Learning to use miles and points to travel doesn’t have to be a pain.
While many of our readers are seasoned pros at earning and burning miles and points — and finding amazing cash fare deals to travel the world, it can be overwhelming if you’re new to all this. How do we know that? Well, besides the fact that we were total newbs at one point too, we hear from people who are just getting started every day.
Rather than simply winging it and seeing what happens, you’ll have a much easier time navigating the points world if you give yourself some structure. With that in mind, we’re going to walk you through how you can do this so you can put together an amazing trip without getting overwhelmed.
Now, let’s get into it!
What’s Your Travel Goal?
While your first instinct might be to get a credit card and start earning points and figure out the rest as you go, we’d actually suggest you take a step back and look at the big picture. Instead, figure out where you want to go or, if you love flying, figure out what flight you want to take. Additionally, you’ll want to think about whether you want to fly economy, business or first class.
Perhaps the best part of this is that you can use points to create the type of trip you want and prioritize what is important to you. If you want to stretch your points and miles as far as they can go so you can take tons of trips, you can do that. For those who only have time for one or two trips per year, you might want to book a business class ticket with miles so you can enjoy a luxury getaway.
Additionally, you’ll want to consider whether using points for hotel stays is a priority. This can be especially important if you earn points that can be transferred to both airlines and hotels — hello, Chase Ultimate Rewards. Again, it comes down to priorities.
Whatever your goal, starting with the end in mind will help you put together a focused plan to get there and save you the headache of not having the points you need for the trip you want.
How Many Points And Miles Will It Take?
You’ll want to do a little research into how many points your flights and hotels will require once you’ve figured out where you want to go and how you want to get there. Earning points is great but you don’t want to earn them without an understanding of how many you will actually need. Since every airline program sets its own award ticket rates, putting in this little bit of effort is well worth getting your ducks in a row.
Since you can use the miles of an airline program to book flights on its partner airlines, you get access to tons of destinations. Just remember that the number of miles required to book is determined by the airline program with which you book even if you’re flying on a partner airline.
For example, you can use 70,000 United miles to book Lufthansa business class one-way between the USA and Europe. If you were to use Lufthansa’s own Miles & More program to book, you would need 56,000 miles. However, the number of miles required by Miles & More doesn’t matter at all if you’re booking with the United MileagePlus program.
What Credit Card Should You Get?
Once you know where you want to go and how many points and miles you’ll need, you can start investigating which credit card — or credit cards — to get to make the trip possible. As each bank has its own application rules which can impact your eligibility for sign-up bonuses, timing your card applications can be important.
While this framework is useful for anyone looking to book flights or hotels with points and miles, it’s especially important to pay attention to this step if you’re new. That’s because of the most infamous application rule in the miles and points community known as the Chase 5/24 Rule. Basically, Chase won’t let you get any of its credit cards if you’ve opened 5 or more cards within the last 24 months.
Chase Ultimate Rewards Cards Are The Start Point
If you’re new to this, you might think this is something that won’t impact you and it might not. However, I can’t tell you how many people have opened store credit cards to get some small one-time discounts and left themselves ineligible for Chase cards. So, if you’re new, save yourself from missing out on the opportunity to value Chase Ultimate Rewards points by starting with Chase.
For those just dipping a toe into things, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is an easy choice as it comes with a sign-up bonus of 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points once you meet the minimum spend requirement of $4,000 within 3 months. It also earns 2X on all dining and travel purchases. This card comes with a very manageable annual fee of $95.
If you spend a decent bit on travel and dining, you can earn 3X with the Chase Sapphire Reserve. The sign-up bonus and minimum spend are the same but you also get a Priority Pass Select membership which provides airport lounge access. This is a high-end card and comes with a $450 annual fee. However, most of this is offset with a $300 travel credit every cardmember year.
Learn How To Find Award Space
Rather than waiting until you have earned the necessary points for your trip, now is the time to start understanding how to book award tickets with miles. This is the final hurdle that trips up too many people who put it off until the last second and then panic because they don’t know where to start. Let us help you avoid being that person. Hopefully, if you are that person, you’ve recovered from the experience and now have a plan.
So, searching for award space. I consider it the fun part, others disagree. Either way, let’s go over the basics so you can have a good foundation in place once you’ve applied for a card — or even if you just have a lot of miles and points and are ready to use them.
Where To Search For Each Airline Alliance
Here are the recommended airline sites we suggest using to search for award space within each airline alliance:
- Oneworld: British Airways and American Airlines
- SkyTeam: Flying Blue (Air France or KLM) and Delta
- Star Alliance: United and Aeroplan
American Airlines doesn’t show all Oneworld partners in its online search but it has been steadily improving and provides a calendar search option which helps you see what award space looks like across an entire month. If you have any questions, make sure you check out our complete guide to redeeming American miles.
When searching for SkyTeam options, keep in mind that Flying Blue and Delta both use dynamic award pricing for flights on their own aircraft. To make sure you are booking award tickets at what is known as saver level — the fewest miles possible — with Flying Blue, use the Miles Price Estimator. For more info on what to look for when searching with Delta, check out our guide to redeeming SkyMiles.
For Star Alliance flights, United provides a great way to search as it allows you to use a calendar search which gives you an idea of award space across two months. This can really help reduce the time you spend searching.
What About Other Airlines?
Of course, some airlines are not part of an airline alliance. While this is a bit beyond the beginner level, we think it’s important to mention since some of these options are very useful. For example, booking Cathay Pacific flights with Alaska miles is quite popular but you can’t search for Cathay flights with Alaska. Instead, you need to search with British Airways then call Alaska Airlines to book.
Check out our in-depth guide to using Alaska miles to make booking award tickets easy.
Another popular program for booking award tickets is the Virgin Atlantic Flying Club. Like Alaska, it’s not part of an airline alliance but it does have some great partners. The rules and award rates for each partner vary but we’ve put together a guide to help you use your Flying Club miles.
Etihad Airways also isn’t part of an alliance but it partners with a bunch of carriers around the globe. Similar to Virgin Atlantic, it too has different award rates and rules for each partner and there are some gems to be found. You can use our guide to booking with Etihad Guest miles to help you along.
Compare Award Rates To Bank Portals
If you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred, comparing the number of miles required by an airline vs the number of Ultimate Rewards points required to book a cash ticket via the Chase Travel Portal is a must. This is even more important if you’re booking an economy ticket as you’ll often find cheap cash fares that can be booked with fewer points in the travel portal than if you transferred Chase points to an airline partner.
Now, just to be clear, tickets booked with points via a bank travel portal are NOT award tickets. They are cash tickets for which you’re exchanging bank points at a fixed value. With the Sapphire Reserve and Sapphire Preferred, your Chase points are worth 1.5 cents and 1.25 cents each, respectively, in the Chase Travel Portal.
With Amex Travel, The Business Platinum Card and the American Express Business Gold Card allow you to book cash flights at a rate of about 1.53 cents and 1.34 cents each, respectively. In the Citi Travel Center, Citi Premier cardholders get 1.25 cents per point.
Yes, it’s one additional step, but comparing the portal rate vs the award rate could save you thousands of points on just one ticket.
As we mentioned earlier, starting with the end in mind can really make a difference. By figuring out where you want to go, how you want to get there and how many points and miles you’ll need to make it happen, deciding which card to get becomes much easier. Additionally, starting the process of figuring out how to find the award ticket while you earn the necessary points and miles will prevent a stressful booking experience.
Finally, we were all new to booking flights with miles at some point. Be patient with yourself, stick to the process and things will come together.