Getting into the points and miles market is easier than you think. Setting up accounts and doing some light research can have you gaining bonus points by just changing a few habits. Shopping through online portals, using the right credit cards, and having the online tool to help you organize it all will lead you on the path to free first class trips in no time.
1) Set-up Accounts with the Programs You’ll Use Most
When you’re beginning your journey with miles and points, you need to bank on the programs that you use, or think you will use, the most. This helps you gather points easily and allows you to earn points on every flight you take. If you end up signing up for all the loyalty programs you can think of and never use your membership, it will get cancelled and any bonus points you earned will be lost.
If you constantly fly on U.S. Airways, United, and American Airlines, signing up for their programs is in your best interest. If once every two years you fly Southwest, although this does seem like a great opportunity to gain points, if you don’t use your frequent flyer membership frequently, your points will be erased during those two years. Some programs will delete your membership after 18 months if you don’t fly or transfer miles to the program and some give you up to two years. While you should never allow your miles to expire, as a beginner, it may be hard to keep track of all the loyalty programs that you hardly ever use.
Signing up for programs that are all in the same alliance also helps you to keep your miles alive. You can transfer miles to the account you use most or transfer miles to the account you use least to keep the account active. For example, you flew on American Airlines only once but you fly on U.S. Airways all the time. Your American Airlines account and miles will soon expire because of lack of use. Simply transfer your miles from your U.S. Airways account to your American Airlines account since they are both part of the oneworld alliance, and you will never lose your miles or account.
There are also several other opportunities to transfer miles if you want to keep other accounts alive. If you have an SPG, Chase, or AMEX card, you can transfer your airline points to your credit card or vise versa to keep them or the account alive. This also works for hotel loyalty programs and rental cars.
Using each miles and points online portal will help you to see what other programs they are in business with. For example, if you always rent cars from Hertz, their expansive airline partnerships will help you earn miles and points for both Hertz and the airline you’re traveling on. You can then transfer those points to any hotel program by either using the airline’s online portal or the hotel’s online portal. As long as they are partners, you can move your points around with ease. Sign up for the rental car companies and hotels you use most to get the top-notch rewards and maximize points.
If you happen to sign up for almost every program, it’s always important to write down all of your login information, confirmation numbers (if given), and any other specifics you may need for the future. When you don’t use accounts often, it’s easy to forget the little things like passwords and lengthy security questions. Also, make sure to keep track of any membership numbers and cards the programs send.
You don’t need to worry about signing up for every program under the sun to get every last mile, but utilizing the programs you use the most (airlines, hotels, rental cars, and credit cards) will help you travel in first class for free faster.
2) Utilize Online Tools such as Award Wallet and Tripit
Now that you’ve signed up for every program that’s valuable to your travel strategy, you’ll need to keep track of the amount of miles or points in each account. Online points managers such as Award Wallet and Tripit can really help you see which accounts need to have their points transferred and which accounts you gain the most miles in. Both Award Wallet and Tripit are free services and truly help you to gain free first class flight travel.
When you are a part of several different programs, it is difficult to manage the miles and keep them active. Having the ability to see which miles expire soon and if there are any programs where you should cancel your membership can help in your overall points strategy. There’s no point in joining a program you’ll never use and having to manage that account will become tedious. Maximize your time and points by using an online tool to keep track of the programs you use frequently.
3) Pick the Credit Card that Best Meets Your Needs and Use it Responsibly
One of the simplest ways to boost your points game as a beginner is with credit card sign-up bonuses. Whether you’re signing up for the credit card of the airline you travel with most or another card like the Capital One Venture, the points can range from 20,000-85,000 bonus points. If you travel on airlines frequently, a great way to boost your points total is to use the airline’s credit card. Not only will you get points for every dollar you spend, but the points jump in double and triple amounts if you use the card to buy plane tickets on that airline, food on the flight, or use the online shopping portal.
Another note to consider, you will not get the miles or points on your credit card if you do not pay off the balance each month. Many of the credit card offers state in the fine print that you have to have a 0 balance each month to keep the miles you earned. I know for my Capital One Venture card that it clearly states you cannot have late fees if you want to keep the miles you earned during that statement period. If you have a delinquent account or if you forget to make a payment, this affects your miles/points total. Use cash only if you have to and if a store, restaurant, or other type of merchant is going to impose a 3% fee on credit card use, it’s better to use cash or your debit card in these situations.
