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How To Get Off the Beaten Path Using Points and Miles

Ryan Smith's image
Ryan Smith
Ryan Smith's image

Ryan Smith

Content Contributor

Countries Visited: 197U.S. States Visited: 50

Ryan completed his goal of visiting every country in the world in December of 2023 and now plans to let his wife choose their destinations. Over the years, he’s written about award travel for publicat...
Edited by: Keri Stooksbury
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Keri Stooksbury

Editor-in-Chief

Countries Visited: 44U.S. States Visited: 28

With years of experience in corporate marketing and as the Executive Director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Qatar, Keri is now Editor-in-Chief at UP, overseeing daily content operations and r...

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The beauty of travel is that it’s not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. You don’t have to go where everyone else is going. Unfortunately, going where everyone else is going is much simpler. There’s a plethora of advice on how to use your points and miles to visit Disney World, Paris, and the Maldives. But, if you want to go somewhere less traveled, tips and tricks for using your points and miles are harder to come by. And that’s what I’m here to help you with.

From maximizing partners and travel credits to using rewards that let you pay yourself back for travel — the famous “how to use points when you can’t use points” situation — you can get anywhere you want to go with a stash of credit card rewards and frequent flyer miles. That’s true whether you want to visit Europe’s lesser-traveled second cities or take a jungle trek in search of wildlife. Here’s how.

Use Partners and Alliances for Flights to More Places

When you think of redeeming points and miles, the most obvious flights are booking an airline through its own rewards program. A classic example is booking United Airlines flights with United MileagePlus miles. But that’s not all you can book. On top of its membership in Star Alliance, United has over 40 airline partners, meaning you have abundant options for using your miles. You aren’t restricted just to where United flies.

That’s great news because while United does fly to a lot of places, it doesn’t fly everywhere.

FlightConnections map United
Destinations served by United Airlines. Image Credit: FlightConnections

By understanding airlines’ various partnerships, you can greatly expand the number of destinations reachable with your points and miles. You also give yourself more options for finding a deal. For example, if you want to visit the impressive Victoria Falls on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, you could fly into Livingstone (LVI) on the Zambia side or Victoria Falls (VFA) on the Zimbabwe side. LVI is served by South African Airways from Star Alliance and Kenya Airways from SkyTeam. VFA is served by both of those, plus Ethiopian Airlines, which is in Star Alliance.

By accruing flexible points, you have the option to transfer your rewards to whichever program offers you the cheapest rates or best availability on these flights. You likely won’t even need to sign up for the rewards program from these airlines because you’ll most likely book the ticket through their partners.

Numerous tools can tell you options for getting from point A to point B with your points. When you’re ready to start booking, check out our comprehensive guide to searching for award flights.

Use Travel Credits To Offset Costs

You’ve booked your flights. Now, you need to focus on the other costs: hotels, tours, and excursions. There’s good news here, as well. While you’re likely familiar with using points through hotel rewards programs like Marriott Bonvoy and Hilton Honors, those mega-chains don’t have hotels everywhere — despite their seemingly omnipresent footprint. Even if you’re heading somewhere without a hotel chain in which to redeem points, you can cover your stay in the same ways you can pay for trains, buses, tours, and the like.

Sri Lanka Train Jungle
Train journeys in Sri Lanka are consistently rated as having some of the most beautiful views, and you can book these with your points and miles or reimburse the cost with a credit card travel credit. Image Credit: enine Alyssa Pedreno-Andrada via Pexels

The first option for this is using a credit card with travel credits. Here are some of the most useful for covering your travel expenditures each year:

Airline credits are available on some credit cards, which can be useful when traveling off the beaten path. While cards like the Bank of America® Premium Rewards® Card and The Platinum Card® from American Express offer airline credits toward domestic airlines only, 2 others offer more versatile credits:

  • Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card: Up to $50 per quarter (for a total of $200 annually) toward airfare purchased directly from airlines or through AmexTravel.com.
  • The Ritz-Carlton™ Credit Card: Up to $300 in airline incidental credits annually, but they usually don’t apply to airfare purchases. Moreover, you have to ask Chase to apply the credits to your recent purchases; it doesn’t happen automatically.

With flexible credits, you can pay for hotels outside of rewards programs, tickets to get from one city to another in far-flung countries, and various other travel expenses along the way.

Use Fixed-Value Points To Pay Yourself Back for Travel Expenses

After using your airline miles and travel credits, you may still have other trip expenses to pay for. Whether for lodging, domestic flights in foreign countries, or that bucket-list tour of ancient ruins, there’s another way to offset these costs with your credit card rewards. You’ll use fixed-value points.

Man in wheelchair laughing at cafe with laptop
Image Credit: Jelena via Adobe Stock

Fixed-value points are exactly what they sound like. They have a value that’s fixed — typically 1 cent apiece. Flexible rewards (like Chase Ultimate Rewards that you can send to over a dozen airline and hotel programs, redeeming them at varying rates) can offer higher redemption values than fixed-value points. That’s why people love them so much.

But fixed-value rewards are easier to use, don’t require finding award availability, and can cover a broader range of travel expenses. Need to book a domestic flight in Zambia to get to Livingstone (LVI) for your visit to Victoria Falls? Need to book a train ticket in Sri Lanka or a river cruise on the Nile? You can pay for all of those with fixed-value credit card points. It may even surprise you to find out you can redeem flexible rewards at fixed values for these types of travel expenses. It works in 2 ways: booking through a portal or purchasing travel and then paying yourself back.

Paying With Rewards in a Travel Portal

You can use your points and miles to book in travel portals offered by American Express, Bank of America, Bilt, Capital One, Chase, Citi, U.S. Bank, and Wells Fargo. Most redemptions will allow you to use your points or miles at a flat rate of 1 cent each. However, that’s not always the case, and some portals offer much more than others.

