Over the course of a year, tons of “points travelers” visit dozens of countries around the world without ever breaking the bank. How do they do it? It’s easy – the secret to being just another points traveler lies in maximizing the value of airline frequent flyer miles and credit card points.
So, you obviously want to get started. You’re new to the concept. And you stumbled across this blog. These are all good things. A spark has been ignited within, and you’re excited to learn more. But I can also bet my bottom dollar that there’s a little part of you that’s a teeny-bit overwhelmed. Don’t worry – I’ll be the first to admit that I was equally as intimidated when I jumped on the bandwagon in the very beginning – there’s just SO much to learn.
It can be a total “information overload” in the beginning. I completely understand how you might be feeling, and I created this guide to help you get started with the very basics. I can promise you that you’ll learn more than as you keep reading the blog, so I hope you’re excited!
One of my favorite things about points and miles is the great sense of freedom that comes along with knowing that you can travel comfortably to almost destination in the world without leaving a dent in your wallet. Sure, there are unavoidable expenses when traveling, such as fuel surcharges, taxes, visas, spending money, etc., but if you play your cards right, you’ll be up in the air and on your way to places unimaginable in no time.
So now that your excitement level is up, let’s get started! Allow me to share some of my favorite points and miles strategies with you to help you get started:
- Set Travel Goals. This one is easy, and chances are you already have a travel goal in mind since you’re looking to explore the wonderful world of points and miles. Do you dream of flying first class to your beach-front oasis in Maui? Or are you yearning to have your entire extended family join you for a family reunion in Orlando? Perhaps you want to visit a celebrity hot-spot like The Maldives. Whatever your dream plans are, be sure to jot them down and create a game plan.
- Sign Up For and Keep Track of Loyalty Programs. First things first, you should open up accounts with the major airline loyalty programs and hotel programs, especially if you’ve flown or stayed in a hotel recently (most airlines and hotels allow you to retroactively receive points/stay credits for recent flights and hotel nights). Signing up for loyalty programs only takes a few minutes, and if it makes you more comfortable, start with the ones you’re already familiar with. Accumulating miles and points is as easy as adding your frequent flyer number or hotel loyalty number to your ticket or reservation at the time of purchase or when you check in. Be sure to keep your balances active by flying, staying, or by other mileage-earning activities such as shopping online or dining out. One note – With most programs, miles expire after a significant period of inactivity (usually 2 years), so be mindful about keeping track of your accounts. My favorite free program that allows you to track and manage all miles and points accounts in one place is Award Wallet. There are also many great ways to prevent your miles from expiring; Need ideas? Be sure to check out my recent post – 36 Easy Ways to Prevent Your Miles from Expiring.
- Practice Good Spending Habits and Credit. Having good credit and spending habits never goes unrewarded in the world of points and miles. In fact, one of the fastest ways to fly for free using miles is by redeeming credit card offers (more on that in a bit). Before thinking about applying for a travel credit card, be sure to know your credit score and monitor it monthly. Sure, there are many programs out there that offer free credit reports, but many of them come with hefty monthly fees after the free trial period is up. CreditSesame and CreditKarma both offer truly free credit monitoring.
- Use the Right Travel Rewards Credit Card. As I mentioned above, one of the best ways to earn and travel with points and miles is to take advantage of some of the lucrative credit card sign up bonuses out there. With so many “travel credit cards” being pushed upon us, how can you be sure you’re using the most rewarding one? I recommend starting with no more than two travel rewards credit cards at once (you can work your way up from there; I currently have a dozen active cards!)
- Earn Miles While Shopping Online. Did you know that you can earn valuable points and frequent flyer miles just from shopping online? Yup, you can still get the same great online deals from your favorite retailers and earn points and miles in the process just by shopping through a loyalty program’s co-branded shopping portal. I use CashBackMonitor.com, an awesome database that tells you which award programs will get you the most points or miles for your dollar when shopping online. Go ahead and shop ’til you drop, and watch the points add up!
- Do Your Homework and Know Your Programs. For those who are new to the points and miles game, I’ll agree that diving right in and getting to know all of the program rules can be intimating at first, but if you can get familiar with your programs, then you’ll have a better sense of which miles and points to use to get the “most bang for your buck”. As an example, you can get to Miami from New York via American Airlines for just $11.20 round trip using 15,000 British Airways Avios. That same trip prices out as 25K American Airlines AAdvantage miles if booked directly from your American Airlines account. Do your research and you can stretch your points and miles to their limits.
