A photograph of generic credit cards in a wallet
Points, Miles & Credit Cards

The Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards for Points and Miles Beginners

Matt Ortile

Matt Ortile

September 18, 2023

7 min read

Table of Contents
Going has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Going and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses, and recommendations are the author's alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed, or approved by any of these entities.

Everyone has to start somewhere, and that includes points and miles experts. When I first got into the world of traveling with points, I jumped into the deep end with a top-of-the-line premium travel credit card. But it had so many bells and whistles that I sometimes got overwhelmed with how to (or not to) use them. I have a better handle on it now, but all that to say: The power of a strong credit card aimed specifically at beginners to the game should not be underestimated. 

In this guide, I’ll talk about what questions you should ask yourself when shopping for your first points-earning credit card, and include two recommendations for those just starting out. 

What makes a points credit card suitable for beginners?

When you’re starting out with points and miles, there are three factors to consider when choosing a travel rewards credit card. Posed as thoughtful questions to ask yourself, they are:

1. Can I afford the annual fee?

All credit cards have an annual fee. It’s true; there’s always a field for it in a card’s terms and conditions. It’s just that some say “$0,” many others say “$95,” and there are those that go all the way up to “$695.” Sure, certain cards mitigate that cost with all the benefits they include; points-heads or card issuers might even pressure you to get a card that “pays for itself!” But the fact is, if the card has a fee that isn’t zero American doll-hairs, you will have to pay that money every year out of your pocket before you get any of those amazing rewards and benefits.

So as you build your points-collecting strategy, be honest with yourself about how much you can fork over when you get approved for a card, and when your card anniversary rolls around. Let me tell you, it still hurts me every March to see that my usual bill is up by $700 and I remember that keeping credit cards does cost money. (Anecdotally, I’ve called card issuers to inquire about “retention offers,” i.e. reasons for me to keep a card for another year, like a waived annual fee for the year or 10,000 bonus points. However, your mileage may vary, as it were.)

2. Will this card reward me for purchases I’d ordinarily make?

It bears repeating: Your points-earning strategy should revolve around your lifestyle and needs, rather than the other way around. When getting started with points, ask yourself: What am I spending my money on? Is dining out a big part of your expenses? There are many credit cards out there that reward you with two, three, even four points per dollar you spend at restaurants. If you drive to work and take a lot of road trips, consider getting a card that earns you multiple points per dollar spent at gas stations.

Review your monthly expenses and identify your biggest “spending categories.” With that information, browse your preferred credit card issuers and see which of their cards align with your spending habits. For example, Chase issues the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, which earns three points for every one dollar—or “3x”—you spend at restaurants, making it a great option for folks who love to dine out. 

If you don’t spot an obvious trend in your spending—or if many of your purchases fall into categories for which credit cards do not offer bonused spending (in my case, that’s video games and jewelry)—you might be better served by a card that offers a more modest earning rate of two points per dollar on all eligible purchases regardless of spending category, like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. That way, you don’t have to think too hard about what card you’re using for what purchase, and you still get multiple points per dollar.

3. Would I actually be able to use the points I earn?

I have a friend who once got a big sign-up bonus on a co-branded airline card, but the points are still languishing in her account because that particular airline doesn’t have the flights she needs flying out of her home airport. The lesson here: Make sure you can actually use the rewards you earn, whether they’re miles with a specific airline or flexible points currencies that you can transfer from banks to airline or hotel partners.

Another buddy of mine has plenty of Chase points, and asked me how he could transfer them to American Airlines. I had to break the bad news that not all points transfer to all airlines, but I showed him some workarounds; he transferred his Chase points to British Airways, which is a partner of American, and he used British Avios (that’s their miles currency) to book a flight on AA. In this scenario, not all was lost, but using the points took a few more steps than my friend would have liked.

So this final question is really a matter of “ease of use.” How easily can I use these points? Will it be a straightforward redemption process? Or will it take more time, effort, and knowledge to put these points to work?

Two recommendations for “starter” points credit cards

I’m suggesting these two credit cards below based on the criteria I’ve outlined above: their affordable annual fees, their straightforward and powerful rewards structures, and their easy-to-use points currencies. 

1. Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

  • Current welcome offer: bonus_miles_full
  • Annual fee: annual_fees
  • Rewards structure: Earn 5 points per dollar spent on travel purchased through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® travel portal; earn 2 points per dollar spent on all other eligible travel purchases (like airline tickets and hotel bills); earn 3 points per dollar spent on online grocery purchases (excluding Walmart, Target, and wholesale clubs), dining at restaurants (including eligible delivery services, takeout, and dining out); and on select streaming services; earn 1 point per dollar spent on all other eligible purchases
  • Airline transfer partners: Aer Lingus, Air Canada, Air France-KLM, British Airways, Emirates, Iberia, JetBlue, Singapore Airlines, Southwest Airlines, United, Virgin Atlantic

That’s a big block of text there, I know. Please read it closely, but do not be alarmed! All it’s saying is that you get three points per dollar spent on some of the most basic everyday purchases: $100 on grocery delivery? 300 points. $200 on a nice anniversary dinner at a fancy restaurant? 600 points. $20 a month on Netflix? 60 points a month. 

Say you spend a total of $2,000 a month in all those categories combined. Multiply that by 3, and you get 6,000 Chase points per month. Multiply that by 12 months, and you get 72,000 Chase points annually! All that in one year, simply for buying things you need! With that many points, you can book multiple economy roundtrip tickets between the US and France through Air France or a one-way business class flight from New York to Madrid. (Add to that the welcome offer, and you’re well on your way to becoming a points-and-miles pro.)

This card meets the criteria I’ve outlined above: Its rewards structure is easy to use; the 5x/2x on portal/non-portal travel purchases, respectively, are also great. Its annual fee is affordable, and finally, Chase points transfer to some of the most useful airline loyalty programs like Air France-KLM Flying Blue and Air Canada Aeroplan.

Learn more about the card_name.

2. Capital One Venture Rewards Card

  • Current welcome offer: bonus_miles_full
  • Annual fee: annual_fees
  • Rewards structure: Earn 2 miles per dollar spent on every purchase; earn 5 miles per dollar spent on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
  • Airline transfer partners: Aeromexico, Air Canada, Air France-KLM, Avianca, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Etihad, EVA, Finnair, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, TAP Air Portugal, Turkish Airlines, Virgin Red

This is quietly, if not secretly, one of the most powerful points cards out on the market right now. The ability to earn at least two points per dollar on every purchase you make—without limits or yearly caps!—is this card’s undersung superpower. For many of us, much of our daily spending isn’t actually in neat categories like “restaurants” and “travel.” I reviewed my spending last year, and huge chunks of it fell into things like “utilities” and “miscellaneous.” So the ability to double the rewards on the spending not covered by the rest of your credit cards makes the Venture an attractive addition to your wallet indeed.

Even if the Venture is the only points-earning card in your wallet and you use it for 100% of your spending, you’ll see rewards rack up very quickly. For example, say you spend $5,000 a month on all your living expenses, and you use this card to pay for them (and you pay your credit card bill in full and on time to avoid interest charges!). Multiplied by 2, that’s 10,000 points a month. Multiply that by 12 months, and you get 120,000 points a year! All that, plus the welcome offer of 75,000 miles, make this a perfect card for someone getting started with points and miles.

This card hits the big three requirements I mentioned: The rewards structure is super simple. The annual fee is reasonable. And you can transfer Capital One points to airlines where you can book flights through valuable programs like Air Canada, Air France-KLM, and British Airways—and hey, those hypothetical 120,000 points are enough for even a one-way first class flight on Emirates!

Learn more about the card_name.

Explore your options and listen to your gut

Of course, these aren’t the only credit cards on the market targeted at people new to the points and miles game. Go ahead and see what’s out there! Just remember to be honest with—and ask—yourself: “Will this card meet my spending needs? Can I afford to keep this card? And how will I use the points I earn?” Just as we all travel for different reasons, there’s no one right answer or one right credit card for every kind of traveler. You have to listen to your gut and make your travel and financial choices based on what’s right for you.

More card guides:

Going has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Going and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses, and recommendations are the author's alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed, or approved by any of these entities.
Matt Ortile

Matt Ortile

Marketing

Matt Ortile writes the Going With Points newsletter at Going. He is the author of the essay collection The Groom Will Keep His Name, a columnist at Condé Nast Traveler, and working on a novel about a flight attendant. He lives in Brooklyn.

Published September 18, 2023

Last updated January 4, 2024

person laying on back tossing paper airplane into the air

Treat your travel to cheap flights

Most deals are 40-90% off normal prices with great itineraries from the best airlines. If it's not an amazing deal, we won't send it. Sign up for free to start getting flight alerts.