How to Earn and Maximize Travel Points

August 9, 2023
The Points Guy shares tips for making the most of your travel perks.

Over the past two years, airline fares have risen a staggering 32%, far outpacing the overall rate of inflation. But for some savvy travelers, the price increases have felt more manageable. Their secret? They pay with credit card points.

But earning and spending points effectively on not just air fares but also hotel stays takes dedication and a bit of strategy. To help give you a leg up, we talked with Brian Kelly—a.k.a. The Points Guy—whose site of the same name helps users navigate the complicated world of credit card and loyalty points.

Q: If you don't use points for travel and want to start, what's the first thing to do?

A: Step 1 is to sign up for the loyalty programs for the airlines and hotels you use regularly when you travel. They're free. For every flight or hotel stay, always, always make sure you get credit. Step 2 is to get a credit card that also earns points, ideally with an attractive introductory bonus. Frequent flyer programs are now frequent buyer programs—meaning that's how you get the most points. You're not in the points game if you're not using a credit card.

Q: How should you pick a credit card to maximize points for travel?

A: Generally, you'll want to consider a card that will let you transfer points to multiple airlines and hotel chains. You can also get airline- or hotel-affiliated cards for their perks, even if you hardly use them. For example, airline-affiliated credit cards can reward you with free checked bags or a better choice of seats, while hotel-affiliated cards can get you room upgrades and even free nights. The thing you have to be maniacal about is paying them off in full, because any interest you incur will often negate the value of the points. Also be careful about opening too many cards, which can damage your credit.

Q: How do you determine whether the annual fee is worth it?

A: My dad always said that cheap is expensive. While there are some decent cards with no annual fee, cards with annual fees often pay for themselves in perks and sign-up bonuses. I recommend you review each card annually, and if you're no longer at least earning back your annual fee, it's probably time to switch cards.

Q: Is there a strategy to maximize the points you do earn with travel?

A: Loyalty goes both ways, and sticking to a few airlines can pay off in perks. You don't want relatively few miles in 50 accounts—you want a substantial number in five accounts. You might also check an airline's partners, since you can often transfer your miles to a partner where you already have an account. That said, you should pick the airline that will get you there in the shortest amount of time, period. Unless you put zero value on your time, it's not worth suffering through unnecessary connections or long layovers just to garner a few more points.

Q: How should you think about spending points to get the best bang for the buck?

A: You should be getting at least one cent per point. So, if you're spending 100,000 points, you should get a ticket that's worth $1,000 or more. If a flight is relatively cheap, you may be better off paying cash than spending your hard-earned points. Why spend 100,000 points on a $500 airline ticket, for example, when you can redeem the same number of points for four nights in a $250-a-night hotel? Be especially leery of super-easy opportunities to use your points, such as paying for Wi-Fi on a flight. Such conveniences are rarely a good value.

Q: What is the biggest misconception about points and loyalty programs?

A: It used to be a struggle to use points because of airline blackout dates, but most credit cards and loyalty programs have done away with those restrictions. What's more, purchasing with points often gives you greater flexibility. For example, most frequent flyer programs let you cancel up to one minute before departure without penalty or rebook with another airline if your flight gets canceled. In other words, paying with points can often help you take the reins when things go wrong.

The Platinum Card® from American Express for Charles Schwab

Enhance your travel experience with premium rewards and services.

With the Platinum Card® from American Express for Charles Schwab, you'll earn Membership Rewards® points for every dollar you spend on eligible purchases, as well as:

  • 5X Membership Rewards® points on up to $500,000 per calendar year on flights booked directly with airlines through American Express Travel® via AmexTravel.com or by calling 1-800-525-3355.
  • 5X Membership Rewards® points on eligible prepaid hotels booked through AmexTravel.com, including The Hotel Collection.
  • Up to $189 in statement credits per calendar year after you sign up and pay for a CLEAR® Plus membership (subject to auto-renewal) with your Platinum Card®.
  • Up to $200 back in statement credits each year on prepaid Fine Hotels + Resorts® or The Hotel Collection* bookings through American Express Travel using your Platinum Card®.
  • Access to select airport lounges, statement credits on select digital entertainment subscriptions, and more.

Terms apply. Learn more about the Platinum Card® from American Express for Charles Schwab at schwab.com/credit-cards/platinum-card.

*The Hotel Collection requires a minimum two-night stay.

Enhance your travel experience with premium rewards and services.

