Getting Started with Points & Miles
Fair warning, points and miles is an addicting and extremely fun hobby. It will grow to consume a good number of hours in your life each week while rewarding you with new travel experiences (and maybe some friends along the way). Before getting started, there’s two ironclad commandments:
1. Thou shall not increase your day-to-day spending to earn rewards
2. Thou shall pay your balance in full and not pay interest.
If you can commit to those two simple rules, here’s a step-by-step guide to getting started in this wonderful pursuit.
Step 1: Understand your financial situation and create a disciplined plan
Failing to plan is planning to fail. Many wannabe points and miles enthusiasts have jumped headfirst into our hobby and experienced disaster. Here’s the tough love to make sure you stay out of trouble:
- Identify your budget and stick to it. DO NOT ADD ADDITIONAL SPENDING – EVEN TO MEET BONUS REQUIREMENTS.
- Pick a method to track your spending, bonus requirements, miles/point expiration dates, annual fee dates, etc. Many people swear by AwardWallet, but I love spreadsheets so I created my own Excel document to track everything. Here’s a copy, if you’re interested.
- Review your credit report and size up your credit score. Credit Karma is a great tool, though be aware its Vantage Score can differ from the FICO score that most banks use. If there’s any derogatory information on your credit reports – stop reading now. You will not be approved for most of the cards we discuss on this blog and your credit score will be further hurt by inquiries.
- Pay your balance in full every month. If you can’t afford to do this, you can’t afford points and miles as a hobby (yet). As little as one or two months of interest payments can completely offset the value gained from your points and miles
Step 2. Identify your travel goals
In the points and miles world, there are two types of players: those who want to spend less on travel, and those who want to upgrade their travel experience. It’s important to identify which of these camps you fall into (Amanda and I fall into the latter) because it will affect your choices in loyalty programs, credit cards, and spending patterns.
Once you’ve identified your primary motivation, it’s helpful to have an idea of where you’d like to go. This matters because airline alliances (like Star Alliance with United, oneworld with American, and SkyTeam with Delta) have different geographic footprints and award redemption sweet spots. For example, Star Alliance is generally considered the best alliance for Europe whereas oneworld is strong in Latin America and Australia. It’s also helpful for picking hotel partners like Marriott, Starwood, Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, etc. – which also have their own footprints and sweet spots.
Step 3. Sign up for loyalty programs
Use the list on the right to sign up for loyalty programs. Some programs require your account to be a certain age to transfer in miles and redeem them, so it’s a good idea to set them up now. Pro-tip – set up an alias and filter in your email, because you WILL get a lot of email.
Step 4. Retroactively credit recent travel
If you’ve recently flown, stayed in a hotel, or rented a car and did not earn miles or points – the good news is that you can usually request retroactive credit after the fact. Many programs have forms on their website for just this purpose, and if they don’t, you can email or call.
Step 5. Apply for the right credit card(s)
Be careful. This is where the potential for danger begins to creep in. I advise going slow, because most sign up bonuses that make these cards worthwhile have minimum spending requirements, and if you sign up for three at once, you might find yourself having to spend $20,000 in 90 days.
The first card I recommend for beginners is the Chase Sapphire Preferred. Its $95 annual fee is waived for the first year, it offers 50,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4K in three months, throws in an additional 5,000 UR points after adding an authorized user, and offers a number of travel protection perks. Furthermore, because Chase limits approvals to applicants with less than five new credit accounts in the last two years (referred to as the 5/24 rule), it’s important to start with the Chase cards you want first.
By way of example why I love this card: After spending $4,000 in three months and adding an authorized user to the account, you’d have 59,000 Ultimate Rewards points (50,000 from sign up bonus, 5,000 from authorized user bonus, and 4,000 from spending) that could be transferred to a number of loyalty programs. The generally accepted value for Chase UR points is about 2 cents per point – so this can be nearly $1200!
Other cards great for beginners include the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest, Citi ThankYou Premier, United MileagePlus Explorer, and Marriott Rewards. Here’s a peek at what I have in my wallet.
Step 6. Spend wisely
You’ll want to put as much of your everyday spending on credit cards as possible – and pay them off entirely every month. This last step is vitally important – YOU HAVE TO TREAT YOUR CREDIT CARDS LIKE A DEBIT CARD. If there’s a bill or other purchase that charges a fee to use a credit card (usually around 3%), that negates the value of the reward and you should use another fee-free way to pay.
