Regular readers of this blog know that many of the things I often write for for intermediate travels than for beginners. But I’ve been evangelizing the benefits of miles, points, and free travel more often to colleagues and friends of friends more frequently lately, and I thought that passing along some of the basics that I’ve found helpful for the not-already-converted might be useful to some of y’all having similar conversations with family over the holidays.
And thus I offer some basic tips for getting your rewards house in order for the New Year, since most everyone can set a goal to have their dream trips inexpensively with a little bit of attention to rewards programs.
Sign up for frequent flyer programs. If you’re flying cross country and back, why not sign up for a frequent flyer program instead of letting those miles go to waste? Don’t leave miles on the table. You may not fly a lot, but with the most minimal effort those points will eventually add up to a free trip.
Keep track of your points. There are easy, free web tools like Awardwallet.com where you can store all of your frequent flyer numbers and passwords in one place. A single click will log you into your account or update the balances across all of your (and your family’s) accounts and display them on a single page. No more searching for and losing those frequent flyer numbers, and giving up on points you’re entitled to. What better New Year’s resolution than to be better organized?
Pick a mileage program (or two!) to focus on. Now that the major airlines all partner with each other, you don’t even need dozens of different accounts! Why not pick just two? US Airways, United, and Continental are all members of the Star Alliance, so flights on any one of those airlines can be deposited in the mileage account of any other. You only need to belong to one of those three! And while Delta and American Airlines aren’t partners, they are both partners with Alaska Airlines. You can deposit all the miles from Delta, American, and Alaska into an Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan account. Boom, miles from the 6 largest US domestic airlines (other than Southwest) and just two frequent flyer programs! By combining your points that way, you earn rewards faster.
Concentrate your flying on a single airline whenever possible. If you fly enough to rack up 25,000 miles or more in the air over the course of a year, pick one airline (and their partners) to fly. That way you’ll earn elite status in their frequnet flyer program which will get you the occasional first class upgrade. But more importantly for many, it means priority through security lines (at some airports), priority checkin and boarding, and waived checked baggage fees for yourself and your travel companions on the same reservation. Higher levels of elite status, from even more flying, get much bigger perks.
Don’t let your points expire. Most US airlines will zero out your miles if you don’t have activity in your account at least once every 18 months. Services like AwardWallet don’t just track your balance, they help track expiration as well so you know when to act so you don’t lose out. You’ll generally just need any sort of activity in your account to keep it active, and that can mean just making a single online purchase through an airline’s shopping portal (sometimes costing as little as $1). Or if you rent a car, credit the 50 miles or so you’ll earn to whatever program has miles that are about to expire.
Take everything that’s coming to you. Most everything you do can earn miles, and that includes all of the online shopping you do anyway. Sites like Big Crumbs and e-bates offer cash back for the purchases you make anyway, you just start at their website and click on their link for the store you plan to shop at. Most of the airlines and even some hotel programs offering their own shopping portals as well, where you’ll earn miles or points for your online purchases. With all of the different options for rewards, I recommend searching EV Reward for the merchant you’re going to purchase from. It will list out all the rebate and miles offers for that store, and also some coupons and discount codes, so you can compare and take advantage of the best offers.
Set a reward goal to motivate yourself. Think and dream about what you’ll do with all of the points you’ll accumulate. That will help motivate you to earn the points, and also help you to avoid redeeming them for low value awards like that cheap weekend from the Northeast down to Florida. Planning travel can bring you even more happiness than the trip itself, and what could be more fun than strategizing and then getting your dream trip for free?
When it comes time to redeem for that dream trip, consider engaging an expert. The one thing you don’t want to hear after saving up all those miles is that the seats you want aren’t available. If you’re interested in business class or first class award tickets to Asia or Africa, there are paid services where experts will help you get the seats you want — such as PointsPros or my own BookYourAward.com.