Being a savvy frequent flyer means putting together a cohesive, personalized strategy for accruing as many miles as possible—including racking up points from sources that don't involve air travel. But given the number of options, creating an action plan and a way to manage it can be daunting. As such, we've devised a cheat sheet to get you started on your way to cashing in a pile of points for your dream trip.
#1: Pick Your Programs
Enroll in as many frequent flyer programs as possible—it's free and fast to sign up on carriers' web sites. First, choose a primary program that best suits your needs. Things to consider include how often you fly, whether you mainly travel internationally or domestically, and the class in which you typically book tickets. Also, think about the carriers that service your local airports. Then, fill in with other programs so you can take advantage of free miles and points promotion deals when they pop up.
Now that you've crowded your inbox with welcome emails from every airline under the sun, you may be wondering how to keep track of all the programs and balances. The answer? Register with an online mileage manager. Our favorite is AwardWallet.com.
#2: Get the Right Credit Card
Once you have your frequent flyer programs in place, it's time to get cracking on choosing credit cards to kick off the second stage of your master points plan. The trick is to earn points by jumping on sign-up bonuses and then be smart about using the cards for purchases. But first, it's important to understand the three types of credit card points.
Transferrable-point cards such as the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card and the Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa give members the most flexibility because points accrue in a central account, and can then be transferred to several different airline or hotel programs whenever you like—and often with bonuses. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred allows transfers to your United and British Airways mileage accounts as well as Hyatt, Marriott, and even Amtrak. The American Express Premier Rewards lets you transfer points to Delta, Virgin Atlantic, Singapore Airlines, and Air Canada, among others. These points are great for those looking to top off various points accounts.
With cards such as the Capital One Venture Card, points are assigned an exact monetary value (usually around one or two cents each). Using them is basically like using money to pay for a flight through the program’s own travel site—and you still earn miles and elite status on flights booked using them. This works well for travelers with less flexibility in their plans—such as those needing to book multiple tickets, fly nonstop, or travel on specific dates. Because these points have a fixed value attached, they’re usually only viable for coach awards because too many would be needed for a business class ticket.
These are the cards people are most familiar with—ones that bank points directly to an individual airline or hotel loyalty program. They generally come with great perks, like free checked bags and priority boarding, so what you lose in the flexibility of transferring points to other airlines, you gain in money- and time-saving benefits. One exception to note is the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express, a great hotel co-branded card that gives qualification toward elite status in the SPG program, as well as valuable bonuses when you transfer points to most of their 30+ airline partners.
#3: Focus Your Finances
We all spend money, and every single dollar you spend should earn you points. Think about how many points you leave on the table when using cash or a debit card. If possible, get into the habit of paying all your accounts—utilities, phone, cable, groceries, gas, etc.—using a points-earning card. When you shop online, do so through shopping portals linked to airline frequent flyer program pages, where you'll find most major U.S. retailers. Also, make sure to register with airline dining rewards programs, a quick way to earn double, triple, and sometimes even five points per dollar spent at participating restaurants.
One important note about points-earning cards: they often have high interest rates on balances, so be sure to pay them off in full every month.
#4: Pay Attention to Deals And Promotions
There are always specials and promotions in the travel world that reward savvy loyal customers with mileage and point bonuses. Cash in on perks for things as simple as "liking" a hotel on Facebook, signing up for email newsletters, downloading an app, or checking in at the airport on a mobile device. It can be tough to keep track of all the promos out there, but there are a lot of sites, including The Points Guy, that do the hard work for you.
Fodors.com contributor Brian Kelly is The Points Guy. A former road warrior, he spent years working in recruitment for a major investment bank, traveling over 125,000 miles annually, and spending well over fifty nights a year in hotels. For Brian, getting there is often more than half the fun. His passion for travel and knowledge of the frequent flyer miles and points system has allowed him to fund a luxury travel lifestyle while spending less cash than he would to fly coach and stay in hostels.Photo credit: Pgiam / iStockphoto