A Beginner’s Guide to Traveling Using Points and Miles

by  Jamie Davis Smith | Apr 6, 2024

If your love of travel didn’t come with a trust fund, you probably can’t journey as far and wide as you would like. Enter: Travel hacking. 

Travel hackers strategically collect points and miles with credit cards to earn free travel. While you probably won’t earn a free trip to Hawaii in a week, points and miles do add up quickly. Once that happens, you can start dreaming big. 

Whether that dream is to hop on a plane to Rome, spend a week at an all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean, or finally fly first class, here’s what you need to know to make your everyday purchases finance your next trip.

The case for travel hacking

Kunakorn Rassadornyindee/istock

Put simply: Dollars are worth more as points and miles than they are as cash back. Where you might be able to cash in 100 points for $100, those same points could be used to purchase $150 worth of travel (or more).     

Additionally, if you stay loyal to one card issuer, your points will go further. For example, you can combine points across several Chase credit cards, where you cannot combine points from a Chase credit card and an American Express card.  

Consider flexibility vs. brand loyalty 

You’ll get the most flexibility from a credit card that allows you to convert points into miles. This is a good introductory option, because you can use them across different airline or hotel brands. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card allows you to convert points to United miles or Hyatt points.   

However, some people like to stay loyal to one airline or hotel. This approach makes sense for more frequent travelers, who prefer a certain airline or stay often at the same hotel chain. If, for example, you always stay at Hilton properties, it might make sense to use a Hilton-branded credit card for everyday purchases, and they will eventually cover your stay. 

An added bonus to using airline- and hotel-branded credit cards is that they provide perks, like priority boarding, free checked bags, free breakfast, or late checkout. Savings from these perks add up fast if you travel often. If you only travel a couple of times a year and aren’t loyal to a specific brand, this probably doesn’t make sense for you. 

Take advantage of sign-up bonuses and category spending


When you hear about people who earn a million points per year, they are probably opening several cards a year. Many credit cards offer sign-up bonuses, where you spend a minimum amount of money on a new credit card within the first few months in exchange for a large amount of points.  

For example, you might be required to spend $8,000 over a three-month period to get 100,000 miles. Before you open a new credit card, check the spending requirement and have a plan to reach that goal. 

Another way to accumulate points quickly is by referring friends. Many credit cards provide a link you can share with friends and family to apply for the card you have. This is usually a win-win situation: Your friend earns a big sign-up bonus, while you earn several thousand additional points for the referral. 

Many cards offer extra points or miles for spending in certain categories, such as restaurants, gas, groceries, and (of course) travel. It makes sense to think of how you spend your money. If your biggest expense is groceries, you might look for a card that offers 5 points for every dollar on groceries — then your weekly $100 shopping bill gets you 500 points.

When you’re planning an outing, bring the card that will give you the most bang for your buck.  

Be strategic about spending 


The goal of travel hacking is to save money. If you find yourself buying things you don’t need just to get points or miles, you aren’t benefiting from your credit cards. If you’re trying to hit a minimum spend, there are smart ways to get there: Stock up on non-perishable items you know you’ll use, such as toilet paper and canned food. Or, if you like Starbucks, load up your app with credit to pay for your future coffees. 

That said, it’s not wise to spend more than you can pay off. Interest can easily offset the value of points. Try to pay off your balance each month. If that’s not possible, aim to not carry a higher balance than you normally would if you weren’t collecting miles.      

Another thing to consider is whether it makes sense to pay annual fees. Most travel hackers want to save money, so it seems counter-intuitive to pay fees for credit cards. However, the value of a sign-up bonus can far offset the amount of an annual fee. Many cards with annual fees offer additional travel perks, such as access to airport lounges, travel insurance, and hotel credits. Consider how much you will take advantage of these.

Use your points wisely


Once you’ve gone through the hard work of earning points and miles, make sure you spend them wisely. Many credit card companies want to funnel you toward their own travel portals, but those rarely offer the best value. To help you get the best value, check out services like point.me, roame, and 10x Travel

Find The Best Cruises
Find a cruise

Find the best deals!

Click on multiple sites to get the lowest prices

Click on multiple sites to get the lowest prices