A beginner's guide to earning miles and points

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I plan to fly to Tokyo or Seoul later this year. I haven’t decided which one yet, but I have decided that I don’t plan to spend more than $60 round-trip for the flight.

My tentative dates to Seoul Incheon (if I choose to go there instead of Tokyo) from Dulles Airport are Oct. 1-9. That ticket, which includes a stop in Dallas-Ft. Worth both ways, costs over $1,500 on Google Flights in economy. For business class, the price balloons to a whopping $7,100. Using my American Airlines AAdvantage miles (more on this later) that same ticket would cost me 65,000 miles and $53. Wait, $53?

“Wait…how on earth is that possible?”

By using points and miles, of course.

If you’re new to this, you might be wondering how to make your miles and points work for you. You might even be wondering what the heck are points and miles, even.

Points are what you earn for purchases on credit cards. Your points can be transferred to airlines and hotels or can be used to pay off purchases. (I strongly advise against this.) Miles are what you can earn that correspond to an airline’s loyalty program. You can earn miles from traveling but if you aren’t a frequent flier this can be an inconvenient (and expensive) route.

All major airlines offer rewards programs, but I’ll be focusing on the Big Three here for international travel. If you’re an American Airlines flyer (like I am) then you should sign up for its AAdvantage program. If you fly United often, then MileagePlus is your program. And if you find most of your flights are on Delta, then you’ll sign up for the SkyMiles program.

Now that you’ve signed up for your airlines’ loyalty program, it’s time to maximize those benefits.

How did you get into the miles and points game?

A user in one of my travel Facebook groups posted a photo of him lounging in Etihad Airways apartment in the sky. A one-way ticket from New York to Abu Dhabi can set you back nearly $30,000. I wondered how he was able to swing that and he told me that he didn’t spend any money for the ticket at all. He used points from American Airlines and transferred them to Etihad. Wait, you can do that?

Well, Vikkie, keeping that in mind: how can I earn points and miles for travel?

A few ways, actually.

Most experienced travelers book travel using miles and points earned through sign-up bonuses. Many credit cards offer a hefty sign-up bonus after meeting its minimum spend. For the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, it’s 60,000 points (about $1,250 in travel, according to a valuation by The Points Guy) after spending $4,000 in the first three months with an annual fee of $95.

“$4,000? That’s…a lot.”

It can be, but there are ways to maximize this. First, it’s important to note that before committing to any credit card, you need to sit down and figure out how much you spend monthly and whether a travel card (or any card) is right for you.

Think about what you spend the most money on each month and look for a credit card that compliments that. For instance, if you spend a lot of money each month eating out or buying groceries, you might want to look at AMEX’s gold card. It offers 4X (four points for every dollar spent) on food purchases. And when you want to travel, it offers a sizable 3X points for flight and hotel purchases. It also offers 35,000 points (but you can get targeted for as much as 50,000 points) after spending $2,000 in three months.

I put my rent, Netflix, Hulu, Sling, phone and internet on my AMEX platinum card. This is money I already have to spend — I’m not spending money I don’t have.

But instead of paying for those bills with cash or putting them on a debit card (which gives me zero value) I put them all on my credit card. For me, it’s an easy way to obtain about 2000 points on my American Express Platinum card each month. This year, I’ll also be putting my tax bill on my card.

I opened my AMEX platinum card in early March and already hit the minimum spend just by paying bills, which got me a nice 75,000 points to use for a business-class flight to London on British Airways this summer.

Which credit cards should I use to maximize my points and miles?

Most of the major travel blogs recommend the Chase Sapphire Preferred card for travelers looking to get into the miles and points game. The American Express gold and platinum cards offer nice bonuses after meeting the minimum spending requirement.

And, what’s nice about both credit carriers is that the points you earn on both are transferrable to partner airlines such as Delta, Emirates, and Singapore Air.

Remember when I talked about big sign-up bonuses? The Seoul trip I mentioned earlier is a good example of this. The reason I’m able to book this trip with miles is by opening an American Airlines branded card. That card, which I opened in the fall of 2018, offered 50,000 miles after opening the card, making one purchase, and paying the annual fee. There was no minimum spend.

Before you use your points, do some research to find out if you’re getting the best deal for your trip. You points will go a further distance if you travel during off-peak season.

Any other tips you can suggest?

Pay the balance in full each month or those points and miles mean nothing. Get a credit card for the airline you fly most often. Not only do most offer nice sign-up bonuses, but some include nice perks like checked bags and free snacks if you’re into that.

A note about cards…

I’m not ignorant to the unique problems many African-Americans face obtaining — and maintaining — credit cards. For many, it’s a fraught and painful subject to pose. Research confirms what many Black folks around the country already know — that even though we’re less likely to carry credit card debt, even African-Americans with good credit are more likely to struggle financially than other races. We’re also less likely to use credit cards than other races. And, according to a Demos survey, the estimated Annual Percentage Rate (APR) paid on the credit card with the highest balance for African Americans was an average of 17 percent, while for whites it’s just 14 percent.

Editor’s note: I’m not getting a commission for anything I mentioned in this post, fam. I just do this for the love of travel.