If you’re lucky enough to have committed parents, teachers and mentors growing up, you’ll have fewer blind spots in adult life. A real-world education is why I have any understanding of health insurance or how to cook a dinner besides Kraft mac and cheese. But I’m still lacking in two major departments: I don’t know how to change a tire, and I have no understanding of credit card points — or how people seem to pay for entire vacations with them. I just checked my rewards balance, and it was… $8.23.
I’ve asked my editor, Cooper, to explain his mastery of points many times, but usually my eyes glaze over at all the math and multipliers. His best recent trick was charging everything for a wedding to his credit cards; I’d probably need to finalize my divorce before making a baller move like that. So I put the question out on social media: Can anyone help me become a points person, keeping in mind my staggering stupidity?
Let’s start with this: How does one even exchange these mystery numbers into real things like flights and hotels? My responsible friend Marisa sent this in a chat:
You log into your bank site, you click a thing to redeem points, then you choose what kind of thing you want to spend on. Say it’s a flight. You choose that. Then a thing comes up like on Expedia where you put in the deets. The different options and prices pop up, and it says how many points it’ll cost you, and you book it right through there. You don’t spend any money.
Interesting. I mean, isn’t this all kinda… classist? Accessible only to those capable of spending enough money or capitalizing on existing wealth?
I’d love to own a restaurant or have a corporate expense account or just be wealthy already! But I’m thinking I need to start small. I went to ask my friends on Facebook, where people are arguably less prone to snarky one-liners.
The first eye-opening tip came from my friend Julie, who told me that she pays as many bills as possible with her credit card, but pays off the card immediately. That way, the money spent in the household budget is earning you rewards. Pretty smart! Though I guess it would mean turning off a few automatic payment plans and being… organized.
Put whatever you can on the credit card and pay off with cash before the end of the month to avoid fees/interest. We pay for things like home insurance, property taxes, utility bills and other large purchases using the card. Plus some cards offer 2x or 3x points on certain items or at certain restaurants. I have scored lots of Southwest flights over the past few years using the Southwest Visa. Literally just booked four roundtrip tickets from Houston to Puerto Rico solely on points. Also, using a service like hotels.com to book hotels so you get a free night for every 10 stays is worth it. Plus, some cards give you a bonus amount of points when you sign up. I think Southwest currently gives you 40,000 bonus points if you spend like $3,000 within three months or something.
Well, not sure I can become a Southwest loyalist. But others, including my second cousin Stacy, echoed the “put whatever you can on the card as long as you can zero out the balance that month” strategy. “I use the Capital One card that is more flexible than airline cards because I can use it for hotels, airfare, travel or cash off my bill. Fifteen years ago [my husband] Chuck and I went to Hawaii and paid $20 round trip total for the both of us.” Nice of you to invite me, Stacy! Still, it’s good to know that different cards do pretty different things. Adding to that point, my buddy Lincoln went into detail on the advantages of “rewards dollars” vs. specialized “points,” which I had no idea about:
Rewards credit cards just straight up give you cash back at the end of the month (or once you reach a certain amount). You might either have a general like 1 or 2 percent reward on anything you buy (so you spend 1,000 dollars, you get 10 bucks) or they have categories like 3 percent on restaurants, 2 percent on gas, 1 percent on groceries. My CC also gives me double rewards for depositing the money in my bank (same company). But bottom line: You just get some cash back each month for using your credit card. It’s just straight cash as opposed to points which have to be redeemed in a specific way, like for air travel.
This, I realize, is the kind of credit card I have right now! No wonder I don’t know shit about points! So what’s next? A couple more people mentioned putting a lot of job-related expenses on the card that are going to be speedily reimbursed, so that you rack up points for purchases you aren’t even technically paying for. Sounds sweet, though until MEL starts sending me on European business trips and approving the expensive sex toys I want to buy for the office, it’s not really an option. And some friends let me know that even if I use a credit card to cover my bills, the points accumulate slowly. To beat that frustration, said Myron, a college classmate, you have to find a “bonus” deal, in which you get a windfall for spending enough in a certain window.
For me, it’s pretty much all about credit card bonuses. To entice you to sign up, credit cards will offer a bonus if you spend a certain amount, usually in the first three months of card membership. Bonuses change over time so if I see a “good” one (websites like thepointsguy.com or onemileatatime.com can help one keep up) that I can meet the spending requirement for, I’ll sign up and put all my spending on that card till I meet the spending threshold. Once that’s done, I’ll open back up to the possibility of a new card and bonus. Last year, I signed up for three new cards (one for a specific airline, two with points that could transfer to that airline) and I got two round-trip tickets to Hong Kong out of it. It would have likely taken me at least four years (and that’s still a stretch) of earning points from my regular spending to get to that total. As people have mentioned, this all requires avoiding debt by just spending as usual and making all credit card payments on time (not spending more than you really can just to get a bonus, for example).
Tony, a friend of a friend, agreed — and made me feel a bit less embarrassed for being so confused by all this, as it’s totally by design. He also urged going slow early on:
There’s so much complexity in the points/miles world, and that complexity is *the point* because any unused mile is pure profit for the banks and airlines. So don’t feel bad that it’s confusing; they’re purposefully making it confusing.
The main thing I would add is to walk before you run. I recommend newbies to get one good card, get the signup bonus, use those miles for a free flight, and then see if you enjoyed the process and want to wade further. Learning firsthand is crucial.
One final point that’s not a popular opinion in the points community: I recommend *completely ignoring* a credit card’s points-per-dollar promises like 2x on restaurants, 3x on airfare, etc. and instead focusing exclusively on a card’s signup bonus. If a card gives a 50k signup bonus (a common offering), it would take $25,000 in dining out at 2x points to equal the signup bonus.
In his credit-card-points starter guide How to Fly for Free, Scott Keyes of Scott’s Cheap Flights says the same: “The sign-on bonus is all that matters. Don’t get sucked in by shiny lures like ‘double miles on groceries’ or ‘5x miles on flights.'”
Brilliant. And what do you know? When I logged into Chase, they were already offering me a Sapphire Preferred card; I get 50,000 travel points if I spend $4,000 in the first three months. Should be a breeze if I use the “making regular purchases on the card and quickly paying it off” strategy.
Then, I guess the only thing left is figuring out where to fly… god, maybe I’ll even be able to afford the airplane Wi-Fi. That’ll be crucial for my new hobby of explaining credit card points on the internet to clueless dolts like myself.