Understanding your travel reward programs

 In Money, Travel Tips

Editor’s Note: I often complain about the number of frequent flyer miles I have that I can’t seem to use. I asked Brad, one of the brothers at World Wanderlusting, to give me the rundown on travel on the cheap using miles I’ve earned through past travels and our credit card. Please note that some of the methods mentioned in this post are controversial and not for everyone, including signing up for multiple credit cards to earn points. Use credit responsibly and find the system that works best for you and your family. Read more about credit card use after the post. 

I had a streak in college when I “broke bad.” I was a straight-up kleptomaniac for about a week.  I went from being the kid who felt immense guilt over yoinking a pack of bubble gum, to a guy who shamelessly stole Christmas gifts for every member of his family. I started with a pair of snowboarding mittens I stuffed into a box of boots I was already buying.  It was a dishonest version of “buy-one-get-one-free,” and I justified it despite knowing it was wrong.

At the peak of my depravity, I walked into an office supply/shipping store and picked up a $24 road atlas off the shelf, walked to the back of the store, put it in a large envelope and paid $4.50 to mail it to myself.

I’ll admit that I’m still a little awestruck by my own clever methods, but I’m not proud of those days.  I’m still, shall we say, as value-conscious as I’ve ever been, I’m a reformed man.  At least I think I am.  You see, now I get my “five-finger-discount” on the biggest of my spending categories – travel – and I get it legally by understanding and using loyalty point programs.

It doesn’t sound flashy, but I’m telling you, it’s a colossal heist. Here’s a taste. In the past three years I’ve stayed 49 nights in hotels free.  I flew my family of six to Panama for $261.  My wife and I just returned from a two-week trip to Italy that we booked for 40,000 points and $81 each. I could go on and on, but you’re catching the vision.

roundtrip tickets

Six round-trip tickets to Panama cost $261

 

You see, most people think they’re already playing the frequent flyer mile game, but they aren’t even in the stadium.  There is a world of travel-hacking out there that would astonish you, and the fact that you have an Alaskan Airlines credit card is only getting you started. There are people like me who are hoarding loyalty points aggressively (chubby-kid-under-the-piñata style) and I invite you to become one of them.

Here’s my Five Finger Formula:

1. Understand the Programs

The key to taking advantage of loyalty programs is, of course, to understand them. It’s not nearly as intimidating as you think.  To begin, know that there are, essentially, three forms of travel rewards:

  1. Airline Miles: You probably belong to at least one of these programs – Delta Skymiles, American AAdvantage, Southwest Rapid Rewards.  These are the most visible of all loyalty points and they’re key to making free travel happen.
  2. Hotel Points: Similarly, hotel chains offer loyalty programs that usually span a few different brands, such as the Marriott Rewards program or Hilton HHonors.
  3. Bank Points: These are generally deeper in the shadows, but they are supremely powerful because often they can be transferred to various other programs or spent like cash.  Examples include American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Barclaycard Arrival Points.

Now that you know that there are programs in each of these categories, consider that you can obtain points a few different ways:

  1. Direct Usage: Airlines usually give you miles for every mile you’ve flown and hotels give points based on the number of dollars spent.  This is a painfully slow way to accumulate points.  If you consider that a domestic flight typically costs 25,000 points and the US is about 3,000 miles wide, you’d need at least four or five round-trip flights, coast-to-coast in order to earn your free flight.
  2. Per Dollar Spending on Credit Cards: If you have a business that is heavy on inventory or makes other large-dollar purchases with a credit card, this is a great way to build points. Most of us are not in that position. I can spend about $1,000 to $1,500 per month in every-day expenses, also making the accrual to free-travel achingly sluggish.
  3. Upfront Bonuses from Credit Cards: For me, this has been the rainmaker. In the past three years, between my wife and I, we’ve applied for 34 credit cards and racked up more than 2.2 million loyalty points.  This is not for everyone as it does require discipline, but it is so insanely worth it.
  4. Promotions: Loyalty programs are about creating — you guessed it — loyalty.  What companies want is for you to look to their brand first when making travel plans. They earn that loyalty by helping you love what they offer. Often, programs will run specials to bump up your balances. You need to know about these.
  5. Transfers: Some programs, like the Starwood Preferred Guest, will even allow for transfers, usually from the bank points we mentioned above.  It’s especially nice to make transfers when they’re offering multiplier bonuses – sometimes including 20 percent to 30 percent more in bonus points.
  6. Buying Points: I almost didn’t include this because, more often than not, it’s not plausible to pay cash for points. But every once in a while, programs offer specials that make it worth your money.

