There are plenty of rewards credit cards on the market to help you earn points and miles where you spend most — whether you’re looking for rewards on your everyday dining and grocery purchases, or when you book your next trip.
But the redemption options you choose can make a big difference in the value you get from your rewards, and not every option is created equal. While you can use your credit card points and miles rewards for things other than travel — such as gift cards, food delivery, at retailers like Amazon, and more — these options are often much less valuable than a rewards program’s travel redemptions.
Here’s a closer look at why travel redemptions are usually the best way to maximize your rewards value, and the few exceptions to this rule.
How to Earn Points and Miles
First things first: You’ve got to earn your points and miles before you can use them.
Both points and miles are a type of rewards currency offered by travel and credit card rewards programs. They may only hold value within a specific airline or hotel brand’s loyalty program — such as Delta SkyMiles or Marriott Bonvoy points — or they may apply toward a card issuer’s rewards program — like American Express Membership Rewards points or Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Most credit card issuers and hotels award points to program members, while most airlines award miles, although there are some exceptions.
One of the best ways to earn points and miles is with a travel rewards credit card that’s compatible with the loyalty program you want to earn rewards toward. If you’re looking to earn flexible Chase Ultimate Rewards points, for example, you could do so with a Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.
For points and miles toward specific airline or hotel programs, you can earn rewards by flying with the airline, such as Delta Air Lines or American Airlines, or by staying with a hotel, such as Marriott or Hilton. These airline and hotel brands usually also have co-branded rewards credit cards that can help you earn additional bonus points or miles on each flight or hotel stay.
What Are Points and Miles Worth?
The exact value of a point or mile varies from program to program. Typically, points and miles from a credit card issuer — such as Amex Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards — will be worth more than points or miles issued by an airline or hotel.
That’s because these points are known as “flexible rewards” and offer more redemption options than airline miles or hotel points. You may choose to redeem them for travel booked through the issuer’s rewards program portal for a fixed rate, or transfer your points to an airline or hotel loyalty program. Either of these travel redemptions will generally result in the best value for your points — in many cases, more than one cent per point — but within some programs the exact value can fluctuate depending on your travel plans.
You’ll also have the option to redeem flexible rewards points for other things, like statement credits, gift cards, or online purchases. These will typically result in less value per point than travel. For example, you can currently redeem 10,000 Amex Membership Rewards points for $100 toward a flight booked through the Amex travel portal, but you’ll only get $70 for the same 10,000 points if you redeem for an Amazon purchase or $60 if you use them to cover charges on your statement balance.
Flight and hotel points, on the other hand, can fluctuate much more, and value often depends on the current price of a flight or hotel booking. If the cash price fluctuates, so does the value of a point or mile. Airline and hotel loyalty programs may also offer other redemption options, like gift cards or online purchases, but you’ll generally get the best value redeeming for flights or hotel stays.
According to our current calculations, United Airlines MilagePlus miles are worth 1.6 cents each; American Airlines AAdvantage miles are worth 1.4 cents each; Delta SkyMiles are worth 1.2 cents each; and Southwest Rapid Rewards points are worth 1.3 cents each.
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Does It Ever Make Sense to Use Miles for Anything Other Than Travel?
Thanks to the outsized value you can get for your points and miles, travel redemptions are the most lucrative option in most cases.
If you’re not interested in travel redemptions, consider a cash back credit card instead of a travel rewards card. These cards earn a percentage of cash back on your everyday spending, which you can redeem for statement credits or cash.
But if you already have a stash of points or miles and no travel plans in your future, there are a few exceptions where you can increase your value on non-travel redemptions. Often, these are limited time or promotional offers from your issuer or loyalty program, so be on the lookout for emails or account notifications that can help you spot upcoming redemption deals.
Chase Pay Yourself Back
For Chase Sapphire cardholders, using Chase’s Pay Yourself Back feature can help you use your card’s boosted points value toward non-travel purchases. That means you can get a 25% points boost with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and 50% boost with the Chase Sapphire Reserve® on both travel redemptions through Chase and eligible Pay Yourself Back categories.
Since the feature was introduced early in the pandemic, eligible redemption options have changed. But now through March 2022, categories for Chase Sapphire Preferred cardholders include Airbnb and Away (through awaytravel.com) purchases and select charitable donations. Chase Sapphire Reserve Pay Yourself Back eligible categories include those, as well as dining, including takeout and delivery.
Retail Partner Promotions
Promotional retail offers can help you get added value when you redeem your points toward online purchases. For example, credit card issuers such as American Express and Chase already give the option to redeem points toward Amazon purchases. But sometimes, they also offer promotions that allow you to cover part of your Amazon purchase with points (usually for a minimum of just one point), and in return, receive a discount. By using only one point you can unlock the discount without giving up value from other redemptions.
There are a few caveats, though. While you can typically get at least $10 off, these promotions also generally require you to meet a minimum spend amount. And these offers are usually targeted, meaning you must be eligible for them to participate.
Discounted Gift Cards
Sometimes, you can also get an increased value on certain gift card redemptions. While gift cards aren’t usually the best way to use your points and miles, some gift card options will occasionally offer gift cards at a value of more than one cent per point or mile or give a discount on gift card redemptions.
If you spot an increased redemption value for a retailer you already shop with, this can be a useful way to save on your regular spending.
Expiring Points and Miles
While your points and miles are most valuable toward travel purchases, any rewards you accumulate are worthless if you let them expire.
“A lot of people let their points expire because they’re simply not keeping track of them,” Ariana Arghandewal, a former points and miles editor at The Points Guy, which is owned by the same parent company as NextAdvisor, told us recently.
If you don’t know your issuer or loyalty program’s expiration policy, check your card agreement or the program site. Some credit card points, like American Express Membership Rewards points, Chase Ultimate Rewards points, Citi ThankYou points and Capital One Venture miles never expire, as long as your account is in good standing. But airline miles and hotel points are much more likely to have an expiration date.
American Airlines miles expire 18 months from your last account activity, and if you have no activity on your Alaska Airlines account for two years, the account will expire and your miles will be deleted. Miles earned on Delta, United, JetBlue, and Southwest never expire. As for major hotel programs, Marriott and Hyatt points expire 24 months from your last activity, while Hilton and IHG points expire 12 months from your last activity.
To keep from losing the potential value of your points, keep up with any expiration requirements and track your account activity. Also make sure you choose a loyalty program that fits with your spending and travel activity, so you can keep your accounts active.
“The best way to keep your points from expiring is to keep earning them,” Arghandewal says.