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Points, Miles & Credit Cards

How to Get Started with Credit Card Points and Airline Miles



September 6, 2023

10 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. Terms and limitations may apply to offers and benefits mentioned on this page.

It can be overwhelming to start earning and redeeming credit card points and airline miles, especially when you’re starting from scratch. But everybody has to start somewhere, so here are four easy ways to get started with points and miles. By “easy,” I mean: These are small actionable steps you can take to slowly and surely achieve a specific travel goal without drastically changing your lifestyle, budget, or desires.

Ready to travel? Let’s get going.

1. Decide on a specific travel goal.

Think about why you want to travel with points and miles: Do you want to travel to Europe during the peak summer season? Perhaps you want to kick back in comfort on a long-haul first class flight to see family in India? Or to visit far-flung destinations—Albania! Bali! Cape Town!—that are hard to afford with cash? Or maybe you just want to travel as much as possible for as little money as possible?

As in all things, knowing where you want to end up will help you understand how to begin. By picking a specific travel goal—and identifying where you’re starting from (literally physically and also points-wise)—you’ll have an easier time plotting a way to get there. 

For example, when I was a points novice, I wanted to find a way to make the long international trip between New York, where I live, and the Philippines, where my family lives, more comfortable and enjoyable for myself. That meant my points travel goals would be, categorically, flights between North America and Asia in business and first class

Once I figured that out, I began to research the topic by reading blogs and forums. I studied the rules with my personal goals in mind and learned my lessons more quickly because I could apply them to my own needs. I found out what works for my situation (American Aadvantage miles are useful for booking transpacific trips) or what doesn’t (you can’t transfer credit card points to Philippine Airlines), and that helps me remember the complicated rules of points and miles.

2. Look at your personal budget—and be honest with yourself!

Yes, credit cards are the best way to accrue points and miles without actually traveling. You can use a points-earning credit card to pay for the things you need and earn points once you pay your credit card balance. You can then transfer those points to airline loyalty programs, where you can use them to book travel for almost free. You’re earning rewards for simply living your life.

Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that credit cards are a financial responsibility. You must pay off your balances in full each month because any interest you accrue by carrying an unpaid balance on your card essentially negates the rewards that you’re earning—you’d be spending more money, not less. 

Be honest with yourself about what you can afford month to month, year to year, as you experiment with credit cards and begin to collect points. If you see an exciting sign-up bonus on a card, evaluate if that goal is attainable. Sure, a bonus of 100,000 points is major! But can you actually meet the required spending of $6,000 in the first three months after opening the card without going into debt? Do you spend $2,000 a month? And can you put all that spending on a credit card?

As you get started with points, take stock of your financial responsibilities and be realistic about your means. This will help you better identify what credit cards will work best for you, and how to pace yourself as you work toward your travel goals.

3. Identify your spending style and a credit card that suits it.

Look at your monthly spending and ask yourself: What am I spending my money on? Maybe groceries are a big part of your expenses. Or perhaps you mostly order food through delivery services. How much do you spend on gas? By spotting the trends in your monthly expenses, you can identify your biggest “spending categories” and maximize the amount of points you earn through everyday purchases.

As you browse the many credit cards available on the market today, you’ll see that each points-earning card has a specific rewards structure that makes cards more suited to certain spending styles than others. Some cards, like the card_name, offer three points for every one dollar—or “3x”—spent at restaurants, which makes it great for folks who love to dine out. A card like card_name offers five points per dollar (5x) spent on airfare (capped at $500,000 per calendar year), but only one point per dollar (1x) spent on all other eligible purchases (terms apply). This is why it’s important to know what you spend most of your money on. That knowledge will help you identify what card will serve you best in the long run.

If nothing else, remember this as you begin your points and miles journey: Your points-earning strategy should revolve around your lifestyle and needs, rather than the other way around.

4. Explore what you can book with the points you’re earning.

Most often, the best way to learn a new skill is simply by doing. Take a travel goal you’ve identified and start searching for ways to make it happen. 

Do you and your spouse want to honeymoon in France? Drop some sample dates to Paris from your home airport into the Air France Flying Blue flight search tool to see how much it might cost with points. Or do you want to escape to Tahiti but cash flights are over $1,000? Try planning a route using the Air Canada Aeroplan program and see which of their over 50 airline partners offers flights bookable with points. 

Once you see a flight that works for you, go further: How many points do you need? If you need 40,000 Flying Blue points to fly roundtrip to Amsterdam, see which credit cards can transfer their points to Flying Blue. (Answer: All of them—Chase cards, Amex cards, Capital One cards, and Citibanks cards—transfer to Flying Blue!) 

Low on points? Look for credit card sign-up bonuses that could get you that flight you want. If there are too many options, narrow them down by what’s best for your spending style: If your commute to work is a long drive, consider a card that offers two or more points per dollar spent at gas stations. If you take a lot of rideshares instead, look for cards that offer multiple points for spending in that category.

By looking at real examples of flights, routes, points costs, and credit cards that align with your goals, you’ll organically start to learn how the tricky rules of points and miles work in practice as you try to piece together a plan to make your travel dreams a reality.

Once you’ve got enough points saved up, you’ve gotta spend them somehow. We’re here to help with that too. Whenever we see flight deals bookable with points, we send an email to our Elite members with instructions for how to book them. It’s that simple.

Reminder: You’re allowed to take it slow.

The realm of points and miles is a strange one, it’s true. You can’t master this stuff overnight. But you might set aside thirty minutes a week to futz around with a flight search just to see what comes up. Browse some points and miles blogs, or watch a YouTube review of a flight you’ve always wanted to take. Or you can sit down one afternoon to study your own spending habits and budget—a good grown-up thing to do anyway, yeah? 😉

The trick to getting better with points and miles is to empower yourself with knowledge, and to get inspired to travel. (I’ll help out through this newsletter too!) Set your own pace and explore what most excites you. As long as you keep it fun, you’ll get going in no time.

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.

Published September 6, 2023

Last updated December 26, 2023

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