You don’t need to go out and sign up for a bunch of credit cards right away, but there is no harm in enrolling in the loyalty programs for airlines and hotels.

Do yourself a favor and create a single username and complex password that you’ll use to register for all of the programs.  E-mail yourself the account numbers once you’ve registered and keep them in a special e-mail folder.  By doing this, you’ll also be piped in to special promotions sent via e-mail from time to time.

With memberships everywhere, you’ll always be prepared in case you fly an airline you don’t normally use or stay in a new hotel. Commit that you won’t allow opportunities to fall by the wayside. I have friends who are crazy about travel and yet somehow they have allowed 17,000 miles to go uncaptured after flying to China without registering for a program. [gagging sound]  Don’t do that to yourself.

Create a stream of points-and-miles education by subscribing to blogs. Obviously, we’d welcome your subscription to WorldWanderlusting.com and we’d urge you to check out MillionMileSecrets.com and the forums at Flyertalk.com. This way you’ll always be aware of what’s happening in the Miles and Points world.

3. Get Some Points Coming

Maybe you’ve already got some built up. Perfect! That’s a good start. But good is an impediment to great.  I want you to get a taste of what it feels like to be empowered by an award wallet that is brimming with opportunity.

My favorite “getting started” strategy right now is to begin piling up points with the Barclaycard Arrival World Mastercard.  It’s super simple to redeem the points — just reimburse yourself for travel purchases. The up-front bonus is healthy – you get $440 in free travel after spending $1,000.

Aside from that, make a determination about which programs best suit you.  If you fly Southwest Airlines often, search out some ways to pile up Southwest Rapid Rewards.  If you love staying in Starwood Hotels, get the Starwood card. It offers enough bonus  points to stay as many as eight nights in Category 2 hotels after meeting the minimum spending requirement.

4. Know How to Value Them

This the most challenging part. Travel points are currency, and, as such, their value is variable. The most confusing element is the concept of “miles.”  They’re referred to as such because, historically, airline miles have been accrued on a “miles-flown” basis. But, with most programs, redemption has little to do with distance flown.

Airlines

Here’s how redemption breaks out for most airlines. (Because I always think in terms of maximum value, the figures below are for the lowest possible redemption for each program.  You can pay much more in points than this, but these are baseline figures for the lowest amount you can get away with.)

  1. Domestic flights on major carriers typically cost 25,000 points.  The exceptions are Southwest, whose redemption is directly relative to the cost of the flight (70 Rapid Reward points per dollar on Wanna-get-away fares), and British Airways, which does consider the length of your flight in valuing redemption (making it an incredibly cheap way to book short flights).
  2. Central America, Caribbean and Hawaii flights range from about 30,000 to 40,000 points. Availability for these is best on American, Frontier, and US Airways.
  3. Europe and South America run between 40,000 to 60,000 points. I think the greatest value in all of frequent flyerdom is the 40,000 redemption to Europe on American between Oct. 15 and May 15. Getting $1,300 flights for 40,000 miles is like an ultimate clearance sale. American Airlines is also an incredible value to South America, sometimes even offering flights for 30,000 points.
  4. Souteast Asia, Africa, Australia and everything else are 60,000 to 100,000. I like United for these kinds of flights. Delta works, too, but availability is scarce.

You can research each program on their individual websites, but we consolidated the links in our Using Airlines Miles page.

Hotels

Getting free flights is just the cake. Free hotels? Now that’s the icing. The variance on hotel points is far greater, so it’s nearly impossible to create a value system that runs across systems.

