Credit Card Points and Miles: An Essential Guide

credit card points and miles

Credit card points and miles are a powerful thing. You might think that’s a ridiculous thing to say, but I mean it. I’ve made credit card points and miles my hobby for the past seven years, and I’ve earned tens of thousands of dollars in free travel with them. 

For most of that time, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to travel without credit cards. They’ve provided me with several opportunities to have memorable travel experiences with my family.

If you’re relatively new to the credit card points and miles game, though, you may have already noticed that it’s rather complicated. With so many different credit card issuers and rewards programs, as well as ways to redeem those rewards, the value of a point or mile can vary wildly.

In this guide, you’ll get a basic overview of how points and miles work, so you can make better decisions about how to earn and redeem them.

Points and miles: What’s the difference?

Let’s get something out of the way really quick: when we’re talking about points and miles, there’s really no difference between the two. 

Credit card miles, for instance, have nothing to do with distance. Rather they’re just a name for most airline rewards points and some proprietary rewards programs (e.g., Capital One Venture Miles and Barclays Arrival Miles).  

Some airline rewards programs don’t even call their rewards miles; both Southwest and JetBlue use the term “points.” On the other hand, all hotel rewards programs call their rewards points, as do most general travel credit cards. 

Instead of getting caught up in the terminology, it’s easier to just view points and miles as the same thing: they’re both currency in the world of credit card and loyalty rewards programs.

How much are credit card points and miles worth?

As I’ve already mentioned, the value of your credit card rewards can vary based on a few factors, including:

The rewards program

General travel rewards programs, such as Chase Ultimate Rewards or Capital One Venture Miles, typically assign a flat value to your points or miles based on the redemption option. Venture Miles, for instance, are worth 1 cent apiece if you use them to book travel.

Chase Ultimate Rewards points, however, can be worth up to 1.5 cents apiece if you redeem them for travel through Chase — depending on which credit card you have. 

With airline and hotel rewards programs, however, there’s no set value for your points or miles, giving you an opportunity to squeeze more value out of them than you could with a general travel card.

The card

As I just mentioned, Chase Ultimate Rewards can be worth up to 1.5 cents apiece if you redeem them for travel through Chase. Keep in mind that only certain Chase credit cards earn Ultimate Rewards points. Here’s how the values work:

  • Chase Sapphire Reserve®: Points are worth 1.5 cents apiece if you redeem them for travel through Chase.
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred® and Ink Business Preferred: Points are worth 1.25 cents apiece if you redeem them for travel through Chase.
  • All other Ultimate Rewards-earning cards: Points are worth 1 cent apiece if you redeem them for travel through Chase.

Most travel rewards programs don’t have this kind of complexity. But it’s still something to know if you’re considering getting one of these cards.

How you redeem 

While you can get 1 cent per mile out of your Venture Miles when you use them to get a statement credit against travel purchases, you’ll only get half that if you redeem them for cash back.

The same goes for airline and hotel rewards programs. Depending on the aspects of your trip — the dates, the number of nights, whether there’s a deal going on, etc. — you could get varying value from your points or miles. 

>> See the average values for major rewards programs

Some credit cards offer a crazy list of redemption options, including gift cards, merchandise, or shopping online through other retailers. In general, though, you’ll never get as much value with these redemption options than if you used your travel rewards points or miles for what they’re designed: travel. 

How to redeem credit card points and miles

Again, how you can use your credit card rewards depends greatly on the rewards program itself. In general, there are three types of travel rewards programs.

General travel rewards

With these cards, you typically have a lot of flexibility with how you can use your rewards. For example, you may be able to book your trip directly through the rewards program’s website. 

Alternatively, you simply use your credit card to book travel then use your points or miles to get a statement credit against the purchase.

Since these rewards are more general in nature, they typically give you more options than a frequent flyer or hotel loyalty program. That said, they also usually don’t come with extra perks like priority boarding or elite status within the program.

Airline rewards

With air miles and points, it’s almost always best to use them to book free flights. To sweeten the pot, airline credit cards often provide extra perks, including priority boarding, free checked bags, and discounts on certain in-flight purchases.

Depending on the program, you may have other options for redeeming your rewards. But if you want to maximize your value, you’re limited to redeeming your rewards with that specific airline and its partners.

Hotel rewards

Like airline rewards, hotel rewards are best used for free stays with your favorite hotel chain. Some hotel rewards programs allow you to transfer your miles to airline programs, or to use them for other things.

But again, if you want to maximize the value of your rewards, stick with what they’re good at. In addition to offering rewards, hotel credit cards often come with a free night’s stay every year when you renew and pay the annual fee. Plus, you’ll typically get some kind of elite status just for owning the card.

Do my credit card points and miles expire?

If you haven’t already guessed it, the short answer to this question is “it depends.” While some rewards programs don’t have an expiration date for their points or miles, many of them do. Here’s a quick summary of some of the major programs.

Airline programs

  • Air Canada: After 12 months of inactivity.
  • Air France/KLM: After 24 months without a qualifying flight.
  • Alaska: After 24 months of inactivity.
  • American: After 18 months of inactivity.
  • British Airways: After 36 months of inactivity.
  • Delta: Miles do not expire.
  • Frontier: After 6 months of inactivity.
  • JetBlue: Points do not expire.
  • Singapore Airlines: After 36 months from accrual, regardless of activity.
  • Southwest: After 24 months of no earning activity (redeeming points does not trigger a reset).
  • Spirit: After 3 months of no earning activity (redeeming points does not trigger a reset).
  • United: After 18 months of inactivity.
  • Virgin America: After 18 months of inactivity.

Hotel programs

  • Best Western: Points do not expire if you live in North, Central and South America, Asia and South Africa.
  • Choice Hotels: After 18 months of inactivity.
  • Club Carlson: After 24 months of inactivity.
  • Hilton: After 12 months of inactivity.
  • Hyatt: After 24 months of inactivity.
  • IHG: After 12 months of inactivity.
  • Marriott: After 24 months of inactivity.
  • Ritz-Carlton: After 24 months of inactivity.

General travel programs

  • Amex Membership Rewards: Points do not expire as long as you have an active MR-earning credit card in good standing.
  • Barclaycard Arrival Miles: Miles do not expire as long as you have an active Arrival Miles-earning credit card in good standing.
  • Capital One Venture Miles: Miles do not expire as long as you have an active Venture Miles-earning credit card in good standing.
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards: Points do not expire as long as you have an active UR-earning credit card in good standing.
  • Citi ThankYou Points: Expiration dates differ depending on how you received the points and which card you used to earn them. Check the fine print on your cardholder agreement for details.
  • Discover it Miles: Rewards do not expire. In fact, Discover will credit your account with your rewards balance if you close your account or if you have not yet used them within 18 months.
  • U.S. Bank FlexPoints: 5 years after you earned the rewards.
  • Wells Fargo Points: 5 years after they post your rewards to your account.

Got more questions?

I’m always trying to improve the Thrifty Wanderer guides to make learning about travel easier. If you still have questions about points and miles that I haven’t answered, share them below. I’ll either respond to them in the comments or add more to the guide.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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Ben Luthi

Ben Luthi

Ben is a freelance travel and money writer, who's always planning his next trip. When he's not traveling, Ben enjoys spending time with his kids, scoping out new restaurants, hiking, reading, and working through his never-ending Netflix queue. He's also a co-host on the podcast Just One More Trip.

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