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Points and Miles 101

Updated: 3 days ago


What are points and miles?


In simple terms, points and miles are a currency that can be used in the world of travel. Just like different currencies of the world, points and miles from different airlines, hotels, etc. have a different value. They’re all earned at different rates and redeemed at different rates.


The two terms can be used interchangeably, but in general:


Points = credit cards and hotel programs


Miles = airline programs


But there are a few exceptions to this. For example, Capital One has Venture MILES and Air Canada has Aeroplan POINTS.


How are points and miles earned?


Traditionally, points and miles are earned by flying on paid flights with airlines or paying for hotel stays. These options are slow to earn points and require a lot of spend with a particular airline or hotel brand. Earning points and miles through this method is unrealistic for most people.


The faster and easier method is the "everyday points maximization" strategy. It is actually extremely simple!


Earn points from purchases you’re already making every day, and then turn those points into flights and hotel stays!


Some of the ways to earn points:


There’s even offers to earn points and miles by opening checking accounts!


The goal is to earn as many points as possible from the money you’re already spending every single day.


IMPORTANT: before getting into the points and miles hobby, you NEED to be financially stable, free of debt, and have a budget to follow. This doesn’t mean you need to be wealthy! You just need a plan in place to avoid overspending and finding yourself in financial trouble. The NUMBER ONE rule is to pay your statement balances off in full and on time every single month. Paying interest defeats the purpose of earning points to save money!


What are the different credit card types?


Credit cards are the best way to earn points for travel. Not only are there tons of great signup bonuses, but the right combination of cards can really maximize the points you earn everyday.


There are basically three types of cards within the world of travel:


Airline cards – these are co-branded with an airline and bank (i.e. Citi AAdvantage or Delta SkyMiles Gold) and earn miles for only that airline. These miles can’t be transferred to other airlines, but can be used to book partner airlines. Airline cards also often include perks when traveling with that airline – such a free checked bags and priority boarding.


Hotel cards – these are co-branded with a hotel and bank (i.e. Marriott AMEX or Chase Hyatt) and earn points for only that hotel chain. Hotel cards often include perks when staying with that hotel brand – such as automatic status and free night certificates.


Transferrable points cards – these carry only the brand of the bank (i.e. AMEX Gold, Chase Sapphire Preferred, or Capital One Venture X) and earn points that can be transferred directly to various airline and hotel programs. Many of these cards offer great travel benefits like lounge access, travel credits, hotel and rental car perks, and travel insurance!


Transferrable points cards are by far the most flexible and provide the most options of the three types of cards. The "everyday points maximization" really takes place when you earn lots of points from everyday purchases (such as 4x on groceries and dining, 3x at gas stations, or 2x on everything) and then transfer those points to airlines to book deals like business class to Europe for 88k roundtrip or a 4 day, 4 flight business class itinerary for 92.5k!


How are transferrable points used?


Most people that earn points like Chase Ultimate Rewards or AMEX Membership Rewards are not using their points for maximum value. They typically go to their card’s travel portal, search for a flight, and use points to offset the cost. With this method, the rate is typically 1 cent = 1 point (up to 1.5 cents = 1 point with the Chase Sapphire Reserve). This means a $1,000 flight usually requires 100,000 points! This won’t get you very far, especially with premium cabin international flights.


The high-value “maximization” method is to transfer points to partner programs. Each card program has a different list of transfer partners. This allows you to convert your credit card points into frequent flyer miles of an airline (even though you’ve never flown that airline before!) and then book an “award flight” with a rate that is not tied to the price of the flight.


So what is an "award flight"?


An award flight is one that is booked directly through an airline’s frequent flyer program using their airline miles.


There’s two types of award flight pricing:


Standard /“Award Chart”

  • Set rates based on distance flown or different zones (i.e. US to Europe)

  • Only certain flights are available to book as an award flight (a limited number of “seats” are released per flight)

Dynamic

  • No set rate for award flights and pricing is based on various factors like route demand

  • All flights that have seats available will be available to book with points

Here’s where it gets a little confusing…


Most airline programs use dynamic pricing for flights on their own “metal” (planes they operate with their logo) but have an Award Chart/standard pricing for flights that are flown by their partner airlines.


But there’s also exceptions to this rule (there’s honestly exceptions to everything in the points and miles world). For example, Delta SkyMiles has dynamic pricing for their own flights AND partner flights.


The best value in points and miles is usually through booking partners at set rates, though there must be “award seats” made available by the operating airline for partners to book.


What are airline partners?


Almost every major airline in the world is part of one of three alliances:


OneWorld

SkyTeam

Star Alliance


In simple terms, an alliance is a group of airlines that have booking agreements with one another. This is why you can book American Airlines from New York to London and then fly British Airways from London to Rome all on one ticket – American Airlines and British Airways are in the OneWorld alliance together!


