Want to get the most from travel rewards programs? Big-name card issuers like Chase, Capital One, and American Express let you transfer points to multiple airlines for extra value.

Earning rewards points and miles is a popular hobby that can lead to some serious “travel hacking” if you’re patient. Yes, it’s possible to score free flights or upgrades to first class, but some rewards points will get you there faster than others. 

And with dozens of credit card rewards programs on the market, it’s worth taking the time to pick the best option for your wallet. 

I’ve narrowed down the credit card and airline rewards programs that are most likely to save you cash, whether you’re a frequent flyer or occasional traveler. 

How do you earn credit card points and miles? 

Any “rewards” credit card will give you some form of credit a point or a mile for every dollar you spend. The basic rate is one point per dollar. Most cards let you earn extra points on certain kinds of purchases (like travel expenses or anything in a rotating bonus category).

Some travel rewards credit cards like Capital One use “miles” as their currency, which are earned the same way you earn points. 

How much are points and miles worth? 

As a baseline, each rewards point or mile is worth one cent of redemption value, regardless of the issuer. So every time you spend a dollar, you’re earning at least a cent towards rewards. 

But once you actually redeem them, a few factors can make these points more or less valuable, such as: 

  • How you redeem the points. With most programs you can choose your redemption option: cash back, statement credits, travel expenses, gift cards, etc. But the points are valued differently with each option. For instance, 10,000 points could be worth $100 for travel but only $75 as a statement credit.
  • The price of your travel. If you’re using miles to pay for a flight or hotel room, their value may depend on your flight or room price. 

If you want to roughly calculate how many cents each point or mile will cover for a specific purchase or expense, use this formula: 

Cash cost of your expense (in cents) ÷ total points needed for redemption = cost per point 

Let’s say you want to use points to book a $1000 flight. If you need 50,000 points to book that same flight with your rewards program, divide the $1,000 cost by 50,000. That gets you 0.02, or two cents per mile. 

Since two cents/mile is higher than the baseline redemption rate of one cent/mile, you’re getting a good deal. 

If you needed 100,000 points to book the same flight, you’d get a rate of one cent/mile not as much of a bargain. You might want to save your points for a travel opportunity where they’ll be worth more. 

Read more: How credit card reward points work – and which are the best cards

Using rewards as airline miles 

With many programs, you’ll get the most out of your points or miles by using them to book air travel. 

Flying is expensive (no surprise there) and points often add up to a lot more than one cent each when redeemed for flights. Miles can be flexible in value: for a pricey business-class flight, you might get five or six cents out of each mile. 

Another bonus: even if you don’t have enough points to cover the whole ticket, you can redeem them in smaller amounts to offset part of the cost. And you don’t have to worry about blackout dates or expirations. 

Credit card miles vs. frequent flyer miles 

The terminology gets confusing, so it’s worth pointing out that miles you earn on a general travel rewards credit card aren’t the same as the “frequent flyer miles” you earn on a specific airline (with an airline-branded credit card, for instance). 

General credit card miles can apply to any airline, so they’re a lot more versatile and valuable. 

On the other hand, if you’re loyal to a certain airline or you really want to earn perks like priority boarding or TSA pre-check, an airline-branded card might be worthwhile. 

Read more: How do airline miles work? 

Transferring points and miles

You can get maximum flexibility and value from your points and miles by transferring them to other rewards programs connected to your card. 

Chase Ultimate Rewards is a winner here — Chase’s rewards program partners with dozens of airlines and hotels, including the huge carrier United Airlines. If you earn enough points by spending on a Chase card, you can transfer the points to a partner airline for a flight discount. 

In most cases the points or miles will transfer at a 1:1 ratio. Depending on the specifics, though, you can often get a better redemption value (1.25 points on a rewards card might be worth 1.5 points at a partner airline). 

Transferring is also a great way to get the most from your points if you, like me, aren’t a brand loyalist and tend to just book the cheapest available flight. With a variety of transfer partners available, you’re more likely to find a brand that accepts your reward points and fits your travel plans.  

Expiration dates

Good news: as long as you keep your account open and active, most credit card miles won’t expire. 

Still, it’s smart to read the fine print about expiration policies. Some programs will let your points expire if your account has been inactive for several months or years. 

Read more: Points expired during COVID? Here’s what you can do 

Best credit card rewards 

For most travelers, the greatest overall point value will come from one of four major credit card programs: 

Since these are all enormous international companies, you might already have one of their cards in your wallet. Their setups make it easy to earn rewards not only from travel but from everyday spending — so you can hit high point values quickly. 

Each program also has plenty of airline and hotel transfer partners, so you’ll have lots of choices for redemption. 

The low, average, and high point values represent the redemption value you’re likely to get per point or mile with each program (depending on the specific card you have, the travel you’re booking, and other factors). 

  • Low: Try not to redeem for anything less than this value if possible. 
  • Average: This rate is what you’ll most commonly get for your points. 
  • High: If you can redeem at this rate or above, you’re getting a terrific deal. 

Exact valuations for points change pretty regularly, but these are estimates of what you should be looking for. I’ve added a cash value range for what 50,000 points might look like with each program. 

