What are credit card points and miles (really) worth?

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In a Nutshell

There are lots of ways to earn and redeem credit card rewards for travel. But as it turns out, not all credit card points and miles are created equal.

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At a glance: Rewards credit cards mentioned in this article

Platinum Card® from American Express Five Membership Rewards® points per $1 on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card Two points per $1 on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide
Citi ThankYou® Premier Card Three points per $1 on travel purchases, including gas, and two points per $1 on dining out and entertainment
United℠ Explorer Card Two miles per $1 spent on tickets purchased from United, at restaurants and on hotel stays
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card Three miles per $1 spent directly on Alaska Airlines purchases

Note: Rewards mentioned in the above table are not exhaustive. For more information, please refer to each rewards program’s terms and conditions.

You’ve probably seen some pretty wild sign-up offers if you’ve been shopping around for a new credit card — offers like “Get 50,000 points after spending X dollars in X number of days.”

50,000 of anything seems like a lot, but that doesn’t go far in answering a key question when it comes to rewards credit cards: What are all those credit card points or miles really worth?

Well, it depends on the rewards program, the credit card and what you redeem for. We know that’s not the most helpful answer, but bear with us for a moment and you’ll end up with a better idea of what you’ll get when you redeem your credit card points or miles.

Credit card points vs. miles: What’s the difference, anyway?

Miles and points tend to work the same way. Depending on the card and program, you’ll earn either miles or points for your purchases. You can then redeem them for a variety of eligible items and services.

Here’s one important distinction: Miles are typically associated with cards that are co-branded with a specific airline. They typically have no set value, and you can generally only redeem miles for airline tickets with the issuing airline and its partners.

For that reason, it may take a bit more legwork to maximize the value of your credit card miles. However, many people find the payoff well worth the trouble.

Points, on the other hand, are typically tied to a card issuer like Chase (where they’re called Chase Ultimate Rewards® points) or American Express (where they’re called Membership Rewards® points). Unlike miles, they generally have a set value, and they’re typically more flexible in terms of redemption.

You might be able to score gift cards and merchandise with your points, or you could choose to redeem them on travel purchases like airfare, train tickets and taxi rides.

Now that we’ve distinguished between the two, let’s take a deeper dive into what credit card points and miles are really worth.

What are credit card points really worth?

Points-based rewards programs typically offer several ways to redeem points. Here’s a sampling of several popular credit card rewards programs and the approximate value of their redemption options:

Membership Rewards® Program from American Express Chase Ultimate Rewards® Citi ThankYou® Points
 Travel Up to 1 cent 1 cent for Freedom cards; 1.25–1.5 cents for Sapphire cards Varies by card
Gift cards Up to 1 cent  1 cent Up to 1 cent
Shopping and merchandise 0.5–0.7 cents 0.8 cents (Amazon.com) Varies; about 0.8 cents
Cash back or statement credit 0.6 cents 1 cent Varies by card
Other redemption options  Donate points to select charities; 1 cent per point for the first 500,000 points, 0.5 cents per point after that N/A Use points for student loan rebate rewards, monthly mortgage payment rewards and other bills: Value varies

Note: Values in the above table are approximate and subject to change. Values may also depend on the specific card in question. For the most recent valuations, please refer to each rewards program’s terms and conditions.

Membership Rewards® Program from American Express, Chase Ultimate Rewards® and Citi ThankYou Points® all allow cardholders to redeem points for travel, gift cards, merchandise and statement credits.

You’ll typically score the highest point value in travel purchases with American Express Membership Rewards® and Chase Ultimate Rewards®, as each point is worth up to 1 cent.

When you transfer points to a partner program, your redemption value could grow. For example, 1,000 American Express Membership Rewards® points can be redeemed for 1,600 AeroMexico Premier Points.

Heads up: The value of points or miles in loyalty programs may vary depending on how you redeem them, and 1,600 AeroMexico Premier Points aren’t necessarily worth more than 1,000 Membership Rewards® Points.

Also keep in mind not all American Express® cards are eligible for point transfers.

Chase comes out on top for value when you redeem for Chase Ultimate Rewards® travel with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve® .

In this category, points can be worth up to 1.5 cents each. That’s because the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card provides a 25% point-value boost and Chase Sapphire Reserve® provides a 50% point-value boost.

