There’s simply too many awesome places to see in the world to pass up any real opportunity to travel. That’s especially true when we’re talking about traveling for free (or greatly discounted). As I’ve mentioned a number of times already, the easiest way to lower travel costs (outside of just finding an overall great deal) is to use points or miles. While much of the concept of earning points when you travel is straightforward, there are a few little-known tips to help you make the most of earning travel rewards. That’s what we’ll explore in this post.
Points and Miles
Generally, credit cards and other frequent traveler reward programs call their rewards “points” and airlines call them “miles”. There are a few exceptions (Southwest Airlines and the Capital One Venture, for example), but essentially they are the same thing. Now the main question of the day: How do you make the most of earning these miles and points? We’re going to look at seven ways to put extra legs on your points, maybe even quite literally.
Making the most of earning travel rewards: How can I do it?
Method #1: Credit Cards
Credit Cards are a great way to earn points as long as you follow a few basic rules:
- Don’t ever carry a balance. Pay off whatever you put on the card each month, otherwise you’re paying the card company much more than the value of points you’re getting in return.
- Maximize the categories that give you the most return. Pay attention to the categories that give greater than 1-2% back, and use those cards for all of that type of purchase.
- Don’t sign up for more than 1, maybe 2 new cards per year. Why? Because it’s bad for your credit. Maybe this doesn’t matter to you because you aren’t planning to do things like buy a house or car, or anything else that you benefit from by having good credit.
Having said that, if you find a good introductory offer for a credit card, go for it. My personal rule is that if a credit card point offer doesn’t give me at least $600 in value at the start, and at least a few hundred each year after that, I don’t sign up. Come up with your own rule, and cash in on the good offers and leave the others where they are. Then, enjoy earning those rewards every time you make a purchase.
Method #2: Book travel for someone else
Booking travel for someone else is a great way to make the most of earning travel rewards. It can help you in a couple areas: First, the points you earn from putting the purchase(s) on your reward card. Second, sometimes you can earn points for someone else traveling. I’ve used this method to make gold status multiple years at hotels.com and elite status in other travel programs. How does it work? If the person you’re booking for doesn’t have a reward account, see if it’s possible to use your account number instead. Ask friends, family, and co-workers (when appropriate) if they’re getting points for their travel. If not, they might not care if you get their points instead.
Reward programs where this can work:
- Hotels: Many hotels will allow this if you’re paying and checking in for the rooms. There’s obviously a limit to how often you can do this, but some let you even if you’re not there. It’s worth a try. Hotels.com allows you to book a room through your account and put a different person’s name on the reservation, so you can get points from their stay whether or not you’re actually with them when they check in.
- Rental Cars: While many rental companies won’t let you put your personal reward account in someone else’s reservation, if you work at an office where multiple departments may have a need for a rental car, booking one for someone else can hep you earn points if you’re the one picking up the vehicle. This can work if you’re using a corporate account because you actually can rent more than one vehicle at a time with your name, even though you obviously can’t be driving more than one vehicle at a time yourself 🙂 If you can’t do this, not to worry – more on rental cars to come in a bit.
Reward programs where this does not work (don’t even try):
- Flights: Sorry, but you can’t ever earn miles for someone else taking a flight.
Method #3: Pick up points wherever they’re available
This may seem obvious – and I have a whole post about this in the works – but you’d be surprised how many people leave points sitting there when they travel. If you take a flight on any airline, make sure you’re getting the miles. Check if they are partners with an airline you already have a rewards account set up with, and if not – sign up for theirs! You won’t lose anything by doing this, and those miles can quickly add up to a free trip.
Method #4: Get Free Rental Cars
Riding the coat tails of method #3 is this in specific about rental cars. If you travel for work and rent cars, most rental car companies offer two reward programs: one for companies and one for people. The good news is you can collect rewards on both simultaneously. So, if your company rents a car and you’re the driver picking the car up, make sure the corporate reward account and your personal points account are both present in the reservation. You don’t have to feel bad about doing this and using those points later for your personal trips, because the business is still earning their rewards. They can’t earn the personal points, so you having an account doesn’t hurt them, so it’s a win-win.
It should also be noted that a great way to save on rental cars (I’ll probably do a post on this more in-depth later) is to use Costco Travel. The good thing here is that making the most of earning travel rewards is still possible when reserving through their system: just enter your loyalty number and the reservation will automatically appear in your rental car profile under upcoming rentals. Unfortunately, the business rewards side of this can’t be earned but often the savings outweigh the rewards for the business.
Method #5: Refer friends
Many times you can send a referral link to friends and family to have them join the reward program you’re in and have it add to your point balance. A quick online search should give you the information you need here. Most of the time, the referred person must complete a certain amount of money spent or travel taken before you get the reward. There’s often a reward for the friend, too – which helps there to be an incentive for them to sign up.
Many credit card companies offer this program, but there are some restrictions. Check with your card issuer to see if you qualify for any referral promotions they might be offering.
Method #6: Don’t use airline-branded credit cards
While this could have been placed with the credit card section, I felt it was significant enough to have its own method. You may be thinking “that sounds counter-productive, doesn’t it?” Why not sign up with the airline that gives me miles every time I make a purchase? The short answer: The rewards aren’t good enough and they lock you in.
Aren’t more miles good?
Yes, they are. But, not at the expense of overall travel reward potential. See the points below to see why I believe you’re losing reward potential with airline credit cards. Having said that, we do carry one airline credit card: The Alaska Airlines card. But we haven’t made one single purchase on it since we hit the bonus spending threshold more than a year ago. Not even on Alaska Airlines flights! Why have it? The sign-up bonus was worth well over my $600 minimum limit, plus it has a good annual perk: The famous companion pass. You don’t have to spend to get this perk, so we keep the card open just for that annual certificate.
Lower Value Earnings
The fact is, every card I have seen that is tied to an airline gets you less than 2 points per dollar on general purchases and no more than 3% value for purchases with that airline. Therefore, it makes more sense to use cards that get you the higher reward rates. In my case, that’s the Chase Sapphire Reserve card for airline purchases (3-4.5% rewards). For general purchases, it’s the Venture from Capital One (2% on everything). Not only is the initial reward just as good or higher, I can double-dip on rewards because I’m not locked in with miles rewards. Side note: The rare exception I have seen is using the Alaska card for on-board purchases or lounge day passes, both of which I have not done yet.
This is a big factor in how I plan to make the most out of earning travel rewards. I love not being locked in! What does it mean to be locked in? For example, you sign up for the United Airlines credit card. When you want to use miles you’ve earned from spending money on the card, you must do it with them. Some programs allow you to book hotels, so that’s slightly less restrictive. What do I do instead? I use my points from non-airline branded cards (Venture and Sapphire) to book a reservation that looks to the airline like a normally-paid for flight.
Why does that matter? Because on that flight (which I didn’t pay for), I still earn miles. I’m double-dipping. Earning miles for a free flight – which you can’t do when the principal reward currency is the airline’s miles in the first place. This method alone has saved (or earned) me hundreds if not more than a thousand dollars worth of additional free travel.
Method #7: Shop online to earn
This isn’t very significant to me, but I thought I’d add it. It may be more beneficial to others than it is to me. Many airlines, hotels, and reward programs allow you to follow referral links to earn travel rewards by shopping at their retail partner websites. Here’s my two cents: If you’re going to shop there anyway and it’s as good a price as you’d be finding elsewhere, go for it! In my experience, either the prices are higher than the non-mileage-earning equivalents, or the stores were limited to places we don’t shop at. If it works for you, wonderful! Enjoy the extra rewards. If not, don’t worry about trying to fit your foot in this particular shoe.
I hope some of these ideas have been able to expand your thinking when it comes to earning travel rewards. The main point is to expand your thinking when it comes to finding opportunities to earn miles and points. When you do, you’ll only be able to travel more often and spend less to do so. And I’d say that’s a big thumbs up!
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