Get Started With Travel Rewards in 4 Simple Steps
Frugal shoppers often spend a lot of effort looking for discounts worth a few dollars off of the goods they normally purchase. But what I have learned is that far greater bargains are available to those who get serious about earning travel rewards. And while some might consider the world of frequent flier miles and hotel points to be for those who purchase the most travel, I earn and spend hundreds of thousands of points and miles each year, and I hardly pay anything for my vacations. (See also: Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards)
It took me years to learn everything I know about reward travel with points and miles, but my goal is to help you get started today with four simple steps.
Step 1: Organize Your Points and Miles
If you use a reward credit card, or have ever traveled anywhere, you probably have more than a few accounts with points and miles. But do you know how many accounts do you have, what their balances are, and when or if they expire? If this sounds overwhelming to you, don't worry! There are several websites designed to make this task easy. I use Award Wallet (free with an optional subscription), but others include Points.com and usingmiles.com. (See also: Perform a Credit Card Rewards Annual Review)
Step 2: Learn More About Your Favorite Program
If you are interested in reward travel, you probably already have a favorite airline, hotel, or credit card program. Rather than trying to learn about the programs of all of their competitors, start by discovering something new about the one program you use the most. Simply visit their website, explore of the program's features, and find out if they are currently offering any promotions. Focus on all of the ways to earn points or miles, as well as the different options for redeeming them. Also, check out what it takes to become an "elite" member in their program and how far away you are from the next level. Finally, if you Google the name of program, you can tap into a wealth of knowledge published in blogs and on message boards.
Step 3: Set Some Reachable Goals
Hold off planning an around-the-world trip in first class and start by focusing on a more modest vacation. If you already have some points and miles, you might look at planning a trip later this year, but if you are starting from scratch, think about looking forward to next year.
Why should you plan so far ahead? First, you will need to accumulate enough points and miles for the trip, and that can take time. But also, it can be very challenging to find available reward seats on most airlines, and the more time you have to plan your trip, the better. On the other hand, less time is necessary when you can be very flexible with the dates you want to travel and you choice of destination.
Step 4: Start Earning Miles Today
There is no need to pack your bags, as there are plenty of ways to earn points and miles at home. The easiest way to do so is with a credit card, but this may not be the right choice for everyone. Those who are carrying a balance on their credit card should always be focused on finding the card with the lowest possible interest rate, and unfortunately that is not going to be a rewards card. And the last thing you need when you are trying to get out of debt is a product that rewards you for spending more.
But those without credit card debt should be earning as many miles as possible from their cards!
Choosing the Right Credit Card
For beginners, the best credit card is going to have a great sign up bonus while earning points or miles that are easy to redeem. Here are my two favorite cards for beginners and seasoned experts alike:
The Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card From American Express
Can't decide whether to get an airline or a hotel rewards card? Get both! Although this card earns points in Starwood's hotel program, they can be transferred to frequent flier miles with over 30 different airlines. New applicants earn 10,000 Starpoints after their first purchase, and another 15,000 Starpoints after spending $5,000 in their first six months of Card membership. If you want to learn more about why I think this card is great, read my review of it.
The Sapphire Preferred Card From Chase
Again, this card offers reward points that can be used for award flights as well as free nights at hotels. For each dollar spent, cardholders earn one point in Chase's Ultimate Rewards program, and two points for spending on travel and dining. Three points per dollar are earned from travel bookings made through the Chase site. And since cardholders also earn another 7% points bonus each year, they actually earn 1.07-3.21 points per dollar. Finally, new cardholders earn 40,000 points when they spend $3,000 on their cards within three months of opening their account. Once earned, points can be transferred to nine different airline and hotel programs, as well as Amtrak Guest Rewards. Read my complete review of this card here.