Each program is different and deals with the miles/points in various ways. Some programs may let you keep your miles each month as long as you pay the minimum balance and some will not allow you to have any miles during your statement period if you don’t pay off the card in full. Especially for your credit history and score, rewards programs, and signing up for other cards, paying off your card in full each month is critical. You don’t have to spend a lot to get the rewards but always spend within your means and never overspend just for the rewards.
Credit Cards that Work Well for Points Travelers and Business Travelers:
- Capital One Venture Card: This was my personal choice for a travel credit card. The rewards are simple, you earn 2 miles for every $1, and you have tons of options for booking and redeeming miles. When you spend $2,000 within the first 3 months, Capital One awards you with 20,000 bonus miles. There is a $59 annual fee but it’s waived for the first year, which is great for beginning travelers and there are no foreign transaction fees. Low annual fees are great for beginning travelers and the high rewards rate allows you to travel in first class sooner.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card: As always, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is on every list as a great travel card. Chase offers 40,000 bonus miles for spending $3,000 in the first 3 months and an additional 5,000 points when you add another cardholder. Their $95 annual fee is reasonable and also waived for the first year and there are no foreign transaction fees. You can utilize the Chase Ultimate Rewards online portal to transfer your rewards between your loyalty programs to get the best bang for your buck. They also offer excellent point bonuses for using your Chase card on partner members and through the online shopping portal.
- Starwood American Express: The Starwood American Express card is perfect for those who love to stay at Starwood (SPG) hotels. With this credit card, you can earn up to 25,000 bonus points: 10,000 for your first purchase and 15,000 for spending $5,000 within the first 6 months. $5,000 over 6 months ($833/month) is definitely reasonable for the beginning traveler and the annual fee of $65 is waived the first year. This card can become your best travel asset as you transfer your points to dozens of airlines and hotels and you can use your cash and points to get fabulous rewards. Starwood also offers an additional 5,000 points for every 20,000 points transferred. A beginner can really cash out on all the offers from Starwood and their SPG points.
- CitiBusiness/AAdvantage World MasterCard: The CitiBusiness/AAdvantage card is perfect for those who travel on American Airlines or their travel partners often for business. Their 30,000 bonus miles awarded for $1,000 spent within the first 3 months is generous and a low amount for beginners to achieve. They also have a $95 annual fee, allow you and four travel companions to check one bag for free, and you can earn an American Airlines Companion Certificate after spending $30,000 within the first year. You can maximize points on this card by using it to book all of your American Airlines travel and by transferring points between partner airlines.
- Ink Bold: The Ink Bold card sports 50,000 bonus points for spending $5,000 in the first 3 months and is a great starter card for business travelers. It offers 5 points per $1 on the first $50,000 spent within the year on cell phones, cable TV, Internet, and office supplies and 2 points per $1 at gas stations and hotels. The $95 annual fee is waived for the first year and there are no foreign transaction fees. For a starting business or business traveler, this is a great option.
- Ink Plus: The Ink Plus card is a step up from the Ink Bold but offers the same 50,000 bonus points after $5,000 spent in the first 3 months. The $95 annual fee is waived the first year and you earn the same 5 points per $1 and 2 points per $1 in the same categories as the Ink Bold. There are still no foreign transaction fees and this card is wonderful for business travelers who are upgrading or need a card with a few more benefits than the Ink Bold can offer.
- Any Credit Card that is Aligned with the Airline You Travel on Most: Check the foreign transaction fees, the annual fee, late fees, annual interest rate, points per $1 spent, bonus points awarded within the first few months, credit rating needed, and bonus points for using portals or transferring points before you sign up for any old airline card. However, if you find that the card checks out in the above categories and it’s on the airline you use most, sign up and start using it responsibly. Purchase everything with it and always remember to pay the balance off each month to keep your statement rewards.
4) Use Online Shopping Portals
Even though this was discussed somewhat in the earlier sections, it’s always a great reminder to never shop through the website of your favorite online stores. You gain so many more points by traveling through online shopping portals to purchase the same items on the same website. The fact that you use the online shopping portal gives you sometimes up to 5 times the rewards points amount. For example, you want to shop at Old Navy.com for a new sweater. You go through the online shopping portal of your credit card or airline frequent flyer program and you’ve instantly earned extra rewards for the same sweater at the same store. As online shopping grows, this is one of the easiest ways for beginners to up their rewards amount easily and travel in first class faster.
