Miles to Go: An Expert’s Guide to Unlocking the World with Travel Rewards
Miles to Go: An Expert's Guide to Unlocking the World with Travel Rewards - Earning Points and Miles for Free Flights
One of the best ways to unlock free travel is through earning points and miles from loyalty programs. While paying cash for flights can drain your wallet quickly, using miles allows you to fly for free or very cheaply. Here are some of the most effective strategies for racking up points without spending much money:
Sign-Up Bonuses: The fastest way to earn a large stash of miles is through credit card welcome offers. When you open a new travel credit card, you can often get 50,000 points or more just by meeting a minimum spend requirement within a few months. Cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Amex Gold are great for this. Be sure to cancel cards before the annual fee kicks in.
Shopping Portals: Nearly every airline and hotel program has an online shopping portal where you can earn extra points for purchases at hundreds of retailers. Always check the portal before buying something online to rack up points on top of any credit card rewards you may earn.
Dining Programs: Many loyalty programs let you link your credit card to a dining rewards network like Rewards Network. You'll earn points for eating at participating restaurants both locally and when traveling. It's an effortless way to earn miles with normal spending.
Surveys: Airlines often give miles for completing short surveys about your travel experiences. Sign up on airline sites to receive survey invites, an easy way to pad your account balance.
Refer-a-Friend: Most programs offer bonus miles for referring friends and family. When someone signs up for a credit card or frequent flyer account via your referral link, you both get a nice points bonus. Share links selectively with those likely to use them.
Promotions: Loyalty programs often run special promotions to earn bonus miles through partnerships. Keep an eye out for opportunities to earn thousands of miles by test-driving a car, staying at a hotel, or signing up for a trial with a retailer.
MileageRunning: Booking a cheap flight solely to earn miles is called mileage running. If you need to top up an account, consider a quick trip to earn miles through flights and promotions. Be sure the costs are minimal.
What else is in this post?
- Miles to Go: An Expert's Guide to Unlocking the World with Travel Rewards - Earning Points and Miles for Free Flights
- Miles to Go: An Expert's Guide to Unlocking the World with Travel Rewards - Maximizing Credit Card Sign-Up Bonuses
- Miles to Go: An Expert's Guide to Unlocking the World with Travel Rewards - Transferring Points between Loyalty Programs
- Miles to Go: An Expert's Guide to Unlocking the World with Travel Rewards - Using Miles for Upgrades to Business and First Class
- Miles to Go: An Expert's Guide to Unlocking the World with Travel Rewards - Tips for Finding Award Availability
- Miles to Go: An Expert's Guide to Unlocking the World with Travel Rewards - Extending Your Miles with Stopovers and Open Jaws
- Miles to Go: An Expert's Guide to Unlocking the World with Travel Rewards - Redeeming Hotel Points for Free Nights
Miles to Go: An Expert's Guide to Unlocking the World with Travel Rewards - Maximizing Credit Card Sign-Up Bonuses
One of the most lucrative ways to quickly accumulate a large stash of points and miles is through credit card welcome bonuses. When you're approved for a new travel rewards card, you can often earn 50,000, 75,000 or even 100,000 points just by spending a certain amount in the first few months. However, obtaining the highest bonuses requires strategy and planning.
The key is applying for the right cards at the right time. Issuers have rules to prevent people from constantly opening accounts just for the bonuses. You may only be approved for a particular bonus once every couple years. That's why it's important to be selective and strategic with the cards you choose. Focus on ones that align with your personal spending and travel goals.
For instance, JetBlue flyers should target the JetBlue Plus Card when they want to replenish their TrueBlue balance. American Airlines loyalists would be wise to consider the Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard. And flexible travelers who value transferable points should look at cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred.
It's also essential to space out your applications so you can meet multiple minimum spend requirements. Most bonuses require you to spend $3,000 - $5,000 within three months of account opening. Trying to hit two high limits simultaneously can be challenging. Apply for one card at a time, let your spend organically accumulate toward the bonus, then move on to the next card.
And don't forget to factor in annual fees when doing the math on a welcome bonus value. It's no bargain if a card charges a $95 fee but only gives you 50,000 points worth $500. Make sure the bonus outweighs the yearly cost. Cards that waive the fee the first year are ideal because you can cancel after getting the bonus.
Finally, don't jeopardize your credit by biting off more than you can chew. Too many applications in a short timeframe can lower your score. Space out cards by three to six months to allow inquiries to fall off your reports. Monitor your credit and only apply for bonuses you can comfortably afford to spend toward.
