costa Rica with credit card miles and points
Andaz Costa Rica Resort at Peninsula Papagayo

Which credit cards should I open first?

You want to start with Chase cards due to the 5/24 rule. Think of it as having 5 open slots. Ideally, you want to fill those slots with Chase 5/24 cards.

For almost everyone, I recommend starting with one of the 3 Chase Sapphire cards that earn transferable Ultimate Rewards. Ultimate Rewards are one of my favorite currencies. Since they are 5/24 cards, you should get them early in your pursuit of miles and points.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred card has a welcome bonus is worth at least $750 in travel.

Chase Sapphire Preferred 2019 Best credit card offers

Current offer: Earn 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months. The annual fee is $95

Don’t miss your opportunity to open some of the best travel credit cards

If you open 1 Bank of America credit card, 1 card from Citi, 1 card from Barclay, and 2 American Express cards, you’ve filled your 5 slots. You’re at 5/24 even though none of them are Chase cards.  Once you’re at 5/24, Chase will deny any applications for their travel cards. You would have to wait until your 5th newest account is older than 25 months before you can get approved for a Chase card.

You could open these 5 cards mentioned above in just over a year:

  • August 17, 2018 Bank of America
  • November 21, 2018 Citi
  • February 26, 2018 Barclay
  • June 2, 2019 American Express
  • September 8, 2019 American Express

It is now September 2019 and you finally decide you want to open a Chase Sapphire Preferred. You also want to earn a Southwest Companion Pass. Sapphire and Southwest cards are Chase 5/24 cards. You will not be approved for any of these until your fifth newest account (August 17, 2018) is 24-25 months old. So you would have to wait almost a whole year (until September 2020) before applying for 1 of these. Then to get the other card(s) you have to wait until December 2020. That’s a whole year of not applying for ANY card from ANY bank. For a whole year, you’re missing out on new cards.

If you fill most (preferably all) slots with Chase cards, you won’t have to take any time off. Other banks are less restrictive than Chase.

The next best Chase cards depend on your travel goals and spending habits. If you do not have any immediate goals, this list has the Chase cards we feel are best to open while you’re still under 5/24.

After you have your Chase 5/24 cards

If you are over 5/24 and/or have all of the 5/24 cards you want, the next best cards will be the best current welcome bonus offers and/or cards that earn the miles and points needed to book your vacation goal.  

If you do not have a specific goal, focus on American Express Membership Rewards

American Express Membership Rewards has 19 airline transfer partners.  The Platinum Cards (business and personal) often have high welcome bonuses. There is a high annual fee, but it is pretty easy to justify the fee, especially since you are earning a large welcome bonus.  The current offer on the Business Platinum Card from American Express is up to 100,000 points. 100,000 Amex points can be redeemed for a round trip business class ticket to Europe if you use the right airline transfer partners!

The Gold Card has a lower welcome bonus, but the annual fee is more reasonable. Also, the Gold Card is one of my favorites for everyday spending due to its awesome bonus categories.

The Platinum Card from American Express

If you’re a frequent flyer, this card has one of the highest earn rates on flight purchases. Earn 5 points per dollar on flights booked directly through airlines or through amextravel.com.

American Express platinum, best premium travel credit cards 2019

Welcome offer: Earn 60,000 American Express Membership Rewards points after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months.

The annual fee is $550, but there are lots of benefits and credits that may help offset that fee. Additional benefits and details:  Receive up to $200 of reimbursement on airline incidentals per calendar year (click here for more info), receive $200 total in Uber credits annually, receive $100 reimbursement for TSA precheck or Global Entry enrollment, and 100$ total in statement credit for purchases at Saks Fifth avenue annually. You’ll receive access to the amazing Amex Centurion lounges (where available), plus get lounge access to airport lounges around the world with a Priority Pass membership.  Terms apply, learn more here

Business Platinum Card from American Express

If you want a premium business card, this card is especially lucrative for those who regularly make large business purchases.

amex business platinum 2019

Welcome Offer: Up to 100,000 American Express Membership Rewards points. The minimum spending requirement is  $10,000 in the first 3 months to earn 50,000 bonus points. Then if you spend another $15,000 in the first 3 months, you’ll earn an additional 50,000 points.

