Brian Kelly, founder and CEO of The Points Guy (TPG), jets around the world for next to nothing, thanks to credit card rewards and frequent-flyer miles.
"I have so many points because we have over 50 employees now and we run all of our business expenses on my credit cards," says Kelly, who started TPG as "just a fun little side gig" in 2010, when he was working at Morgan Stanley. Since then, it has evolved into a digital platform that reaches millions of people and offers tips and strategies for making the most of travel.
Kelly, who quit his corporate job in 2011, sold the company to Bankrate in 2012 but remained CEO.
"I've been able to take amazing trips using my points," Kelly tells CNBC Make It, but his favorite way to use his points is to treat his recently retired parents: "I love to spoil them. They're currently in Hawaii right now on points I gave them for Christmas."
Redeeming them for travel is a popular way to use credit card points and, "in general, if you've got cards that offer transferable points like Chase, Amex, Citi or Capital One, transferring to airlines and redeeming for business and first class tickets will be the most value," says Kelly. "But that doesn't mean you have to fly."
"People don't realize these days that you can use points for just about anything," he adds.
Here are three surprising ways you can redeem your credit card points.
Besides spoiling his parents, "I also really like to use [points] for charity," says Kelly, who, along with TPG readers, has donated millions of miles to Rainbow Railroad, an organization that helps LGBTQI people escape violence and persecution in their home countries. "What better feeling," he says, "to use points to get someone to safety so they can live a better life."
If you're interested in using points to help a charity, "as with everything, there are credit cards that are more rewarding when charging charitable donations than others," TPG notes.
The U.S. Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa Signature Card, for example, "specifically has charitable donations as one of its built-in bonus categories, earning 2 points per dollar on charitable donations as a permanent bonus category."
TPG rounds up some of the of the best credit cards to use when donating to charity here.
Points are a great way to get access to fun and sometimes exclusive experiences, says Kelly, who went to the Grammys using his Hilton points and has seen Adele and Mariah Carey perform using Starwood points.
"A lot of hotel chains, especially, are now offering experiences," he says, like Hyatt, which recently launched a platform called FIND that offers hundreds of wellness-oriented experiences. Hilton Honors points, on the other hand, are great for concerts.
Chase also offers a variety of experiences, from PGA Championship passes to ski lift tickets at Deer Valley Resort, that you can get with your card or points.
"While the return per point isn't always up to TPG standards when redeeming for experiences, other times, points are literally your only way in the door," Kelly's site notes. "If your family has ever wanted to try a new sport, get backstage access or take a class together, there are ways to leverage your points for a slew of new shared experiences."
You can also purchase items like electronics using miles instead of dollars, or gift cards for retailers like Amazon, Target, Best Buy and Staples.
TPG notes that, "you generally shouldn't redeem points and miles for merchandise, gift cards or cash back. You get way more value by using your rewards for travel, either by booking flights and hotels directly." That aside, "I also often say that the best way to use points is the one that makes you happy."
So, if you want to redeem points on merchandise and gift cards, go for it, says Kelly.
And in the long run, make sure you get the card that's best for you: "Here's the thing: If you want merchandise, don't get a travel credit card," he says. "If you want cash back or merchandise, then get a cash back card."
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