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From the outside, it may look like my husband, Jan, and I spend an absorbent amount of money on travel. We do travel a lot, but the vast majority of our travel expenses are covered by points and miles.
The first five years of my career involved traveling Monday through Thursday almost every week. I racked up hundreds of thousands of airline miles and hotel points, but have since used them all. Now we have the benefit of Jan traveling for work pretty frequently and therefore earning miles and points.
You may be thinking to yourself, “but I don’t travel enough to earn enough points to do anything fun with them. I may as well not even bother.”
That’s not true. It’s always worth it to sign up for loyalty programs and if you pair that with a smart approach to using your credit cards, you can quickly earn significant points towards free travel.
The world of frequent flier miles and hotel points can seem overwhelming to most non-frequent travelers, but it doesn’t have to be.
Let me start by explaining that there are two types of miles and points you can earn and redeem for travel:
- Points/Miles through Loyalty programs with airlines, hotels, car rental agencies, etc.
- Credit Card Points
I’m going to focus on point #1 above in this article, which breaks down my Top 3 Rules for Earning and Using Loyalty Points for the Infrequent Traveler.
To preface, this post is not for frequent travelers that already know the ins and outs of loyalty programs, but even if you fall into that category, you may learn something new or it may set a fire in you to actually USE your points!
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Rule #1 – Always sign up for the loyalty program
All loyalty programs are free to sign up for, so it always makes sense to sign up and start earning points. But perhaps even more important, is to be sure that your account number is attached to EVERY booking so your points are added to your loyalty program account!
Below are my considerations when choosing loyalty partners for flights, hotels, and car rentals.
Airlines are typically a part of an airline alliance, so you just have to sign up for one airline in that alliance but you can earn points when flying on one of their partner airlines.
The three main airline alliances are:
- Star Alliance (includes United Airlines, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, etc.)
- OneWorld Alliance (includes American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Quantas, etc.)
- SkyTeam (includes Delta, KLM, Air France, Korean Air, etc.)
Take a look at the airlines that fly out of your local airport. A lot of times the alliance you choose to be loyal (or semi-loyal) to is determined by default of the flights available to you. Some cities, like Chicago, have the advantage of being hubs for multiple airlines, so in that case you have a choice.
I recommend signing up for each of the three main carriers in the US (United, American, and Delta) as you take flights with them. It can’t hurt to be a part of multiple programs.
There are other carriers with their own loyalty programs that are not affiliated with any other airlines. Outside of the major alliances listed above, I think Southwest has the best domestic airline loyalty program.
I am a big fan of Southwest Airlines since we have a Companion Pass, where I fly free when flying with Jan. I just have to pay for the taxes on the flight ($11.20 round trip within the US). As a side note, that was actually not achieved by flying a lot on Southwest; it was a points hacking strategy that is sadly no longer possible.
Are you feeling a sense of dread for all the flights you’ve already taken and haven’t gotten points for? Well good news, a lot of programs allow you to enter in your flight details to get the points for flights taken within the last year. This is totally worth it, especially for long-haul flights.
One thing that I unfortunately have to mention is that depending on the fare type for your flight, you may not earn all, or sometimes even ANY, miles on your flight. For example, if you purchase a “Basic Economy” flight, you don’t get any miles for flying. Some economy fares on certain airlines you may only earn half the miles you actually flew. Gone are the days where earning 1 for 1 miles was standard.
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Similar to airlines, hotel chains have different brands that are all under the same loyalty program, so you just have to sign up once and you can earn points for staying at any of the brands within that portfolio.
A few of the big hotel chains are:
- Marriott (e.g. JW Marriott, AC Hotels, Moxy, Residence Inn, Fairfield Inn, etc.)
- NOTE: Marriott is in the process of merging their loyalty program with Starwood Preferred Guest (e.g. St Regis, W Hotels, Westin, Sheraton, Le Meridien, Aloft, etc.) and the Ritz-Carlton
- Hilton (e.g. Waldorf Astoria, Conrad, DoubleTree, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn, etc.)
- IHG (e.g. Intercontinental, Kimpton, Holiday Inn, Hotel Indigo, Crowne Plaza, etc.)
- Hyatt (e.g. Andaz, Park Hyatt, Mirival, Hyatt Regency, etc.)
Even if a hotel isn’t a part of one of the major chains but they have a loyalty program, it is always beneficial to sign up because they often offer their members perks like free wifi. You may not earn enough points to do much with, but at least you can take advantage of some benefits during your stay!
Are you planning a wedding or big event?? Consider having it at a hotel. We had our wedding reception at the Marriott in downtown Cleveland and we negotiated extra Marriott Rewards points into our contract, which covered a significant portion of the hotel for our honeymoon in Koh Samui, Thailand!
I think you get the picture, but sign up for the car rental’s loyalty program too. The only partnership I’m aware of between car rental companies is National and Enterprise. However, a lot of rental agencies partner up with hotels and airlines.
Therefore, if you don’t rent cars very often, you could always choose which car rental company you choose based on those partnerships and have the points go towards the airline or hotel loyalty program instead. The process for how to do this varies by company.
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Rule #2 – Keep track of when your points expire
Depending on the loyalty program, your points/miles will expire if there is no activity in your account. Some program’s points expire within 12 months, others are upwards of 2 years without activity. That being said, “activity” doesn’t necessarily mean you have to fly with an airline or stay at a hotel to earn points.
Here are some other ways you can keep your loyalty accounts active:
- Purchase Points – You can purchase the minimum amount of miles/points they allow per transaction. I generally don’t recommend buying points because you’re paying more than what the points are worth, but this is a quick and easy to top up your account. This strategy can also be helpful if you’re REALLY close to the number of miles or points you need to redeem for a flight or hotel stay.
- Transfer/Gift Points – Depending on the program, you can transfer points between accounts (sometimes at a cost). The simplest way to do this is transferring points to another family member for the same loyalty program. But the more advanced way is to transfer points from credit card partners or other loyalty program partners. Either way is a good alternative to purchasing points to keep your account active.
- Use the Program’s Shopping Portal – Buying something, even for as little as $1, through the loyalty program’s travel portal will add to your balance based on the purchases you make.
- Go Out to Eat – Some programs have a partnership with a dining program where you link it to your loyalty account and you earn points by dining at certain restaurants.
- Get a Magazine – A lot of airlines are partners with MagsForMiles where you can redeem a few hundred miles for a magazine subscription. Although you’re deducting from your balance it still counts as activity.
- Donate to Charity – Some programs also allow donations of miles/points to charity to count as activity on your account.
There are apps you can download that consolidate views of your points and when they expire, such as AwardWallet, which has a free version. It has 681 loyalty partners that it pulls data from, including certain credit card programs. Unfortunately United, Southwest, and Delta are not included in that list of partners. However, you can add those manually and have your statements sent to your AwardWallet email address to have a consolidated view of your accounts
However, if you don’t travel frequently or aren’t signed up for many loyalty programs, I wouldn’t worry about signing up for an app, especially one you have to pay for. You should receive emails from the program with your points/miles balance and when they should expire, so just keep an eye on that expiration date.
Oops – did your points already expire? If your points expired fairly recently, then just call the loyalty program and ask if you can get your points back. They may credit your account as a “one time courtesy” or ask you to pay to have your points reinstated. Alternatively, some programs may offer you a “challenge” to stay a certain number of times within a specified time window to reinstate your points. Each program is different in terms of how they handle expired points, but it never hurts to call and ask.
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Rule #3 – Have a goal for how you want to redeem your miles and points
It’s no use accumulating points if you can’t redeem them for free travel!
For example, let’s say you would like to earn enough miles to redeem for a flight to Europe. Look up how many miles that will take with your selected airline.
Having a number you’d like to hit helps you decide how loyal you want to be to a program and be more strategic with your travel decisions.
For instance, if you are debating between domestic flights on different airlines around the same price, it’d be worth it to fly with the airline (or one in the same alliance) in order to add to your miles balance and get you closer to your goal of that Transatlantic flight.
Keep in mind the sad truth that the airlines and hotels consistently increase the number of miles or points it takes to redeem for flights and hotel stays. So if you want that flight to Europe, the number of miles to do that may increase next year, so it’s a bit of a moving target.
Therefore, if you do happen to have a stash of miles and points, it’s not worth it to hoard them because they are constantly being devalued.
Do you feel like you’ll NEVER get enough miles or points to redeem for anything fun? If you are a super infrequent traveler, it seems like you are inching your way up a mountain to earn points and miles, but I’ve got some good news for you. In my next post you’ll learn how to play the credit card game in your favor to earn points that you can use in combination with your loyalty points to get you earning free travel much faster!
What overwhelms you the most with loyalty programs? Do you have any other tips for earning and using loyalty points? Comment below!