Beginner’s guide to travel rewards: How to travel with credit card points and miles

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When you read articles about travel rewards, you’re often regaled with tales of how the writer traveled in first class to Asia in a private suite drinking champagne for $5.60. You’re right to read that with skepticism. While using travel rewards, airline miles, and hotel points can allow you to travel well outside of your weight class, it’s well worth it to dig into the details before opening up a wallet-full of credit cards. Here’s how to enjoy the fruits of travel rewards responsibly.

Types of travel credit cards and how they work

Travel rewards credit cards—as opposed to cash-back credit cards or credit cards that don’t earn rewards at all—can generally be divided into the following three categories:

  • Cards that earn flexible points.
  • Cards that earn airline miles.
  • Cards that earn hotel points.

We’ll delve deeper into the specifics of each type of card in the sections below.

Flexible travel credit cards

A credit card that earns flexible travel rewards is not tied to one specific airline or hotel chain. Instead, the points can be transferred to the loyalty programs of the airlines and hotel chains that your card offers as partners. Then, you redeem your points for flights or stays booked directly with the airline or hotel chain.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is an example of a popular travel card that earns flexible points. This card comes with more than a dozen transfer partners and points transfer at a 1:1 rate (meaning each point you transfer from your credit card to a partner program nets you one airline mile or hotel point on the other end). Partners include United Airlines, World of Hyatt, and more. 

Issuers of flexible travel cards may also provide a portal you can book travel through. For example, cardholders with the Chase Sapphire Preferred have the option of booking flights, hotel stays and more through Chase Travel℠, in which case each Chase Ultimate Rewards point (the rewards currency the card earns) is worth 1.25 cents.

If this is what you’re looking for, a card from our list of best travel credit cards might be a fit for your needs. 

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Intro bonus

60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening

Annual fee $95
Regular APR 21.49%–28.49% variable

Airline-specific credit cards

An airline credit card is tied to a specific airline’s loyalty program, and earns miles you can use to book or upgrade flights with that airline and its partner airlines. For example, consider the UnitedSM Explorer Card. The miles you earn with this card are deposited into your MileagePlus loyalty account, and you can redeem them to book flights on United Airlines or with United’s partners in the Star Alliance.

Cards of this type may offer airline-specific perks—such as free checked bags, priority boarding, an annual companion certificate, and more. If you fly a particular airline regularly, you could potentially save hundreds of dollars per year through the right card’s benefits.

If you think this is what you need, check out our list of best cards for earning airline miles.

Or if you already have an airline in mind that you’re loyal to, and just need help selecting a card for that specific airline, one of the following guides is likely to have what you’re looking for:

UnitedSM Explorer Card

Intro bonus

Earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open

Annual fee $0 introductory annual fee for the first year (then $95)
Regular APR 21.99%–28.99% variable APR

Hotel-specific credit cards

Hotel credit cards are tied to a specific hotel chain, such as Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, etc. When you spend with these cards, they earn points that deposit into their respective loyalty program.

Often, when picking a hotel card, the perks matter just as much or even more than the rewards. For example, the right card might provide you elite status, a free night certificate, and statement credits you can use for certain expenses at eligible properties within the chain’s portfolio.

The Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® Credit Card illustrates these sorts of perks well. Cardholders get automatic Marriott Bonvoy Silver Elite status just for holding the card, as well as a Free Night Award every account anniversary good for properties worth up to 35,000 points per night.

If you’re looking for a card to help you earn almost-free hotel stays, check out our recommendations for best hotel credit cards. Alternatively, if there’s a hotel chain that is already your favorite home away from home, these specific lists may have what you’re seeking:

Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® Credit Card

Intro bonus

Earn 5 free nights (valued at 50,000 points for each night) after spending $5,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening.

Annual fee $95
Regular APR 21.49%–28.49% variable

Are there travel credit cards with no annual fee?

Yes, there are travel cards with no annual fee on the market—some of them pretty dang good, especially considering the price tag is $0 per year to hold them. For example, the Bilt Mastercard and the Wells Fargo Autograph℠ Card are two no-annual-fee cards that let you earn points you can transfer to airline and hotel partner programs.

