airline_rewards

Summer is here and that old familiar wanderlust is telling me to follow the sunshine and go on some grand adventure. The only problem is that like much of the nation, I’m a bit cash-strapped from what economists are calling a double-dip recession. I need to maximize my airline rewards.

I have accumulated frequent flier miles and points, but not enough to get me anywhere. Or so I thought until I talked to Brian Kelly, an airline rewards and loyalty points consultant known as The Points Guy. He shared a few tips on how to accumulate points and air miles faster, as well as how to use rewards more efficiently. Here’s what he had to say.

Why points matter
More than ever, loyalty points are a significant part of how people travel and everyone should be thinking about how to make the most of them.

Where to begin
Focus on building loyalty with a particular airline and corresponding alliance and follow these steps:

– Look at your flight patterns and which airlines fly most often from their home airports
– Identify the airline that works for you
– Set a goal: international or domestic travel? Coach or upgrade?
Research the credit card options and choose the one that gets you the most points with your airline

Signup bonuses are the quickest and most lucrative way to earn miles and points.

Best airline rewards credit cards
The best credit card isn’t necessarily your airline’s credit card, although airlines often give great perks like free checked bags and priority boarding. That’s important to note considering that air passengers paid $22 billion in add-on fees last year alone. Consider applying for a credit card that allows you to transfer points to a number of different carriers; flexibility is key with miles and points.

The Points Guy’s favorite airline rewards credit cards
He loves American Express Membership Rewards (Platinum, Gold, Premier and Green) cards because you can transfer points to 17 different airlines including Delta, British Airways and Air Canada, as well as Hilton and Starwood hotels. The Chase Sapphire Preferred card is another good option because it allows transfers to a number of airlines such as Continental and British Airways and hotel chains including Hyatt, Marriott, Priority Club (IC Hotels) and even Amtrak.

Get organized
You should use cash for as few everyday purchases as possible; spending cash instead of using credit cards is like leaving points on the table. However, be sure to pay off your points-earning cards every month because many come with high APR’s, and paying fees could negate the value of points your earn.

Once you start earning points, organize your accounts on a website such as AwardWallet.com, which tracks your balances and expiration dates. People often are surprised to see how many points they have.

How to use airline miles
In general, airline miles are best redeemed for flights, with business and first class offering the best value. Airline websites never show all of their reward availability, nor that of their alliance partners, so you need to use a paid service like ExpertFlyer.com, which does the work for you, or research flight options and call the airline directly. You will probably have to be flexible with dates, and even destinations. For instance, you might have to fly to a city near your final destination and take a train.

The Points Guy likes using cash-and-points options to stretch the value of points at hotels. Starwood, Hilton and Priority Club all offer this choice. Hotel chains also tend to offer a rotating list of hotels with deeply-discounted award stays, so if you have general travel plans, you could pick your destination this way.

The more flexible your travel plans, the better you can take advantage and use fewer points for the same rewards.

Is it too late to travel this summer?
Not at all! A lot of airlines open up last-minute awards seats, so there’s still time to redeem your points. Just think about hitting some off-peak destinations like the Southern Hemisphere, where it is winter. You can still have a great trip.