Chase Ultimate Rewards 

  • Low point value: 1.25 cents/point.
  • Average value: 1.7 cents/point.
  • High value: 2 cents/point.
  • 50,000 points: $850–$1,000.

Chase cardholders can get 25% more value from their points by using Chase’s Ultimate Rewards portal to book travel. The portal doesn’t have every possible travel option, but it has a wide range, including Airbnbs and other non-hotel lodging choices. 

The point valuation depends on which Chase card you have. Chase Sapphire Reserve gets the best redemption rate, but that card is one of Chase’s priciest with a $550 annual fee. You’ll still get a decent return rate with a Chase Sapphire Preferred card, at least 1.25 cents per point. 

And if you have multiple Chase cards, you can transfer Ultimate Rewards Points from one to the other. 

Transfer partners include 11 airlines and three hotels. For U.S. travelers who mostly fly domestically, Chase points can be ideal for airline transfers, since Chase partners with both United Airlines and the budget carrier Southwest. 

Not traveling anytime soon? Chase now has a “Pay Yourself Back” feature where you can redeem points at a 1.25–1.5 cents/point rate for eligible purchases. 

Read more: How to fly free (and faster) with Chase Ultimate Rewards

Amex Membership Rewards 

  • Low point value: 0.7 cents/point.
  • Average value: 1.8 cents/point.
  • High value: 2 cents/point.
  • 50,000 Points: $950–$1,100.

American Express has its own handy guide and calculator for figuring out how far your points will take you. 

You can squeeze extra value from points by upgrading to a business or first-class flight. But the most lucrative option is transferring points to one of Amex’s many airline and hotel partner programs. 

In addition to hotel chains like Marriott and Hilton, Amex teams up with 19 airlines around the world, as well as three major airline alliances. That means it’s easy to use your Amex points on air travel, especially if you want to spring for comfort and frequent flyer perks. 

Read more: Are Amex cards worth it? 

Citi ThankYou Points

  • Low point value: 0.8 cents/point.
  • Average value: 1.6 cents/point.
  • High value: 1.7 cents/point.
  • 50,000 points: $800–$850.

Citi ThankYou point redemption value also depends on the card you have. 

Any Citi card can earn points, which you can redeem for travel on Citi’s travel portal at a moderate rate. This is often just enough to cover or help cover an inexpensive flight after you’ve earned a few rewards. 

If you’re a Citi Premier or Citi Prestige cardholder, you can transfer points to partner airlines for a much higher redemption rate. 

Many of Citi’s 17 airline partners are international carriers, like Virgin Atlantic, Air France, Aeromexico, and Avianca Airlines. A trip overseas could be an ideal use of accumulated Citi ThankYou points, since you can sometimes find major savings on flights. 

Read more: Citi Premier Card review

Capital One Miles 

  • Low mile value: 1 cent/mile.
  • Average value: 1.4 cents/mile.
  • High value: 2 cents/mile.
  • 50,000 points: $600–$900.

Capital One has a super flexible rewards program — no expiration dates, no minimum miles required for redemption, and no maximum earning threshold. You can transfer miles between Capital One accounts. And you’ll earn miles quickly, at a 2:1 rate for every purchase, every day. 

Like Citi, Capital One has dozens of airline partners and a few hotel transfer partners, and most of the airlines fly internationally (they include Air France, British Airways, Turkish Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and more). 

You’ll get the biggest redemption value from your miles if you plan ahead and store them up to cover air travel. That’s where miles can get redeemed at the higher 2:1 ratios for lucky travelers flying a partner airline.  

Read more: Best Capital One credit cards

Best airline miles programs

Airlines have their own mile-earning redemption programs — you earn miles, which work like points, by flying the airline. Then you redeem the miles to buy or upgrade another flight. 

You can often use miles for other travel expenses, like hotels and rental cars, but flight costs tend to give you the most mile value. 

Even if you don’t fly one specific airline all the time, you can use miles you earned on one carrier to pay for a flight on that carrier’s transfer partners. Most big airlines belong to one of three galactic-sounding global alliances — Oneworld, SkyTeam, or Star Alliance — and you’ll often be able to transfer miles between airlines in the same alliance.   

Read more: How to start travel hacking

American Airlines AAdvantage 

  • Low mile value: 1.2 cents/mile.
  • Average value: 1.4 cents/mile.
  • High value: 2 cents/mile.
  • 50,000 miles: $700.

American Airlines now uses a Loyalty Points system, where you can earn points from credit card spending as well as travel. 

Like many airline rewards programs, American Airlines bases mile value on dynamic pricing — this means the exact redemption value of your miles changes based on factors like flight price, location, and seasonal demand. 

Their flight award chart breaks down how far certain award amounts will take you, depending on your destination and whether you’re flying business or economy. Business and first-class seats get the biggest redemption values. 

American Airlines is the biggest carrier in the world, so it’s not hard to spend miles on an AA flight. But if you do want to switch carriers and use your miles there, AA miles transfer to 23 partners, including fellow domestic carrier JetBlue. 

Alaska Airlines

  • Low mile value: 1.1 cents/mile.
  • Average value: 1.8 cents/mile.
  • High value: 2 cents/mile.
  • 50,000 miles: $900–$1,000.

