Beginners Guide To Miles and Points: Credit Card Strategy for Beginners

In the interest of full disclosure, I earn a referral bonus for anyone that’s approved through some of the below links. These are the best publicly available offers that I have found for each card. Please check out my advertiser policy for further details about my partners, including American Express, and thanks for your support!

Beginners Guide To Miles & Points
What’s The Point?
How Loyalty Programs Work
Credit Cards and Credit Scores
Types of Miles & Points
Identifying Your Travel Goals
How Alliances Work
Credit Card Strategy For Beginners
Earning Miles & Points
Hotels Matter Too
What’s Next?

If you’ve read this far you’re likely sold on the three main flexible points currencies, and for good reason. These programs are going to give you the most options for redeeming your miles, allow you to transfer to any of the major alliances, and help protect you against major changes to any one airline program.

So if you are only going to open one new credit card, I would recommend the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. It has the best all-around benefits, has great bonus categories, and you earn Ultimate Rewards Points, which are incredibly versatile.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card offers double points on dining and travel, plus has no foreign transaction fees, so is great to use when traveling abroad.

While you want to be careful not to over-diversify your miles and points (keep in mind you’ll generally need at least 100,000 miles per person for an international business class award), it does make sense to accumulate miles in a variety of programs.

On top of the Chase Sapphire Preferred, I also typically recommend the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express, The Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite Mastercard®, and the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express.

The Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express offers triple points on airfare, and double points and gas and groceries.

Neither The Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite Mastercard®, nor the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express have any bonus categories, but I tend to think these are the two best cards for “every day” spend that doesn’t otherwise earn a bonus.

The Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite Mastercard® is essentially a cash-back card (like all fixed-value currencies), but you earn 2.1% back on travel, which you can redeem for a statement credit.

In addition to being incredibly useful for hotel stays, the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express earns points that can be transferred to dozens of different airlines. You receive a 20% bonus when transferring points in increments of 20,000 so this can be a great way to rack up bonus miles in any number of airline programs.

W_Singapore_Sentosa_Cove71
The W Sentosa Cove in Singapore can be a great use of SPG points.

I try to highlight the best current credit card offers each month, but if you are just starting out I would choose two or three of the above cards, and then build from there. You’ll also want to keep an eye out for “mega” offers (that can be as high as 100,000 miles), so stay tuned to the blog for updates!

Business Credit Cards

The other way to really bolster your mileage balances is by taking advantage of small business credit cards. These often have different bonus categories and benefits, and can pair nicely with the personal cards.

You don’t have to have a company with a tax ID to apply. Any business — even a sole proprietorship — would make you eligible. If you’re a sole proprietorship without a tax ID then you’d just put your social security number in that field.

I know many people that have been approved for small business cards with start-ups and limited business income. Just be honest about the type of business, income, and so forth.

Meeting Minimum Spends

Most of the great credit card offers award a certain number of miles or points after a certain spending requirement is met in a given period of time. We typically refer to these as “minimum spends” – the bare minimum amount you need to spend on a card to receive the reward being advertised.

This is a key part of earning points through credit card signups – you must keep track of how much you’ve spent, and when the deadline is. It makes no sense to sacrifice points on your credit score if you aren’t going to get the sign-up bonus!

I typically just set a calendar reminder for the date I need to complete the spend requirement, and a second for when I expect the points to post, so it doesn’t have to be a complicated system.

While it can be intimidating to meet minimum spending requirements, there are probably more opportunities than you realize to place every day charges on your credit card. Things I’ve done in the past include:

  • Putting even small charges on your credit card, rather than using cash
  • Paying auto, health, and home insurance online
  • Some universities, apartment buildings, and other institutions accept credit card payments
  • You can make federal tax payments via credit card for a small fee (I wouldn’t make a habit of this, but it can make sense if you wouldn’t otherwise meet the minimum spend)
  • It may even make sense to buy a few gift cards (say, to the gas station) for shopping you plan to do next month if it helps you reach the spending threshold.

There are also more creative methods, but let’s stick to the basics for now 😉

It’s also worth mentioning that you and your significant other can sign up for cards separately. Bank applications ask for your household income, so this is a great way to double your potential rewards!

The signup bonuses on these cards will get you well on your way to improving both the quality and the quantity of your travel. The next step is to make sure you’re leveraging every opportunity to build those mileage balances!

Next: Earning Miles & Points

Editorial Note: Neither this post, nor the comments, are provided by the Issuing bank, or any other advertiser. The comments below have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not the bank or advertiser’s responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.