5) Leverage Your Current Status with Airline Status Match or Challenge
Once you have become a top tier member of a rewards program, you can use that as leverage to gain elite status in other programs. Nobody wants to start over each time they join a rewards program so there are many different ways you can gain equal status when joining new programs. Whether you get a status match or a status challenge, you can jump the line.
Status matches occur when an airline will grant you elite status just by you providing your credentials from another airline. Status challenges occur when an airline gives you a set of criteria to meet within a certain amount of time to gain the status in their program. There are a variety of rules that come with a status match or status challenge so reading up on them beforehand will help speed up the process.
A few items to remember:
- Each airline only allows you to match or challenge once
- You can sometimes get around the one time rule by creating a new frequent flyer account
- You must match or challenge outside of alliances and partnerships, meaning you can’t challenge your status on American Airlines if you’re an elite member of the U.S. Airways frequent flyer program
- Ask for the benefits you’d like in the membership
- Read the rules of matching/challenging for each airline before starting the process
- Think of your approach as a frequent flyer: you use their airline often, you like their services, you recommend their airline to others
6) Sign up for Dining Programs
Once you have a credit card from your favorite airline or have the travel credit card that works best for your needs, signing up for a dining program will help you automatically earn miles/points. Every time you swipe your card that’s linked to participated restaurants, you can bank on extra points and get closer to a free first class trip. The dining programs are also free so no extra charges for membership.
The typical earning potential is 3 miles per dollar but if you gather up 10 dining experiences, you gain VIP status and reach 5 points per $1 spent. As always, you can sign up for more than one program; however, you can only link one card per program. If you have a Capital One card linked to your Delta dining program, that works but you can’t activate your Capital One card on your Southwest dining program.
Miles/Points Dining Programs Participating Travel Programs:
- American Airlines
- Alaska Airlines
- US Airways
- RBC Rewards
- Priority Club
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Dining: 300 points for new members when you spend $25 at a participating restaurant within the first 30 days and complete an online review.
- Priority Club Dining: 500 points for new dining members when you spend $25 at a participating restaurant within the first 45 days.
- American Airlines AAdvantage: 1,000 points for new dining members when you spend $30 or more at a participating restaurant within 30 days of joining the program. You must also complete and online review to receive the points.
- Hilton HHonors Dining: 1,000 points for new dining members when you spend $30 at a participating restaurant within the first 30 days and complete an online review.
- US Airways Dividend Miles Dining: 1,000 points for new dining members breaks down as follows: 500 points when you spent $25 at a participating restaurant and 500 points for the second over $25 check within the first 45 days. This also requires an online review.
- Alaska Mileage Plan Dining: 1,000 points for new dining members when you spent over $25 at a participating restaurant within the first 30 days.
- United Mileage Plus Dining: 1,000 points for new dining members when you spend over $50 at a participating restaurant within the first 30 days and complete and online review.
- Delta SkyMiles Dining: 1,200 points for new dining members when you spend $25 at a participating restaurant within the first 30 days and complete an online review.
Remember as a beginner, you have to build your status up to elite using all of the options you have available. Maximize points by transferring them with bonuses, sign up for partner programs like hotels, rental cars, and allied airlines, and use the credit card of the airline you travel on or the one that best fits your needs. Use that credit card for everything but always spend within your means; that means you can pay off the balance at the end of each month. Keeping a good credit rating allows you to get other travel cards to expand benefits and allows you membership to other programs.
Set up the accounts you need for the travel you do. It’s simple: you fly Delta all the time, you have a Delta Skymiles AMEX card, you pay off the balance every month, you reap the benefits of having a ton of miles every month by redeeming them through the online portal, and you buy all of your travel supplies and clothes through the online shopping portal gaining even more miles/points. Cards like the Capital One Venture card allow you to redeem past travel expenses and book from any travel website and still gain or redeem points. If flexibility is important to you, make sure you pick the travel credit card, frequent flyer program, rental car company, and hotel rewards program that fits your needs. Enjoy the benefits of flying first class sooner by using all of these tips to expand your miles and fly for free in the best seats.
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