5 Tricks to Making the Most of Your Reward Miles

By Nick Wharton. Last updated 4 May 2017. 0 comments

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After using travel rewards credit cards for a while, you might find that you've got tons of miles to redeem. But making sure you're getting the most out of those rewards takes considerable planning and organization. Here are some tips on getting the most value out of your rewards miles and points. (See also: The Biggest Mistakes When Redeeming Credit Card Rewards)

1. Extend or Add a Vacation with Stopovers and Open Jaws

Stopovers and open jaws are big money savers for organized travelers.

Open Jaws: An open jaw ticket is one where you fly from point A to point B, then back to point A from point C. There is an open gap in the middle of the itinerary — which is perfect for a road trip. If you were to pay for this with cash instead of rewards, it would cost a lot of extra money, but it will cost you the same amount of reward points as a regular return flight.

For example:

Return Flight New York to London = 60,000 points

Open Jaw Flight New York to London + Barcelona to New York = 60,000 points

Stopovers: A stopover is any stop in a flight itinerary that lasts more than 24 hours. Not to be confused with a layover. A layover is that boring period of time that you dread, waiting at the airport for your next flight.

A stopover gives you time to exit the airport and explore. In fact, a stopover can be a week, a month, or even a year. Let's say you plan a holiday in Rome, but you've always wanted to see Barcelona. You can add a one-week stopover in Barcelona into your rewards itinerary and it won't cost you any extra points.

The best trick with stopovers is actually calling your home airport a stopover. Let's say you book the trip above and the airline you fly with allows for two stopovers — and many do, including Lufthansa and Air Canada.

You can enjoy your first stopover in Barcelona, then fly to Rome to complete your holiday as planned. But on your return journey home, you call your home airport a "stopover" for one year. This means that, up to a year later, you can complete your journey with a free, one-way flight to your next holiday destination, like Las Vegas, perhaps.

If you are organized enough to plan more than one holiday at once, you can get a lot of free flights using this hack. Now you'll just have to book a cheap one-way ticket from Las Vegas back home.

2. Redeem Rewards for Higher Value Flights

There are many people who save up a great number of rewards miles and then squander them by redeeming them for the wrong purchases. Typically, one of the biggest mistakes that rewards travelers make is redeeming their rewards for short-distance domestic flights.

Often, a 10-hour international flight will cost the same, or just slightly more, in points and miles as a long-distance domestic journey. Whereas the cash value for an international flight is often more than double a domestic one. You get much more value for the same amount of rewards points for an international flight. Sometimes it's best to just pay cash for the short-distance flights, and save your rewards for the next time you're leaving the country.

Redeeming wisely may sound like a pretty straightforward idea, but with seemingly endless rewards restrictions like expiration dates, blackout dates, eligibility restrictions and limited rewards seating, it can be a confusing matter.

If you're not willing to do a lot of research and spend time planning the perfect rewards trip, you may want to consider using a service like Award Advocate or Award Booking Service to help you with your rewards booking.

For a fee of $100+, they can find the best reward seats for you, book the flight with the airline, and ensure that you're using the least amount of miles possible for your journey.

3. Put Purchases on the Right Cards

A wallet full of credit cards is like a rewards hackers Swiss Army knife. Each card is its own tool and using them appropriately will allow you to get the most rewards for your purchases. For example, use a card that offers bonus rewards at supermarkets for your grocery purchases. Get the best credit card for gas to maximize rewards for that monthly expense. 

Depending on your recurring expenses, there are cards that offer bonus rewards for dining, entertainment, travel, and even office supply purchases. Finally, you should have a card that offers extra rewards for all other purchases, such as a good flat-rate rewards card.

4. Try a Sign-Up Bonus Spree

Don't have a wallet full of cards yet? You're actually in luck! You can start a sign-up bonus spree to fill your wallet with the cards that you need, and maybe get a free vacation out of the bonuses, too! (See also: 5 Steps to Getting a Free Vacation in 9 Months or Less with Credit Cards)

Many credit cards offer a bonus for signing up and many of these bonuses are worth $500 or more in travel.

5. Know Your Limits

Whether you're starting a credit card spree or just trying to earn as many points as possible, you must know your limits.

Earning 5% cash back is completely useless if you end up paying interest (15% average in the U.S.) on your credit card each month. You have to be sure that you can pay off all of your cards before they start to accrue interest.

All those sign up bonuses also all require a spending minimum within a few months to qualify. If you don't have enough usual expenses to cover, you'll either miss out on those bonuses or end up paying too much for them, by overstretching yourself to meet those requirements. (See also: 5 Smart Ways to Meet a Rewards Card Minimum Spending Requirement)

Savvy travel hackers never pay a dime in interest and earn thousands of points each year. You can do the same, but you must first start slowly and know your limits with each and every card that you carry.

If you can stay organized, watch your spending, and know your limitations and those that apply to the cards that you use, you can earn a lot of free travel from your cards in a very short period of time. Good luck!

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