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Earning miles and points from credit cards is a great way to get free flights, hotels, or a little bit of extra cash back in your pocket. Fortunately, there are so many different options that there’s a good card out there for everyone. Unfortunately, sifting through all of the different options can take a lot of time. Here are the basics about what you need to know before you jump in head first.

What are credit card miles?

If you own a credit card, you either accrue points or miles depending on the type of card. With travel cards, you can apply your miles to travel expenses including airfare, hotels stays, or other travel-related purchases. Or, you can even transfer your miles to the frequent flyer program of an airline partner.

To accrue miles, most credit cards offer enticing sign-up bonuses that equate to the same value as a roundtrip flight or weekend hotel stay. Then, when you use the card, the money you spend will earn you even more miles so you can continue to build your rewards. In some instances, certain categories of spending will accrue more miles than others.

For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card offers 2X points on travel and dining and 1 point per dollar on all other purchases. This specific card also allows you to redeem rewards on all airlines, whereas airline-specific credit cards limit redemptions to that airline only.

You can also transfer the points earned from the Sapphire Preferred to a number of airline and hotel transfer partners. This can get you more bang for your buck, depending on what flights or hotels you are looking at.

It’s important to consider the type of traveler you are. If you typically look for the best deals, a generic travel card would be ideal. However, if you tend to only fly on Delta, the American Express SkyMiles or an American Express Membership Rewards-earning credit card could be your best bet.

What about cash back cards?

Cash back credit cards do exactly what they advertise—they provide you with cash on purchases you make. The downfall of these cards, however, is that oftentimes you gain more value from credit cards that accrue miles that can act as cash when it comes to buying plane tickets or travel expenses.

Here’s how the cost is typically broken down: most credit card miles place a valuation of a penny per mile. So if you have 10,000 earned miles, that means you have $100 worth of rewards. Depending on the card, it’s often easier to accrue 10,000 miles than it is to receive $100 with a cash back credit card.

It would likely cost you $1,000 to earn $10 in cash back. While it sounds nice and simple, it’s not necessarily the best bang for your buck.

Which credit cards earn the most miles?

The main reason that mile-accruing credit cards are popular is that some offer serious advantages when it comes to travel. The Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card offers a redemption bonus of 25 percent when you redeem points for airfare through the online Chase Ultimate Rewards Portal, creating a valuation of 1.25 cents per mile.

The other enticing benefit to the Sapphire Preferred is that you can transfer points 1:1 to certain airlines and hotel programs. If you are loyal to hotels or airlines, this card offers the best of both worlds. The higher-annual fee big sibling to the Chase Sapphire Preferred, the Chase Sapphire Reserve, offers an even bigger bonus of 50% when you redeem your points for airfare through Chase’s travel portal. And you can pad your Ultimate Rewards balance even more with a business credit card that earns rewards. 

What if I’m a frequent flyer?

If you are set on a frequent flyer credit card, one of the best ways to get a ton of value out of your points is to redeem points for long-haul flights, preferably in business or first class. Don’t fall into the trap of redeeming points for domestic roundtrip flights. Odds are you can find tickets for a few hundred dollars compared with thousands that some long-haul international flights can cost.

As long as you are stretching at least a penny per mile, you are getting a decent deal with your credit card program. Though, do note that many people shoot for 2 or more cents per point in value.

American Express Delta SkyMiles Credit Cards help you earn SkyMiles and SkyMiles only, limiting you to fly Delta and their partners even though other airlines may have cheaper fares for the same route. If you fly Delta exclusively regardless, then carrying one of these cards might make sense, especially when you consider additional benefits like free checked bags, priority boarding, and the ability to earn elite status qualifying miles.

Since most credit card miles do not expire as long as you leave your account open, you can accrue miles for years before cashing in to reap the rewards. Think first class roundtrip airfare to Asia, and maybe even more!

What should I look for in a credit card miles card?

To find the best rewards credit card for travel, your decision should be based on your travel habits. If you like to redeem points for flights and hotels, it might be more worth it to retain the flexibility that the Sapphire Preferred offers.

Alternatively, if you want to save points to use exclusively for flights and upgrades, and are looking to attain elite status with a frequent flyer program, the Delta SkyMiles is definitely a good choice. Every other card has its own pros and cons (though there are some with only cons…be on the lookout for those lemons!).

The common denominator to look out for when looking to earn credit card miles is to ensure you gain at least one cent per mile, but preferably closer to two. Period. Anything less is a bad deal that won’t help you achieve long-term or short-term travel goals.

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