By Samuel Greengard | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor
6 Min Read | January 17, 2020 in Cards
You can take steps to maximize the miles or travel credit card points you earn—understanding how miles accumulate can be key.
Focusing on airline and other partners can help miles or travel points accumulate faster on your credit card.
Using a travel credit card and related buying techniques can help you “double dip” to earn additional miles or travel points.
When frequent flyer programs took off in the early 1980s, they offered a fairly straightforward way to accumulate miles and trips: flying an airline. The more you stepped aboard a plane and the farther you traveled, the more miles you accumulated. Since then, these programs have evolved into complex systems that include travel credit cards, hotels, rental cars, shopping, dining and much more.
But used effectively, flying can still be one of the best ways to accumulate airline miles, travel points on your credit card, or both. I’ve traveled to 47 U.S. states and 62 countries and racked up numerous rewards along the way, including business-class and first-class tickets on international routes. And whether flying or not, it’s possible to boost miles in ways you might not realize.
Here are five hacks to boost miles, travel points, or both, that I’ve used myself:
Once upon a time, determining the miles earned from a trip was simple: all you had to know was the distance. Today, airlines often use confusing fare classes and codes to determine how many base points you earn from a trip. Often, these travel points are combined with the distance flown. One program offers a base level of five miles for every dollar spent on the cost of a flight, up to a maximum of 75,000 miles per ticket.1 The program also adds miles flown. However, those who have achieved higher status—often through a combination of flights, travel credit card points, and more—receive anywhere from seven to 11 miles per dollar spent. Occasionally, you may even want to pay more for a flight, especially if you are close to reaching the next frequent flyer status level or bonus points on a credit card, so that you can obtain the extra miles needed to reach that tier—and the additional benefits it brings. Bottom line: Concentrating on one or two airlines and using branded travel credit card points to help boost your status can multiply miles/points accumulation.
There are three primary airline alliances—Oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance—and many smaller ones. The right alliance not only makes things simpler for travel and flight connections on partner airlines—including preferred seats and priority boarding—it can magnify your rewards. This may include short flights in other countries that you might easily overlook. Not surprisingly, alliances aren’t all the same. Some include top-tier airlines with extensive routes in Europe, Asia or the Middle East, while others include smaller airlines with limited routes and schedules. If you use non-partner airlines, you won’t receive any miles. Bottom line: By reviewing the partner list within an alliance and matching it to where you expect to fly, it’s possible to concentrate bookings within an alliance—and build your points pool faster.
One of the most lucrative hacks I’ve found is the sign-up bonus for airline or travel credit cards—or an upgrade from a given card’s base level to increasingly more elite status levels. In some cases, this can net you 50,000 or more miles or travel points.2 If you’re looking to book a trip soon and a co-branded credit card can get you points on your desired airline and destination, the miles from that travel credit card may even generate a free ticket. However, it’s also important to look at factors such as the annual fee for a card, when the travel points are available, and what other benefits it offers. In addition, some cards offer two-for-one annual companion tickets that provide the equivalent of 25,000 or more frequent flyer miles. Bottom line: The right travel credit card and bonuses can create a multiplier effect for your miles.
Most rewards programs offer hidden and overlooked ways to hack your way to extra travel points. For example, airline mile credit cards typically serve up two miles or points per dollar spent on a flight (versus the typical one mile per dollar). Another strategy for defraying the cost of travel is to use cards that accumulate hotel points, which can be redeemed for discounts and free nights. Still another highly effective hack I’ve used is to book vacations and cruises directly from the airline. Travelers sometimes overlook that many airlines operate their own travel agencies that package trips and tours. These include exotic destinations like the Caribbean, Mexico and Europe, often at excellent prices. These bookings can net you 30,000 points/miles or more—along with other benefits. Bottom line: When booking a cruise or other vacation, it can be worth checking with your favorite airline to see if they offer a package deal—and bonus points/miles.
While double dipping may not be proper etiquette at social gatherings, it’s a smart way to load up on travel points. Frequent flyer programs and airline miles credit cards are often associated with shopping, dining, hotels, ride sharing services, and car rental providers. These and other programs can drop lots of miles into your account—even while they accumulate reward points of their own.3 Combined with a travel credit card, it’s often possible to feast on double or triple miles for a purchase. Bottom line: Incorporating partners into your purchases and using a co-branded travel points credit card to purchase tickets can help you soar.
The days of accumulating frequent flyer program miles based solely on distance are gone. But if you take the time to understand how today’s programs work, you can gain an edge. Know how you can accelerate rewards through the effective use of a travel credit card—and which program works best for you—and you may drop hundreds of thousands of extra miles or travel points into your frequent flyer account every year. You may just find yourself headed to paradise more often.