Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with the latest information.
As we quickly approach the holiday season, you may already be in the process of finding the perfect gifts for your loved ones. However, if you are a travel rewards enthusiast, there is an important decision you need to make regarding these purchases. You must determine whether it’s best to pay for gifts directly or with your points and miles, thus keeping money in your pocket. Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages, along with potential pitfalls to avoid.
Everyone has their strategy for maximizing the value of credit cards, points and miles. Some individuals would never consider redeeming them for gifts, as they prefer to save them for flights or high-end hotel stays. Others view these rewards as a form of currency and primarily use them to reduce everyday expenses. Ultimately, if you spend responsibly this holiday season, there is no wrong way to approach your shopping.
Now, let’s delve into how to make the most of your holiday purchases so you can save money.
Choosing the right credit card(s)
During the holiday season, you’ll want to ensure you use the right credit card(s) for your purchases. However, it’s important to note that there isn’t a universal perfect credit card for everyone. The ideal choice will vary based on your specific purchases and priorities.
If you have recently acquired a new credit card with a welcome bonus, it should be your primary option for holiday shopping. Following that, consider cards that offer bonus rewards for the specific places where you plan to shop this year.
Earn a bonus on a new card
If you have a considerable amount to spend on holiday shopping, now might be an opportune moment to consider applying for one of the top travel rewards cards. Many cards offer sign-up bonuses of 100,000 points or more, translating to a value of more than $1,000 in the first year.
Most cards require a specific amount of spending within the initial few months to unlock the welcome bonus, and some cards even waive the annual fee for the first year.
If you’ve been reluctant to apply for a card due to concerns about meeting the spending requirement, the holiday season, with its accompanying expenses, presents a perfect opportunity to open a new card. If you’re in search of a new addition to your wallet, here are three cards that currently offer appealing welcome offers:
- The Platinum Card® from American Express: Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $8,000 on purchases within the first six months of card membership.
- Ink Business Preferred Credit Card: Earn 100,000 bonus points after spending $8,000 on the card in the first three months from account opening.
- Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card: Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.
Cards that earn bonus rewards on holiday spending
Another approach is to use a credit card that offers bonus rewards with popular merchants for holiday shopping. Here are some of the top cards to consider for your holiday purchases:
- Chase Freedom Flex: This card with rotating categories provides 5% cash back on up to $1,500 spent in the fourth quarter of 2023 at PayPal, wholesale clubs and select charities (activation required by Dec. 14, 2023). Although categorized as a cash-back card, you can combine your earnings with points from your Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, Chase Sapphire Reserve or Ink Business Preferred Credit Card to obtain fully transferable Ultimate Rewards points.
- Discover it® Cash Back: By activating this card between now and Dec. 31, you can earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 spent in the fourth quarter of 2023 at Amazon and Target (then 1% cash back).
The information for the Discover It Cash Back has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Add an authorized user
Adding an authorized user to a credit card account offers numerous advantages. Firstly, it aids the primary cardholder in meeting specific spending requirements and accelerating the accumulation of rewards. Additionally, authorized users can leverage the primary cardholder’s credit score and credit history, which often leads to improved credit scores.
Why you should avoid store cards
While the strategies above can help you maximize your holiday purchases, there is one sales tactic you should avoid: applying for store credit cards. As you shop online or in-store this holiday season, you may receive offers from specific retailers to open a new store card account. These offers can be tempting, especially when they promise an instant discount of 10% or 20%, along with ongoing rewards.
However, it is generally not worth getting a store credit card. Firstly, applying for one usually results in a hard inquiry on your credit report, which can negatively impact your credit score. Additionally, it will likely be considered a new account by most card issuers, which can have consequences in the future. Moreover, the discount you receive from a store credit card is unlikely to match the value of a welcome bonus offered by a new travel rewards card.
For instance, if a store card gives you a 20% discount on a $1,000 purchase, you would save $200. While this may seem significant, the best rewards credit cards can provide you with more than $1,000 in value during your first year. Therefore, store credit cards cannot compete with sign-up bonuses.
Furthermore, store cards often offer subpar rewards for your spending. However, it may be worth considering enrolling in store-specific loyalty programs, especially if you plan to continue shopping at those retailers. Although these programs may provide better rewards to holders of their respective store credit cards, joining them can still be a relatively effortless way to boost your rewards.
Using online shopping portals
You’ll probably be doing a lot of your holiday shopping online. Fortunately, there are many ways to make the most of online purchases.
One of our favorite strategies to maximize online purchases allows you to earn bonus points, miles or cash back on various online transactions. Specifically, most airline, hotel and credit card reward programs have an online shopping portal offering additional rewards at featured retailers.