That said, it’s true many of the most popular travel cards on the scene do charge annual fees, often in exchange for more premium benefits. A card that grants airport lounge access will generally run you hundreds of dollars, such as the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card and its $395 annual fee. The The Platinum Card® from American Express is perhaps the most famous luxury travel card, charging $695 per year but offering extensive lounge access and numerous statement credits.

Mid-range travel cards provide a happy medium for those seeking more perks than you can get with a no-annual-fee card but not ready to shell out for a premium travel card. Some may even waive the annual fee in the first year. Examples of strong mid-tier travel cards include the American Express® Green Card—priced at $150 per year—and the United Explorer, charging a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year (then $95).

To view rates and fees of the The Platinum Card® from American Express, see this page

All information about the American Express® Green Card has been collected independently by Fortune Recommends™

Wells Fargo Autograph℠ Card

Intro Bonus

Earn 20,000 bonus points when you spend $1,000 in purchases in the first 3 months (that’s a $200 cash redemption value)

Annual fee $0
Intro APR 0% intro APR for 12 months from account opening
Regular APR See Terms

Top perks of travel credit cards

While benefits vary dramatically from card to card, there are a few types of benefits you’re likely to encounter and that you may want to look for when choosing a new card to apply for.

  • Travel-related statement credits. Take for example the aforementioned Capital One Venture X and Chase Sapphire Preferred. The former offers a $300 annual credit for bookings through Capital One Travel while the latter offers a $50 annual credit for hotel stays booked via Chase Travel. These credits alone go a long way toward offsetting each card’s annual fee ($395 for the Venture X, $95 for the Sapphire Preferred). 
  • Travel insurance. The Sapphire Preferred is a great example here as well. Cardholders can travel with a little extra peace of mind knowing that if they pay with this card, they’ve got trip cancellation and interruption insurance up to $10,000 per person and $20,000 per trip, trip delay reimbursement up to $500 per ticket, baggage delay insurance up to $100 a day for up to five days, and primary rental car insurance.
  • Elite status. Maybe you really like the sound of certain perks that come with having elite status in your favorite hotel chain’s or airline’s loyalty program. For example, travelers with Hilton Gold status get a daily food and beverage credit or continental breakfast (varies by brand and region). In that case, maybe you’d want to open the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card, which includes Gold status among its benefits.
  • Airport lounge access. While cards with airline lounge access as a perk tend to charge expensive annual fees, you can still end up better off than paying for a lounge membership by itself. For example, if you really want to get into United Club lounges, you might find it a better value to pay $525 for the United Club℠ Infinite Card rather than the $650 a general MileagePlus member would pay for United Club membership. 
  • A free night or a companion pass. With some cards, a free night certificate or a companion ticket can cover the cost of the annual fee in one fell swoop. Let’s look at the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card (different from the Amex Platinum mentioned earlier) as an example. The annual fee is $350 but you get a Companion Certificate each year good for a domestic, Caribbean or Central American round-trip flight. If you travel with a friend regularly, this could save you hundreds of dollars. But do note that you’re responsible for covering government-imposed taxes and fees.

To view rates and fees of the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card, see this page

To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card, see this page

How to choose the right travel card for you

Asking a few questions can help you determine if a card is a fit:

  • Does the rewards currency suit your needs? If you want flights, collect airline miles. If you want hotel stays, collect hotel points. And if you want both, collect transferable points. Just make sure you’re earning rewards you can actually use. For example, don’t open a Hyatt credit card if there aren’t any Hyatts where you want to vacation or a Southwest Airline card if you want to fly to Asia.
  • If there’s a welcome bonus, can you hit the spending target? Most travel credit cards offer a welcome bonus of some kind, typically one where you earn bonus points or miles for spending a certain amount on purchases in a specified time period. For example, the Wells Fargo Autograph Journey℠ Visa® Card—the big sibling of the Autograph card mentioned elsewhere—offers 60,000 bonus points if you spend $4,000 in the first three months. If you open a new travel card with a welcome bonus spend requirement that’s unrealistic for your financial situation, you’re leaving rewards on the table. 
  • Will you actually use the card’s benefits? This is particularly crucial to consider with statement credits. For example, the American Express® Gold Card’s dining statement credit of up to $120 per year may sound great, but not if you don’t have any of the eligible merchants (Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly,, Milk Bar, and select Shake Shack locations) in your area or you never dine with these merchants. 
  • Does the card’s rewards program fit your lifestyle? This should be fairly obvious, but in most cases, you’ll want to make sure the card you’re applying for offers rewards in a category that makes up a substantial portion of your budget. So, while someone who frequently eats out at restaurants will probably love the Bilt Mastercard’s elevated rewards on dining, someone who always cooks at home won’t benefit as much. 
  • If there’s an annual fee, does it seem reasonable to you? This isn’t to say you shouldn’t pay an annual fee, or even that you shouldn’t pay for a card with an expensive annual fee. But if you do pay for a mid-tier or premium travel card, you should receive more than the cost of the annual fee through rewards and perks. Someone who uses the Capital One Venture X’s annual $300 travel credit has already almost recouped the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card annual fee, but someone who prefers to book directly with airlines and hotels and refuses to book via a portal might never use that credit. Every so often, do the math for your own needs and see if you’re getting value out of the cards you’re carrying.

To view rates and fees of the American Express® Gold Card, see this page 

Glossary of travel card-related terms

Here are a few terms you’ll find useful as you get into traveling with points and miles:

  • Award travel. This refers to using points and miles to book hotel stays and flights.
  • Transferable points. Consider this the same as the flexible rewards we explained above. You earn points that your credit card issuer allows you to transfer to various airline and hotel partners, rather than being tied to one airline or hotel chain.
  • Welcome bonus. You may also hear this called a welcome offer or a sign-up bonus. Welcome bonuses reward new cardholders after opening an account, typically by offering bonus points or miles for spending a certain amount in a specified time frame. 
  • Foreign transaction fee. This is a fee, typically around 3%, that some credit cards charge for using your card abroad. Most travel cards charge no foreign transaction fee, though there are exceptions. We recommend making sure you’re taking a card with no foreign transaction fee if you’re planning a trip outside the United States.
  • Award chart. If an airline or hotel chain offers a chart showing the number of points you need to redeem for various types of flights or stays, you’re looking at an award chart. Fixed award charts used to be more common in the past, with many programs nowadays using dynamic pricing. More on that in the next entry.
  • Dynamic pricing. Essentially, dynamic pricing means the number of points or miles you’ll need to redeem for a flight or stay varies based on factors such as seasonality and demand. There isn’t a set cost for the award ticket or room that you wish to book, in this case—it can and likely will fluctuate. 
  • Chase 5/24 rule. This is an unwritten rule that affects applications for Chase-issued credit cards (including co-branded airline and hotel cards). Basically, it means that if you’ve opened five or more personal credit cards from any issuer in the past 24 months, you’ll get denied if you apply for any Chase credit cards. For this reason, you may hear travelers who collect points and miles talking about their Chase 5/24 status.

How to maximize your travel rewards

Maximize your rewards-earning potential

We mentioned this before, but pick a credit card that rewards categories you normally spend in. If you dine out at restaurants frequently, you may find a card such as the Bilt Mastercard or Chase Sapphire Preferred allows you to satisfy both your inner foodie and your inner travel rewards lover. But if you tend to spend more at supermarket, consider the American Express Gold Card.

Meanwhile, someone who makes a lot of hard-to-categorize purchases might prefer a card that earns rewards at a flat rate on every purchase, like the , and Chase Freedom Unlimited®. With this setup, you’d use the Sapphire Preferred for purchases like travel and dining, use the Flex for its rotating categories, and the Unlimited for your more random purchases. 

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

Intro Bonus

Earn 75,000 miles after spending $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening

Annual fee $95
Regular APR 19.99%–29.99% variable

Redeem your rewards wisely

At the risk of stating the obvious, redeem airline miles for flights and hotel points for hotel stays. If your card offers redemption choices such as shopping for merchandise with your rewards, beware that you’ll probably get a subpar value. 

Similarly, with a card that earns flexible points, transfer them to airline or hotel partners or use them to book travel in your issuer’s portal.

