Points and Miles Primer
What are they?
For all the travel my wife and I do, I find it crazy how late we entered the points and miles game. Had I known several years ago what I know now, my travel experiences could have been extra exciting! As with most things nowadays, there are countless websites and YouTube videos/channels devoted to maximizing points and miles. On this page, I offer a short primer on points and miles. My various blog posts cover our personal card choices, perks of different card types, maximizing points & miles usage, and co-branded vs. non-co-branded cards. My wife and I thoroughly enjoy traveling with each other, pack light, and work hard to secure travel bargains.
By “bargains”, I don’t necessarily mean “cheap”, but rather good value. For example, the Ibis Hotel I frequent in Paris is a lot less expensive than the Intercontinental le Grand. But, if I can leverage/use points for the Intercontinental, I get a five-star experience for “free” (or at least at an equivalent or less price than the Ibis). Similarly, while I may be able to fly from Miami to Paris for $500 roundtrip in economy, if I can use miles (or points) to upgrade to premium economy or business/first class for a few hundred dollars more, I do it, because premium tickets might cost thousands of dollars if bought outright, making a points or miles redemption a great value (and the seats are nice for a large guy like me).
First things first: miles are what you redeem (and usually earn) on airlines, while points are earned for everything else (like hotels, rental cars, shopping, etc.) It can be confusing, because most airlines have a miles and points earning structure, even though you only redeem miles. Even more confusing, some non-co-branded credit cards earn you miles, while others earn you points – each of which are often redeemed or transferred to another loyalty program via their proprietary travel portal. Still, I think of “miles” as related to airlines and “points” as related hotels & shopping. But, I do NOT use points/miles for shopping, as I believe it to be a poor value. I do earn miles and points for shopping, however, by maximizing earnings in other ways.
Second thing: each hotel chain, airline, and credit card company have their own earning structures.
Internationally, the big hotel chains are Choice, Hilton, IHG, Marriott, and Wyndham. There’s also Accor, Best Western, Hyatt, and Radisson, as well as lesser-known/smaller brands like Sonesta – each of which have their own co-branded credit card assortment. Of course, you also have alternatives like AirB&B, VRBO, and locally-owned/non-affiliated hotels in most places.
The US hosts the “big three” airlines: American, Delta, and United. These are each part of an “Alliance”, and as such, usually share award ticket availability with partner airlines. American is part of Oneworld, Delta has SkyTeam, and United founded the Star Alliance. Some airlines, like Emirates, are not affiliated with an Alliance, and have their own frequent flyer structure, though you can often redeem your points or miles on those airlines via your preferred airline, or through a credit card travel portal (like American Express or Chase or Citi).
Each airline also has different “hubs”, and flying on a non-hub airline can have advantages and disadvantages. Some airlines, like Southwest, Spirit, and Frontier do not belong to an alliance and have their own rewards structures, though you can find co-branded credit cards with each. Generally speaking, when it comes to airlines, the higher your “elite tier” (e.g., Gold, Platinum, etc.) and class of service (e.g., economy vs. business vs. first-class), the more miles/points you earn.
For credit cards, you’re looking at (mainly): American Express, MasterCard, and Visa offered by the larger banking corporations, each of which have their own cards as well as multiple “co-branded” cards. Co-branded cards usually offer some sort of status and/or extra perks with a partner of some sort, like an airline or hotel, or a merchant, like Amazon, Disney, or Target.
Major banking corporations in the reward credit card mix specifically for the US include: American Express, Bank of America, Barclays, Capital One, Chase, Citi, Discover, and US Bank, as well as a slew of local banks and credit unions, who each issue a variety of different, usually non-co-branded, cards. Non-co-branded cards often offer “transferable” points that you often need to use a “travel portal” to redeem (like American Express’ or Chase’s or Citi’s non-branded cards) or cash back.
Each card also might come in different “levels”, like Gold or Platinum or Black. These usually represent different levels of service and perks, as well as associated fees. That's right: most credit cards that offer decent perks will also come with an annual fee, anywhere from $29 to several hundred dollars (or more).
To further complicate things, most every card offers a sign-up bonus, some of which can be pretty lucrative. While you can find multiple stories of people who have 15 or 20 (or more!) different credit cards (presumably to rack up bonuses and earn lots of points and miles fast), I believe you really only need a few cards to play the points & miles game well and extract maximum benefits from them.