The first thing you need to understand about hotel points is that all hotel chains divide their hotel properties into categories.  The higher the category, the more points they call for. In most cases, Category 1 hotels are very few and far between.  I always like to look at programs in terms of how many points it takes to redeem for a Category 2 hotel – that gives you a good baseline value to compare across the board. (Category 2 hotels are generally great hotels in good locations that can be booked for fewer points than other, more points-expensive properties).

Dornbirn, Austria

The view from the hotel where we stayed for free in Dornbirn, Austria – Starwood Cat 2

Approximate points required for one night in a Category 2 hotel:

  1. Marriott Rewards 10,000 – There are an abundance of Marriott hotels across the globe.  The best finds for category 2 hotels are right here in the US and in Spain, for whatever reason.
  2. Starwood Preferred Guest 3,000 to 4,000 (Sheraton, Westin, Aloft) – I used a few of these hotels in Italy and there are some good ones in popular vacation destinations in the United States as well.
  3. Club Carlson 15,000 (Country Inn & Suites, Radisson) – This is my favorite program right now, especially because having the card they offer equates to a “book one, get one free” deal that really stretches the points. There are super nice category 2 hotels all over England and in a number of countries in Central and South America.
  4. Hilton 12,500 (Hampton, Doubletree) – I feel like this is the most overvalued chain, charging a lot of points that are tough to accrue for hotels that aren’t all that great.
  5. Priority Club 15,000 (Holiday Inn, Candlewood) – You can search out category 2 hotels, but the best way to use these points is on their Point Breaks hotels that allow you to stay for only 5,000 a night.
  6. Choice Hotels 8,000 (Comfort Inn, Quality Inn) – This is a great option for free stays in good locations in large cities that usually require far more points from other programs – examples are Paris, Rome, London, Frankfurt, etc.

Cruises and rental cars

Now, you’ve got a stash of hotel and airline points that you’re greedily counting like Scrooge McDuck.  All you need is a way to tie it together – is it too much to ask for free car rentals and cruises, too? No, it’s not. In fact, you can pull this off with bank point programs that have a portal that allows you to book these things for free, or that provide reimbursement for travel purchases.  In many cases you can also transfer these points to hotel or airline programs to top off your accounts when you need a little boost.

Here are the major bank point programs:

  1. Barclays Arrival Points – I lead with this one because I love how flexible it is and how simple the earning capacity is.  You earn two points for every dollar you spend and a 10 percent point kickback when you reimburse yourself for travel purchases. It equates to 2.2 percent cash back for travel, and that just can’t be beat.
  2. Chase Ultimate Rewards – This is another solid program with an option to use the points as cash at a 1.25 ratio.  You can also transfer to a lot of other programs.  There are a few different cards that you can use to pile up these kinds of points.
  3. American Express Membership Reward Points – AMEX controls the market on business spending, so there are a lot of people with hundreds of thousands of points.  I’d much prefer to have the others, though, because they offer 1.25 points per $1 to two points per $1 and offer more flexibility in transfers and spending.
  4. Capital One Venture Points – Also a travel reimbursement program, this one is good, but it has been a long time since there have been big, up-front bonuses to lure me in.

Overall, the points are ultimately worth what you value them for.  If you never want to go on a cruise, maybe the Barclay Arrival points aren’t all that great for you.  If you stay with friends or rent vacation homes, maybe you’re better off to focus on airline miles over hotel points. The important piece is that you know what you want and how to get it.

5. Know How to Redeem Them

All this is for naught if you can’t figure out how to use these points you’ve been gathering. There’s always the good old fashioned way of calling in, but unless your a pro at interpreting broken English and waiting on hold excites you, you’re going to want to book online.

I keep track of all my points in various programs with www.AwardWallet.com – it’s a handy online tool (and app) that keeps track of all my points, logins and passwords from the various loyalty programs.  Logging in to look over my points-bank feeds my wanderlust when I need a pick-me-up, and helps me dream up new travel destinations.

Every program has an online portal and booking with points is not much different from normal reservations.

We’ve done a number of instructional videos on our Youtube Channel, but fiddling around with online portals yourself is really the best way to learn how to do it.