- Earn Miles While Dining Out. Another quick and easy way to earn some extra miles and points is by signing up for your preferred airline’s dining program. Once you sign up, you simply sync your credit card to your profile. Every time you dine at a participating restaurant, you’ll earn extra points in addition to the points you earn normally on your credit card by submitting a short survey about your dining experience (which usually takes less than a minute). To learn more about how dining programs work, including some of my strategies to maximize your earning with dining programs, I invite you to visit my post here
- Stay Current. This one’s a no-brainer. By staying current, I mean keeping up with the top travel blogs, forums, and social media. To be honest, 90% of my yearly travel is inspired by some type of “deal”. I generally have a sense of where I want to go in the world, but if I see an awesome flight deal posted on one of the popular points and miles forums (I like MilePoint and FlyerTalk), I jump on it and make a vacation out of it. It’s also not a bad idea to follow your favorite airlines and travel personalities on Twitter and Facebook (hint: those are my accounts!); they’re usually the primary source of the latest deals, promotions, free points, strategies, and ideas for how to redeem your points and miles.
- Be Realistic. Just because you have a stash of credit card points and airline miles does not mean you get to wake up and hop on your own personal private jet (wouldn’t that be nice though?) It’s also important to periodically re-evaluate how you’re earning points and what points are important to you. So many people come to me and say, “I have this great credit card that gets me so many points” and I nearly cringe when I hear that it’s a co-branded Costco card. If you’re serious about learning how to fly for free, do your homework beforehand and set realistic goals; it’ll pay off!
- Stay Inspired and Have Fun. It’s a lot to take in, but diving into the world of points travel is well worth it. I’ll leave you with just few words: have fun and enjoy the ride! Now get out and travel! :)
Airline Programs (* next to my favorites to start with)
- Air Canada Aeroplan
- Air France/KLM Flying Blue
- British Airways*
- Cathay Pacific
- United MileagePlus*
- US Airways*
- Virgin America
- Virgin Atlantic
Hotel Programs (* next to my favorites to start with)
- Best Western
- Club Carlson*
- Choice Hotels
- La Quinta
- Priority Club*
Rental Car Programs
Hotel Free Night Redemption Charts
- Best Western
- Choice Privileges (Comfort Inn, Comfort Suites, Quality Inn, Sleep Inn, Clarion, Cambria Suites, MainStay Suites, Suburban, Econolodge, Roadway Inn, Ascend)
- Club Carlson (Radisson, Country Inn & Suites, Park Inn, Park Plaza, Radisson Blu)
- Hilton HHonors (Waldorf Astoria, Conrad, Hilton, DoubleTree, Embassy Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton Inn, Homewood Suites, Home2 Suites, Hilton Grand Vacations)
- Hyatt Gold Passport (Park Hyatt, Andaz, Hyatt Regency, Hyatt Place, Hyatt Summerfield Suites)
- Marriott Rewards (The Ritz-Carlon, JW Marriott, Autograph Collection, AC Hotels, Courtyard, Springhill Suites, TownePlace Suites, Marriott Executive Apartments, Marriott Vacation Club, Grand Residences by Marriott, Bulgari Hotels & Resorts, Edition, Renaissance Hotels, Marriott Hotels & Resorts, Fairfield Inn & Suites, Residence Inn)
- Priority Club (Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Candlewood Suites, Staybridge Suites, Crown Plaza Hotels & Resorts, Hotel Indigo, Intercontinental Hotels & Resorts)
- Starwood Preferred Guests (Sheraton, Four Points by Sheraton, W Hotels, aloft hotels, The Luxury Collection, Le Meridien, element, Westin Hotels & Resorts, St. Regis)
- Wyndham Rewards (Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, Wyndham Grand Collection, Wyndham Garden, Tryp, Wingate, Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham, Microtel, Dream Hotels, Planet Hollywood, Ramada, Night, Baymont Inn & Suites, Days Inn, Super 8, Howard Johnson, Travelodge, Knights Inn)
My Favorite Cash Back Portals (Earn $$ for online purchases)
- HotelTonight App (related post and free $25 promo code)
- Uber (on-demand taxis and car service – my obsession!)
- RocketMiles (earn airline miles for hotel bookings)
- Award Wallet (helps me keep track of all of my points and miles balances)
- Airbnb (for the “local” experience in a new city)
- BirchBox (hey… I’m a girl and love getting my monthly travel-sized samples)
- PoshMark (because never paying full price for clothes is a good thing! Plus… making $ on my old things is nice too! Join with code HUCWO for $5 credit to start.