How to Get Started With Credit Card Points

An editor from The Points Guy shares their best tips

Trips around the world. Fun experiences like the Super Bowl. Incredible discounts on items on your shopping list. Those are just some of the deals you can get from credit card points… if you know how to use them properly, that is. Enter Benét Wilson, the credit card editor at The Points Guy. She spoke with Wake-Up Call for our Money 101 series, sharing her best tips and picks for the top cards to use in different situations.

Lisa Ryan, editor: Can you explain what exactly credit card points are and how they function?

Benét Wilson: You can apply and get a credit card that offers points. The rates for points depend on which type of card you get. Some of them are just flat grade — like the Capital One Venture card. No matter what you buy, you get two points for every dollar you spend. And then there are others that have higher points for different categories. With the Chase Sapphire Preferred — a great starter card — you get two points per dollar spent on things like travel and dining, which are very popular categories. And the travel is very broad: It can be anything from airfare to Uber and Lyft rides. So each card has its own definition of a specific category.

For someone who is hoping to get started on building their points, what’s the first thing you tell them to do?

Think about what you spend the most money on, because you want to be able to maximize the points and miles. Personally, I eat out a lot. I probably shouldn’t, but I do. So I would want a card that gives me higher points for my dining. The Capital One Savor Card gives 4% cash back for dining and that’s pretty high. My other favorite one, the Amex Gold, gives you four points for dining worldwide. If you travel outside of the country, you still get the higher points for the dining. If you are interested in using your points and miles for airfare, then you want to get a card that has higher points for that particular thing.

When people are looking at picking credit cards, what are some things they need to consider other than just what they spend more money on?

Start by looking at what the signup bonuses are, because those signup bonuses are enough to get you a real jumpstart on your points and miles game. You should always look at the APR. We have a post on the “10 Commandments for Travel Rewards Credit Cards,” and one of them is to pay it off at the end of the month.

You could also look at the annual fee because you have to make sure that the annual fee is worth the money that you’re paying in proportion to the benefit. So Chase Sapphire Preferred has a $95 per year annual fee, but you get a broad definition of travel, like roadside assistance and different perks that might make it worth it. Then you also want to look at how you earn the points and miles and how easy they are to redeem. For example, Chase has 10 airline partners and three hotel partners.

So how long does it typically take someone to accumulate enough points to make a card worth it? (And that’s keeping in mind that everyone has different financial backgrounds and amounts they’re going to be spending.)

It definitely depends on the card. A lot of cards have these sign up bonuses so you automatically get a pile of points. So for Chase Sapphire Preferred, the 60,000 points currently offered are pretty much valued at $600. Most signup bonuses are enough to start booking trips.

When people are considering signup bonuses, what does a good one look like?

You want to make it worth your while. Credit cards are always doing those little limited time offers to kind of tempt people on top of sign-up bonuses and welcome offers.

There’s this thing called the CardMatch Tool that people can use and it will give them the best sign up bonus offers that are out there right now. There are limited time offers where cards will boost a sign-up bonus and also throw in things the fee for global entry. Right now, the Amex Green Card has a $100 credit for Away luggage, plus other perks.

A lot of people think points equal airline miles. What are some of the things people might not know about points?

That is an excellent question! They can be used on cruises, car rentals, hotels. We just did a story on Super Bowl tickets. So you can use your points to buy unique experiences — everything from dining experiences to concerts, sporting events, travel, and cooking demonstrations. You have a lot of options. But I think you get the most value with things like airline tickets and hotels.

What’s the last thing you’d say to someone getting started and who feels a little bit overwhelmed at the idea of credit card points?

We have the Beginner’s Guide, which has everything you need to know about points, miles, airlines and credit cards. Our reporter Samantha Rosen did this and it gives great guidance, and has links that direct you to the credit cards you might be interested in. We also have a newsletter that goes out every day with tips and tricks and updates of all the ways to get offers and deals.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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