For example, you’ll find only flights, hotels, and rental cars with Capital One, while American Express adds cruises to the mix. Citi has activities but doesn’t have cruises. Chase has the widest range of options.

And redemption values vary, as well. You’ll get 1 cent for each mile or point redeemed with Bank of America, Capital One, Citi, U.S. Bank, and Wells Fargo. With Amex, the value of your points depends on the type of travel you’re booking. You’ll get 1 cent per point toward flights but 0.7 cents when booking other types of travel.

With Chase, the variations go up — not down. If you have a Chase card with no annual fee, your rewards are worth 1 cent each toward travel. If you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card, points are worth 1.25 cents each toward travel — such as the example below for hot air balloon rides in Cappadocia, Türkiye. However, if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, points are worth 1.5 cents apiece in the portal.

Cappadocia hot air balloon rides in Chase travel portal
Some of the hot air balloon rides available in the Chase Travel portal. Image Credit: Chase

There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. The advantages include booking several things together at the same time through a portal you recognize and seeing prices in dollars. It’s also seamless, letting you apply your points directly at checkout.

Disadvantages include not always getting the best price and not necessarily maximizing your rewards. If you would use the Capital One Travel site to book a hotel and pay with the Capital One Venture X card, you could earn 10 miles per dollar spent. Then, you could redeem those miles to pay yourself back afterward, coming away with more miles in the end. Paying with miles upfront provides less value.

Paying Yourself Back After Purchasing Travel

That leads us to the second strategy: paying for travel and then reimbursing yourself. With any of the programs we’ve mentioned above, you can pay for travel and then reimburse yourself using points as a statement credit against the charge. However, there’s little value in this approach with American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Points, as you’ll get just 0.8 cents in value per point with Citi and a paltry 0.6 cents with Amex.

With other programs, you’ll get 1 cent in value for each point redeemed toward your credit card bill, helping you pay for travel with points when you thought you couldn’t. However, you’ll want to take note that redeeming Capital One miles against recent travel purchases (within the previous 90 days) is the only way they’re worth 1 cent each on your credit card bill. If you redeem against non-travel purchases, these miles will fetch just half a cent each.

For instance, I couldn’t pay with points directly when booking a train in northern Portugal, so I paid with my Chase credit card.

Portugal train purchase
Transaction for 2 train tickets in northern Portugal. Image Credit: Chase

However, you can redeem Ultimate Rewards points for cash back at 1 cent each. 500 points would cover $5 on my credit card bill, while 5,579 points would cover the full cost of these 2 tickets.

Convert Chase points to cash back
Option to cash out Chase points at 1 cent apiece. Image Credit: Chase

In this way, you aren’t limited to travel experiences or transportation available in a travel portal. You can book anything you like and then reimburse yourself, with the best value coming from Chase Ultimate Rewards, Capital One Miles, Bank of America Premium Rewards, and U.S. Bank Rewards.

Final Thoughts

When you first glance at a map to see where you can go with your points and miles, some places are more obvious than others. That can feel discouraging if you’re trying to visit those “other” places. Luckily, your credit card rewards can take you to nearly any point on Earth. By using travel credits, partner flights, and paying yourself back with fixed-value rewards, you can book travel outside the major airlines and outside the major hotel programs. In fact, you can even use your travel rewards for more than just flights and hotels, covering everything from subway rides to safaris.

Using points and miles to get off the beaten might not receive as much attention as luxury stays in New York City or the Maldives, but it’s entirely possible if you understand what strategies to employ.

The information regarding the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer.
The information regarding the Capital One Venture X Business Card was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer.
The information for the Citi Prestige® Card has been collected independently by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer.
The information regarding the Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer.
The information regarding the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer.
The information regarding The Ritz-Carlton™ Credit Card was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer.

For rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, click here.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does "off the beaten path" mean?

Traveling off the beaten path means going to places that aren’t inundate by mass tourism. It means discovering “hidden gems” or lesser-traveled destinations. Truly going off the beaten path means exploring places that might have little information in travel guide books or travel blogs.

How can I go to places with credit card points if there's no hotel program?

Hotel programs like Hilton, Marriott, and Wyndham cover many points on the globe. However, it’s possible to stay at other hotels using points also. You can do this by paying with your rewards points in the bank’s travel portal or by paying for the stay with your credit card and then reimbursing yourself, using your credit card points as a statement credit to cover your travel expenses.

What type of credit card points are worth the most?

Aside from cash back, there are mainly 2 types of credit card rewards points: flexible (or transferable) points and fixed-value points. Fixed-value points are always worth the same amount, typically 1 cent each. Flexible points can be used in many ways, and the value will change based on how you’re using them. For example, using your points for a flight that costs $500 might make your points worth 5 cents each, but they could be worth 1 cent each if you need the same number of points when that flight costs just $100.

What are the best credit card points for getting off the beaten path?

In most situations, fixed-valued rewards like those from Bank of America and Capital One will help you reach more places than frequent flyer miles (such as United Airlines or American Airlines miles) or even flexible rewards from American Express. That’s because you can book any type of travel, no matter what it is, and then reimburse yourself for the cost. That’s not possible with airline miles or points that require booking in specific ways to get value from your points.

Ryan Smith's image

About Ryan Smith

Ryan completed his goal of visiting every country in the world in December of 2023 and now plans to let his wife choose their destinations. Over the years, he’s written about award travel for publications including AwardWallet, The Points Guy, USA Today Blueprint, CNBC Select, Tripadvisor, and Forbes Advisor.

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