When booking, the most important rule is to be flexible. This is the real secret to using loyalty points efficiently.  I always tell people: “If you want to use frequent flyer miles to go to Hawaii from December 23 to Jan 2nd and stay at a specific hotel, there’s a chance you could do it, but it’s going to completely drain you. If you want to go to someplace with a nice beach in the wintertime and stay in a clean hotel, you will be amazed by how much you can do with how little.”

Your frequent flyer adventures will be so much cheaper, so much more frequent, and so much more memorable if you’re willing to take the opportunities that present themselves, rather than prescribing a necessary plan that they must conform to.

Here’s an example:  Every quarter, Priority Club releases their list of Point Breaks hotels – properties they let you stay at for 5,000 points per night.  Since I have 85,000 points, I could stay in one of those puppies for as many as 17 nights.  Looking through the list, I think, “Hmm, a Staybridge Suites in Valley Forge, Penn. Isn’t that where Gen. George Washington knelt and said a humble prayer before leading the Continental Army to victory?” Guess who just booked a trip to Pennsylvania?

Civita Bagnoregio

A shot of Civita Bagnoregio from an $81-per-flight trip to Italy with 13 free nights in hotels

In Summary

As with any journey of a thousand miles, just as Lao-Tzu said, this one begins with a single step — a step in the direction of almost-free travel. Commit now to do more than casually collect frequent flyer miles and points. If you’re doing it right, it will feel like stealing — the exhilarating part, without the guilt. Just like travel itself, it’s something you’ll never regret.

Brad Christensen is one of two blogging brothers at www.WorldWanderlusting.com, where they write about inexpensive ways for people to get to places they had only dreamed of going. They hope to inspire others to travel – to infect them with a serious case of wanderlust.  Nothing pains them more than hearing people say: “I’d love to travel, I just can’t afford it.” 

Editor’s Disclaimer: 

One method advocated by our guest columnist involves signing up for dozens of credit cards to earn rewards. This is controversial advice as manipulating loans to gain perks can have unintended, negative consequences. Have new or too many credit cards may lower your credit score and hinder your ability to receive a home loan, insurance or a phone.

Here’s some info from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Click the link for contact information of credit reporting agencies and general credit score information.

How Credit Scores Effect Price, Credit and Insurance

Excerpt from the FDIC website: 

  • Have you applied for new credit lately? Many scoring systems consider whether you have applied for credit recently by looking at “inquiries” on your credit report. If you have applied for too many new accounts recently, it could have a negative effect on your score. Every inquiry isn’t counted: for example, inquiries by creditors who are monitoring your account or looking at credit reports to make “prescreened” credit offers are not considered liabilities.
  • How many credit accounts do you have and what kinds of accounts are they? Although it is generally considered a plus to have established credit accounts, too many credit card accounts may have a negative effect on your score. In addition, many scoring systems consider the type of credit accounts you have. For example, under some scoring models, loans from finance companies may have a negative effect on your credit score.

Walking On Travels and its affiliates are not responsible for any adverse consequences due to the use of credit cards and point programs described in this post. You do so at your own risk. Please use credit responsibly. 

Keryn Means
Keryn is the founder and editor-in-chief of Walking on Travels, an award-winning site that gives hope to today’s active parents who don’t want to stop their lives; they simply bring their kids along for the ride. Keryn utilizes her project management background, along with a masters degree in journalism and an undergrad degree in photography to the team to create dynamic content and a vision that keeps up with the latest technology and trends. You can find Keryn dragging her 2 boys around the DC area most days and across the globe several times a year. Follow along on their adventures on Instagram and Pinterest.
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Showing 22 comments
  • Tara Cannon

    Oh Brad…how much we share in common. I also enjoyed about 1 week of the 5 fingered discount at age 13. Thankfully, my father was on to me, expressing how disappointed he would be if he ever found out one of his children were shoplifting. That stopped me cold in my tracks.

    Thank you for the informative article. I am a bit of a hoarder of points myself and have use several resources (like Awardwallet as mentioned) to keep it all straight. I look forward to reading more of your tips. Thanks for sharing Keryn.

    P.S. Ironically, we are also booked on points to Panama for March (via Avios). What a deal !

  • Deia @ Nomad Wallet

    Nice overview! There’s such a big learning curve with travel rewards programs that it seems almost impossible to start sometimes.

