Technology has improved loyalty programs, making it easier for brands to issue rewards points and for consumers to use them.

Technology has greatly improved loyalty programs over the years, making it easier for brands to issue rewards points and for consumers to manage and use them. The next step is to truly turn loyalty into currency by making it just as easy to pay with points. For instance, when booking online, members of Virgin America’s Elevate frequent flyer program can click to see the cost of flights in dollars or Elevate points. And starting this week in New York and Chicago, American Express cardholders will be able to pay with points at McDonald’s restaurants. The process is simple and fast, forgoing codes or prior registration: The payment screen displays the option for diners who use an AmEx card, along with number of points required, and the cardholder presses a “yes” button to proceed. The program will roll out across the U.S. in the next few months.

Going forward, digital wallets will let brands easily integrate points with payments, allowing consumers to carry loyalty points and spend them as desired. AmEx is experimenting here too by integrating with Uber: Those who register an AmEx card can pay with points when using the app to order a cab. In the “fast-emerging future,” theorize professors Edward Castronova and Joshua A.T. Fairfield in a New York Times column, “virtual assets of all sorts—traditional currencies, but also bitcoin, airline miles, cellphone minutes—are interchangeable.” As they explain, “It’s all bits anyway.” In tandem with the emergence of multiple new ways to pay, the concept of what a currency can be is rapidly evolving.

Image credit: McDonald’s