With the Platinum Card® from American Express for Charles Schwab, you'll earn Membership Rewards® points for every dollar you spend on eligible purchases, as well as:

  • 5X Membership Rewards® points on up to $500,000 per calendar year on flights booked directly with airlines through American Express Travel® via AmexTravel.com or by calling 1-800-525-3355.
  • 5X Membership Rewards® points on eligible prepaid hotels booked through AmexTravel.com, including The Hotel Collection.
  • Up to $189 in statement credits per calendar year after you sign up and pay for a CLEAR® Plus membership (subject to auto-renewal) with your Platinum Card®.
  • Up to $200 back in statement credits each year on prepaid Fine Hotels + Resorts® or The Hotel Collection* bookings through American Express Travel using your Platinum Card®.
  • Access to select airport lounges, statement credits on select digital entertainment subscriptions, and more.

Terms apply. Learn more about the Platinum Card® from American Express for Charles Schwab at schwab.com/credit-cards/platinum-card.

*The Hotel Collection requires a minimum two-night stay.

AmexTravel.com or by calling 1-800-525-3355.
  • 5X Membership Rewards® points on eligible prepaid hotels booked through AmexTravel.com, including The Hotel Collection.
  • Up to $189 in statement credits per calendar year after you sign up and pay for a CLEAR® Plus membership (subject to auto-renewal) with your Platinum Card®.
  • Up to $200 back in statement credits each year on prepaid Fine Hotels + Resorts® or The Hotel Collection* bookings through American Express Travel using your Platinum Card®.
  • Access to select airport lounges, statement credits on select digital entertainment subscriptions, and more.
  • Terms apply. Learn more about the Platinum Card® from American Express for Charles Schwab at schwab.com/credit-cards/platinum-card.

    *The Hotel Collection requires a minimum two-night stay.

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    Enhance your travel experience with premium rewards and services.

    With the Platinum Card® from American Express for Charles Schwab, you'll earn Membership Rewards® points for every dollar you spend on eligible purchases, as well as:

    • 5X Membership Rewards® points on up to $500,000 per calendar year on flights booked directly with airlines through American Express Travel® via AmexTravel.com or by calling 1-800-525-3355.
    • 5X Membership Rewards® points on eligible prepaid hotels booked through AmexTravel.com, including The Hotel Collection.
    • Up to $189 in statement credits per calendar year after you sign up and pay for a CLEAR® Plus membership (subject to auto-renewal) with your Platinum Card®.
    • Up to $200 back in statement credits each year on prepaid Fine Hotels + Resorts® or The Hotel Collection* bookings through American Express Travel using your Platinum Card®.
    • Access to select airport lounges, statement credits on select digital entertainment subscriptions, and more.

    Terms apply. Learn more about the Platinum Card® from American Express for Charles Schwab at schwab.com/credit-cards/platinum-card.

    *The Hotel Collection requires a minimum two-night stay.

    " id="body_disclosure--media_disclosure--121946" >

    Enhance your travel experience with premium rewards and services.

    With the Platinum Card® from American Express for Charles Schwab, you'll earn Membership Rewards® points for every dollar you spend on eligible purchases, as well as:

    • 5X Membership Rewards® points on up to $500,000 per calendar year on flights booked directly with airlines through American Express Travel® via AmexTravel.com or by calling 1-800-525-3355.
    • 5X Membership Rewards® points on eligible prepaid hotels booked through AmexTravel.com, including The Hotel Collection.
    • Up to $189 in statement credits per calendar year after you sign up and pay for a CLEAR® Plus membership (subject to auto-renewal) with your Platinum Card®.
    • Up to $200 back in statement credits each year on prepaid Fine Hotels + Resorts® or The Hotel Collection* bookings through American Express Travel using your Platinum Card®.
    • Access to select airport lounges, statement credits on select digital entertainment subscriptions, and more.

    Terms apply. Learn more about the Platinum Card® from American Express for Charles Schwab at schwab.com/credit-cards/platinum-card.

    *The Hotel Collection requires a minimum two-night stay.

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    The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.

    All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness, or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

    Examples provided are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve.

    Brian Kelly (The Points Guy) is not a client of Schwab and was not compensated by Schwab for their comments. The experience described may not be the experience of all clients and is no guarantee of future performance or success.

    Brian Kelly (The Points Guy) is not affiliated with The Charles Schwab Corporation, Charles Schwab & Co., Inc., or Charles Schwab Bank, SSB.

    Platinum Card® from American Express for Charles Schwab and the Charles Schwab Investor Card® from American Express are only available to you if you maintain an eligible account at Schwab (an "eligible account"). An eligible account means (1) a Schwab One® or Schwab General Brokerage Account held in your name or in the name of a revocable living trust where you are the grantor and trustee or (2) a Schwab Traditional, Roth, or Rollover IRA that is not managed by an independent investment advisor pursuant to a direct contractual relationship between you and such independent advisor. Eligibility is subject to change.

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