Gaming the Credit Card Point System

A Very Brief History of the Credit Card Point System

Games have been around for a very long time, but the credit card points game has only been around for a few decades.  It began in the 1980’s when airlines began offering loyalty programs in the form of frequent flier programs that provided airline miles to travelers. The first credit card point system started as a simple cross promotion with a frequent flyer program.   Then in 1986, the popular cash back program was introduced when Discover Financial Services began dolling out cash to the cardholder at the end of the year based on the total amount of charges they placed on the card. Today, more than 60% of all credit cards in the United States are linked to a rewards program.

The Game

On the surface, the credit card points system game is very simple. Plan your finances in such a way as to maximize the points you receive. The challenge comes from the ever-shifting sands of marketing promotional campaigns. By design, the best campaigns are only offered for a limited time. The rules and exclusions are extensive. The possibility of unexpected consequences (for the issuer) is ever present.

There is more than one strategy to win the points game, but to be successful, players must accept a few basic principles.

All Points and Miles Were NOT Created Equal

Although it is tempting to consider United Airlines Points as being roughly equivalent to Chase Sapphire Preferred Points, it is better to consider them as separate currencies. Yes, the Swiss Franc and the Indian Rupee both have value, can be used to purchase many things, and even exchanged for one another. But to consider them as the same is to misunderstand their value. The first step serious players of the credit card points game must take is to determine what their yardstick is going to be and evaluate all offers by the same measure. Which leads to the second point.

You Need to Be Organized

Since the offers are ever changing and the rules complex, serious players must keep track of them somewhere other than their own heads. This requires a careful system of record keeping and the discipline to keep it up to date.

Not Playing to Win

By some estimates, one third of all credit card points are never redeemed. This is like leaving poker chips on the poker table. If you are not going to be serious about redeeming points for travel, hotel stays, or cold hard cash you are doing yourself a disservice. If you are going to play, play to win.


Successful players have travelled to every country in the world with an airport for free, or amassed over a million points, or financed extravagant honeymoons (and hopefully did not overlook including a clause covering points in the prenuptial agreement!)   With a little bit of insight, some discipline, and organization you too can become a credit card points millionaire.


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