As a rule of thumb, strive to get a value of 1 cent or more per point or mile redeemed with most airline programs. Hotel program values are more variable so it helps to do a bit of research before booking. To calculate that value, divide the cash price of the purchase by the points required, then multiply by 100. For example, a redemption with a cash price of $500 and an award cost of 26,000 points means you’re getting a value of roughly 1.9 cents per point. (To get even more nitty gritty, subtract the cost of any taxes and fees from the cash price before you do the calculation.)

If you’re someone who values luxury, know that you can often get the highest cents-per-points value when springing for high-end properties or business class and first class flights. But of course, it’s not just the math that matters, but the utility.

Travelers who just want to fund a simple holiday vacation with their points can do so, and shouldn’t feel the need to spend more points just for a higher cent-per-point number. Consider not just the retail cost when valuing points, but the actual amount you would be willing to pay. If a flight costs $5,000 but you could reasonably get where you want to go for $1,000 you’ll be better served going with the lower number as your cost basis. 

Finally, learning how airline alliances work can help you leverage both your airline miles and your flexible points. The three major alliances to be aware of are Oneworld, SkyTeam, and Star Alliance. As just one example of how this can help you get where you want to go, both Delta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic are part of SkyTeam—so if you have a credit card that lets you transfer points to Virgin, you can search through Virgin for partner space on Delta flights. 

The takeaway

Travel credit cards can unlock experiences you might otherwise never have had access to. By learning how to earn and redeem airline miles, hotel points, and flexible rewards you can transfer, the sky’s the limit on where your travels can take you.

Frequently asked questions

Why am I being charged money for an award ticket?

You’re likely seeing the passenger fee, which is a government-required security fee. This is generally $5.60 per person for a one-way flight or $11.20 per person for a round-trip flight departing from a domestic airport on a U.S.-based airline. Taxes from other countries, airline surcharges and other fees may also come into play when booking an award ticket. 

Can I pay for part of my booking with points and part of it with cash?

Most likely, yes. It’s common for rewards programs to let you pay for part of a flight or hotel stay with cash and part of it with points. But note this may not always yield the best value for your points.

What credit score is needed to get a travel card?

Issuers generally like to see a good or better credit score when you apply for a rewards credit card—that’s typically considered a FICO Score of 670 or higher. To be on the safe side, it’s a good rule of thumb to make sure your credit score is 700 or higher before hitting the “apply” button. If you’re not sure what your credit score is, there are a variety of ways to check for free, such as signing up for an account with the credit bureau Experian.

Are points and miles or cash back better?

First, we should note that the distinction between reward types is not always cut and dry. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred earns Chase Ultimate Rewards points—a flexible travel currency that you can transfer to airline and hotel loyalty programs, use for bookings through Chase Travel℠, or redeem as cash back to a bank account at a value of 1 cent each.

So, what the rewards are called is not the most important thing. Rather, it’s how you can redeem them. With a travel card, you should have options for using your points or miles to book award flights or stays. With a cash-back card, you’ll probably just be taking your rewards as a deposit to your checking account or a statement credit against your card’s account balance.

As to which is better, it depends on your preferences and how often you travel. Someone who is looking to leverage credit card rewards to make travel more affordable, and is willing to learn how to find good award travel deals, should opt for a travel card. But someone who never travels, or who values simplicity above all else, will benefit more from a cash-back card.

What’s the best first travel credit card?

This depends entirely on your financial habits and travel needs. However, the Bilt Mastercard (even if you don’t need to earn rewards on rent) is one of our top picks if you’re looking for a no-annual-fee travel card. That’s because it earns elevated rewards on dining, provides travel protections such as trip delay reimbursement you don’t usually find on cards without an annual fee, and lets you transfer your rewards to more than a dozen airline and hotel loyalty programs.

Fortune Recommends™ has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Fortune Recommends™ and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. 

Please note that card details are accurate as of the publish date, but are subject to change at any time at the discretion of the issuer. Please contact the card issuer to verify rates, fees, and benefits before applying. 

Eligibility and Benefit level varies by Card. Terms, Conditions, and Limitations Apply. Please visit guide for more details. Underwritten by Amex Assurance Company. 

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