Where this comes into play: miles within one airline program can be used to book award flights with almost any other airline in their alliance – but only if the other airlines have the “award seats” available for partners to book.


Airline miles must be used within the program of the airline that “owns” the miles. Miles cannot be transferred between airlines but can be used to book partner airlines through the “owner” airline site.


For example, American Airlines miles cannot be transferred to British Airways, but you can search with miles on the American Airlines site to book British Airways-operated flights. Each airline program has its own set of rates, even for the same exact flight. A flight booked through American Airlines might be 30k miles while that same exact flight booked with British Airways Avios is 22.5k miles!


I already have a bunch of points, how do I begin searching?


The first step is to see what airlines are transfer partners of the points you have.


You might not see the airline you’re wanting to fly, but that’s where airline alliances come into play!


Then, have a look at the airlines that fly to your intended destination. Flight Connections is a great tool for this.


Compare those airlines to your transfer partners and the alliances.


To expedite the process, check out our Transfer Partner Simplifier tool!


Begin searching through the site of one of those transfer partners. This simply means going to that airline’s website and choosing an option to search with miles or “redeem flights” or “award flight”.


Once you’ve found an ideal flight, it’s important to compare the rate with other airlines in that same alliance that are transfer partners of your card points. For example, if you’ve found a flight through Air Canada Aeroplan and you have AMEX points, you should also compare the rates on Avianca LifeMiles and Singapore KrisFlyer, since those programs are part of Star Alliance with Air Canada and are transfer partners of AMEX!


Once you’ve found the ideal flight and rate, you’ll connect the airline program to your bank’s transfer points page (you’ll need to set up free frequent flyer accounts with all transfer partners), select the amount of points to transfer, and then submit. The points will then be available in the airline account (instantly in most cases) to complete the booking right through the airline website.


A few details to keep in mind:

  • It’s usually best to search one way at a time. Since the ideal redemption is a rate set based on distance or zones, one way + one way will generally be the same as roundtrip. Searching one way at a time allows you to be a lot more flexible when searching and gives you the ability to “mix and match” points and airlines.

  • Different programs pass on different fees and surcharges. At the lowest end, there will be a $5.60 tax for departures from the US, but some airline programs pass on hundreds of dollars in fuel surcharges! You’ll want to avoid these programs and factor in fees when comparing rates between partner programs.

  • Positioning flights are a key component to getting the best deals.


What about hotel points?


In general, hotel points are a lot less complicated than airline miles.


Hotel points can be earned through:

Staying at hotels will earn the most points when combined with a hotel credit card. In only very specific instances does it make sense to transfer points from other card programs. This is due to the previously mentioned value differences between different types of points. Hotel points are usually valued significantly less than credit card points and airline miles. This means hotel points can be earned faster than those types of points and miles, but they then require significantly more points for redemptions. An exception is Hyatt. Transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards to Hyatt can offer a fantastic redemption value.


Important: you must book direct through the hotel to earn points from the stay.


Hotel redemptions are straightforward – there’s no complicated transfer partners to worry about! Simply search for award nights right on the hotel website and see what rates are available!


We highly recommend the tool Awayz to simplify the search process for the best hotel deals. Get a free 72-hour trial of Premium, plus $10 off the annual subscription (price locked in for life) with affiliate code "adventureparks"


The real value in hotel programs comes from elite status. This is how you get perks like complimentary upgrades, free breakfast, and welcome gifts. Hotel elite status is typically earned by staying a set number of nights in a year with that hotel brand, though many hotel credit cards also offer automatic elite status.


So how do I get started?


The very first thing we recommend is to signup for a free Travel Freely account and download the app. This app is an incredible tool to get the best card offers, along with tons of guides and resources for those cards.


You’ll also want to create free airline accounts with all the major programs. This makes it easier to search for award flights and expedites the process when it comes to transferring points. At a minimum, create an account with these programs, which are some of the most useful:


Use the Transfer Partner Simplifier tool to easily determine which programs to use based on the airline you want to fly!


When you're ready to start searching, read through our how-to guides for some of the best programs.


Next, we recommend signing up for Thrifty Travel Premium email alerts (our affiliate code “Parks10” will get you $10 off your first year). This service sends out the best points deals from/within the US and provides detailed instructions on how to book the deal! Just reading those emails will teach you a lot about redeeming points and miles - even if it's not a deal you're wanting to book!


And don’t forget to signup for our free email newsletter and opt-in to text alerts to get the latest points and miles news!


Summary

  • Points and miles are a currency to be used within the world of travel

  • Points and miles are earned from everyday purchases and special offers

  • Transferrable points cards offer the greatest flexibility for travel

  • Airline alliances are key to getting the best deals with transferrable points

  • Hotel points are straightforward, though they might not make sense for everyone


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