5 Steps to Get Started with Rewards Travel

Think about how often you travel and which brands you frequently use to find a travel rewards credit card.
Rachel Morgan Cautero
By Rachel Morgan Cautero 
Edited by Mary M. Flory

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So you’re not a points connoisseur — yet. That’s OK. We’ll walk you through five simple steps for getting started with rewards travel, from choosing a travel rewards credit card to choosing an airline, familiarizing yourself with the rules and award chart of said airline, and even how to begin pursuing airline status, plus some bonus tips for taking advantage of hotel loyalty.

1. Open a rewards card

Getting started with rewards travel means you’ll need to choose a rewards card. But the choices can be overwhelming for a novice. Here’s what you need to consider:

First, you’ll need to decide if you want a travel credit card that earns points or miles. You can opt for a rewards card connected to specific brand, such as Hilton or Southwest. You might also consider applying for a general rewards card, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. Its flexible points currencies give you access to several different airline and hotel programs via transfers.

There are solid card options for both, and your decision should depend on your travel goals.

Mile-earning credit cards are usually affiliated with a specific airline, like the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card or the United℠ Explorer Card.

There are also hotel credit cards to choose from, like the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® Credit Card or the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card. You should choose a hotel credit card based on the chain you’re loyal to (or are likely to be loyal to in your upcoming travel).

Once you’ve chosen a card, it’s time to focus on building up your points balance. Follow our tips for racking up points on everyday spending, from shopping online via your airline card’s online portal to using your card to pay for eligible travel and hotel spending.

2. Pick an airline or hotel

Getting started with airline loyalty programs is relatively painless. You just sign up for your favorite airline’s frequent flyer program, then sit back, buckle up and earn points with every flight. Signing up for a frequent flyer program can earn you perks like airline miles, seat upgrades and elite status if you fly often enough.

Before signing on the metaphorical dotted line with one airline, consider the following: How often do you fly? Does this airline service the cities where you travel most? Do you travel enough to work toward a benefit like the Southwest Companion Pass, or are you more of a casual traveler who wants perks like free checked bags? If you have several airline options, consider the ways that different loyalty programs will allow you to reach these goals.

When choosing a hotel loyalty program, consider if staying in the same hotel chain on all of your travels is worth the perks a hotel loyalty program offers. You should also see if your hotel chain of choice offers a branded credit card, which can help you rack up hotel points and achieve status that much quicker. What are the annual fees for the hotel's credit cards? What welcome bonuses are available? And, of course — which hotel chain do you prefer? Personal preference is a big factor in this decision. For example, the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® Credit Card gets you a hefty bonus: Earn 3 Free Night Awards (each night valued up to 50,000 points) after spending $3,000 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening with the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® Credit Card!

3. Work toward status

While elite status may seem out of reach for a beginner, some airline credit cards and hotel credit cards can help you get there faster.

For example, the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® lets you earn Earn 1 Loyalty Point for every 1 eligible mile earned from purchases. After choosing an airline based on your travel habits, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with what your airline requires to earn status.

The same rings true for hotel elite status. The more you stay at brands within a specific hotel program, the more likely you are to move up in status. Establishing status can earn you perks like late checkout, free Wi-Fi and even free nights.

4. Learn the rules

Once you’ve chosen your rewards card and established your program loyalty, it’s time to familiarize yourself with the rules. After all, the last thing you want to do is miss out on a huge bonus or mismanage your hard-earned rewards because you didn’t read the fine print.

While all cards have slightly different rules, there are some big ones to keep in mind. Some travel cards allow you to redeem points for any travel expenses, while others provide an incentive when you redeem through a specific site. As a general rule of thumb, you should shoot for a card that offers between 1.5%-2% rewards for your spending and a high welcome bonus.

Overwhelmed? Keep in mind the 80/20 rule to help you sort through the information that you need to know versus what you can ignore. While this principle was originally used to describe economic conditions, it can also be applied to personal finance and yep, even rewards travel. Focus on what matters to you, like earning airline status or taking advantage of your rewards card’s sign-up bonuses, and ignore the rest (for now).

5. Find high-value redemptions

Not all redemptions are created equal. A savvy points traveler knows to cross check the cost in points to the cost in dollars to make sure they're getting a worthwhile deal.

For instance, let’s say you have 20,000 American Express Membership Rewards points. You browse the American Express shopping portal and consider adding a pair of wireless bluetooth headphones to your cart for 19,500 points. These headphones typically sell for $160, so it might seem like a great redemption. After all, those points were free — and you're tired of unknotting your corded headphone set.

However, 19,500 points is a lot of points. Armed with NerdWallet’s points valuations, you can do the math to determine exactly what those points are worth. Since NerdWallet has determined that American Express Membership Rewards points are worth about 2 cents cents apiece, this number of points is roughly worth $390 — more than twice the value of buying that same pair of headphones out-of-pocket with cash.

That would've been one expensive set of headphones.

How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:

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