What do you wish you knew when you got started with collecting points and miles? What do you tell friends who are interested in getting started? I’d like to overhaul this site’s online tutorial and I want to start with an easy to consume Top N list of things a person needs to know to get started. Below you’ll find my first crack at this. I could easily add 20 more items, but I want to keep it short.
Please comment with your thoughts about the following:
- Which topics below are too much information too soon? That is, some of this stuff probably belongs in a follow-up post.
- Which key topics are missing? Is there something that a newbie absolutely needs to know from the get-go that’s missing here?
- What would you change about how the information is presented here?
Capital One Miles are not airline miles
Capital One advertises that their Venture Rewards Card earns 2 miles per dollar everywhere. And that’s true, but it’s important to understand that Capital One “miles” are not airline miles. That doesn’t mean they’re good or bad… they’re just different. True airline miles can be extremely valuable or nearly worthless, depending upon how you use them. Capital One miles, on the other hand, have a fixed value: one cent per mile. Each “mile” can be redeemed for one cent towards offsetting travel expenses charged to your card. This makes the “2 miles per dollar everywhere” Venture Rewards card equivalent to 2% cash back cards in terms of the value of rewards earned, except that the Capital One rewards are limited to just travel. On the plus side, unlike most 2% cash back cards, the Capital One card has some travel protection benefits and no foreign transaction fees.
The same can be said about other bank cards that earn points that they describe as miles. Barclaycard’s Arrival Plus is a good example. The Discover It Miles card is another example, but in this case the Discover It Miles points can be exchanged one for one for cash.
The value you get from airline miles depends upon how you use them
Most airline loyalty programs only loosely tie the cost for airline awards to the price of paid tickets. Many have zone based award charts in which they offer flights from one region to another for a fixed number of miles. And, often, the charts are broken down into variations on “saver” vs. “standard” award pricing. When people talk about trying to find award space, they usually mean that they’re looking for those few “saver” awards that are made available on many flights. For example, many airlines charge 25,000 miles round-trip for flights within the continental United States. That’s their “saver” award pricing. If the flight you need is very expensive, then a 25,000 mile award can offer great value. For example, if your flight would have cost $1,000 (maybe it was a last minute flight, for example), those 25,000 miles offer 4 cents per mile value. On the other hand, if you use 25,000 miles to book a flight that would have cost $125, then you get just half a cent per mile value.
Comparing loyalty program points is like comparing dimes to dollars
If a Hilton hotel charges 50,000 points per night and a Hyatt charges 25,000 points, which is the better deal? The answer isn’t as obvious at it seems. All else being equal, I’d much rather pay 50,000 Hilton points than 25,000 Hyatt points. On our Reasonable Redemption Values (RRVs) page, we show how much value one can reasonably expect to get from a wide range of airline and hotel loyalty programs. There you’ll find that Hyatt points are usually worth almost 4 times as much as Hilton points (1.75 cents per point vs. 0.45 cents per point at the time of this writing). So, 25,000 Hyatt points can be expected to be worth far more than 50,000 Hilton points. This doesn’t make Hyatt points good and Hilton points bad. It’s simply important to understand that they run on different scales.
Travel isn’t the best way to earn miles and points
When airline miles were first invented the only way to earn them was to fly. That’s no longer remotely close to true. Today, the single best way to earn miles and points quickly is through credit card signup bonuses. Via our Best Credit Card Offers page millions of points and miles are available. Beyond credit card signup bonuses, miles and points can be earned through credit card spend, online shopping portals, and countless miscellaneous promotions.
Opening many credit card accounts doesn’t hurt your credit score
A common myth is that having multiple credit card accounts open will hurt your credit score. In reality, the opposite is true. People often find that their score increases as they open more accounts. The reason is that a significant portion of your score is your credit utilization ratio. The less you spend as a percentage of the credit you have available, the better your score. So, when you open new accounts, you’re normally given more credit to work with and therefore (unless your spending has increased too), your score improves. To be clear, even though your credit score is unlikely to be hurt, there can be negative outcomes to opening lots of credit cards: acquiring a mortgage can be harder, car insurance rates may go up (weird, but true in a few cases), and getting approved for certain new credit cards may become more difficult. And, of course, if you don’t pay your credit bills on time every month, your score will go down.
You can often get a better credit card offer
When you’re presented a nice looking credit card offer in the mail, or by a flight attendant, or through a blog, chances are pretty good that there’s a better signup offer out there somewhere. On our Best Credit Card Offers we work hard to present the best publicly available offers, but even then there are times where better targeted offers exist. Pay attention to offers through mail, email, and even when going through the steps of booking a flight or hotel. Compare those offers to the best public offers found on our Best Credit Card Offers page to see if you were targeted for a better offer.
When given the opportunity to earn points for free, take it
Many people fly, stay in hotels, and rent cars without joining the loyalty programs associated with those travel providers. That’s a mistake. Even if you don’t think you’ll have use for a particular brand’s rewards program, you may be surprised. Take a minute to sign up. Then add the your new account to Award Wallet in order to keep track of your points.
Points and Miles regularly devalue
Airline and hotel loyalty programs regularly change their award schemes in ways that make their points less valuable than before. This can happen in many different ways:
- Airlines often increase the cost of saver level awards
- Airlines sometimes make saver level awards harder to get on the most valuable routes
- Hotels chains sometimes add new higher level (more expensive) categories to their award charts
- Hotel chains often move hotels to higher categories in order to charge more points for those hotels
- Airline and hotel programs move towards revenue based award schemes where they tie the price of an award to the paid price for a flight or hotel night. This can be both bad and good: On the negative side, the top value you can get from your points goes down. On the plus side, the least value you can get from your points generally goes up.
Transferable points programs are the best
Amex, Chase, and Citibank offer their own rewards programs: Amex Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and Citi ThankYou Rewards. These, along with SPG (Starwood Preferred Guest) are the best programs for accumulating points. All four offer the ability to convert points to various airline mileage programs one to one (or better than one to one with SPG). Transferable points give you many options for redeeming points towards great value, they help protect you from devaluations, and they can often be used for decent value by using points to book travel directly when there are no good transfer options. For more about transferring points from each of these programs, see: