What’s the Best Way to Use My Travel Credit Card Points?

Credit card points are currency. So looking for the “best” way to use them is akin to looking for the “best” way to spend a dollar bill. There is no objectively ideal way to spend a dollar or a travel point, but there are plenty of bad ways.

The biggest difference between travel points and traditional currency like dollars, euros or Dogecoins lies in the way their value changes over time. Money loses some value over time in the form of inflation, while credit card points can lose much more value in a process called devaluation.

The upshot: It’s generally a bad idea to save your points the same way you’d save money. Instead, you should generally spend them as quickly as possible. But where to begin?

Points 101

First, some basics. Whether we’re talking about Chase Ultimate Rewards points, American Express Membership Rewards points, Citi ThankYou points or most other travel credit card rewards, you generally have two options:
  1. Use them to book travel directly, at a fixed rate.
  2. Transfer them to another airline or hotel rewards program.

Online advice often encourages you to take the second option, where you can find high-end redemptions such as first-class tickets with a chauffeur and a private in-flight pool. (I’m exaggerating … but only slightly.)

Instead, I encourage the (admittedly more boring) first option.

Keep it simple (sorta)

Those bucket-list tickets might sound sexy and exciting, but if you’re like me (neither sexy nor exciting), consider using your points the old-fashioned way: Book travel directly with your credit card points.

Why? In a word: simplicity. Unlike transferring points, which requires hours of research and even more time spent scouring airline websites for award space, using them to book travel directly is dead simple. Just search for a flight or hotel room and book it.

You’ll only get about 1 cent to 1.5 cents’ worth of value per point this way, which isn’t spectacular, but you can book literally any ticket on any airline at any time. What’s more, you’ll usually earn airline miles for tickets purchased this way, which counts toward elite status and future flights. (Award tickets booked through partner transfers won’t earn any miles.)

Using credit card points directly also overcomes the dreaded paradox of choice that afflicts many would-be travel hackers. In other words, you’ll actually use your points instead of sitting on them, and isn’t that the whole point of … points?

Transfer answers

If you’re an ambitious reward traveler (or just a masochist), you can certainly dive into the byzantine world of transfer partners. Just follow these guidelines.

First, work backward from your travel goals. You might be able to transfer points and fly in Singapore Airlines first class suites from Singapore to Zurich, but … do you actually want to visit either of those places? Don’t get lured into booking travel you don’t want to take just because it “maximizes” the value of your points.

Second, don’t transfer points until you’re sure tickets are available. Some airlines, like Singapore, offer extremely limited availability for their highest-end products. So there’s no use transferring points to their rewards program until you’re sure they have availability where and when you need it.

Finally, have fun. If booking your dream vacation starts to feel like a nightmare, step away from the award calendar and take a breather. Travel should be enjoyable, presumably.

Don’t fall for gimmicks

The two options above aren’t the only way to use credit card points; they’re just the only good ways.

Credit cards love to offer unique ways to waste — errr, use their points. From gift cards to subscriptions to vacation packages, these might sound better than transferring points or using them to book flights, but almost without exception, they aren’t.

Every once in a while these alternative options offer decent value. But when in doubt, steer clear.

Just use ‘em already

I can’t stress this enough: If you’re able to actually use credit card points for travel rather than horde them, you’re doing better than most folks.

By far the fastest and most foolproof way to use points is to book travel directly. Each card issuer has its own interface for booking travel this way, but they’re all relatively straightforward and “gotcha”-free.

And if you’re up to the challenge of transferring points, do your research — but don’t lose your mind.

Feeling overwhelmed about how to use your points and miles? I’m here to help. In this column, I answer your questions about the baffling world of travel rewards, cutting through the jargon to provide clear answers to real problems. Send your questions to skemmis@nerdwallet.com.

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