Your Back-to-Basics Guide to Points and Miles

By Kyle Potter

May 18, 2021

TripIt is teaming up with our friends at Thrifty Traveler, a site that helps you travel more for less, to share helpful strategies for planning a trip with points and miles in a new world of travel.

While I don’t know when, how, or what it will look like, I know one thing: Travel is coming back. And when it does, you’re going to want to put your credit card points and airline miles to good use. 

So whether you’re feeling ready to fly again next month or next year, here are our tips for shaking off the reward-travel cobwebs now so that when you are ready to travel, your savvy booking skills will be ready, too. 


Start with a points and miles goal—then work backwards

With all the credit cards and airlines out there offering miles, it’s tough to know where to start—or get back into a groove after you’ve been away. My best piece of advice: Start with a goal, then work backwards.

It’s tempting to get drawn in by the allure of a big points and miles bonus. Don’t. Instead, look past sites that tell you a certain airline’s mileage program is better than the rest. What matters most is what miles are best for you and your travel plans. And only you can make that call. 

Want to fly the family to Hawaii? Or pull off that big trip to Europe in business class? Or just build up a big stash of miles to use on domestic flights? Each of these goals requires a different game plan to achieve it. The points or miles that are best to get you to Hawaii may not be the right fit to get you to Europe.

It’s an all-too-common problem: Novices and even some seasoned award travelers pros rush headlong into earning points and miles with no plan for how to put them to use. Over time with practice and experience, you’ll get a better feel for what points and miles fit your travel plans and patterns, accumulating them organically on the go.

Tip: Point Tracker in TripIt Pro stores your reward account numbers, balances, and expiration dates in one place. The feature has been recently redesigned with an improved view of your point balances and history to help you manage your reward programs.

But at the start, you should decide where you want to go first, use that destination to determine the best credit card points or airline miles to make it happen, and then the best travel credit cards to earn them. In that order. 

And when it comes time to figure out the best way to achieve your first redemption, you may have more options than you expect. 


Look to airline alliances for savings

You can use Delta SkyMiles to book flights with Delta. American AAdvantage miles can book you tickets with American. And so on.

Airline miles are simple … until they’re not. Because you can use those same Delta SkyMiles to book flights on Korean Air, Air France, Virgin Atlantic. And while you can fly American with your AAdvantage miles, you may want to save them for a trip to the Middle East on Qatar Airways or to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific.

Airline alliances and partnerships allow you to use whatever airline miles you’ve got on a handful of other airlines. That network of partnerships means that for any flight you may want to book, there could be a dozen (or more!) ways to book it. 

Alliances and partnerships introduce a sometimes dizzying layer of complexity to using your miles, but they also open up opportunities to save miles. Finding the best way to book—for the fewest miles that you can easily earn—is kind of like a puzzle.

So, how do you know which way is the best way to book? It’s helpful to think of airline miles like any currency across the globe. One U.S. dollar is worth a different amount than a British pound or a Japanese yen. And every country controls their own currency.

The same is true of airline miles. Every airline determines individually how many miles you need to book a flight from point A to point B. And the differences from airline to airline can be stark—even when you’re booking the exact same flight. 

Let’s say I’m looking at booking the nonstop Delta flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) to Honolulu (HNL) this summer. If I used SkyMiles,  it might cost me 82,000 SkyMiles round trip. 

But in theory, I could also book the exact same flights on Delta—same dates, same plane, same fare class—instead using:

  • 45,000 Virgin Atlantic points
  • 35,000 Air France/KLM Flying Blue miles
  • 25,000 Korean Air SKYPASS miles

Leveraging airline partnerships this way can take some extra legwork, as finding the flights you want using a different airline program can be a challenge. And finding the right airline program to use to book your flight for the fewest miles possible can feel like a full-time job.

But as you can see, the savings can easily be worth it. 


Know how much flexibility you have when booking with points and miles

If there’s been one silver lining to the pandemic, it’s how much more flexible airlines have become with change and cancellation fees. Namely, all major U.S. airlines eliminated change fees. Except for basic economy fares, you can change or cancel almost any flight within or departing the U.S. without paying a penalty.

While that’s some unprecedented flexibility, booking your next trip using airline miles can give you even more options—so long as you’re using the ones that give you freedom to change plans penalty-free.

During the pandemic, many carriers also quietly dropped change fees on award tickets booked with miles—and cut the redeposit fees you’d normally pay to cancel a flight and get your miles back. 

For example:

  • Mid-pandemic, American Airlines eliminated the $150 cancellation fee on award tickets. Previously, this was a perk reserved only for flyers with top elite status. 
  • As of December 2020, Delta allows full refunds of any SkyMiles award tickets so long as you book at least a main cabin fare. Plus, canceling online is easy. 
  • Southwest has always allowed free change and cancellation whether you use cash or points, but canceling a ticket booked with Rapid Rewards points means you can get them straight back to your account.
  • Many popular international airline programs have similar policies. Japan’s ANA Mileage Club allows free changes to any ticket booked with miles. Virgin Atlantic Flying Club charges a flat $50 fee for any change or cancellation. All Air France/KLM Flying Blue mileage tickets can be canceled or changed for free, too.

While canceling a flight for a voucher is nice, this is even better. It’s your ticket to use your miles now worry-free and change plans later if necessary. 


Consider the benefits of travel portals

As you may already know, many travel credit card issuers like Chase, Capital One, and American Express run their own travel portals, where you can use your credit card points to book flights, hotels, car rentals, cruises, and more. 

Rather than using mileage award charts to determine how many miles you need to get a free flight, travel portals take a different approach: The cheaper the flight, the fewer miles you need. 

You can book flights with almost any airline using your points. Unlike a traditional airline redemption, you’ll earn airline miles on any airline you fly with as well as build toward elite status. And it’s the only way to book a completely free flight, as your points will cover any taxes and additional fees that you’d have to pay out of pocket when using airline miles.

What’s the secret? It all comes down to finding a cheap flight. And Thrifty Traveler can help. We spend all day, every day searching for the cheapest flights possible. While domestic flights are creeping up ahead of an expected summer travel surge, the deals are still out there. 

Once you find a flight deal with Thrifty Traveler, simply plug whatever great deal you find into your credit card travel portal, hit search, and book it with points. That’s it. 

There’s no need to worry about award availability or blackout dates. Plus, when cash prices are cheap, you’ll often find you can book a flight using fewer points than it would take to book that exact same flight using airline miles. 

With these tips, you can return to travel stronger than ever in your points and miles game.