As you know, we love frequent flyer miles and hotel loyalty points. Use them correctly and you can save a ton of money on traveling. That said, getting started can be confusing, and the thought of using them can be daunting. So let us do what we do best and simplify the process for you. Below we unmask the obstacles associated with earning and using points and make free travel easier to obtain — even if you’re not a “frequent traveler.”

The Basics

  • Airline miles, also known as frequent flyer miles or travel points, are part of loyalty programs offered by airlines, hotel chains and credit cards.
  • You can acquire miles or points with each flight, hotel stay or credit card purchase to use toward free travel.
  • A mile/point earned doesn’t actually equal a free mile of travel. For most programs, 20,000 miles/points will get you a free domestic coach seat in the continental U.S.
  • Signing up for loyalty programs is free – so sign up for as many as you’d like. Use a website like points.com to track points from various rewards programs.
  • Make sure you’re getting something back from your credit card. With rewards programs tied to every major credit card company, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be getting something out of your card. Call your card’s customer service line and see what your rewards are, and if you’re not getting any, ask if they can convert you to a card where you can.

Key Questions To Focus Your Points Efforts

The overall goal is simple — you want to travel for free. By answering a few questions you’ll be able to choose a few programs that will, in turn, help you get there faster.

  1. What are your vacation plans? Is your goal to take your family of four on an Orlando vacation next summer? Are you planning a first class European getaway with your spouse, or a trip for yourself to visit family in Australia? By answering this question you’ll be able to better quantify what you need to travel for free, and choose airline/hotel/credit card partners that will best help meet your vacation needs.
  1. Where do you live, and what airlines service your nearby airport? We love flying with American Airlines and their AAdvantage program, but their flights are very limited out of Baltimore, where we’re based, so it’s not the best rewards program for us. BWI is a hub for Southwest, though, so we get a lot more out of being a part of their loyalty program.
  1. What kind of hotel chains appeal to you and your type of travel? This will help you focus on a specific hotel reward program, making free nights there more attainable. Most of the Point Savvy team tends to be very Starwood chain loyal. They not only offer a great rate of return on their points, but also have a family of hotels ranging from their affordable Four Points chain to the St. Regis from which to choose. If you’re not currently drawn to any chain, our advice is to choose one that has a partner relationship with your hometown airline from which you can benefit, or one that has many hotels to choose from like Marriott, Starwood, or Hilton.

Choosing a Credit Card That Gives You What You Want

If you fly a lot with the same airline, it’s an easy decision to get a credit card that rewards you with bonus miles from that same airline. Because lots of us shop for airline tickets based on price and availability having a credit card that’s limited to one airline may not be the best decision for you. Picking the right one can also be overwhelming.

So let’s go back to basics.

  1. First, see what cards are best for you and your spending habits.
  2. Take into account where you spend the most money and just how much you spend monthly.
  3. Figure out where you’re bound to earn the most points. For example, if your local airport doesn’t have a lot of flights through Virgin America, their rewards card is going to be pretty useless.
  4. If you can’t decide consider cards that give you significant sign up bonuses. These can help give you a jump start towards a free vacation.
  5. Others provide double (or more) miles if you make specific types of purchases. For example, certain cards offer double points if you use your credit card for dining out. If you eat at a lot of restaurants, this helps you get more miles than other cards.

Other Ways to Accumulate Miles

It’s also worth pointing out that you won’t accumulate bonus points on these credit cards if you book through a site like Expedia or Kayak because it’s based on where the charge comes from. You have to book through the airline itself to get any bonus miles the card might offer. This isn’t the case with airline frequent flyer programs though, just credit card miles.

For example, with Southwest’s Rapid Rewards® Program, you accumulate miles based on the type of fare that you purchase, not the number of miles that you fly. In return, you can use miles for a free flight based on type of fare.

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In the case of Southwest, when fares drop – so do the number of miles necessary for a free flight.

Flying and using credit cards aren’t the only ways to get airline miles. In fact, you can gain miles by shopping, eating out, buying gas and much more.

Here are a few examples that might just surprise you:

  1. You can get points through airline specific dining programs.
  2. Most airlines have shopping bonus options if you use their program as a portal to sites like Target, Best Buy, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Apple.
  3. Banks often offer miles for opening up new accounts. So the next time you’re seeking to open a new account, keep that in mind.
  4. Wireless providers can also be a great source for bonus miles.
  5. You can often get paid miles for filling out surveys on a site like Emiles or eRewards.

Accruing miles outside of flying works the same way with just about any other program. Just enter in your account number, and when you fulfill an agreement those miles will go right into your account.

Redeeming Miles

So, now you have your travel credit card and your frequent flyer accounts all set up. You’ve taken a few flights, spent some money with those credit cards, and you’re ready to redeem those points to get an actual ticket. Here’s how to do that:

  1. Head to the web site for the alliance you’d like to book a flight with.
  2. Enter your rewards number, and search for a flight.
  3. You’ll see a screen like the one above that lists how many miles you’ll need to book a flight, along with any extra cost per ticket.
  4. Book your ticket!

Remember that airlines only release a certain number of seats to frequent flyer travelers, so your flight choices are more limited than they would be if paying cash. Beware of Blackout dates around major holidays that can restrict your ticket options. Because of that, sometimes it’s a better option to use your miles to upgrade to business or first class.

Keep in mind that when you book with your frequent flyer miles, you still have to pay taxes and fees, so that flight isn’t completely free. The fees depend on the airline and the flight so be aware when booking your trip.

That said, we hope that this helped to get you off to the right start, and that you enjoy your journey into the land of frequent flier miles. Happy Free Travels!