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A guide to credit card and airline points for complete and total beginners

in flight meal
Reuters/Fabian Bimmer
Spend your way to a free business class seat.
  • Rosie Spinks
By Rosie Spinks

Quartzy Reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

There are two types of people in this world: people who are obsessed with amassing airline miles and those who aren’t.

For the people who aren’t, the former group can seem an intimidating, mystifying bunch. What with all that talk of loyalty, status, bonuses, mileage runs, and upgrades, the points and miles world can seem like far more trouble than it’s worth. Add to that the perception that you have to travel a lot to benefit from these programs, and it means that earning free travel stays mentally—if not literally—off limits to a lot of people.

But here’s the thing: If you already have a credit card, are generally responsible about paying it off each month, and you enjoy doing things like eating out and perhaps going on vacation once or twice a year, you are potentially wasting a massive opportunity by not getting involved in the miles and points universe.

Quartzy consulted a veritable expert—Emily McNutt, an editor for The Points Guy, one of the internet’s leading authorities on the topic—and decoded her advice for beginners, infrequent flyers, and people who’ve been avoiding the points world for too long. So take a deep breath and dive in. The basics are not as scary as they might seem.

First, some definitions

A frequent flyer program is not the same as credit card points: But you should make use of airline programs, too. Many large carriers are members of an alliance (the big three are OneWorld, Star Alliance, and SkyTeam). Each time you book a flight with a member airline, you’re asked to enter your frequent flier number. If you’ve never flown with that airline or alliance before, you should register for an account, which is usually free.

If you enter your number each time you book a flight, you will amass loyalty points that you can use towards future flights on any of the many airlines in that alliance. (You can also usually add flights retroactively once you’ve signed up if you have kept your boarding passes). There is no downside to doing this, other than that if you don’t fly a lot, it may take you awhile to reap any benefits from it. However, four or five trips on the same airline alliance can eventually get you somewhere—especially when used in conjunction with any credit card points you amass—so you’ve got nothing to lose.

Points are not the same thing as status: In the points and miles universe, many of the most obsessive members are fixated on attaining what’s known as elite status. This can generally only be done by spending inordinate amounts of time on airplanes to earn “elite qualifying miles” and/or spending lots of money on tickets, often just for the sake of maintaining status.

As Quartz economics reporter Allison Schrager—a self-described “recovering points fanatic”—put it, “the benefits of status are that the airlines are nice to you, give you access to better seats, and your miles accumulate faster.” So as a newbie, don’t get confused between the status and points—no one is suggesting you start adding extra layovers for the sake of it. Status, here, really isn’t the point—especially for beginners.

Points versus miles: These terms are often used interchangeably, which can be confusing. When used generally, “points” and “miles” both refer to the currency that one accumulates in the travel credit card hustle. If you’re talking about a specific airline’s currency, then it’s best to use the term embraced by the airline in question. As McNutt notes, “some frequent flyer programs call their currencies ‘points’ — Southwest Rapid Rewards points, JetBlue TrueBlue points, [British Airways Avios points] — while others call them ‘miles’ — American Airlines AAdvantage miles, United MileagePlus miles.”

When transferring your accumulated credit card points (more on that later) into miles in order to book a ticket, you will need to find out if your chosen program transfers points to miles in a 1:1 ratio (some do, some don’t). In other words, sometimes one point is worth one mile, and sometimes it isn’t.

Where to start?

McNutt says that anyone embarking on the points and miles world should have a goal in mind. Maybe you want a free trip to Europe once a year in economy class? Or maybe you’re a parent who wants to take your entire family to Orlando? Or perhaps you have a taste for luxury and want to upgrade yourself to Emirates business class on your trip to South Africa? All of these goals will require a different number of points (aka miles), so it’s good to know what you’re aiming for.

The next thing to decide is what type of credit card strategy you’re going to use. There are two main ones, with different benefits. The first is an airline specific card. This means the points you accumulate from your everyday spending on that card can only be used to book flights with the sponsoring airline. This can be useful if, say, you live near a hub for Southwest Airlines, or you fly back and forth on Delta for business trips frequently. The other reason to have an airline-specific card is that it helps you attain status on that airline (as mentioned above).

The downside, McNutt says, is that “you’re kind of pigeon-holing yourself” and there’s nothing you can do if the points program you’ve wedded yourself to devalues, which they sometimes do. In other words, if American Airlines changes the number of points/miles needed for an award right as you’re about to cash in on the points accrued on your AAdvantage card, you can’t take those points elsewhere.