Comments

  1. Hey, I’m 2 months old in the miles game. I have a csp and arrival plus. I wasn’t to start saving miles for a nice trip to Ireland but my wife doesn’t want to leave for a few years so this is a long term project. I like the arrival for our family trip/mini getaways but do you think the csp is worth holding on to like term? No access to business cards and love the card but that annual fee… Thanks!

  2. @ David — I do think it’s worth holding onto. The annual fee is very reasonable for the waived foreign transaction fees and double points on dining and travel, which can be really rewarding. But everyone has to crunch the numbers for themselves. Good luck and welcome to the “hobby!”

  3. Lucky, thanks for the perspective. A lot of what I’ve read tends to be open, get bonus, and close but I prefer to hold on to my accounts. Man, I just looked at my spelling in my first comment-that’s what I get for using my phone! I really do know how to spell…

  4. So Lucky, if you’re churning 12 cards a year, how long do you hold on to them? I assumed that canceling cards within the first year would damage my credit score.

    For example, I’m ready to dump my Korean Air card from last fall (after the 2k annual bonus, of course) and two Alaska Air cards that I got earlier this summer. I already have the Ink Bold, but would like to go for the Ink Plus. Would it be better to dump the other three first, or apply for the Ink Plus first?

    Keep in mind, you’ve created a monster here… : )

  5. @ meegabroad — Here’s a post about which cards are in my wallet, and whether I plan on keeping or canceling them:
    http://onemileatatime.boardingarea.com/2014/07/09/credit-cards-wallet/

    Typically if I think I’ll get any marginal value out of cards beyond the first year, I’ll keep them. If not, I’ll cancel them just before the year anniversary, to avoid the second year’s annual fee.

    In your shoes I’d apply for the Ink Plus first, though could go either way on that.

    Let me know if you have any other questions!

  6. Thanks, Lucky!

    My Ink Plus is in the mail… as well as the Club Carlson! I used your links but had to do the follow up call with Chase, so I’m not sure if you get any benefit in that case.

    You are my cc guru!

  7. Hi..can you suggest the best cards for India as I love there.. Just starting up on miles collection.. Basically earning JPMiles..

  8. @ Paramveer — Sorry, wish I could, though don’t have much knowledge of the India credit card market. Sorry!

  9. Hello Ben. Glad that you 2 had a safe trip. I need a quick answer though pls about the Citi AA Bus cc. When applying as a start-up co. how do I apply the revenue and what is best for yrs in bus.? Just put in “0”?

  10. I have so many questions: One thing I really don’t understand about churning: should I put in my loyalty program number or let them assign me a new one? Can I apply for more than one card from the same bank (Chase United and Chase Sapphire) on the same day? If that’s not possible, can I apply for a personal and business card from the same bank on the same day? Do Citibank’s rules about not be eligible for a card if you had opened or closed one in the last 18 months apply to a business card if I only had personal cards before? If I have an open Starwood card, can I apply for a new one? Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  11. What is the strategy for people who mostly fly for business in economy class to get upgrades (in addition to the global upgrades you get with top tier status on most airlines)?

  12. @ Fred — Wish there were tricks, but I’m afraid using miles and global upgrades you might receive as a top tier elite are the only two good ways to upgrade.

  13. Lucky

    Do you have some tricks or recommandations for foreigners who just moved to the USA and have no credit history yet, i.e. the credit Card applications would be most probably denied ? Thanks a lot.

  14. @ Benzie — Without a social security number unfortunately you’ll not be able to apply. When it does come time to apply for a card, I’d get a “basic” card first to help build your credit, and then go for the premium cards which earn lots of points.

  15. Lucky, if you had to pick one amex and one visa for “everyday spend” (Recurring Bill Payments, Gas, Groceries, and Dining) what would they be?

    Based on your valuations, I would think SPG and Sapphire, however does the Amex Everyday Preferred fair better than SPG? Do other visa cards fair better than Sapphire, such as Barclay Arrival?

    Thanks as always.

  16. @ Adam — It all depends on your specific spend patterns. I’d say the Amex EveryDay has the potential to be more useful than the Amex SPG card, depending on spend patterns. I’d say the Chase Sapphire Preferred is also in the running in terms of the best Visa.

  17. Here is a typical spending pattern: We typically stay more in hotels than flying, but if I just used MR points to book on AmericanExpressTravel.com, then it’s sort of confusing what card is more valuable.

