Accumulating miles is only half the battle—you need a plan for getting the most out of them.

Paris travel
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In On Points, Brian Kelly, founder of The Points Guy, shares his strategies for getting the most out of your points and miles.

People often neglect their frequent flyer miles and credit-card points because they don’t have a clear vision for how to use them. Effectively managing your rewards is like planning for retirement: you should set goals and constantly work toward achieving them.

Luckily, it’s really easy to accrue points these days, even if you’re not a frequent traveler. So many airline miles now come through non-flying activity—including credit card, shopping and dining bonuses. However, with billions of new miles being pumped into the system every month and little change in airline capacity (thanks, airline mergers), we’ve seen unprecedented inflation in the number of miles needed for awards. Miles lose value as the airlines increase the number needed for flights. So don’t waste time, or you’re wasting your points. Here are some ways to set your goals:

By Destination

Whether you want to visit family in Minneapolis or explore Myanmar, pick your place and work back from there. See what airlines fly to your destination of choice and figure out the most efficient way to use miles on that route. You don’t necessarily want to bank miles to the airlines that fly there the most; you may want to book through a partner. For example, if you want to visit Abu Dhabi and Etihad flies non-stop from your home city, you’re probably better off saving miles to their partner American Airlines, which generally charges fewer miles and lower fees for award tickets than Etihad does. Some destinations only have a few points hotels, so select the one that fits your needs and then build up points in the corresponding program or credit card.

By Cabin Class

While airlines’ economy sections are getting tighter and tighter, with more seats being crammed in, the opposite is happening in the front of the plane. Business and first-class cabins are increasingly luxurious—and experiencing them firsthand without breaking the bank is a worthwhile goal in itself. The three big Middle Eastern carriers (Etihad, Emirates, Qatar) have been leading the pack on first-class amentities, and you can use U.S.-based frequent flyer programs to redeem for all three at lower rates than if you had miles in their own programs. For Etihad and Qatar, redeem American Airlines miles (you have to call to book). Emirates lets you use Alaska Airlines Miles, even booking online.

By Experiences

When you travel a lot for work, sometimes the last thing you want to do with your miles and points is travel even more. Luckily, airlines and hotels have been adding non-travel packages as redemption options—often offering great value and VIP access you can’t otherwise buy. Several of my favorites are:

  • SPG Moments: I’ve redeemed points to sit in a VIP box with my dad at a Knicks game, as well as for concerts and culinary events.
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards: Offers packages to Sundance. I go every year, and the best way to go to Sundance is with VIP status and advance tickets to screenings, so there’s no waiting around wait listing for screenings.
  • Delta SKyMiles Experiences: Delta has arguably devalued their airline program the most of the major airlines. In fact, they recently stopped publishing award charts, so you can’t set goals around specific redemptions. On the other hand, Delta sponsors events like the Grammys and People Choice Awards, and you can use miles to buy access.

It can be overwhelming to figure out how to use miles—especially when you have multiple programs and credit cards all accruing into different programs. But when you focus on a goal and build a strategy around achieving it, those seemingly worthless miles can become extremely valuable.