Individual credit cards also have differing accrual rates and bonus rates, based on spending category and who you’re spending with. For example, to maximize bonus points, you would use a SPG credit card when paying at Sheraton, a United card when buying tickets from United, and a card like Chase Sapphire that gets 2X or 3X when dining out.
Step 7. Credit all travel – and know where to credit properly
Every time you purchase a flight, book a room, or reserve a car – you should be entering your frequently flyer information at the time of purchase. For airlines, sometimes it makes sense to credit flights to an alliance partner who gives more credit (for example, crediting United flights which are on a less generous revenue-based system to Singapore Kris Flyer’s more generous mileage-based program). There’s a handy guide available at wheretocredit.com that lets you plug in your information and see the best program to credit.
Step 8. Use shopping portals and dining programs
Shopping portals and dining programs are the best way to double dip or “stack” your rewards. In addition to credit card rewards, you can earn additional bonuses from these programs. When shopping online – don’t go directly to the merchant you plan to purchase from. Instead, log on to your favorite program’s online shopping portal, select the merchant, then click the link and shop as normal. Each portal will show you the current bonus point offer – like the example below.
Similarly, you can sign up for dining programs like United MileagePlus Dining, Delta SkyMiles Dining, AAdvantage Dining, and Hilton Honors Dining – that, after linking your credit card, will automatically apply bonus points when you dine at participating establishments.
Step 9. Make Smart Redemptions
Chase allows you to redeem Ultimate Rewards points directly for either 1.25 or 1.5 cents per point; American Express allows you to redeem Membership Rewards points directly for between .6 cents and 1 cent per point. Redeeming for these rates is usually considered a failure because you can average about 2 cents in value by transferring to airline or hotel partners instead. As an outsized example, a one way United and Lufthansa itinerary from Raleigh to Frankfurt in business class will set me back a whopping $6873, but I can purchase the same airfare by transferring 70,000 points to United MileagePlus. Dividing $6873 by 70,000 points yields a transfer value of 9.8 cents. There’s a number of published points valuation guides you can use for reference, including the two I follow – The Points Guy and Lucky from One Mile at a Time.
It’s important to make yourself familiar with the award charts of the programs you’re using so you can maximize your redemptions. Remember – always refer to the program that your points or miles will be in – and not the airline that you’ll be flying (though they often one in the same).
Step 10. Always Be Learning
There’s a mindbogglingly amount of variables that go into earning and redeeming miles. It can seem overwhelming at first, but you’ll quickly get the hang of it. I recommend following points and miles bloggers (like yours truly) on social media to discover sweet spots, updated award charts, promotional bonus deals, and the like.
Airline Frequent Flyer Programs
- Aegean Airlines Miles + Bonus
- Aeromexico Club Premier
- Air Canada Aeroplan
- Air China Phoenix Miles
- Air France
- Air New Zealand Airpoints
- Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
- Alitalia MilleMiglia Club
- American Airlines AAdvantage
- ANA Mileage Club
- Asiana Airlines Asiana Club
- British Airways Executive Club
- Cathay Pacific Asia Miles
- China Eastern Eastern Miles
- China Southern Airlines Sky Pearl Club
- Delta Sky Miles
- El Al Matmid Club ($25 Fee)
- Emirates Skywards
- Etihad Guest
- EVA Air Infinity MileageLands
- Garuda Indonesia GarudaMiles
- Hainan Airlines Fortune Wings Club
- Hawaiian Airlines HawaiianMiles
- Iberia Plus
- JAL Mileage Bank
- Jet Airways JetPrivilege
- JetBlue TrueBlue
- Korean Air SkyPass
- LATAM Pass
- Miles and More (Lufthansa/Swiss/Austrian)
- Malaysia Airlines Enrich
- Qantas Frequent Flyer
- Qatar Airways Privilege Club
- Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
- Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
- Thai Airways Royal Orchid Plus
- United MileagePlus
- Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
- Virgin Australia Velocity
Hotel Loyalty Programs
- Accor Hotels Le Club
- Best Western Rewards
- Choice Hotels
- Hilton Honors
- Hyatt World of Hyatt
- IHG Rewards Club
- La Quinta Returns
- Loews YouFirst
- Marriott Rewards
- Radisson Rewards
- Ritz-Carlton Rewards
- Starwood Preferred Guest
- Wyndham Rewards
Car Rental Programs
Alex Fowler is a Raleigh-based entrepreneur, world traveler, and wanna-be writer.
He's primarily flying with United (though he often questions that decision) and staying at Ritz Carlton and Marriott properties - but does take advantage of free agent opportunities as they arise.
His goal is that his stories and advice inspire you in your travels. And if not, at least the content's free!