The annual fee is $595, but the benefits may be worth it. The earn rate is basically the same as the personal Platinum card (5 points per dollar on flights booked directly with airlines and on flights and prepaid hotels at amextravel.com, 1 point per dollar on everything else) but there is one exception. Purchases over $5,000 earn 1.5 points per dollar (you can earn up to 1 million additional points each year). Also, you will get the $200 airline incidental reimbursement per calendar year, $100 reimbursement for TSA precheck or Global Entry enrollment, and airport lounge access benefits that the personal version of this card has. You can also enroll to receive $100 semi-annually for Dell purchases in the US (that’s $200 per year). Terms apply.  Learn how to apply here. 

American Express Gold Card 

This one has great category bonuses: 3 points per dollar on flights booked directly with airlines, 4 points per dollar at restaurants and, 4 points per dollar at US grocery stores on up to $25,000 in purchases annually.

American Express gold card, top credit card offers 2019

Welcome Offer: 40,000 American Express Membership Rewards points with this link: American Express Gold Card. The minimum spending requirement is $2,000 in 3 months. 

The annual fee of $250 is a little steep, but this card comes with an annual benefit of $100 in airline incidentals (this works the same as the $200 credit on the Amex Platinum Card). Also, you can receive up to $120 annually in dining credit. The earn rate of 3 points per dollar on flights is as good or better than most of our other favorite travel cards, but the categories that really stand out here are 4 points per dollar at restaurants and US grocery stores. Terms apply. Click here for more information

Capital One Venture miles are another good option

The Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card used to be on my no-fly list because it was basically a cash back card. Now that Capital One has added transfer partners, things have changed. I’d argue that it’s up there with Chase Sapphire Preferred if you’re looking for a simple but lucrative travel rewards card. Click here for a detailed comparison.

This is a marathon, not a sprint

A few years ago, it was possible to open multiple cards in very short periods of time (even on the same day).  

Can I still open 2 cards on the same day?

You probably can.  But I would be careful. Chase will approve 2 cards in a 30 period. American Express will approve 2 cards in a 90 day period. There are still reports of people getting approved for 2 cards from the same bank on the same day, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should, especially with Chase.  I generally suggest spacing your Chase applications by a couple months.

If you do apply for 2 cards in a small timeframe, be prepared to explain to an agent why you need both. There are definitely reasonable explanations. For example, you want a Southwest business and a Southwest personal card because you want to keep your business and personal expenses separate.

Can I earn a bonus more than once?

Most banks will award repeat welcome bonuses on credit cards you have previously held, but there is usually a waiting period.  For example, you can earn a welcome bonus for most Chase cards even if you have already earned a bonus on that card if: 1.) The card is closed-you can’t have 2 of the same credit card products open at the same time and 2.) The bonus was earned more than 24-48 months ago (depending on the card).

American Express cards are the most limiting.  You can only earn a welcome bonus once in a lifetime for any given product*.  This sounds strict, and it is, but remember that there are so many credit cards on the market and they are always introducing new credit card products.

*I have seen a few recent data points that suggest Amex may be relaxing this policy.  I’ll update when I get more information, but for now it’s safest to assume that Amex bonuses are once per lifetime.

Can my spouse and I each open the same card?

Yes, and I highly encourage it, provided you can meet the minimum spend on 2 cards.  Banks do not care about marital status when deciding credit worthiness.

This is called 2 player mode. 2 player mode doesn’t have to be a married couple.  It is when 2 people work together for a miles and points goal. In 2 player mode, each partner earns his or her own points, so obviously you will earn twice as fast.  2 player mode is also good for other situations.  For example, in 2 player mode, 1 partner can get back under 5/24 if needed while the other partner continues to earn welcome bonuses from other banks!

Even if you or your spouse are authorized users on the other’s account, each of you can still open your own card for a welcome bonus. BUT…

Be careful about adding authorized users

The problem is, if you add your husband as an authorized user and he also wants to open the card, it may jeopardize his 5/24 status.  Chase may see authorized user accounts as primary accounts.  This means that it may affect his 5/24 count.  You can usually have Chase reconsider his application if it is denied for too many accounts open and one or more of the accounts are authorized user rather than primary cardholder accounts.

Florence with Chase Ultimate Rewards points
Happy hour in Florence. Earn miles and points twice as fast by having your partner sign up for his or her own credit cards!

After you’ve opened your first credit card(s)

Make sure you meet the minimum spending requirement in the specified time frame (usually within 3 months of opening).

If you are working towards meeting a minimum spending requirement, put all spend on that card until the requirement is fulfilled.

If you are not working towards a minimum spending requirement, I suggest putting your everyday spending on cards that earn transferable currency such as Chase Ultimate Rewards or Amex Membership Rewards.

