Points and Miles Beginner’s Guide

by John Terry | Last Updated:  February 22, 2019

Welcome to our Points and Miles Beginner’s Guide! Our hope is this will allow you to understand how to earn and redeem points and miles. It can be a complicated hobby, but it should also be fun.

If you follow our guide, you should be able to earn enough points and miles to save money on your next trip.

1. Getting started

This Points and Miles Beginner’s Guide is designed for the everyday person – the type of person who doesn’t travel for business or spend tens of thousands of dollars every month. Quite simply, it will focus on maximizing every single dollar your spend for the maximum return of points and miles.

It will focus on accruing points and miles during your everyday life with the goal of taking a trip you wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. In order to do that, this guide will take you step-by-step to ease you into the world of points and miles. It’s going to stick to the basics.

With that said, there are a few assumptions we’re going to make about our readers before getting started:

Many points and miles beginner’s guides start out with developing your travel goals. While you should always have goals, we don’t think it should be the first step.

The number one step should be to start strategically earning points and miles as soon as possible. Each day that you are not earning miles and points through your everyday spend is a missed opportunity.

2. Finding the right credit card

Each day that you are not earning points is a missed opportunity, right? That’s why we’re going to start with finding your first credit card.

There are hundreds of different travel credit cards out there.

Almost every airline has a co-branded credit card giving you bonus points when spending with their airline and then one point per dollar on everything else. Obviously, these vary, some will have extra perks like checked bags, but most of the time, you’re not going to accrue a ton of points with your everyday spending habits.

Similarly, almost every hotel chain has a co-branded credit card as well. Again, it’ll come with a bonus for spending at that hotel, some low-tier elite status, and maybe a free night once per year. But, again, these cards aren’t great options for accruing points either.

For your first card, we would strongly suggest getting a card with transferable points. You can read about some of better redemptions using Chase Ultimate Rewards. We recently used 100,000 transferable points on our honeymoon to Jamaica.

The flexibility of transferable points allow you to do two things: you can generally redeem them on the bank’s website for a fixed value OR you can transfer them to a travel partner (e.g. an airline or hotel chain).

The two main types of transferable points that we would suggest are Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards. Both have a number of transfer partners as well as good ways to redeem through their own travel portals.

There are several cards you could start with – some have annual fees, some don’t, it really just depends on your comfort level when you’re starting out. Check out a list of our favorite cards below:

For more card options, read about the best credit card options to earn points and miles:

You can also read our many different credit card reviews by clicking here.

Finally, you can use the Card Match Tool to see if you might be pre-approved for any of these cards. While you will need to enter your social security number, it’s just a soft credit check, so it won’t negatively affect your credit.

My suggestion

We believe Chase Ultimate Rewards are the most valuable award currency based on the flexibility of their transfer partners. If you have good credit, get the Chase Sapphire Preferred as your first card. You can read more about it at the link, but in short, it has a reasonable annual fee, solid perks for a travel credit card, and bonus points for travel and dining.

If you travel 6-8 times per year, it might be worth getting the Chase Sapphire Reserve. While the annual fee is $450, you get a $300 travel credit, free TSA Pre-Check/Global Entry and Priority Pass Lounge access, as well as a multitude of other perks like bonus categories for everyday spending. So in short, you’re only paying $55 more for all of these extra benefits. Keep in mind that Chase will only let you earn the sign-up bonus for a Sapphire Card once within a two year period, and you can’t hold both at once. You can always product change to the Sapphire Reserve at a later point.

To read more about earning Chase Ultimate Rewards, check out the following articles:

For those of us who do not travel on a regular basis, getting the right collection of travel credit cards is the best way to earn points and miles quickly.

There isn’t a purchase that I make where we’re not thinking about the potential strategy for accruing miles or points. And I never use my debit card.

3. Earning the sign-up bonus and meeting the minimum spend

One of the best parts about signing up for a new travel credit card is the sign-up bonus that will come along with it. These bonuses start at just 10,000 to 20,000 points, but good bonuses will be more than 50,000 points.

The bonuses come with a catch, though – they’re not just going to give you that many points for nothing. There is a minimum spend requirement (most of the time) that you must meet.

New cardholders will typically have 3 months to complete the spend. The requirements can range from spending anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 in that three month period. Because this points and miles beginner’s guide is geared towards people who aren’t spending thousands of dollars regularly, this is an area where you need to get strategic.

I always apply for credit cards around times when I know I’m going to be spending more money than normal – when car insurance is due, before the holiday season, and so on.

It’s important to point out here that not EVERY expense can be charged to your credit card. Venmo (or similar apps) typically come with a 3% fee to use a credit card. Many times you are also unable to pay rent or your mortgage payment with a credit card.

For more tips on this subject, check out our article about signing up for credit cards:

4. Sign up for loyalty programs

Spend some time signing up for airlines and hotels loyalty programs.