All you need to do is start at the portal instead of going directly to the seller’s site. Sometimes, you can even install a shopping portal extension for your browser. Many popular online retailers, including Target, Home Depot and Macy’s, participate in these portals. It’s a quick and nearly pain-free way to boost your earnings this holiday season.
Popular online shopping portals include:
- Shop through Chase
- Barclays RewardsBoost
- Citi Bonus Cash Center
- Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan Shopping
- American Airlines AAdvantage eShopping
- Delta SkyMiles Shopping
- JetBlue TrueBlue Shopping
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Shopping
- United MileagePlus Shopping
Although many of these portals are run by the same company (and thus look the same), the payouts can differ. Fortunately, there’s an effortless way to quickly compare earning rates: Use a shopping portal aggregator like Evreward or Cashback Monitor. These sites show a side-by-side comparison of the bonuses you’ll earn across these portals, so you don’t need to fire up each one individually every time you make an online purchase.
Check for targeted card offers
Depending on your card, you may have some enticing offers and discounts on purchases you would likely make this holiday season.
If you have one or more American Express cards, you’ll want to pay close attention to the Amex Offers section of your online account(s). These targeted offers cover various merchants that could be great options for your holiday gift needs. By combining Amex Offers with earnings from online shopping portals, you can receive some impressive discounts on your holiday shopping.
If you have a Chase card in your wallet, check out the Chase offers on your online account and add the promotions that appeal to you. You can check the offers available if you have multiple Chase credit cards.
Getting the best purchase protection
Are you purchasing a high-priced gift like an iPhone 15 this holiday season? If so, by using the right credit card to buy your big-ticket item, you might be covered with purchase protection.
Purchase protection can save you from the costs of repairing or replacing damaged, stolen or lost items. However, not all credit cards offer this benefit, and the coverage can vary. Just remember to check the specific terms, such as the time period covered and the claim process, as well as the maximum coverage amount provided by your credit card.
|Maximum coverage amount per claim
|Maximum coverage amount per account
|Coverage duration (days)
|American Express® Gold Card
|$10,000 per item (or $500 per event for natural disasters)*
|$50,000 per card, per calendar year
|4 points per dollar spent at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year, then 1 point per dollar); 3 points per dollar spent on flights booked directly with the airline or purchased through Amex Travel; and 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases
|$250 (see rates and fees).
|Ink Business Cash Credit Card
|$10,000 per claim
|$50,000 per account
|5% cash back at office supply stores and on internet, cable and phone services (on up to $25,000 of purchases per year, then 1%); 2% back at gas stations and restaurants (on up to $25,000 per year in purchases, then 1%); 1% back on all other purchases
|Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express
|$1,000 per item (or $500 per event for natural disasters)*
|$50,000 per card, per account
|3% cash back on groceries at U.S. supermarkets, at U.S. gas stations and on U.S. online retail purchases (on up to $6,000 per calendar year in purchases for each category, then 1%), plus 1% cash back on other purchases
|$0 (see rates and fees)
|Chase Freedom Flex
|$500 per claim
|$50,000 per account
|5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in rotating bonus categories each quarter (requires activation) and on travel booked through the Ultimate Rewards portal; 3% back on dining and drugstores; 1% back on all other purchases
|Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card
|$10,000 per item
|$50,000 per account
|10 miles per dollar spent on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel; 5 miles per dollar spent on flights booked through Capital One Travel; 2 miles per dollar spent on all other purchases
|$395 (see rates and fees)
* Eligibility and benefit levels vary by card. Terms, conditions and limitations apply. Visit americanexpress.com/benefitsguide for details. Policies are underwritten by AMEX Assurance Company.
These cards, each chosen with a particular type of consumer or purchase in mind, are discussed below. Coverage can vary based on your state of residence, and bonus categories sometimes have caps.
Using points and miles for holiday purchases
Rather than paying for your gifts this year, you may be looking to redeem your points or miles for those purchases. This can happen when you want to minimize your out-of-pocket expenses or have many reward points and miles — especially if you aren’t traveling this holiday season.
Even though you generally get more value from travel redemptions, most loyalty programs offer numerous ways to redeem your rewards for merchandise and gift cards. Here’s a rundown of the major programs.
American Express Membership Rewards points
American Express Membership Rewards points are worth 2 cents each based on TPG’s valuations. However, in most cases, you’ll be lucky to receive even half that value when you redeem your points for gift cards or merchandise.
You’ll only receive 0.5 cents per point when choosing American Express gift cards, and points redeemed for many retailers’ gift cards will result in values below 1 cent per point.