Learn your bonus categories

Try to remember to use cards with category bonuses when making purchases in that category.  For example, I earn 3 points per dollar on travel with my Chase Sapphire Reserve card, so I use that card to pay for anything that codes as travel.  There are cards that earn bonuses in grocery stores, gas stations, and others.

Minimum spending takes priority over bonus categories, though.

Stay organized.  Make a master spreadsheet.

If you don’t already have an account with the airlines and hotels you’re most likely to use, now is also a good time to sign up for those. It’s free.  Make a spreadsheet of your airline and hotel loyalty accounts.  Include loyalty account number, username, and password.

Also, for each credit card, you should put information such as username, password, annual fee, and date the card was opened in the spreadsheet.  This is important because it will help you keep track of anniversary dates.  Remember, the annual fee is charged every year in the month of your card anniversary.  If the benefits outweigh the annual fee, keep it.  If not, you can cancel but make sure you do not lose your points.

Grand Hyatt Kauai with credit card points
The Grand Hyatt in Kauai

Redeeming miles and points

The first step is to figure out what your redemption options are. This depends on the type of credit card rewards you have.

  • Cash back cards earn cash
  • Airline co-branded cards earn airline miles
  • Hotel co-branded cards earn hotel points
  • Bank cards earn points that can be redeemed a few different ways.

Cash-back cards

If your points are from a card that earns cash-back rewards, it’s pretty simple. You can redeem your points as cash towards your flight, hotel, or other travel expenses.

Airline and hotel co-branded cards

If you use a hotel or airline co-branded card, its also pretty simple. You earn miles or points for the hotel or airline.

For example, an AAdvantage co-branded card earns AAdvantage miles.

  • You can redeem AAdvantage miles per the terms and conditions of American Airlines.
  • You can use AAdvantage miles to book American Airlines flights or partner flights, but you cannot transfer them.
  • To find out how many AAdvantage miles you need for a redemption, you can refer to the award charts published on aa.com

Hotel and airline miles are generally not transferable. Marriott is an exception. You can transfer Marriott points to airlines, but it’s not a great transfer ratio, so I’m going to save that topic for another day.

Cards that earn transferable bank points

Bank points such as Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, or Capital One Venture miles can be redeemed for travel a couple ways:

  1. You can redeem your points for travel at a fixed rate. It’s basically like using your points as cash. The value of your points depends on which card you have.
    • Transferable Chase Ultimate Rewards points are worth 1.25 or 1.50 cents per point when redeeming in the Chase Ultimate Rewards redemption portal
    • American Express Membership Rewards are worth 1 cent per point when redeeming at amextravel.com
    • Capital One Venture miles are worth 1 cent per point. To redeem this way, you purchase your travel with the Capital One card and then use the points as a purchase eraser.
  2. The most valuable way to redeem is usually going to be transfer partners. This is how we’re able to get at least 2 cents per point, but often much higher. That may not sound like a lot but its double the redemption value of using Amex points to pay for travel at amex.com (1 cent per point). This ultimately translates to twice the amount of redemption potential!
    • Chase Ultimate Rewards has 10 airline partners and 3 hotel partners
    • American Express has 19 airline partners and 3 hotel partners
    • Capital One has 15 airline partners
Just don’t make this mistake

Your redemption options with bank points such as Chase Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards aren’t limited to travel. You’ll notice there are several ways to redeem if you look at your account. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Please don’t ever use your points to buy laptops, TVs, or other electronics. Just don’t redeem for any type of merchandise. Or gift cards!!! The rewards you earn on these cards are most valuable when redeemed for travel, especially if you learn how to use transfer partners.

Palm Springs on miles and points, tips for credit card miles and points beginners
Palm Springs

Transferring bank points (Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards, etc.) to airlines

This page also has a list of airline transfer partners of Capital One and a few other currencies.

Chase Ultimate Rewards has 10 airline partners and 3 hotel partners

Chase Ultimate Rewards 2019

American Express Membership Rewards has 19 airline transfer partners and 3 hotel partners

American Express membership rewards 2019

VERY IMPORTANT: Never transfer points to an airline or hotel before confirming availability for the dates you need.

Transfers are permanent! So if you transfer 60,000 points to Singapore Airlines to book an award ticket without confirming availability, you’re out of luck if award seats are not available for your dates. You’re stuck with 60,000 Singapore Airlines miles that you cannot transfer back to whichever program you transferred from.

Some airlines will allow you to put an award ticket on hold. I always do this if possible so I can make sure the seats do not get snatched before I can get the points transferred. Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards transfers tend to be instant for most airlines, so this should not be a problem.  But I like to play it safe.