There’s probably a good chance you are already member of a few, but go ahead and sign up for all of the popular domestic airlines and major hotel chains. It’s easier to do it now than when you’re trying to book a flight or a hotel. Here are some links to get you started:

Airlines: Alaska, American Delta, JetBlue, SouthwestUnited

Hotel: Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, IHG

As you’re doing this, go ahead and make a list with usernames and passwords for each program. This will come in handy during the next step.

Even if you don’t think you will ever stay at a hotel chain or fly a certain airline, go ahead and sign up. From time to time, there will be opportunities to earn free points.

In 2017, Marriott gave away 500 points every Sunday for answering a (very easy) Twitter question about the NFL using a specific hashtag. Similarly, for the last few years, I’ve been earning Delta points for every Seahawks passing yard during home games because of a promotion. I earned more than 3,000 Skymiles in 2018.

I also link all my accounts with different dining programs to earn points (more on that below). You can literally not try, and you will still earn points and miles if sign up for these programs.

5. Sign up for a FREE point tracking service

Points and miles are easy to lose track of since they all have different expiration dates and are tracked on different program websites. It’s important to track everything. There are several services out there that track your points and miles for free.

Open up a free account at AwardWallet or Points.com to track your points and miles. Once you do that, add the loyalty programs that you’re already a member of and you will start to see the points and miles populate. When planning a trip, it’s much easier to look at all your points and mile totals in one place as opposed to switching back and forth between program websites. 

The cool thing about these services is you can also track your points accrued through different credit cards like Chase and American Express. You can even track your Starbucks stars or fuel rewards at your grocery store. It’s very handy.

And, if you trust these services (which I’ve never had an issue with), you can also login through their website, so you don’t have to remember the frequent flyer numbers, PINs and passwords to all of the programs you are a member of.

If it makes you uncomfortable to share this information with these websites, I would still encourage you to create a spreadsheet tracking all of of your points and miles.

Keep your tracking method up to date

As you begin earning new types of earn points and miles, remember to add your accounts to your tracking method. Also, keep an eye on your accounts and update everything at least once per month. Like checking your bank account regularly, it’s a good way to keep tabs on your points and miles balances.

6. Sign up for shopping portals & dining plans

For those of us who don’t travel thousands of miles or own our own businesses, we have to use every opportunity we can get to accumulate miles. Thankfully, airlines make this very easy with shopping portals and dining plans.

Shopping Portals

Most airlines and hotels will have shopping portals. If you have a Chase Ultimate Rewards earning card, you can also utilize the Chase Shopping Portal.

Shopping Portals are pretty simple – take one extra step to access the online store through a portal before making your purchase – and you’ll earn even more bonus points and miles on purchases you make online.

To find out the best shopping portal, our favorite website is www.cashbackmonitor.com. There isn’t an online purchase we make without first checking to see if there’s a shopping portal that we can use. In fact, sometimes we shop online instead of in the store to earn bonus points and miles (assuming the price is the same).

Cashback monitor will help lead to better points and miles earning
Cashback Monitor will help lead to better points and miles earning for cardholders.

Dining Programs

Similar to shopping portals, airlines and hotels also have dining programs. Now, before you get too excited, the options for earning are more limited here (each plan has select network of restaurants), but there’s no harm in signing up.

The number of bonus points can range from 2 points per dollar spent to 5 points per dollar spent. The bonus depends on the number of restaurants you visit each year.

We’ve even received emails a few days after dining out alerting us to bonus points we had earned for dining at one of these places, even when we had no idea it was part of a dining plan.

Create an account, enter your credit card, and walk away. It’s worth checking out the list of restaurants in your area — it might turn out that there are a few that you’re already frequenting!

A screenshot from the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan Dining site. It shows just a few of the restaurants that are part of the network.
A screenshot from the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan Dining site. It shows just a few of the restaurants that are part of the network.

7. Continuing to learn about points and miles

The points and miles hobby is always changing. I spend 30-45 minutes each day reading blogs and news related to points and miles. Staying up to date on the best ways to earn might be the most important thing you can do. Even if you aren’t earning points and miles, signing up for services like Scott’s Cheap Flights can save you tons of money when traveling.

We will do our best to update you, the everyday traveler, on our site. But you can also check out other sites or follow bloggers on Twitter.

8. Expand your credit card portfolio

After a few months of seeing your points balance increase, you’re going to want to figure out how to make your travel dreams become a reality even faster.

It’s also always a good idea to constantly re-evaluate the cards in your wallet or the cards you are targeting. Perhaps you need to focus on an airline-specific card to save money on checked bags? Maybe you’ve identified a trip in the future and need Amex Membership Rewards (as opposed to Chase Ultimate Rewards)? Or you’re about to have a big purchase and you want to take advantage of that on a minimum spend? Or maybe you want to get a companion fare with the Alaska Air Visa Signature card? Or a hotel card to get you a free annual night?

For more tips on this subject, check out additional articles on this subject:

Final Thoughts

The points and miles hobby is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to get you traveling to places you never dreamed you would have been able to afford.

The initial set-up may seem a bit intimidating, but if you start slowly, educate yourself, and spend strategically, you’ll be racking up points before you know it.

What’s next? Check out the other articles in the Everyday Points and Miles Beginner’s Guide: