4 Mistakes Travel Points Experts Don’t Make

Experts take advantage of points, miles and rewards, not the other way around.
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Written by Sam Kemmis
Senior Writer
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Assistant Assigning Editor
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Travel rewards are complicated.

Nearly a quarter of travelers (24%) say they have difficulty understanding earning and redemption rules, according to a 2022 survey of 2,041 U.S. consumers by iSeatz, a loyalty program service provider. Yet this complexity makes travel rewards a prime target for spreadsheet-wielding obsessives who want to wring every penny from their points and miles.

These experts love to share lavish vacations on social media and online forums, nitpicking over the best overwater bungalow in the Maldives. They rarely share the more mundane expertise they’ve garnered, even though these basic tactics are the most important, especially for beginners.

Understanding and avoiding these four simple mistakes can help you make smart travel rewards decisions, whether you’re visiting the Maldives or Milwaukee.

1. Accruing credit card debt

This mistake is so critical, it should probably also be Nos. 2, 3 and 4 on this list. Travel credit cards are a great way to earn points and miles and accrue other benefits, but credit card debt — even in relatively small amounts — will quickly erase the value of these perks.

That’s why travel rewards experts never carry credit card debt from month to month if they can avoid it.

Americans currently hold nearly a trillion dollars in credit card debt, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. And delinquency rates, which dropped early in the pandemic, are on the rise. Despite this, Americans are spending more and more on travel, with credit and debit card spending on travel categories in 2022 exceeding 2019 levels, according to a May report from Bank of America.

In short: Many Americans are spending money they might not have on travel and accruing more credit card debt. That’s a big no-no from a travel rewards perspective.

2. Buying points and miles

Have you ever received an email from an airline with a subject line similar to “Purchase miles for 50% off for a limited time”? These promotions might sound like a good deal — who doesn’t want to save that much? Yet they rarely are. In fact, experts rarely buy points and miles directly.

Why? These rewards are essentially a currency managed by the companies who offer them. So exchanging one form of currency, such as U.S. dollars, for another, such as Delta SkyMiles, severely limits the range of goods and services you can purchase. It also puts the future value of these currencies in the hands of the airlines, hotels or credit cards that manage them.

For example, Marriott Bonvoy points dropped in value from nearly 1.2 cents apiece in 2019 to 0.7 cent in 2022, a 42% decrease, according to an analysis by NerdWallet. And while dollars may lose their value over time, as we’re all now keenly aware, they’re less prone to major fluctuations.

There are situations — such as purchasing a few miles to achieve a specific redemption — when buying points or miles might make sense. But in general, you can ignore those flashy promotions.

3. Always redeeming credit card points through travel portals

Most general travel credit cards (not co-branded cards such as those associated with specific airlines or hotels) offer points that can be used two ways:

  • Redeeming points directly by booking through the credit card’s travel portal. 

  • Transferring points to partner programs. 

Many beginners tend to choose the first option. It’s the simplest — all you do is search and book travel through the portal, as you would a cash fare. And it offers consistent per-point value.

Yet rewards obsessives know that the best value often comes from the second option — transferring points to specific programs and booking award travel through them.

For example, World of Hyatt points are worth 2.3 cents each, according to the latest NerdWallet analysis. That’s far more than the 1 to 1.5 cents many credit card programs offer when booking travel directly.

If you can transfer your points to a high-value program such as Hyatt, you can stretch your credit card points much further. Of course, you should do so only if booking award travel through one of these programs fits into your travel plans.

4. Paying unnecessary annual fees

We all know the drag of paying for monthly subscriptions we aren’t using, whether it’s Paramount+ or that Pilates membership. Yet, because credit card fees are billed annually, it can be easier to forget about them.

Ignoring annual fees for cards you aren’t using can add up quickly, especially for premium cards that can carry fees north of $400. So ruthlessly pruning cards that aren’t pulling their weight is an important practice among travel rewards experts.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Canceling a card outright isn’t always the best move, as it can lower your credit score. Consider asking for a retention offer, such as additional points or miles, to make the card’s fee more digestible, or switch to a no-fee card.

Keep it simple

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the complexity of travel rewards programs and by the experts who share extravagant redemptions on blog posts and TikTok videos. Yet for most travelers, most of the time, sticking with the basics is key.

Don’t accrue debt, buy miles or pay for cards you aren’t using. And consider transferring credit card points to partners rather than using them directly.

That’s it. You’re on your way to a spreadsheet-wielding points and miles obsession.

How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are some of the best travel credit cards of 2024:

Travel Cards from Our Partners
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate


5x on travel purchased through Chase Travel℠, 3x on dining, select streaming services and online groceries, 2x on all other travel purchases, 1x on all other purchases.


Intro offer


Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 when you redeem through Chase Travel℠.

Chase Freedom Unlimited Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Freedom Unlimited®
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate


Enjoy 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel℠, 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service, and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.


Intro offer

Up to $300

Earn an additional 1.5% cash back on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year) - worth up to $300 cash back!

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate


Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day. Earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options.


Intro offer


Enjoy $250 to use on Capital One Travel in your first cardholder year, plus earn 75,000 bonus miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening - that’s equal to $1,000 in travel.

See more travel cards
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