Miles to Go: An Expert's Guide to Unlocking the World with Travel Rewards - Transferring Points between Loyalty Programs
One underutilized strategy for maximizing your points and miles is to transfer them between different loyalty programs. While most travelers stick to the program they earn their miles with, transferring opens up opportunities to get increased value from your points. The three major flexible programs that allow transfers are Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Citi ThankYou Points.
For example, let's say you've earned 50,000 Chase points from a Sapphire Preferred bonus and want to book an award flight to Hawaii. Transferring those points to United MileagePlus might only get you a one-way economy class ticket. But if you move them to Hyatt, you could book over a week at a luxury resort. Same points—vastly different value.
Transferring also allows you to combine points from different sources. Maybe you earned 35,000 Amex points through a welcome offer on the Gold Card but need 5,000 more for a business class award. Well, you can transfer over points from your Citi Premier Card to top up your Membership Rewards account and book that flight. The flexibility provides options.
In addition, some airline and hotel partners offer increased value when transferring points in rather than using them directly with the credit card company. For instance, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club regularly has award sales offering 25-50% off normal rates when booking with transferred Chase points. This can represent huge savings compared to other redemption options.
The key is to research different programs' sweet spots and transfer only when you maximize value. Don't transfer speculatively without an award booking in mind. And know that transfers are irreversible—once points move to a loyalty program, they typically can't be moved again or transferred back.
Miles to Go: An Expert's Guide to Unlocking the World with Travel Rewards - Using Miles for Upgrades to Business and First Class
Scoring a free upgrade to a premium cabin can make a flight feel like a private jet experience for the price of an economy ticket. While paid upgrades are obscenely expensive, using miles to move up a class is one of the best redemptions for your points and miles. The luxury, service, food, amenities, and extra space create an unforgettable trip.
Because of the immense value, premium cabin upgrades are some of the most sought-after awards. Airlines restrict availability, often saving space for their top-tier elites. However, by being flexible with dates and knowing when to snag deals, it's possible for anyone to use miles to fly in style.
Many airlines let you pay a copay in cash and miles to confirm an upgrade in advance after booking your economy fare. The rates are reasonable compared to buying a business or first class ticket outright. Though availability is still limited, you're more likely to lock in space further out than waiting for a free upgrade at check-in.
Signing up for elite status challenges can also help. Programs like American's AAdvantage status match and Delta's SkyMiles Medallion Challenge can grant you mid-tier status for a few months, making free space-available upgrades much more attainable, even on international routes.
If you have a stash of miles and aren't picky about dates or destinations, leveraging airline sales is the holy grail for free premium cabin upgrades. British Airways is known for discounting Avios redemptions, allowing you to score a business class upgrade for just 50,000 Avios roundtrip to Europe on their partner airlines. Sign up for sale alert emails to jump on sporadic deals when they appear.
While upgrade availability varies between programs, domestically your best odds are on hub routes and red-eyes between an airline's focus cities. International business class space is hardest to come by, especially on flagship routes like New York to London where airlines reserve space for top elites. But by being flexible on airlines and itineraries, you can increase your chances. Use miles to fly business class to underserved destinations.
At the airport, politely ask the gate agent about operational upgrades, especially if traveling alone. When the flight is lightly booked, agents may clear you to the front using miles or as a gesture of goodwill. Don't expect it, but it never hurts to kindly inquire with a smile.
Miles to Go: An Expert's Guide to Unlocking the World with Travel Rewards - Tips for Finding Award Availability
Finding award seats can feel like searching for a needle in a haystack, but it doesn’t have to be impossible. With the right strategies, you can locate space even when none appears available. Flexibility is key—you’ll have much better success if you’re open-minded about dates, routes, and airlines.
Start searching as far ahead as possible, ideally 300+ days out from travel. Airlines release award space ahead of time, so looking 11 months out will yield the most options. Don’t rely on last-minute searches if using miles. Sign up for ExpertFlyer and set seat alerts to notify you the instant award space opens on your preferred flights.
Consider adjacent airports as well. Nearby hubs often have better award availability than the main airport in a city. For example, Washington Dulles (IAD) may have space when Washington Reagan (DCA) shows nothing. Test different departure points. Also look at alternative destinations in the same region if you’re flexible on location.
Don’t limit yourself to nonstops either. Hour-long connections may open many more possibilities, especially through a carrier’s hub. Taking a detour through an enroute hub airport can reveal space not visible on direct routings. This is especially true internationally. Be open-minded about stopping in the Middle East, Asia, or Europe on the way to your destination.
When searching segment-by-segment, look for mixed cabins. You may find business class space on the long-haul leg with economy connections. Combining cabins can significantly improve availability over expecting a consistent premium product. Don’t rule out options just because part of the journey is in coach.
