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Even though a ton of cards offer “points” or “miles” for every dollar you spend, those points can be very different things. Each bank and frequent-flyer program has its own rewards currency that can be used in different ways. That makes it complicated when it’s time to choose a credit card. Two different cards could offer double points on purchases, but those points could be good for very different things.
In general, transferable points — those you can choose to turn into frequent-flyer miles or hotel loyalty points — are the most valuable kind. Because of the way frequent-flyer programs work, you can usually get a lot more value from a lot fewer frequent-flyer miles than you can with credit-card points.
Figuring out how to use your points can get confusing, especially when there are a few options. Here are some ways to use them to book travel.
1. Booking travel through your credit card using points
One of the easiest ways to use your bank-based credit-card points is to book travel through your credit-card company’s travel portal. These portals work just like any other online travel-booking website, such as Expedia or Priceline, with one difference: They show the price in points as well as in dollars. Here’s what you need to know.
While Chase points are worth $0.01 each if you choose to redeem them for cash back or gift cards, you can get a better value on travel purchases. When you book through the Chase travel portal and pay with points, instead of charging your credit card you’ll get a bonus depending on which card you have.
If you have the Sapphire Preferred (or certain small-business cards like the Ink Business Preferred), you’ll get a 25% bonus on points used toward travel — in other words, those points will be worth $0.0125 each, so 50,000 points are worth $625.
With the Sapphire Reserve, the bonus for travel purchases is 50%, so the same 50,000 points are worth $750.
If you don’t have enough points to cover the entire cost, you can pay the difference.
Booking is easy and works the same way as other travel portals. Search for flights, hotels, rental cars, cruises, or certain activities. Prices are displayed in both cash and points (the points will vary based on which card you have). When you’re ready, just go ahead and book. If you have any questions, you can also call the number on the back of your card to be connected to a Chase travel agent.
Booking travel with Amex, using points from cards like the Platinum Card, is a similar process to that of Chase.
Log in to the American Express website and scroll down to the Membership Rewards section. Click “Explore Rewards” and follow the prompts to visit Amex Travel. When you search, you’ll see the cash price as well as the cost in points.
Generally, points are worth $0.01 each toward flights booked through Amex Travel, and $0.007 on all other travel purchases including hotels and cruises. Occasionally, Amex offers “Insider fares” on flights — mostly with Delta — which give you a slightly better value for your points.
2. Using points to ‘erase’ travel purchases
Certain cards, like the Capital One Venture Rewards card, take an even simpler, more straightforward approach to redeeming points.
All you have to do is purchase travel the way you normally would, making sure to use the card. Once the purchase posts on your statement, log in to your account, select that purchase, and use points for a statement credit to offset it.
With the Capital One Venture, you can “erase” any purchase that counts as travel, including airfare, hotels, taxis, and subways. Points are worth exactly $0.01 each.
You can also use Chase or Amex points the same way on any purchase category, including travel, but you generally get a poorer value than other options. Chase points will be worth only $0.01 each, while Amex Membership Rewards points cover only $0.006 each when redeemed for statement credits.
3. Booking travel using frequent-flyer miles — either transferred from your bank’s credit-card rewards program or earned with an airline credit card
If you’re spending on a card like the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express or the United Explorer Card from Chase, you earn frequent-flyer miles instead of credit-card points. While miles can be way more valuable than points, they’re also more complicated to book with.
Transferring your Chase or Amex points to a frequent-flyer or hotel-loyalty program is generally the most lucrative use of points. This is particularly valuable for flying, since booking frequent-flyer “award tickets” is different from buying reservations outright — you can read more about how it works here. In most cases, the cash price and the miles price of a ticket aren’t linked, so it’s possible to get exponentially increased value from your points by transferring them and booking an award ticket instead. That means potentially being able to fly long-haul in first or business class with points, among other things.
Each airline prices its award tickets based on slightly different things. American Airlines and United publish relatively simple award charts. When you look up a route (for instance, North America to Europe) you’ll typically see at least two prices. The first, “saver,” is the cheapest. There are usually just a few of these seats available, and they may become open periodically between when the flight schedule is published and when the flight leaves. The second price, “standard” or “anytime,” is typically much higher.
Delta doesn’t publish an award chart, and prices flights more dynamically. However, by doing a couple of sample searches, it’s easy to figure out the lowest possible price for a specific routing.
Because standard pricing is usually much higher than saver, the trick is to find that cheaper availability. It can require some patience, and occasionally flexibility, but if you plan in advance, you can just keep your eye on award flight prices by doing occasional searches until the saver availability you need opens up.
Finding saver seats and booking award tickets is the only practical way to use credit-card points for travel in first and business class — it can be a bit tricky, but it’s definitely doable.
There’s a lot of information available about how to book award flights, so if you’re having trouble figuring out how best to use your points for a specific trip, just do a Google search for that route.
In general, though, the process to find and book award travel using miles is simple:
- Go to the relevant airline’s website.
- Start searching for flights the way you normally would, entering your origin and destination cities, as well as dates. However, make sure to click the option to use miles/points.
- Check availability, making sure to look for saver space.
- If you have the miles you need in your account already, go ahead and book. If you need to transfer them from a partner credit card, double check that the flight you want is available, then transfer your points.
Always remember to compare award pricing with the price if you book through a credit-card company’s travel portal, to make sure you’re getting the best price.
Also keep in mind that some routes and destinations may have taxes or fees. For example, British Airways charges fees of more than $1,000 if you use the airline’s miles to book a business-class flight from London to the US, so you may be better off finding another way to book that flight.
In general, the most lucrative way to use transferable credit-card points is to convert them to frequent-flyer miles and use them to book flights.
However, this can be a bit complicated. If it’s too much of a hassle, or you can’t find the flights you want, booking through a credit-card company’s travel portal is often still a great deal — especially if you have a card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, since you’ll get a 50% bonus on your points.
You can read more about how transferable credit card rewards work here, and be sure to check here for the best credit-card points offers available this month.