WASHINGTON — You’ve heard about bitcoin and cryptocurrency, but have you forgotten your own alternative currency? You’ve been accumulating credit card points or miles, but are you cashing out these points for less than they’re worth?
Collecting points on a credit card has never been easier. A single click on Amazon can ship items to your home overnight, if not that very same day, and a swipe of your cellphone or smartwatch can pay for your morning coffee. Making new purchases has become incredibly simple, and all of these transactions are connected to your credit card.
So, you signed up for that one card that had a big sign up bonus, and travel points, and cash back and whatever other fine print that made the card seem so tempting. But how do you get the most out of your points or miles?
You might be wasting your miles and blowing the opportunity to make the most of your credit cards.
“Am I wasting my points?”
I asked this question to an expert on the subject of points and miles: Max Frankel, founder of Max Points, a company that partners with businesses to help their employees get the most from their credit card purchases — whether that be free flights or cash.
A lot of people know how points work, but what they don’t know is what they’re doing wrong. There are five key areas where many of us fail to get the most out of our credit card rewards:
1. Overpaying with points and miles
The most common mistake is that people don’t take the time to ensure they are getting the most bang for their buck. If you have 100,000 points on your American Express card, for example, you can redeem those points for $1,000 in cash toward flights through Amex ($1,500 if you have a business platinum card). But, if you turned those points into miles with an airline’s frequent flyer program, you could turn your points into as many as 100,000 miles, which might be the equivalent of a $5,000 first class ticket.
To help get the most out of your points, it helps to know how much a ticket should cost. It also helps if you can be flexible with your dates.
“Even a day or two shift in your schedule could mean spending half the number of miles to get your ticket,” Frankel said.
2. Failing to look for partners
One of the most common complaints Frankel hears from people about using points for travel is that they get frustrated by the lack of availability of certain flights and times. When you go online to try to redeem your miles for a flight to Thailand, for example, you might encounter certain blackout dates or find that the airline is asking for an enormous amount of miles to get the ticket.
The thing is — most airlines have partnerships with other airlines that not only accept your points or miles, but they’ll often give you a better deal on a ticket in exchange for them. The catch is that when you use the search engine for a domestic airline, flights through other airlines they might partner with, say Cathay Pacific or Qatar Airlines, might not appear unless you go to those airlines’ sites directly.
“A quick Google search will show who an airline partners with and open up all kinds of options for you,” Frankel said.
3. Having the wrong type of points or miles
You might be earning lots of points, but depending on your goals, they might not be the right fit for you.
For example, let’s say a family prefers to travel to Europe every year for vacation. But they use a rewards program for an airline that doesn’t have a lot of options for flights to Europe — which means they are missing opportunities with an airline that offers tons of flights to Europe either directly or through partnerships.
“Before you go down the path of spending thousands of dollars on a credit card, think about the places you want to go first,” Frankel said. “A quick search will reveal what airline or reward program is the best match for you.”
4. Not maximizing your earning rate
It can be tempting to sign up for a credit card that offers you free miles on a specific airline — typically a mile for every dollar you spend. But Frankel says that not only limits your options — you can only use those miles with that airline and their partners — but it also limits the kind of earning power you could have from your purchases.
“If you are locked in with a single airline, whatever they say goes,” said Frankel, who advocates for having two or maybe three credit cards that you pay off each month.
If you earn points through a rewards program offered by Amex or Chase, however, you typically earn 1.5 to 2 points for every dollar you spend — which means you are earning potential miles at up to twice the rate as you would with a single airline card. You can then convert those points into miles with multiple frequent flyer programs to open up your options.
“When you transfer those points to other frequent flyer programs, you open up all kinds of pricing options that can give you much more bang for your points,” Frankel said. “It’s much better to diversify.”
And don’t be afraid to call up your existing credit card company to see if there might be a better card they can switch you to.
5. Cashing in points
Many users of rewards programs offered by companies like Amex or Chase often choose to treat their points like cash — especially when it comes to buying miles for a flight. Some cards even give you a sign-up bonus of a certain number of points, which they advertise as being the equivalent of cash.
But those points can easily be transformed into something worth more than their cash equivalent by converting them into frequent flyer miles with your preferred airline.
“Making cash redemptions should be your last resort,” Frankel said.
So … are you wasting your points? A key lesson Frankel likes to share with his clients is that, whether you’re a young professional, a family, or a small business that spends thousands of dollars using their credit card every year, it’s worth taking a step back to make sure whatever rewards program you have will help you reach your goals.