Don’t let the name fool you. This West Coast-based carrier flies across the country and around the world. 

Alaska Airlines bases reward earnings on the distance you travel, not the price you pay. Each mile you fly, including connecting flights, earns you one mile towards free air travel at a great redemption rate. Alaska Airlines’ award chart breaks down redemption specifics

If you’re not traveling anywhere on their list, you can transfer miles to one of 24 airline partners (including American Airlines) or eight hotel partners. 

Southwest Rapid Rewards 

  • Low mile value: 1.1 cents/mile.
  • Average value: 1.4 cents/mile.
  • High value: 1.5 cents/mile.
  • 50,000 miles: $650–$700.

If young travelers tend to have a favorite airline, it’s Southwest. This carrier’s budget prices make it a regular stop for thrifty travelers who are staying in the U.S. 

Southwest Rapid Rewards can be redeemed for any seat, are changeable and refundable (!), and have higher value in lower fare classes, making cheap flights even more accessible. 

On the other hand, you’ll earn more points by booking Southwest’s more expensive fares. 

Southwest is the only airline on this list that won’t let you transfer points to another carrier. They do, however, partner with Chase; a Southwest-branded Chase credit card earns you awards from both companies. 

Read more: Best credit cards for travel hacking

United Airlines MileagePlus

  • Low mile value: 1 cent/mile.
  • Average value: 1.3 cents/mile.
  • High value: 1.9 cents/mile.
  • 50,000 miles: $650.

United has a straightforward rewards-earning process. You earn a point or mile for each dollar of your base ticket fare, and the miles don’t expire. 

When it’s time to redeem, you’ll get the highest value if you spring for first-class upgrades or international tickets. Or you can transfer miles to one of United’s 30+ partner airlines around the world, along with nine hotel partners, and a few rental car carriers. 

As a bonus, United Airlines also has a co-branded credit card with Chase for stacking your rewards (and earning extra perks like first pick at “award seats”). 

Delta SkyMiles 

  • Low mile value: 0.9 cents/mile.
  • Average value: 1.3 cents/mile.
  • High value: 1.5 cents/mile.
  • 50,000 miles: $500–$625.

Delta uses dynamic pricing — mile redemption rate varies depending on demand — so it’s hard to estimate just how far your miles will go. But miles are easy to earn via travel, shopping, or dining, and they don’t expire.  

As a SkyTeam member, Delta has plenty of global airline transfer partners that fly just about everywhere. Regular Delta flyers who are also Amex fans can get next-level benefits with the airline’s co-branded American Express card. 

JetBlue TrueBlue 

  • Low mile value: 1.1 cents/mile.
  • Average value: 1.3 cents/mile.
  • High value: 1.5 cents/mile.
  • 50,000 miles: $650–$700.

If you’re based on the East Coast and you do a lot of domestic travel, you’ll get the most out of JetBlue’s rewards. 

Groups of travelers can take advantage of JetBlue’s “Points Pooling” program, where people who travel together can combine their points and earn rewards more quickly. 

And redeeming points for U.S. flights is even easier now that JetBlue and American Airlines have partnered up. You’ll earn miles based on the cost of your ticket, not distance flown, so even short trips can give you an earning boost. 

Another JetBlue bonus: if you have Chase, Amex, or Citi points lying around, you can transfer them to JetBlue to help pay for a flight (though the rewards ratio varies). 

Which travel rewards program is right for you? 

Just because a travel rewards card offers the best value for points doesn’t mean it’s the best card for you. There are a few factors to consider first, like: 

Your spending habits. When you’re picking any kind of rewards card, it’s smart to find a card that pays you back for spending patterns you already have. 

  • If you fly several times a year and save up regularly for airfare, find a card that gets top rates on air travel. 
  • If you rarely travel and your biggest expenses are groceries and takeout, a card that earns and redeems rewards for everyday spending is your best bet. 
  • If you plan most of your trips with family members or friends, look into rewards cards that let you pool your points. 

Bottom line: lower-value rewards points you’ll actually use are better than higher-value rewards points you won’t use. 

  • Where you live. This is mostly relevant if you’re thinking about travel rewards. If you live in an area that’s not served by United or American Airlines, for example, you won’t have much use for miles on those airlines. 
  • Your travel budget and preferences. Springing for an American Express card, for instance, may be worth it if you like high-end travel bonuses. But for more low-key travelers, a card without an annual fee is a smarter choice.
  • Your credit card comfort level. Multiple Chase and Capital One credit cards stack up the rewards points quickly, but are you able to pay each card off every month? Managing multiple cards can be a hassle even without trying to maximize rewards. 

Read more: How to choose a travel rewards program 

Summary

Once you’ve had a little practice figuring out the best ways to redeem points and miles, travel hacking gets a lot easier. Eventually, you may even score that free flight. 

Featured image: Shutterstock.com/ Aksonsat Uanthoeng

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Amy Bergen Writer
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Amy Bergen is a writer and editor based in Portland, Maine. She's interested in technology, literature, and how the world will change in the future. You can reach Amy on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook.