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A decade ago, I dove headfirst into the world of credit card rewards hacking. Since then, I've opened roughly 100 credit cards and earned tens of thousands of dollars in the form of sign-up bonuses, rewards, and perks.

I've squeezed a lot of value out of my points and miles over the years, such as free stays at all-inclusive resorts, dirt-cheap trips to Disneyland with my family, and a memorable trip to Hawaii with my mom to celebrate her retirement, which only cost me $22.

But I've also learned over the years that maximizing rewards in the way the points and miles experts recommend is often complicated and, in many cases, simply unattainable.

Here's why I think the conversation about maximizing credit card rewards deserves more nuance.

It Requires a Lot of Time and Effort

woman on airplane checking phone


For the past eight years of my writing career, I've specialized in covering credit card rewards.

I've never gone to the same lengths as the most knowledgeable people in the space to master the intricacies of award flight availability or other sophisticated tricks (some of which may violate cardholder agreements). However, I learned enough to be able to write comprehensive reviews and guides without needing to do additional research. 

That's the thing: the people who, like me, give advice on how to maximize your cash back, points, and miles often have the luxury of being paid to do it. Those who aren't paid may not have the financial stability and time to make a hobby out of it.

As a result, people who aren't immersed in the world of credit card rewards are at a disadvantage because there isn't a single article or blog post that can cover it all — it requires hundreds of hours of research and practice.

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Point Valuations Are Often Misleading

It's easy to understand how much your cash back rewards are worth, but when it comes to points and miles, it's not always clear. That's especially true for airline and hotel rewards programs, where the value of your rewards can vary dramatically based on the details of your flight or stay.

Points and miles experts try to provide some clarity by analyzing redemption data to provide average values for travel rewards programs, but here are some of the issues with their approach.

The Methodology Is Often Murky

Rewards experts typically look at a wide range of redemptions to provide an average value for a rewards program's currency. But in my experience, it can be difficult to consistently beat an average valuation unless you're always focused on the best redemption opportunities.

For example, you can generally get better redemption values with frequent flier miles if you use them for international flights. So, it's no wonder that most points and miles websites focus heavily on international travel. But if the data underlying a point valuation heavily favors international flights, that skews the average upward. And if you generally travel within the U.S., you may wonder why you rarely get close to the average value.

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Valuations Assume Expertise

Valuations for rewards programs with transferable points like Chase Ultimate Rewards® and American Express Membership Rewards® often assume that you're transferring your points to partner airline and hotel rewards programs and finding great redemptions.

In my experience, I've found transferring points is technically the best way to get the most out of your rewards. However, it leads us back to the problem of most people not having the time or expertise to do the kind of research necessary to get that value consistently.

If you're deadset on traveling to a specific place on a specific date, you'll need a lot of pre-planning or luck to book your ideal flight while also reaping maximum value from your rewards. In many cases, you'll likely need to choose between convenience and value, which can feel frustrating when you're trying to plan your dream getaway.

Rewards Value Is Relative

Let's say you snag an international flight at a value of 5 cents per mile, which is something I did when I booked a Delta One® flight to Austria in early 2020 (sadly, I had to cancel due to the pandemic). The cost of the flight in cash was $6,000, but at 5 cents per mile, the cost was roughly $1,440 — 120,000 miles total.

That's an excellent valuation on paper, but would I have actually spent the money to pay for the flight out of pocket? Absolutely not. If someone offers me a business class flight to Austria or $6,000 in cash, I will take the money, please, and thank you.

Here's another way to put that 5-cent-per-mile valuation into perspective: the number of miles required to book my Delta One flight to Vienna could've covered two-to-four economy class flights to other international destinations. Which of those two options would be more valuable to the average person who wants to see the world?

It's Getting Harder to Maximize Rewards

A decade ago, it was relatively easy to rack up rewards, particularly through credit card sign-up bonuses. But over time, credit card issuers cracked down, creating new application rules to make it more difficult to open new cards, especially if you've had the same card in the recent past.

Card issuers have also hiked annual fees, downgraded perks, and made it more challenging to maximize the benefits that they still offer. Things have gotten so bad that the Platinum Card® from American Express, one of the best credit cards for frequent travelers, is jokingly referred to as a glorified coupon book.

Sadly, a lot of these card issuer initiatives are a result of rewards enthusiasts abusing the system. Many of them are quick to pivot when issuers make changes because they understand how the system works, but for a casual credit card user, it only steepens the learning curve.

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You May Never Spend Your Rewards

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Hoarding your points and miles makes them more susceptible to rewards program devaluations, which occur frequently. That's why many credit card experts recommend an earn-and-burn approach to rewards — if you redeem your rewards as you earn them, you can avoid leaving value on the table.

But unless you own a business with a lot of expenses (like, say, a travel rewards website) or you're wealthy and have a sizable budget, you may have a hard time amassing enough rewards to get the kind of valuable redemptions the experts showcase almost exclusively.

In my case, waiting for the perfect redemption to maximize your rewards may cause you to hoard your rewards anyway. It's why I ended up with nearly 700,000 Amex Membership Rewards points, just waiting for me to pull the trigger.

Decide What Maximizing Rewards Means for You

Points and miles experts provide valuable resources for people who are interested in making the most of their everyday spending. But when it comes to redeeming your hard-earned rewards, focus on what makes the most sense for you based on your needs and habits.

As you consider the best way to use your credit card rewards, here are some factors to keep in mind.

Redemption Flexibility

Travel rewards are often considered to be more valuable than cash back. But cold, hard cash can do a lot more than book flights and hotels.

I recently put a pause on travel due to physical health issues, leaving me with more than a million points and miles across multiple rewards programs collecting dust. While my roughly 700,000 Amex points are worth at least $7,000 in travel, I'd only get $4,200 in cash via statement credits.

If I'd focused more of my spending on cash back cards over the years, my rewards might have more value in my current situation.

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Instead of fixating on how many cents per point or mile you can get with a redemption, think about your redemptions in terms of the experiences you can get. There's nothing wrong with wanting the luxury of business class to Southeast Asia (and several cents per mile to boot), and that can be worth it as a bucket-list trip.

But it's also important to consider the trade-offs. Getting multiple flights to other destinations with the same number of points or miles could be more valuable to you, even if the face value of the redemption isn't the same.

In other words, don't let an obsession with optimizing every redemption cause you to miss out on some great experiences.

Your Needs

Most rewards enthusiasts recommend avoiding redemptions that give you less than 1 cent per point in value. I agree with that suggestion, but I don't consider it an absolute.

In fact, I recently bought a few Uber Eats gift cards with Amex points at a rate of 0.7 cents per point. That subpar redemption value would cause some of my friends in the rewards community to recoil in horror, but not having to cook a couple of nights during a particularly stressful week made it worth it for me.

Remember, your credit card rewards are meant to work for you, not the other way around.

Recommended Credit Cards

Credit Card Rewards Rate Annual Fee Bonus Offer Learn More

Chase Sapphire Preferred®

1x- 5xPoints More Info

The card offers 5x points per dollar on Chase Travel℠, 3x points on dining (including eligible takeout and delivery services), as well as 3x points on select streaming services and online grocery purchases (excluding Target, Walmart and wholesale clubs). This card earns 2x points on all other travel spending and 1x point per dollar everywhere else. Chase broadly defines travel to include not just airfare, hotels and rental cars, but expenses like parking, tolls and public transit too.

$95 60,000Chase Ultimate Rewards Points More Info

Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. Dollar Equivalent: $1,380 (60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards Points * 0.023 base)

1x - 3xPoints More Info

Earn 3 points for every $1 on Southwest Airlines® purchases, 2 points for every $1 on Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partners, 2 points per $1 on local transit and commuting (including rideshare), 2 points per $1 on internet, cable, and phone services; select streaming, and 1 point for every $1 on all other purchases.

$99 50,000Southwest Rapid Rewards Points More Info

Earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. Dollar Equivalent: $700 (50,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards Points * 0.014 base)

Wells Fargo Active Cash® Card

2%Cashback More Info

Earn unlimited 2% cash rewards on purchases.

$0 $200Cash Bonus More Info

Earn a $200 cash rewards bonus after spending $500 in purchases in the first 3 months.

Citi Custom Cash® Card

1% - 5%Cashback More Info

Earn 5% cash back on purchases in your top eligible spend category each billing cycle, up to the first $500 spent, 1% cash back thereafter. Also, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases. Special Travel Offer: Earn an additional 4% cash back on hotels, car rentals, and attractions booked on Citi Travel℠ portal through 6/30/2025.

$0 $200Cash Bonus More Info

Earn $200 in cash back after you spend $1500 on purchases in the first 6 months of account opening. This bonus offer will be fulfilled as 20,000 ThankYou® points, which can be redeemed for $200 cash back.


Ben Luthi

Ben Luthi is a personal finance and travel writer and credit card expert. He has a degree in finance from Brigham Young University and worked in financial planning, banking and auto finance before writing full-time for NerdWallet and Student Loan Hero. Ben is now a full-time freelance writer and enjoys traveling and spending time with his two kids. His work has appeared in several publications, including U.S. News & World Report, USA Today, Money, Success and Slickdeals.