I’ve traveled extensively since 2006 when I first discovered the power of frequent flyer miles and hotel loyalty program points. I’ve become the envy of my friends and colleagues who continually ask about the exotic destinations I visit on a regular basis. They are also always intrigued when they hear that it only costs me a few dollars to make these trips and they want to know how they can replicate my success.
Here are 10 ways anyone can jump-start a hobby that can help you travel the world.
1. Determine where you want to go.
Before you begin saving miles and points, it makes sense to draw up a destination wish list. This will help as you research which airline and hotel programs will be most useful to you.
2. Learn about airline alliances (oneworld, Star Alliance, SkyTeam).
You may already have a favorite airline or two, but do you know which alliance they belong to? There are three major airline alliances: oneworld, Star Alliance, and SkyTeam. Airlines within the same alliance offer many reciprocal perks. For example, you can fly on one airline and credit the miles flown to any program within the alliance. Likewise, you can earn miles on one airline in the alliance and use them on any of its partners flights. That’s a very powerful thing when it comes to executing your dream vacation.
3. Research what specific airline programs can make your vacation dream a reality.
Now that you know where you want to go, find out which airlines fly there. You can do this by searching at your favorite travel sites like Kayak or by using the ITA Matrix or SkyScanner. Notate which airlines are part of what alliance. Is there any overlap? Select the best alliance for your dream trip and then start saving miles in a program that can get you there. (Make sure to pick an airline that does not levy fuel surcharges on award tickets.)
4. Read about frequent flyer/hotel loyalty programs.
Self-directed research is the best way to learn the ins and outs of the frequent flyer game. Spend some time reading about the program of your choice at the airlines website. Devote a few minutes each day to visiting related websites like RewardExpert and its blog.
You’ll learn how to earn and burn miles and points from experts with real-world experience doing just that.
5. Set up your mile/point tracking system.
Earning miles and points is a fun hobby but there is an element of record keeping that you’ll have to embrace. You want to keep track of the balances in your accounts and also of the miles and points you’re expecting from flying, staying in hotels, and shopping at online malls, and participating in promotions. I use AwardWallet to track my mile/point balances and then I keep a simple spreadsheet that notates what I’m expecting to earn and when. For example, if I take a flight or make a purchase through an online shopping portal, I make a note of the activity, how many points I’ll earn, and when the points should post. I check this spreadsheet once a month to make sure everything has posted correctly. If it hasn’t, I reach out to the airline, mall, or partner to make sure they issue the miles or points.
6. Decide if you’re going to churn credit cards.
What does it mean when someone talks about churning in regards to the miles and points game? In simple terms, it means signing up for a credit card in order to earn a big bonus (say 50,000 frequent flyer miles) and then cancelling the card before the annual fee comes due only to re-apply for the card again in the future to earn a second (or third or fourth) sign-up bonus. There are some important things to keep in mind about churning. First, you should only churn if you have an excellent credit score and you don’t plan to take out a mortgage or other loan within a year. Second, don’t churn unless you’re very organized and can track the minimum spend, posting of bonus points, and annual fee renewal dates. Finally, not all cards offer multiple sign-up bonuses. You’ll need to research which cards are eligible for churning.
7. Build up a balance of transferable points.
In addition to saving frequent flyer miles for the airline of your choice, consider building up a balance of transferable points. What do I mean by that? Programs like American Express’ Membership Rewards, Starwood’s Starwood Preferred Guest, and Chase’s Ultimate Rewards all offer points that can be transferred to a variety of airline and hotel programs. It can be very useful to have some of these flexible points in your back pocket. Use them to top off frequent flyer accounts or focus on earning these points instead, which can be redeemed on a variety of airlines.
8. Don’t miss out on promotions.
Some people think that you can only earn miles by flying, using a branded credit card, or shopping through the airlines online portal. The fact is, there are tons of unique ways to earn miles. Be sure to sign up email blasts from your airlines frequent flyer program. That email will contain information on any promotions that will earn you miles.
9. Understand fare class codes.
As you earn more and more frequent flyer miles, you’ll need to learn about redeeming them. In order to do that, acquaint yourself with your airlines fare class codes. Various types of tickets have a different class code. There’s a code for a full-priced economy ticket and another code for a discounted ticket. There’s a code for a first class award ticket, one for business class seats, and a third for economy rewards. If you want to use your miles for an economy seat, the correct fare class has to be available on the flight you’re interested in.
10. Don’t hoard your points.
Here’s my parting advice: once you earn enough points for a reward, use them! It’s tempting to build huge balances and dream about all the future trips you’ll take. However, award chart devaluations can happen at any time so I think it’s best to earn and burn your miles and points at an equal rate of speed. When you have enough points to redeem for a special trip, do it!