The second option—which is perhaps more favorable for a beginner or generalist—is to apply for a card that falls under the transferrable points category. The leading companies that offer these types of travel-focused credit cards are Chase, American Express, and Citi, which each have their own branded rewards program (Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Citi ThankYou Rewards). While Capital One and Bank of America have travel credit cards as well, McNutt says the aforementioned trifecta simply offers a “more powerful portfolio of cards.”

You have two options for spending the points you accumulate on these these cards. One is to transfer your points to one of your card’s airline or hotel partners, allowing you to book directly with that airline or any other airline in their partner network. The other is to book directly through your card program’s travel portal. Conversion rates vary depending on what you’re trying to do, so when you’re ready to book a flight or hotel using points, do a comparison of how many points will be used by transferring directly to airline, versus booking through your card provider’s portal. For a breakdown of conversion rates by program, consult this guide [paywall]. This may seem cumbersome, but it’s worth the extra effort.

Once you’ve chosen an approach, it’s time to figure out just how many miles you need to reach your goal. Each of the major airlines, with the exception of Delta, has an awards chart. If you Google the chart, put in your origin and destination (i.e. continental US to Europe) you’ll get a sense of the number of miles you need to amass (i.e. 55,500 miles) in order to reach your goal of a free flight. As mentioned above, the ratio of miles to points will vary depending on which credit card program you’ve amassed points on and how the partner airline you’re transferring to values those points. In some cases, a 55,500 mile goal will mean you need 55,500 points; in others it will be more or less. 

How to choose a credit card?

Before you go about applying for credit cards, you need to be honest about your financial responsibility, your spending habits, and the card that will suit your lifestyle. Being unable to pay off your credit card balance in full each month will undermine the entire conceit of the points hustle. This is not about getting a credit card to make irresponsible purchases—it’s about putting your everyday spending and day-to-day purchases to work for you.

There are thousands of websites and articles that can help you figure out which card to apply for, including surveys which will ask about your spending habits and rewards goals. It’s worth noting that Americans have far more options when it comes to the credit card hustle, so if you are outside of the US, make sure you are consulting advice for your own country.

The premium cards offered by Chase, Citi, and American Express all have annual fees, some of which are waived for the first year. While they can be steep—$450, for the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which McNutt calls “the granddaddy” of travel cards—the cards’ perks can help make up for them.

For example, McNutt points out, the Chase Sapphire Reserve card comes with a $300 per year travel credit, which you can put towards airfare, public transportation, or Ubers. Meanwhile, American Express Platinum card has a $200 annual Uber credit and entitles you to a wider network of lounges than the Chase Sapphire Reserve (thanks to having its own collection of Centurion lounges). So if you travel a fair bit, the money you save on airport beers and meals—and not to mention the sanity you maintain while traveling—could be well worth the annual fee. (There are also lower tier versions of both Chase and American Express cards, with lower annual fees and lower-level perks).

Often, these cards will also be advertised with sign up bonuses; for example, 20,000 points if you spend $2,000 in the first 3 months. Sign-up bonuses are a great way to get a jump start in the points universe. But there is no sense in signing up for a card if your usual spending habits wont meet the minimum requirement to earn a bonus—and even less sense in overspending in order to meet it—so make sure you choose a card that suits your lifestyle.

A last thing to note is that different cards offer more points for certain categories of spending. American Express cards offer more points for each dollar spent directly with an airline (5x more for the Platinum card) while Chase Sapphire Reserve offers cardmembers 3x points on all dining purchases and travel (not just with airlines—hotels and Ubers too). So look at your spending habits and choose a card which has perks that best suits the things your buy.

And then once you have a card? Use it religiously. Every latte, train fare, grocery shop, and dinner out can start to work for you—in the form of earning you points. If you can charge business expenses on it and get reimbursed by your employer, that’s even better (free points!). Finally, you can amass extra points by referring your friends and family to sign up for the same card.

When approached this way, credit card points merely offer you financial perks without changing anything about your actual spending or travel habits (except for the card you use to pay for things). As McNutt summarizes: “Pick a goal, get a sense of what points value you need to meet that goal, and then assess your ability to get a top tier card. Spend as much as possible and pay it off each month. And get a credit card that meets your spending habits.”

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