    • Brad Christensen

      Thanks, Deia! You’re right, and the secret is to start first and learn as you go, huh?

  • Amy Whitley

    Good advice. I have tried my best to follow similar strategies in the past, and my snag is always the flexibility rule. With three kids and school and sports schedules, being flexible with dates is very hard for me. I accept this as a part of life at this point and time. We try to be flexible about our destination, however. Also? My husband wisely discourages me from having too many travel-focused credit cards. I hate to admit it, but he’s right. 🙂

  • sheldon

    It’s crazy how valuable this process can be. In the last three years I’ve raked in over 2,000,000 points and miles and saved thousands on my vacations. All the while my credit score has actually increased over this period of time. I realize that it isn’t for everyone, but if you’re the right fit, it can help you take more vacations more often than ever before.

    • Keryn Means

      That is awesome Sheldon! I know keeping great credit can be done, we just always have to be sure to stay on top of it and not use credit cards as an excuse to live outside our means. However, if you can harness the power of the points then you don’t even need to use your credit card and max it out!

  • Tara Cannon

    I do have a question for Brad (or one of the other brothers). How do you keep the terms of the cards straight? I use Award Wallet to keep track of the points but what I struggle with is keeping track of which cards I want to cancel before a year is up (taking advantage of signing bonus and no annual fee, but not incurring a renewal fee on anniversary). Presently I just put reminders in my iCalendar, but I’m wondering what your system is. Thanks !

  • Aggy

    Wow, a great review, I’ve never really thought of using reward programs so thank you for the new insight!

  • Clare

    Really good tips and food for thought here. Currently, the credit card I use in the UK has a partnership with easyJet which is ideal for me since I take a lot of short city break trips around Europe. I’ve had a fair few free flights over the last 12 months!

  • Lucy @ On the Luce

    Using travel rewards is something I’ve been trying to get into more recently, and have had a couple of free British Airways flights now through their Avios scheme. Must look into the hotel rewards schemes next. Unfortunately the UK is nowhere near as good as the S for offering tons of miles for credit cards so you have to work a lot harder for your free flights here!

    • Brad Christensen

      Lucy- True, true… It’s a lot tougher outside the US. One you could really work on is Hotels.com’s welcome rewards program which gives you a free night for ever 10 you book – even if you’re booking them for someone else. I end up booking a lot of travel for friends because they know I’m a junkie.

  • carrie

    Definitely appreciate the disclaimer at the end!
    Though, as an avid “travel-hacker” myself, I want to pose another perspective on how the credit-card bonus strategy can actually help your credit score if approached correctly.
    Here’s a post my husband did about the subject: http://travelisfree.com/2013/10/08/how-to-increase-credit-score/

  • Allison

    I’ve been reading World Wanderlusting for awhile and their method fascinates me. I’m not sure I’m organized enough to successfully manage that many open credit accounts, but it does make me think that I could put my existing rewards cards and programs to better use. I’m off to check out awardswallet.com now.

  • Cathy Sweeney

    Until recently I was only interested in my United miles and I’ve been fond of using them. But there’s so much more to the whole points concept — as you illustrate so well and thoroughly. I’m ready to get serious. Thanks for all the tips.

  • Monica Suma

    Keryn,

    This is an incredibly informative post, I want to thank you for sharing all this information and for explaining it so clearly. I would advise anyone looking to learn more about travel reward programs to bookmark this as a reference, I did!

    • Brad Christensen

      Thanks, we tried to make it complete and fun to read!

  • Pola (@jettingaround)

    Good tips for those looking to get into these programs. I’m all about miles and still learning all the ins-and-outs. Crazy how much thought has to go into maximizing travel rewards!

  • Colleen Lanin

    Love these tips!

  • Theresa

    The key here seems to be: “Upfront Bonuses from Credit Cards: For me, this has been the rainmaker. In the past three years, between my wife and I, we’ve applied for 34 credit cards and racked up more than 2.2 million loyalty points.” Which cards did the author sign up for, how much were the bonuses and how long did the author keep the card open for? Ah, silly me this is a teaser guest post; must follow links for answers.

    This is a lot like extreme couponing. Maybe possible, but not for all.