So, We've talked about a bunch of points. What do they mean? How Do you use them? Lets get to it.
My basic mantra on using points is: Let's go to the farthest place we want to go in the best cabin we can swing. Airlines and credit card companies value miles at .01 cents per mile. So. 100,000 miles is valued at $1,000 cash. DON'T think that way! 100,000 miles can get you a ticket worth many multiples of that sometimes even upwards of $9,000 dollars. I always recommend getting as much seat for your buck by searching for premium cabins and far destinations. Think of the places you would love to go to but are too expensive out of pocket. I will update the POINTS & MILES BLOG regularly with strategies on the most efficient uses of various points from different programs and where they can take you. I for example found that if I wanted to return to Rio De Janeiro this year that converting to British Airways points from Chase and American Express would be the most economical use (no longer the case). At the time I could get round trip Business Class for 100,000 British Airways Avios and only $62 in taxes.There is nothing wrong with using miles out of necessity for a short flight or emergency but it is not ideal and definitely not the best way to spend your hard earned miles.
The best thing to do is to figure out your destination first. Once you have your destination in mind its time to look at who flies there. Put together a list. It is also definitely worth looking into whether you have any pre existing miles or not. If you do it could be a great head start! If you do have points; see if there are any opportunities to earn significant points towards that program through credit card sign up bonuses. If not, don't sweat it you are still going to be able to get your great flight.
To spend your miles you will need to transfer them to a hotel or airline. Some credit cards have already done that for you. If you have say....an American Airlines Citi card your miles are stuck in American Airlines. If you have a card directly issued by Chase, American Express or Citi chances are you have options on which airline or hotel you would like to transfer to. Each of these banks has "transfer partners". Transfer partners are airlines or hotels in which you can convert your "chase" "amex" or "citi" points into. If you have 50,000 American Express Membership Rewards Points for example you could transfer them to Delta, British Airways and many others.
To fly on American Airlines: Maybe start with a Citi American Airlines Card and a Citi Thank You Preferred card. Citi is American Airlines preferred card partner. By getting these two you would get roughly 50,000 American Miles for signing up for the first card (Citi American Airlines Card) and roughly 35,000 miles for signing up for the second (Citi Thank You Preferred). You would then transfer your Thank you Preferred Citi Points into American Airlines giving you a combined American Airlines balances of 85,000 miles.
To fly on Delta Airlines: Maybe start with a Delta American Express Gold or Platinum card. This should carry a bonus of anywhere between 35-50,000 miles (occasionally more). Next grab a normal American Express card like the Green, Premier Rewards Gold, Platinum or Everyday. These cards will get you anywhere from 10-70,000 points depending on which one and the current offer. Your miles from your Delta American Express are already stuck in the Delta Skymiles Program. Next just transfer your American Express Points into Delta Skymiles for a combined balance of (hopefully) 100,000.
To fly on United Airlines: Maybe start with a Chase United Card. They often come with good bonuses around 35-50,000 like the other airline cards. Next add the Chase Sapphire Preferred and maybe additionally the Chase Freedom. These two or three cards should yield you roughly 100,000 United Points when you convert the Sapphire Preferred and or Freedom points into United Miles.
Now hopefully you get the idea. The same strategy could be applied to any Airline which offers a card and has partners who allow you to transfer their points to that Airlines program. There are more advanced techniques to maximize initial bonuses but they are generally time sensitive and as such are posted in the POINTS & MILES BLOG. Check there regularly to see if any extraordinary offers have come around, if not this is all you need to start.