If you’re just getting into collecting miles and points for free flights, it can be a bit overwhelming. There’s a lot of information out there and it can be hard to sift through it all. To help out, we’ve compiled a list of fifteen tips for rookies. Hopefully you’ll avoid some of these mistakes now that you know about them.
1. Sign Up for the Loyalty Program
This one may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised at the number of people who don’t sign up when they have a flight or hotel booked. There really is no reason to not earn points for whatever it is you’re doing. They can add up fast, even if you don’t often fly on the airline or stay at the hotel. Really, you have nothing to lose.
2. Get the Right Credit Card
The quickest way to earn miles or points is with the right rewards credit card. Do the research before you apply and figure out which card will earn miles that can get you where you want to go.
Co-branded airline cards are a solid bet if you know which airline you’re going to use, but cards that are part of flexible rewards programs with transferable points are typically the best option. Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest are some of the most flexible programs available.
Don’t forget to look for the biggest sign-up bonus and the most generous earning categories, too. Sign-up bonuses range from nothing to 100,000 miles. Figure out which program to use, and then look for the biggest bonus offered in the card lineup.
Some cards offer up to quintuple points for certain purchases, while others offer only one point per dollar for almost everything. The more purchases you can make that earn extra points, the sooner you’ll be able to afford an award flight.
3. Reach the Minimum Spend for the Sign-Up Bonus
For most cards, you’ll have to spend a minimum amount of money within the first three months to get the sign-up bonus. Keep track of your progress and make sure you get the bonus. Figure out how much you need to spend every month, and if it looks like you aren’t spending enough, consider making a big purchase or two.
4. Always Use Your Credit Card
Cash is not king! Reach for your card for everything from everyday purchases to recurring bills. Use it for your utilities, tuition, student loans, car payments, etc. There’s no reason to use cash when you can earn points.
5. Pay Off Your Credit Card Balance Every Month
Don’t spend more than you can afford. Carrying a balance on your credit card just to earn extra points or miles is not worth it. The interest rates are too high, devaluing the points or miles you’ve earned too much.
6. Don’t Let Your Points Expire
Policies vary widely by program. Some programs, like Spirit, give you very little time before their points expire. With others, like Delta and JetBlue, your miles will never expire. There are a number of ways to keep them from expiring, even without having to fly. Making purchases on co-branded cards, transferring points, or buying something through the carrier’s online shopping portal are a few good options.
7. Book Award Travel in Advance
Award availability gets more limited every day, so book your flight as soon as possible. That’s doubly true if you’re either planning to fly during the high season or if you don’t have much flexibility with your travel dates. And some programs charge a close-in booking fee so don’t leave it to the last minute because even if you find a seat, you’ll pay a fee on many airlines if it’s within two or three weeks.
Many programs will allow you hold or reserve award seats for a certain amount of time. This is a great option if you don’t have enough miles yet.
If you can be flexible with your travel plans, check for last minute seats. A lot of airlines release more award seats closer to the day of the flight, but you can’t count on it.
8. Don’t Redeem for Gift Cards or Merchandise
Redemption rates for gift cards and merchandise are typically very poor. You’ll get more for your miles or points if you book flights instead.
9. Don’t Obsess Over Getting the Most Value From Your Miles or Points
It can be easy to get carried away, but remember that you’re booking a vacation. It’s not a contest to see who can get the most out of their miles. Don’t overbook your trip with too many stopovers and overly complex routing.
Make sure you have enough time at each destination and that you’re not spending too much of your precious vacation time in the air or at airports. It might worth paying a little extra for an itinerary with fewer layovers and a better schedule.
10. Don’t Rely Exclusively on an Airline’s Website When Booking Flights
Some airline websites don’t let you search for partner airlines, or if they do, they might not have all the carriers in their system. Not all of the award inventory always shows up in searches either. And sometimes complex routing, like flying on two or more partner airlines for the same itinerary, can’t be booked online. If you don’t see what you want, don’t be afraid to call.
11. Don’t Rely on the Phone Agent Either
Phone agents don’t always have the answers, and some of them are more knowledgeable than others. If you aren’t getting the answers you want, try hanging up and calling back. Don’t assume they know what they’re talking about. Do some research on your own and cross-reference the airline’s website.
12. If You’re Booking a Round-Trip Flight, You Should Also Search by Segment
Sometimes one-way searches will turn up availability or routing options that don’t appear when searching for roundtrip flights. Do both and see what gives you the best price and itinerary.
13. Be Flexible With Your Travel Dates
You’ll get the best redemptions if you can be flexible with your dates.
14. Don’t Pay Unnecessary Fees
Some airlines, like British Airways and Iberia, charge huge fees for long-haul flights. Avoid these at all costs. Try booking another airline, even if it’s through the same frequent flyer program.
15. Don’t Buy Miles
It’s almost always a bad deal because the miles are too expensive. Along the same lines, it’s usually very expensive to transfer miles between frequent flyer accounts. Try transferring points from a credit card rewards program instead.
Don’t forget why you’re taking the time to earn all those miles and points. Redeem your miles to book the best vacation you can, don’t worry too much if you aren’t getting every last fraction of a cent per mile. In other words, keep these tips in the back your mind, but don’t let them dictate your plans. Earn them and burn them!