I’m not the best when it comes to collecting and spending rewards points with airlines and hotels, and from what I hear, I’m not alone. According to recent research from The Points Guy, two in three Americans collect rewards points, but only 41% actually understand how frequent flyer programs work.
So, I reached out to Brian Kelly (aka The Points Guy) with a few questions on how you and I can make the most of rewards points. Take a look:
Q: I’ve tried to redeem frequent flyer miles in the past, but there have never been any seats available. When is the best time to try to cash in for free tickets?
A: Airlines allow you to book award travel as far out as 330 days in advance, and a lot of people think that this is when they’ll have the best shot at scoring a seat. However, as you approach the departure date, airlines often free up more award inventory on flights in order to fill any remaining open seats. But, watch out. Airlines will often charge extra fees (around $75) for award bookings made within 21 days of departure.
Q: Can you recommend any websites or apps that makes it easy to track airline, hotel, etc. rewards points all in one place?
A: There are more of these sites than ever. AwardWallet is one of the best ways to stay on top of your point balances and expiration dates. Other sites, like UsingMiles and Mint.com, use similar formats. One more to check out is TripIt. Its premium subscription service even keeps track of your itineraries, will send flight alerts, including delays and gate changes, and lets you share travel plans with your contacts.
Q: What are some easy ways to keep airline miles from expiring?
A: There is absolutely no reason to let your miles expire. Keeping active is simple and cheap, even if you don’t fly very often. You just need to accrue a single mile to reset the expiration date. The easiest way to do so is by making a cheap purchase through your mileage program’s shopping portal. My favorite trick is to purchase an iTunes song through one of these shopping portals. I’m basically spending $.99 to keep thousands of miles in my account from expiring.
Additionally, transferring credit card points or using an airline credit card will reset the expiration clock in most programs. You can also link your credit card to your airline’s dining rewards network program (like an online shopping portal, most of the majors have this) so that when you dine out at a participating restaurant, you automatically earn miles.
Q: Can you recommend any good credit card programs (or other types of programs) for earning points beyond simply getting mileage points from flying?
A: While flying is a great way to rack up miles, the single most lucrative way to earn points – whether it’s hotel points, credit card points or airline miles – is credit cards. Not only are credit cards offering bigger sign-up bonuses than ever (up to 100,000 points or miles), but by using a points-earning card to pay for as many of your expenses as possible, you can earn even more points and miles.
Personally, I prefer transferable points programs, such as American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards, where you earn points to a central account and then transfer them to any number of travel partners, including airlines and hotels to redeem awards. This gives cardholders the flexibility to redeem for a huge variety of awards across a number of loyalty programs, making it easier to put your points and miles to use.
Q: Is it better to cash in points for airline tickets, upgrades or other offers, like gift cards?
A: The best way to cash in your points depends on what you want to use them for, though generally I would advise people to avoid redeeming points and miles for gift cards since your rate of return is often quite low – around 1% or sometimes less. By contrast, if you use airline miles for a premium international award ticket, you could be getting value for your miles above 10 cents each. In general, I use my miles and points on premium airline tickets and hotels since I reap a lot more value out of those redemptions.
To learn more about making the most of your travel rewards points, be sure to visit The Points Guy.
Photo Credit: Julia Dimon