A Beginner's Guide to Miles and Points

By Summer Hull. Last updated 22 July 2014. 1 comment

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If you think that racking up enough airline miles, hotel points, and credit card rewards to travel around the world at dramatically reduced prices is a treat reserved for full-time road warriors and the wealthy, you would be wrong.

Traveling the world on reward points is for middle class working families, retirees, stay-at-home moms, leisure travelers, and lots of people in between. In other words, a world of very affordable, luxurious, and attainable travel is waiting for folks like you and me!

(Wise Bread's pick for best travel rewards credit card is the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card - 40,000 mile signup bonus, 2x miles on every purchase, and more. Click here for details.)

I know this because I have been traveling with my family using miles and points for years. Sometimes it is in first class lie-flat beds across the Atlantic, sometimes it is in five star hotel suites, and sometimes it is more budget carriers like Southwest or Spirit Airlines, but it can all be done using miles and points that can be earned doing everyday things. (See also: Secrets From Frugal Frequent Travelers)

The world of miles and points can seem a bit overwhelming at first given all of the earning and redemption options, but don't let that stop you from getting started. I'll help you break down a few easy and straightforward steps to your new hobby that can literally put the world at your feet.

1. Think About Your Travel Goals

Any good endeavor starts with a good goal, so think about where you would travel if money weren't holding you back. This may be taking the family to Disney World, taking your spouse to Hawaii, or heading by train across Europe. There are no limits to where miles and points can take you, so dream big. It will be much easier to know what type of miles or points to earn in the beginning, if they are being earned with a specific trip in mind. Plan your future dream vacation, and see it manifest. (See also: Frugal Family Vacations)

2. Research Your Dream Destination

In order to know what type of hotel points or airline miles to earn at the beginning, you need to know which type will help you get where you want to be. Find out what hotels and airlines serve the city (or cities) you want to visit, and then see which ones look like they would be your top choices. If you aren't sure where to start, Wikitravel.org is a great resource to discover the basics.

While you can use some types of credit card points essentially as cash to pay for any type of travel expense you want, it can be easiest to begin your miles and points journey by looking at chain hotels like Hyatt, Starwood, or IHG Rewards since you will have the most points earning opportunities to get "free" nights at those types of hotels.

3. Check Your Credit Score and Review Credit Reports

Now that you have narrowed down where you want to go, it is time to get down to business.

There's no denying the fact that the quickest and easiest way to rack up tons of miles and points is by obtaining rewards credit cards.

This is something that I do in moderation, and it has been insanely lucrative for my family. However, before you decide if that route is for you, it is important to get a handle on your credit situation.

What type of credit card are you interested in?
How much do you spend per month?
Do you carry a balance?

You can obtain one free credit report from each of the three credit bureaus annually from annualcreditreport.com. I also strongly recommend getting an idea about the range into which your credit score falls. You can get an estimate of your score free from sites like Credit Karma or Credit Sesame. There is no "magic number," but if your credit score isn't at least 700, I would not recommend applying for rewards credit cards until you can bring your credit score up. (See also: How to Rebuild Your Credit)

4. Apply for a Good Rewards Credit Card (or Two)

After you determine that your credit score is good, then consider applying for a good rewards earning credit card…or two.

There are dozens and dozens of rewards credit cards out there, and the best ones for you will depend on your travel goals. For example, if you are going somewhere that is served by United and has a Hyatt hotel that you want to stay at, then it makes sense to focus on getting the cards that will give you those types of points. This is where having well defined travel goals can help define how to get started in your points journey.

There won't be one best card for everyone, but some that are often good for beginners include the Chase Sapphire Preferred that earns Ultimate Reward points that can transfer 1:1 to programs such as United, Hyatt, IHG Rewards, Southwest, British Airways, Marriott, and others.

Chase Sapphire Preferred is usually my first recommendation for beginners, but other solid cards to start with include Starwood Preferred Guest Amex, Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard, and Citi AAdvantage American Airlines card. It is very possible to get $500 to $1000 worth of "free" travel from each of these in the form of sign-up bonuses.

Keep in mind that there is usually a minimum spending requirement in order to get the sign-up bonus, so don't bite off more than you can chew. Go slow and focus on the sign-up bonuses that will get you the closest to your travel goals, or beyond. (See also: 5 Great Travel Rewards Cards)

5. Shift Your Everyday Spending to Your Rewards Cards

The more you use your rewards credit cards, the more points you will earn.

We have charged everything from car insurance, to daycare, to groceries, to doctor's bills, to gasoline, and more on our rewards credit cards. The result is that we earn a large number of miles and points each year for things we were going to have to pay for anyway.

Once you get a bit more experienced, you can focus on utilizing cards that pay out a bonus in certain categories. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred pays out 2x points on dining charges, so we make sure to use that card when we eat out or hit the drive thru line on the way home.

6. Redeem Your Points for an Amazing Trip!

The miles and points you earn are only as valuable as what you redeem them for, so when you have enough for your first "dream trip," use them!

With many types of miles and points, you will have the greatest success if you start looking for award availability early and have some flexibility with your dates. Not all types of points require you to have flexibility, but with many programs that does help. Various sites, including my own blog, MommyPoints.com, aim to help you learn about some tips and tricks for how to earn and redeem over time. But to start with don't worry about getting the best redemption ever, just work on getting the trip you are after!

Have you used travel rewards points for a family vacation? Please share your experience in comments!

Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.

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I just got in this game about a year ago! Rewards helped pay for my honeymoon, and booking my honeymoon with Hotels.com is getting me a free night in a super swanky hotel in Seattle in June. My wife and I each got Marriott Rewards credit cards and are staying 5 nights for free in downtown Anchorage in June just using the sign-up bonus points.