Call the airline reservations line as a backup. Agents sometimes have access to additional award space not visible online. They can also piece together complex itineraries segment-by-segment more easily than DIY online searches. Consider booking over the phone for intricate international routings.
Finally, leverage waitlists when the airline offers them. Enroll yourself on a waitlist for the award flights you want, then the airline will automatically ticket you once space opens up. Just be sure to keep an eye out for opening emails so you don't miss the short window to ticket. Waitlisting requires some trust, but it works when you're flexible.
Miles to Go: An Expert's Guide to Unlocking the World with Travel Rewards - Extending Your Miles with Stopovers and Open Jaws
One clever way to get more bang for your buck when redeeming miles is to add stopovers or open jaws to your award ticket. This stretches your miles further by essentially letting you book two trips for the price of one. Say you want to fly from Los Angeles to Bangkok—that costs 80,000 miles one-way for a nonstop routing. But for that same mileage, you could fly LA to Tokyo, stop for a week (or longer!), continue to Bangkok, then return straight home. Now your 80,000 miles gets you a trip to two destinations in Asia rather than just one.
Stopovers allow you to halt your journey for as long as you'd like at a connecting city before continuing to your final destination. Each carrier has different stopover rules, but you're often permitted one free stopover up to a week or two on a roundtrip award. The mileage cost remains the same whether you take advantage of a stopover or not, so there's no reason not to enjoy an extended break from travel while en route. You must however book it as a single award ticket with the stopover included from the start.
Open jaws are similar but allow you to arrive in one city and depart from another. For example, flying from San Francisco to New York, then returning home from Miami. This lets you visit multiple cities without having to retrace your steps. Open jaws are sometimes restricted to just the destination or origin points, but programs like Aeroplan allow an open jaw between any two cities flown. This opens up possibilities like Orlando to Los Angeles, San Francisco to New York on a single ticket.
By creatively incorporating stopovers and open jaws into your award travels, you can craft epic round the world itineraries at standard mileage rates. Reddit user infamousdx shared the stopover possibilities on United: "One free stopover up to 24 hours if your trip is between USA-North America. Two free stopovers up to 24 hours if your trip is between USA-Europe/Middle East. And unlimited stopovers up to 24 hours if your trip is USA-Asia."
However, stopovers do require longer travel times with potentially multiple takeoffs and landings. You’ll need to weigh whether maximizing miles is worth the added time in transit. If your dates are flexible though, stopovers can help you see more of the world for your hard-earned miles.
Be careful when asking agents to add stopovers after initially booking tickets however. Airlines can recalculate pricing when itinerary changes are made. Make any desired stopovers part of your original reservation request to lock in mileage rates.
Miles to Go: An Expert's Guide to Unlocking the World with Travel Rewards - Redeeming Hotel Points for Free Nights
Among road warriors and jet-setters, hotel loyalty programs don’t garner the same glamour as frequent flyer miles. But you’d be wise not to sleep on the immense value of redeeming your hard-earned hotel points and elite status for free nights. As award travel enthusiasts can attest, those free night certificates can unlock luxury dream vacations for just the cost of taxes and fees.
“I’ve had incredible redemptions at high-end properties like the Park Hyatt Maldives and St. Regis Bora Bora that would’ve cost over $1,000 a night if paying cash,” recounts avid Hilton Honors member Heather S. She leverages Diamond status challenges and credit card bonuses to pad her Hilton account enough for over two weeks a year at top resorts.
Frugal travelers have figured out how to indulge at places like the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay and Miraval Arizona through creative club-level award bookings and seasonal point discounts. “Using Marriott points allowed me to experience 5-star properties I never could’ve afforded otherwise,” explains corporate road warrior Evan T.
Not unlike airlines, high-demand hotels restrict award availability, especially for standard rooms. But veterans know booking six months out and targeting upgraded suites and club floors yields the best redemption success.
“I live for the challenge of finding premium awards that align with special occasions like our anniversary or Valentine’s Day,” remarks frequent Hyatt guest Betsy R. She leverages her World of Hyatt Globalist status to confirm club suites during peak holidays when cash rates are astronomical.
Award availability directly correlates with elite status too. Top-tier elites gain access to extra standard and upgraded free night awards, early booking windows, and rooms otherwise blocked from points redemptions.
But you needn’t have ultra-elite status to utilize hotel points effectively. Programs like Best Western Rewards, Choice Privileges, and Wyndham Rewards offer generous award charts, plenty of locations, and fast status acceleration. Lower-category brands can deliver excellent value for budget travelers with smaller point balances.