What’s the Difference Between Cash Back, Points and Miles?

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Credit card rewards typically come in one of three forms: cash back, points or miles. Depending on which card you have, you'll usually only earn one type of rewards. Here's what you should know about how cash back, points and miles differ and how you can maximize the value you get from them.

Three Types of Credit Card Rewards

Cash BackPointsMiles
Cash back cards generally have a low annual fee or none at allCards have annual fees ranging from $0 to $500 or moreCards have annual fees ranging from $0 to $500 or more
Redemption options could include statement credits, direct deposits, paper checks, gift cards and moreRedemption options could include travel, statement credits, direct deposits, paper checks, gift cards, merchandise and moreRedemption options could include travel, statement credits, direct deposits, paper checks, gift cards, merchandise and more
Redemption value is straightforward—$1 in rewards usually equals $1 in cash backRedemption value can vary depending on the rewards program, credit card and how you redeem your pointsRedemption value can vary depending on the rewards program, credit card and how you redeem your points

Cash Back

Cash back is by far the simplest and most flexible way to earn and redeem credit card rewards. When you have a cash back credit card that offers 2% back on all purchases, you'll earn $2 in rewards for every $100 you spend. If the card allows you to redeem your rewards for a direct deposit or paper check, you can use your cash however you want.

However, some cards only allow statement credits, which helps you pay down your credit card balance, but it limits your flexibility.

Cash back credit cards typically don't charge an annual fee, though there are some exceptions with cards targeted to people with poor or fair credit and with cards that offer outsized rewards value. Cash back cards may offer welcome bonuses worth hundreds of dollars and introductory 0% APR promotions that apply to purchases, balance transfers or both.

Points

Points-based credit cards can earn points that are redeemable for a variety of things, such as hotel stays, flights, general travel rewards, cash back rewards, gift cards or even charitable contributions. Redemption options and values can vary, depending on the program and the card you're using.

Some points-based credit cards don't have an annual fee, but many of them do. If you have a card with an annual fee, you'll typically have access to a bigger welcome bonus—some are worth $500 to $1,000 or even more—and more benefits.

While some points cards offer an introductory 0% APR on purchases or balance transfers, it's not as common as it is with cash back credit cards.

Miles

Historically, the term "miles" only referred to rewards you could earn with frequent-flier programs. Now, there are a handful of airline rewards programs that use the term "points" instead, and there are also some general travel rewards programs that use miles.

In other words, there isn't a lot of difference between points and miles. They're simply terms for different types of rewards program currencies.

Like points credit cards, miles credit cards can come with or without an annual fee, but cards with annual fees often offer bigger bonuses, better rewards and more valuable perks. Miles cards—especially airline credit cards—typically don't offer introductory 0% APR promotions.

Rules on How You Can Redeem Rewards

Depending on which card you have and how its rewards program works, there may be certain rules you have to follow to use your cash back, points or miles. Here are some rules you may come across:

  • Some card issuers require you to have a minimum balance—such as $25 or 2,500 points or miles—in your rewards account before you redeem.
  • Some rewards, particularly with airline and hotel loyalty programs, may expire if you cancel the account or don't maintain activity in your account for a certain period. In some cases, rewards expire after a certain time regardless of your activity.
  • You may not be able to redeem your rewards unless your account is in good standing, meaning you're not behind on payments.
  • Some cash back credit cards may require you to have an account with the issuing bank in order to request a direct deposit redemption.
  • Some travel credit cards offer lower redemption rates on non-travel redemptions.

Before you apply for a credit card, be sure to read the fine print to determine which rules apply and whether they fit with your goals.

What's the Best Way to Redeem Credit Card Rewards?

The best way to redeem your credit card rewards depends not only on the card you have, but also on your financial situation and goals.

With a cash back credit card like the Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card, it's relatively easy to maximize your rewards because you're getting cash back rewards that don't change in value when redeemed for cash back.

If you want to maximize the value of your points, taking the time to research redemptions with Chase's partners and transferring your points could net you far more value than what you'd get if you redeem directly with Chase. The same goes for other points and miles credit cards. Take a look at how much your rewards are worth, and try to pick the redemptions that give you the most bang for your buck. Keep in mind, however, that there may be times where it's better to pick a lower-value redemption option if it meets your current needs or goals, such as cash back if you're short on funds.

Check Your Credit Before Applying for a Rewards Card

Most of the top cash back, points and miles credit cards are targeted to people who have good or excellent credit. That generally means having a credit score in the upper 600s or higher.

Before you apply for a new credit card—or any type of credit for that matter—check your credit score to get an idea of where you stand. If it needs some work, take time to improve your credit before you submit an application. Alternatively, you can apply for a card that's a better fit for your credit range.

With Experian CreditMatch™, you can get personalized credit card offers based on your credit profile.

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