    Side note: I have always found it hard to get value out of MR point conversion on Delta within the US.

    $800/mo – Groceries
    $400-$500 – Gas
    $300-400 – Dining
    $2500 – Everyday Spend

    SPG or AEP

  18. @ Adam — With that much in grocery spend the EveryDay or EveryDay Preferred is your best bet, in my opinion.

  19. sorry, doing a little house cleaning:

    since i have the platinum card giving me SPG Gold status, is it worth holding on to the SPG with the limited number of stays?

    Likewise (having the platinum card) with Delta, is it worth holding since we don’t fly checking baggage more than once per year?

    oh and if i’m not going to spend $10K on Citi-Hilton Reserve this year, is it better to have the Amex Surpass and pay $75 when we do stay at a Hilton for Gold status?

  20. @ Adam — Probably not worth keeping the SPG Card if you’re not putting spend on it and the bonus stays/nights aren’t getting you to the next status level. No point in keeping the Delta Card if the annual fee outweighs the savings in baggage and benefit of priority boarding. And if all you want is Gold status, then the Hilton Surpass is slightly cheaper than the Citi Reserve.

  21. Lucky, I have a United Mileage Plus Explorer Business Card that I am working on meeting the 50k bonus miles. Would you keep this card for the perks (Newark is 20 min from my house) or is there something else you would recommend?

    Thank you!

  22. @Lucky – That’s why I’m here. I do not vacation as much as I should. Realistically I would love to do 2 trips a year. A family vacation (3 kids ages 4-11) within 4 hours flying time prefer direct (I did mention 3 kids) so FL, Caribbean perhaps Cancun. And a 2nd trip me and the wife 4-5 days. As adults flights out of JFK would work (we booked a Aug trip JFK to MBJ on Jetblue) or EWR to east coast, perhaps Europe or West Coast.

    BTW nothing to do with credit cards BUT, today was first time I visited your site. I found it b/c another site I’m on was complaining to the admin there that they seem to use a lot of the same material they see here first. So good work with your site and ty for your help and replying back to me 🙂

  23. Lucky,

    Wonderful blog. I just got into this hobby back in december with CSP. I knew I had a bunch of trips coming up and wanted to get some points! I’ve had the b of a cashback for 5 years now and thats been great for gas and groceries but I’d like to get a card that gives me a solid bonus outside of those and the CSP categories. I’m thinking about the BA card for the 50k avios and the 1.25 for every dollar spent. Anyways, for a newbie with a cash rewards and a flexible points card what do you recommend to diversify?

    Thanks!

  24. Sort of looking for the big sign up bonus and especially intrigued by using the avios to go to dublin this summer. It looks like avios and aeroplan are the only 1:1 transfers with MR points. I think for the everyday preferred to be worth the $95 I’d have to use it on gas and groceries and I already use my cash rewards for that (please correct me if I’m wrong here). Travel goals would be to swing bos to Ireland/uk and bos to san diego every couple of years with points. I’m getting pretty specific but I hope your response is helpful to other newbies looking to go beyond the CSP.

    Thanks!

  25. I recently got a Citi Prestige card. One of the biggest reason was getting a Priority Pass card. However, it did not arrive with my Citi card and when I called Citi for more info, I was told that Citi has discontinued this benefit and now they want me to enroll at a different site that charges $35/year and has to be renewed every year! No where on Citi’s website or anywhere does it say that this benefit was discontinued. As a matter of fact when looking at this webpage from Citi:

    https://www.citi.com/CRD/PDF/July_CIT_WK_Insert_Web_HR_FINAL.pdf

    One can see the as of Oct 2014, Priority Pass Select is offered instead of their original Airport Angel lounge access!

    Perhaps Lucky can clarify this for me as even Citi’s reps online as well as on phone do not have proper information and are confusing me more than ever.

  26. @ Vik — This is absolutely still a benefit, and your Priority Pass card should arrive about a week after your card arrives in the mail. The rep you spoke with was misinformed.

  27. Thank you very much, Ben.
    It is amazing that you answered my question as if you were online, chatting just with me. I appreciate your time.
    Actually, your answer was a lot faster than my online chat buddy from Citi !!!

  28. This is the response I received from one of their specialists via an online “secure” communication. This was in response to my question about more information regarding the Priority Pass card.

    “Citi has replaced Priority Pass with Lounge First because as of October 1, 2011, Priority Pass significantly reduced the number of lounges our customers would have access to, which decreased the value of the program.

