You pay your credit cards in full each month, you've received your first rewards card. Now, you can actually understand and start implementing the best way to use mileage rewards or points.
There is no sense reinventing the wheel. The Points Guy provides the best explanation on The Beginner’s Guide to Points and Miles: Essential Travel Tips.
Congratulations. You’ve landed on the single most important article we’ve ever produced — The Beginner’s Guide — which offers dozens of tips that will help you maximize your travel quickly, whether you’re a total newbie or a credit-card connoisseur. Below, you’ll find ten main steps to get started.
Step One: Sign Up For Loyalty Programs
First things first, you should open up accounts with the major loyalty programs. Which programs? Good question — though it’s one you’ll have to answer for yourself by evaluating your travel preferences and habits. For example, if you’re based out of Houston, you’ll likely fly United at least some of the time, so it makes sense to sign up for a MileagePlus account. Similarly, if you usually stay at Hilton properties for business travel, you’ll want to register with the HHonors program. The good news is that it’s free to sign up for virtually every loyalty program, so there’s no reason not to create an account with every airline you fly and every hotel chain you frequent.
Click here for a list of the top loyalty programs. Once you sign up, write down your user name and password for step two. Meanwhile, here’s a link to my monthly valuations series, which pegs the worth of the major loyalty program currencies.
Step Two: Join an online mileage manager
It can be hard to keep track of all your points and miles, especially when you’re earning rewards across several programs. That’s why it’s important to use an online mileage manager to stay on top of all your account balances. I personally use Points.com, a free site that tracks your balances in one convenient spot. Other managers include Award Wallet, Usingmiles.com and Tripit.
Step Three: Choose the right credit cards
Having powerful cards with big sign-up bonuses is the easiest way to jump-start your points strategy.
Before you actually apply, I’d recommend getting your free annual credit report and making sure all of your accounts are in good standing. Most banks use FICO scores to determine your creditworthiness, and that official score can be purchased from myfico.com, though you can learn about how FICO scores are calculated and which credit cards offer it for free here. Other sites will offer their own credit score estimations, but none of them are official. Be sure to check this site first before signing up with any other services that offer “free” credit reports.
Below are a few recommendations for beginner-friendly travel rewards cards. This list doesn’t include my overall top picks, such as premium cards with higher annual fees. To view the current top offers by hotel/airline check out my Favorite Cards page.
Step Four: Maximize your purchases
Put all of your expenses on your credit cards and then make sure to pay off your entire balance each month or else the interest paid will most likely negate any of the points you accrued. Use cash only when you absolutely have to! In general, though, if a merchant is going to make you pay a 3% fee to use a credit card (like most universities and some tax services do these days), it’s not worth it in my opinion.
Step Five: Sign up for dining programs
Dining programs are a great way to “double-dip” and earn extra rewards.
Dining programs are an easy way to double-dip, meaning you’ll earn rewards both for paying with a credit card and via a points or miles bonus through the dining program when you eat at a participating restaurant. Most major airlines and hotel chains offer dining programs alongside their loyalty programs, and the best option for you will depend on the loyalty currency you most want to earn (if you’re after HHonors points, for example, you’ll want to join Hilton’s program). Also consider which restaurants are included in the different programs; you’ll want to choose one that rewards you for dining at your favorite spots. As with frequent flyer and hotel rewards accounts, it’s free to sign up, so you can register with several to keep your options open. Just remember to link a card that earns bonus rewards on restaurant spending to your account. Here’s a guide to some of the top dining programs.
Earn a bonus, such as 3 United miles per dollar, by joining an airline dining rewards program and eating at participating restaurants.
Once your credit card is linked, you’ll automatically earn miles/points every time you pay with your linked credit cards at participating restaurants. As an example, if you’re based in Lower Manhattan and frequently eat at American Cut, you could register for AAdvantage Dining, Delta SkyMiles Dining or United MileagePlus Dining to earn bonus airline miles each time you visit the restaurant. By paying for the meal with a card that earns you bonus points for dining — such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which gets you 2 points per dollar — you’ll further boost your earnings.
Step Six: Use online shopping portals
Never go directly to your favorite retailer’s website if you can earn rewards through an airline or hotel’s shopping portal. Click through one of the online mileage malls and you’ll automatically get points or miles for every dollar you spend. It’s amazing — they take you to the same website you’d otherwise reach directly, but as long as you click through the portal, you get bonus points or miles, in addition to the rewards you’ll earn for using a credit card card. This adds up quickly!
Note that you can also go through several credit card issuers’ shopping portals, and you’ll earn valuable transferable points in the process. In this case, though, you’ll need to use a credit card associated with the issuer. So if you’re going through the Chase shopping portal to earn 4x Ultimate Rewards points at Bloomingdales, you’ll need to log in to your Chase account, click through to the retailer through Chase’s portal and pay for your purchase with a card linked to your Chase account.
Step Seven: Stay up to date with deals and tips
Stay up to date with the hottest deals. Read my site daily and follow me on Twitter for the latest card, deal and loyalty program news.
There’s also one forum that serves as a great resource for the avid points collector. Flyertalk.com has tons of information. Its main downside is that it’s not exactly user-friendly and the discussion in certain forums can be hostile at times. See also: 9 Flyertalk Tips for Newbies.
Step Eight: Consider earning elite status
Understand that attaining elite status (by building loyalty with a brand) is a huge aspect of a successful points strategy. Not only can elite members get enhanced customer service and upgrades, but they also almost always get bonuses on points and miles earned. Once you get status, you can “match” or challenge other airlines and hotels and enjoy perks across different programs.
Note that the levels of elite status vary from program to program, with each airline and hotel brand using a different naming convention. For example, the Delta Medallion programhas the following elite levels: Silver, Gold, Platinum and Diamond. Meanwhile, American AAdvantage breaks status down into Gold, Platinum, Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum, while United’s MileagePlus program has Silver, Gold, Platinum and 1K. Reaching an elite status level with an airline entitles you to perks such as a free checked baggage allowance and priority boarding, while status with hotel programs can get you late checkout and complimentary room upgrades. Of course, the higher the level of status, the more benefits you’ll enjoy.
Step Nine: Learn how to redeem travel rewards
Accruing points is only half of the equation. Learn the ins and outs of each rewards program you’re focusing on to make sure you’re maximizing your redemptions. All travelers have different priorities, but one way to determine whether you’re getting a decent redemption value is to divide the price of a flight or hotel stay by the number of miles or points you’d need to redeem for it, and see how that cents value stacks up to my valuation. The higher value you get, the better the deal you’re getting.
An example of a great flight redemption would be my trip from Los Angeles to Tokyo in Singapore Airlines’ Suites class on board the A380. If I had paid out of pocket, this itinerary would have cost me $7,250, but I was able to redeem 74,375 KrisFlyer miles instead — giving me an outstanding per-mile value of 9.7 cents.
Related tools worth exploring:
ANA search tool for Star Alliance availability (includes carriers such as Air Canada, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and United)
My Consolidated List of Airline Award Charts and Partner Airline Lists — Remember, you always reference the award charts of the carrier whose miles you have — not the carrier that you’d like to travel on.
Step Ten: Set a goal and achieve it
Do you want to use your miles to fly first class or would you rather take two trips in coach? Want to take a family trip when your budget would not normally allow it? Having a goal in mind will help you stay focused in the points and miles hobby, and it can inform your strategy when it comes to earning miles and opening travel rewards credit cards. Here are some links to examples of how I’ve used points to travel to places in ways I never imagined:
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