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Where the Citi ThankYou® Points program shines is with its flexibility: Not only can you buy fun stuff, but you can redeem points for responsible purchases, too.

Through the “Select and Credit” option, you can redeem points for statement credits toward utility bills, gas, grocery and drugstore purchases, and more. You can also redeem ThankYou® Points toward monthly mortgage payments or student loan rebates through the ThankYou® Service Center.

Citi ThankYou® point values may vary by card and redemption method. Citi ThankYou® Premier Card , for example, gives a value of 1.25 cents per point when you book airfare through the ThankYou® Travel Center.

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While all three programs offer decent value when redeeming points for merchandise, they offer an even better deal on gift cards — up to 1 cent per point. With some research and a bit of legwork, you could really stretch the value of your points.

Here’s one example: Through the Chase Ultimate Rewards® program, you can redeem 10,000 points for a $100 Amazon.com gift card or use 10,000 points to pay $80 at the point of sale on Amazon.com.

Do the math quickly — that’s $20 more worth of merchandise, just for paying attention and knowing your options.

See which issuer's luxury travel card reigns supreme

What are credit card miles really worth?

Miles-based programs are typically best for frequent travelers who are loyal to one airline and don’t need to redeem rewards for cash back.

Here’s a sampling of two miles-based programs and their redemption options, just to give you an idea of how they work.

United MileagePlus® Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan™
Airfare Varies Varies
Gift cards Varies; about 0.64 cents N/A
Shopping/merchandise Varies; about 0.5–0.75 cents Varies; about 2.5 cents
Cash back or statement credit Redeem miles as a statement credit toward flights or annual fees N/A
Other redemption options Donate miles to select charities, at a minimum of 500 miles per donation Donate miles to select charities: Value varies

Note: The values in the above table are subject to change. For the most recent valuations, please refer to each loyalty program’s terms and conditions.

The term “varies” doesn’t convey much, but it’s important to note that when it comes to airline loyalty programs, the value of miles can vary dramatically depending on how (and when) you redeem them.

With United MileagePlus® and Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan™ — as with many other airline loyalty programs — miles have no set value.

Depending on when you redeem, you may be able to book a round-trip economy flight through Alaska Airlines from New York City to Los Angeles for 40,000 miles plus $11.20 in taxes and fees; without the miles program, you’d pay $502.40. Here, your miles are worth roughly 1.25 cents each.

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Similarly, a United MileagePlus® round-trip basic economy flight from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., may cost you 25,000 miles (plus $11.20 in taxes and fees), or $398 if you pay out of pocket. Here, your miles are worth roughly 1.6 cents apiece.

Heads up: In most cases, the value you get for your miles may vary depending on factors like timing and seat availability.

To find the best deals, Jared Kamrowski, founder and blogger-in-chief of ThriftyTraveler.com, suggests comparing prices, flight routes and seat options through your loyalty program’s partner airlines.

For example, Kamrowski says you can find good deals when you use Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan™ miles to book business- or first-class flights on one of the airline’s 19 travel partners.

The potential drawback for both programs? You have to really love redeeming miles for flights and not much else. With the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan™, you can redeem for flights, magazine subscriptions and donations to charity. United MileagePlus® allows you to redeem for travel purchases, gift cards, select merchandise and statement credits toward flights and annual fees.

Make sure fees don’t negate your rewards

Here’s a good way to make sure your rewards card doesn’t reward you: Pay more in fees and interest charges than you earn in points or miles. This, clearly, is something you want to avoid.

If you have a credit card with an annual fee, calculate how much you’ll have to spend each month to make up for it.

And if you regularly carry a balance, you’ll risk spending more on interest charges than you make in rewards points or miles. That’s one of the many reasons we recommend always paying off your monthly credit card balance in full and on time, if you can.

Read about how to avoid interest with a credit card grace period

Bottom line

If you love having a lot of options on where to redeem your credit card rewards — and if you aren’t loyal to just one airline — a points-based card could be right for you.

On the other hand, if you know you just want to redeem your rewards for flights on your favorite airline, a miles-based card could be your best bet.

With either type of credit card, compare the values of your redemption options to get the maximum value for your rewards. It may take some extra legwork now, but it’s usually worth it in the long run.

Kim Porter started her personal finance career as copy editor at a popular personal-finance website. She’s written articles for Bankrate.com, U.S. News & World Report, LifeLock and Credit Karma.