    For Lounge First, the primary cardmember must enroll and purchase passes at http://www.travelbenefits.citi.com. You will not be automatically enrolled in the program. Specific airline lounge terms and conditions can be viewed on the Lounge First website. Lounge First enrollment is only valid for 1 year from date enrolled on Lounge First website, not calendar year.

    You must enroll each year at http://www.travelbenefits.citi.com and there is a $35.00 enrollment fee each year. If you are attempting to log into http://www.travelbenefits.citi.com must enter the following information:

    Account Number
    First Name
    Last Name
    Important: If a customer has a suffix, e.g., Jr. Sr., you should not include it in the “Last Name” field.
    Last 4 digits of Social Security Number
    ZIP Code.

    We regret any inconvenience or difficulty this may have caused you. We appreciate your business and value you as our customer.

    Doug,
    Sr. Account Specialist “”

    Apparently, Doug is a senior Account Specialist who also seems to be misinformed regarding this important benefit. Hopefully they will attend some continuing education class soon. !!!

  29. @ Vik — Very odd. Just got my Priority Pass card in the mail two days ago. Will have a post about it shortly.

  30. Hi Lucky,

    I am newbie and I started to read your blog. I bought $2000 (4X500) gift card in Ralphs in CA last month to reach Min. purchase requirement for Chase Sapphire. Today I checked balance it is showing someone made purchase in Walmart in East coast. I have less than $20 on each card.
    Do you know how can I dispute? Can I call chase to dispute or Ralph or the gift card company? Have you seen my experience before? I was stupid that I did not register my gift before. Do you think chase would investigate for me if I call my chase banker directly? I called giftcard company they wanted to fax dispute form but there is no time frame to get money back. Am I losing $2K for bonus points? Thanks.

  31. @ Al — Ouch! Can’t say I have much experience with manufactured spend, though I’d recommend reaching out to both the credit card that processed payment and Ralphs. Good luck!

  32. Dear Ben,
    You were very right! I received the Priority Pass card today, exactly 1 week after my citi Prestige card. Thanks for yuor insight and helpful feed.
    Apparently, Citi needs to do some more inservice for their support staff online as well as phone.

  33. What stores takes vanilla gift cards to buy MO’s?? my 3 local Wal-marts treat them as credit cards.

  34. Hi Ben,

    How soon should I apply extensively credit cards after I set up my credit history in U.S. as a new immigrant, 6, 9 or 12 months?

    Thanks

  35. @ frequent traveler — Hmmm, not really an exact timeline. Have you looked at your credit score? Might take longer than that, and you might want to apply for some basic cards first to build up your score.

  36. Hey Lucky!

    What about cancelling the credit card before you have to pay the annual fee? I don’t want to pay any annual fees but want to take advantage of the points.

    Thanks!

  37. @ sar — There’s no requirement to keep the card past the first year. So if the card has a waived annual fee the first year then you can keep it until that fee is due and then cancel it if you’re not getting value out of the card.

  38. Hi,

    I love traveling, am based in India, and have loyalties with Star Alliance, Jet Airways, IHG, SPG, Marriott, and Accor (a mess, as you can see 🙂 Keen to figure out if you have some datapoints on good programs / strategies for the country / region, to help me consolidate and max my miles.

    Cheers!

  39. Lucky,

    I am new to everything about your site. I am planning my destinations and trying to figure out the best cards to use for the most rewards. You mention using a credit card for paying taxes. Would you also recommend using a credit card to make student loan payments? If so, I can rack up points FAST! 🙂

    Lori

  40. Ben,
    Thank you for all of your valuable information. I would like your opinion on what kind of credit cards (companies) should I apply for with a small business for the past 4 years. My business has no credit at the moment but is in very good standing at the bank and my personal credit is weak with issues over 7 years ago but slowly improving. I would like to use a business credit card to gain miles by making business purchases and to mainly travel throughout the US and Europe and eventually South America and further.
    Thank you, David

  41. Hi Lucky,

    I am a total newbie and am eagerly reading your blog to get started with the Hobby, do you have any suggestions as to which cards are best for this purpose in Mexico?

    Thanks!

    Jake

  42. Hey Lucky!

    The cards you recommend are especially for the US. Do you have any opinions for credit cards in Germany? Or can you suggest an internet page where I can get these information?

    Thanks in advance!

    Cheers
    Chris

  43. Lucky,

    I know the basic ways to earn miles for everyday purchases, but what are some of the other more interesting ways to earn?

    Thanks,

    John

  44. Hi Lucky

    I live in Canada and have churned Amex cards for Aeroplan miles for about a year. Now that Amex is putting the brakes on churning in Canada, can you let me know what other options I have to earn miles from sign up bonuses

    Thx
    Ari

  45. Hello,
    I just began this hobby as you call it as well. I have a questions about your payment strategy, do you typically pay everything off as you charge like weekly? or do you have to wait a certain amount of time for the charge to register as points before you pay off.
    Then do you know if balance transfers count towards the minimum spends?
    Thanks
    -Ann

  46. Hi Ben-

    Thanks for this. I’m looking to apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card soon. The only issue(?) is that I’m 20, and I know that there is a hoop or two to jump through for an applicant under 21. Am I right in thinking that I either need a co-signer, or proof of full-time income to be accepted? I’m in college and don’t work, but I’m fortunate enough to have plenty of savings and money coming in to pay off any debt I might incur. The truth is I’d rather not have someone co-sign. I’ve read that companies sometimes accept a bank statement copy or something similar if a person has no income, but money from other sources otherwise. Do you know anything about this? Or maybe about how I might express this to Chase?

    Appreciate it!
    -Henry

  47. Dave-i am first time at your website. for travels to middle-east (SaudiArabi, Abu Dhabi, Qatar) for a family of five (2 adults + 3 children), what credit card should i start with? thanks, Mohammad

  48. Hei Lucky
    I have been using credit cards without any consideration about points being offered for past 20 years.
    However , I am thinking of more smart using of card since I found your site .
    Your report gave me ameizing impact and the very interest about how to use credit card.
    I am looking forward to hearing more excitng repot further.

  49. What about annual fees? We can get the initial sign-up “bonus”. Starting the 2nd year, there’s no more sign up offers and the annual fee kicking in. How would you recommend to handle that? Thanks!

  50. Hi there

    I am seeking your advice please?

    would you kow of any great cards available in hte Australian system? I am keen to explore any available options i

    thanks kate

  51. Hi Lucky,

    I am heading to Denmark and Iceland next month. I have a delta platinum card and used miles to buy a business class ticket to Copenhagen. I know Amex is not popular in Europe, which card would you recommend with the best bang for the punch? I am leaving soon but soon but I believe qualifying won’t be an issue. Thanks a lot ! Love your blog.

    Madaline

  52. Hi Lucky,

    Thank you for making all this information available! I read through everything and it helped me understand the system but I’m still confused as to which would be the best option for me. I spend about 20K-25K on credit card purchases every year, I have an excellent credit score (815), and I only fly once a year, to Europe, with American Airlines. Right now, I have a zero annual fee card that gives me a max of 300 reward dollars per year. I think I can do better than that. I’d like to get 1-2 cards that would allow me to do the following: (a) upgrade to business class when I fly (AA says that the upgrade costs 15,000 miles each way), (b) redeem any extra miles/points for statement credit or cash, and (c) have no foreign transaction fees if I decide to use the card abroad. Any recommendations?

    Manual

  53. You allude to “There are also more creative methods (to meet minimum sirens requirements” in this post. Do you have other blogs or video where you offer info on these more creative our advanced ways? Could I hire you for 1-2 hours?

  54. I have an offer from Chase’s Mileage Plus Explorer card that offer 50,000 miles if I spend $2000 in 3 months. Only problem is I cannot find the URL. I have been working on this for over 2 hours without success. Called Chase for help without success. Every time I think I find the site it is for 30,000 miles. Chase suggested I sign up for this and then contact them for the other 20,000 miles. Hmmmm. Not too sure about that one. Any ideas out there???????

  55. How long after you cancel a card do you usually need to wait before re-applying to get the bonus miles again ?

  56. I will be using using AA miles to go to Europe. I just got Chase Ink and Citi Preferred cards. I would like to use those miles to get mileage tickets for travel inside Europe. Routings would be FRA-BCN, ORY BCN, LHR-BCN etc. On what airlines is that possible with and could the ticket be tied to my AA award so that baggage allowances for international apply. Alternatively, I could buy the intra Europe tickets, could they tie those records? Thank you.

  57. I am 50,000 miles away from the million miler award with AA. Nothing seems to help accelerate the mileage except for actual flying. Does anyone know of the best way to get there. So close but yet so far.

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