You know those commercials with Jennifer Garner where she’s talking about how frustrating airline rewards miles are? Well, she has a point. Once you accumulate enough miles to get somewhere, you still have to figure out how to actually use your miles—and that can be tricky. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up your carefully curated points in favor of a brand new card (sorry, CapitalOne Venture). You just need a little strategy and research in order to make the most of your rewards.
We’re here to help. Awhile back, we discussed some considerations you should take when picking which travel rewards credit card (or cards) is right for you. By now, we assume you have that card set up and have done the basic research on your miles (you have, haven’t you?). If you haven’t chosen your card, don’t fret, just check out this article to help you narrow down your choices, then use these tips to start racking up those rewards!
Explore All the Options
Airlines operate thousands of flights a day, which means there are always multiple ways to get from here to there. Before you click “purchase” on the first nonstop flight you see, do a little negotiating—just as you would if you were paying with cash. If your travel dates and times are flexible, try different itineraries to see what will cost the fewest miles. Also, explore the possibility of a layover—if an overnight saves you some miles and gives you the opportunity to see a new city, it could be totally worth your while!
Use Airline Partners
Before you book an American Airlines flight with your American miles, do a little exploring of their partnerships. In our first article, we suggested looking at partnering airlines to find the card that makes the most sense for where you live and travel. Now put those partnerships to good use. It’s possible that a 40,000 mile AA itinerary would cost you fewer points with a different partner. Many partnerships offer 1:1 mileage redemption, meaning 100 American Airlines reward miles equals 100 British Airways Avios (if only dollars and pounds worked the same way!).
Another option you should experiment with is flipping miles into hotel rewards. Many airlines have hotel partners—just look at Southwest and Marriott or Delta and the Starwood Preferred Group. For some trips, it might make financial sense to convert your airlines miles into hotel points, to save on costly accommodations. You might net more savings by shelling out cash for a cheap flight and using those miles to earn free nights.
There are a lot of articles floating around about “churning.” This is when you open multiple rewards credit cards to accumulate sign-on bonuses. If done carefully (very carefully), churning can be an effective way to utilize rewards points.
But for many, churning won’t work because points accounts require a certain level of activity to remain active. Personally, I don’t charge enough to maintain minimum levels on three or four cards. However, that’s not to say that opening a select number of rewards cards isn’t a good choice for you. If you open both a flight and a hotel card with a partnering chain, suddenly you have two sign-on bonuses to cover a complete trip. Or, you have points that can be transferred back and forth depending on what you need at the time. Short a few airline points to visit your sister in California? Transfer them from your hotel balance. Having multiple cards working for you can help you get to your free trips faster, especially when you maximize the earning on all of them.
You can use every trick in the book to make your miles go farther, but you can’t spend any miles until you earn them. The easiest way to earn maximum miles is to make sure you know every single way you can earn points—squeeze everything you can out of that card!
When you know which hotels your airline partners with, you can prioritize staying with those chains. If you earn 500 Delta Skymiles every time you stay at a Hyatt, put that at the top of your hotel preferences.
Most cards offer additional rewards for online shopping at the same sites you regularly use, just by clicking through their eShopping site first. For example, those of you with United cards, listen up: buy mother’s day flowers at florists.com and earn 7 miles for each dollar you spend. Add the 1 mile you get just for using the card, and you’re up to 8 miles per dollar for something you’d be buying anyway.
Speaking of getting miles for purchases you already make, explore your dining program, like American’s AAdvantage Dining. Just link your American frequent flyer number with all of your credit cards, dine at any of the participating restaurants and earn up to 5 miles per dollar. I’ve earned almost 500 points just drinking wine at book club because our cafe participates in my rewards program!
There are tons of ways to earn extra miles on your rewards cards. If you’re familiar with them all, you’ll never let an opportunity go by and you’ll be jet-setting in no time.
Plan for the Future, but Don’t Disregard the Present
It can be tempting to blow your first 25,000 miles on a ticket to Miami just because it costs practically nothing. It can also be difficult to say goodbye to your miles instead of hoarding them for “the future.” Getting the most out of your miles requires finding the middle ground. Sometimes, it may make more sense to pass up an opportunity to use your miles, in favor of cash. Short trips or itineraries that you get on sale are examples. If you get a great deal with cash, don’t feel like you need to pass in order to use your miles.
Conversely, miles are meant to be redeemed! You may have the urge to stockpile them for some grand adventure. But don’t be afraid to wipe out your account for a great trip now. If you use these tips to maximize your earning and spending, your balance will be back up before you know it.