This brings me to another very important point:

Award ticket availability

Award seats are not always going to be available on any given flight (except maybe Southwest and JetBlue). While it’s always good to plan ahead and book as soon as you have the points and the seat is available, not all airlines release their award space at the same time.  Click here for more info.  That post is specific to American Airlines, but the general principles about award ticket availability apply to almost every airline.

I wish I had a timeline for when airlines release award space, but there is usually no rhyme or reason.  When people ask what the best time to book is, my answer is “as soon as you find availability”.  If you find flights that work for you, do not procrastinate.  Especially for premium cabin seats.

Do not get discouraged if you see no availability when you first start looking, especially if your desired dates are several months out.  Sometimes airlines will add availability as the date approaches, but there’s just no way to know if or when that will happen. If you do see space, book it ASAP.  

Award seat availability is probably the most limiting factor of award travel

I can teach you how to earn points all day. I can go through all of the airline partners of Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards and tell you the best partner to get the lowest redemption cost for any given destination.  But at the end of the day,  if there are no award tickets available, there is no way to make airlines release more award seats.  

Here are a few tips:

  • If you have transferable points, check other airline partners
  • Start your search as early as possible.  You’re a lot more likely to find tickets if you are 6 months out vs. 2 months out.
  • Check alternate dates if possible
  • Consider flying into/out of other cities.  For example, if Dallas to Paris is not available, try Dallas to another European city.  Then either take a train or a cheap intra-Europe flight to Paris.
  • Wait it out.  This is risky, but sometimes airlines open more space as the departure date approaches.
  • If you are looking for business or first class and only economy is available, some airlines will allow you to change to the premium cabin for only the difference in points (so no change fees) IF an award seat becomes available.  I know American Airlines will allow this.
American Airlines award ticket availability
5 tickets on points is possible!  

Award ticket pricing- how many points or miles am I going to need for an award flight?

Each airline program has its own way of pricing award tickets.

Most frequent flyer/airline loyalty programs I discuss on this blog fall into one of these categories:
  1. Region/Zone based 
  2. Distance-based
  3. Fare-based
  4. Dynamic pricing
You can read more about the different types of award ticket pricing here.
If you earn transferable bank points, you can choose the program that results in the lowest redemption cost. If you only have miles with one airline, you don’t have a choice because you can only redeem the miles with that airline.
Depending on your route, one type of pricing may be better than another.

For example, American Express Membership Rewards transfer to Etihad and British Airways, which can both be used to book American Airlines flights. Etihad uses a zone-based award ticket pricing model whereas British Airways is distance based. As a result, the redemption price of an American Airlines flight booked with Etihad will most likely have a different price than the exact same American Airlines flight booked with British Airways Avios. Sometimes zone-based results in a (lower) redemption price, but other times distance based may be lower. Here is an example:

DFW to Mexico (nonstop)

You can transfer Amex points to either of these programs at a 1:1 ratio.

  • Etihad: 35,000 Etihad miles roundtrip
  • British Airways: 18,000 Avios roundtrip

British Airways wins by a long shot here. After confirming availability, you would want to transfer the Amex points to British Airways to book. But if the flight isn’t nonstop, it gets a little complicated. Etihad allows connections for no extra miles. British Airways calculates price per segment. So even the shortest connection is going to add at least 7,500 Avios each way, or 15,000 roundtrip. In that case, Etihad (or another airline program) may be a better way to book.

Which transfer partners are best?

I am working on a separate post about this because there are several factors to consider. It depends on your home airport, your destination, which airline you want to fly, etc.

In the meantime, there are lots of posts on this site about redeeming with American Express and Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partners so I encourage you to read through some of those. That way, you can get a better picture of which programs might work best when you’re ready to redeem. Here are a few:

If you need some guidance, feel free to email me.

Final thoughts

If you have been thinking about opening your first travel rewards credit card, you have come to the right website! Plan your credit card applications wisely.

My suggestion for most people is to start with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. The welcome bonus is worth at least $750 in travel, but much more if you use the right transfer partners.

Chase Sapphire Preferred 2019 Best credit card offers

Current offer: Earn 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months. The annual fee is $95

Click here for our monthly list of best offers.

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We prefer to spend our money on experiences such as a private helicopter tour in Hawaii

Advertiser disclosure: The Miles Genie has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products.  The Miles Genie and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.

Comments below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. The comments have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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4 thoughts on “Comprehensive Guide To Free Travel Using Miles, Points, And Credit Card Rewards”

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