You can also use your Membership Rewards points to pay with points at checkout when shopping with select online retailers. One of these retailers is Amazon, where your points are worth 0.7 cents. That said, there are often promotions where you can save using points.
Chase Ultimate Rewards points
Chase Ultimate Rewards points are worth 2.05 cents each, according to TPG’s valuations. These points are typically worth about half that when redeemed for gift cards, merchandise and other non-travel options.
Most retail gift card awards have a value of 1 cent per point. However, there are sometimes several different gift card options that offer you up to 10% more value, including The Home Depot, DoorDash, Bath and Body Works, Adidas and Barnes & Noble Booksellers. For these cards, you’d get a value of 1.1 cents per point.
You can also use your Ultimate Rewards points to shop directly with Amazon, but you’ll only receive 0.8 cents per point. In contrast, you’ll receive 1.25 cents per point when booking travel reservations directly through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards travel portal if you have a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or an Ink Business Preferred Credit Card. Better yet, you’ll receive 1.5 cents per point in value when booking through the Chase travel portal if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve in your wallet. Not only is redeeming Chase points through Amazon a poor value proposition, but a compromised account could wipe your Chase balance away.
Finally, Chase Pay Yourself Back is a worthy option to redeem points for a statement credit. This feature is available on all Ultimate Rewards-earning cards and allows you to redeem points for as much as 1.5 cents apiece to offset eligible purchases.
Citi ThankYou Rewards points
Citi ThankYou Rewards points are worth 1 cent each toward gift cards and 0.8 cents each toward Shop with Points at Amazon. Alternatively, you can get up to 1 cent per point when redeeming toward cash back, depending on your card. However, Citi ThankYou points are worth 1.8 cents each, according to TPG’s latest monthly valuations.
Holders of cards like the Citi Premier® Card (see rates and fees) would likely be better off transferring points to one of the Citi ThankYou Rewards transfer partners. If you transfer your points to an airline or hotel partner, you can get a lot of value when you redeem for last-minute awards or premium experiences. You can also transfer your ThankYou points to any other ThankYou Rewards member for free, which could make for a good gift.
Capital One miles
Capital One miles are worth 1 cent each when redeeming travel statement credits or most gift cards. Or, you can redeem miles to Shop with Amazon or through PayPal at a rate of 0.8 cents per mile.
However, TPG’s most recent valuations peg the value of Capital One miles at 1.85 cents each. So, you’ll generally be much better off transferring your Capital One miles to hotel or airline partners. You can also share your Capital One miles with anyone as long as they have a miles-earning account, such as the Capital One Venture card or Spark card.
Airline and hotel programs
Many airline and hotel loyalty programs offer the ability to redeem rewards for merchandise and gift cards, but you’ll almost always receive inferior value compared to travel rewards.
If you want to turn your airline miles or hotel points into a gift, consider redeeming your rewards to book travel for others. This will provide better value than redeeming your points or miles for gift cards or merchandise.
Should you do it?
When you have the option of transferring points to airline miles or hotel points, as you do with American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One miles, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards, you can come out far ahead of any merchandise or gift card options. However, when transfer options don’t exist, you may be able to get the same value when redeeming your rewards for gift cards or merchandise. Alternatively, gifting points may also be a good option.
It’s up to you regarding how you want to redeem your points. For many people, it’s better to save points for award travel and pay for gifts out of pocket. However, if your account balances are overflowing or you value the cash savings of redeeming for merchandise or gift cards, feel free. As the saying goes, value is in the eye of the beholder.
Consider booking trips for others as a gift
Remember that most (but not all) loyalty programs let you book travel for others, too. Spending your hard-earned miles to send a friend or family member on a trip might be the ultimate gift you could give this holiday season. Plus, you’ll get the same value from your points when booking a trip.
So, if you’re flush with points and miles, consider booking your college-aged cousin on their next round-trip ticket home from school. Or, treat your parents to their first international business-class ticket. Whatever it may be, you’re giving the gift of travel to those who may not have the resources to do it independently.
To buy a ticket for others, book an award trip as normal and simply add the gift recipient’s name and information on the checkout screen. They can then check in for their flight and take off — even if you’re not accompanying them.
Related: How to give the gift of travel
There are many ways to make the most of your holiday purchases this year. Most programs provide straightforward ways to redeem points and miles on gifts for your loved ones. However, you’ll generally get more value from transferring points to partner programs or redeeming them directly for travel purchases. So, consider booking your loved one a trip this holiday season or paying for gifts and maximizing your return with the perks outlined above.
For rates and fees of the Amex Gold Card, click here
For rates and fees of the Amex Blue Cash Everyday click here