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My passion in the world of miles and points is helping those new to the hobby get on the right path toward earning trips they never thought would be possible, as well as providing tips that “normal” folks can integrate into their daily lives. So, as you might expect, the sessions that I usually like to provide at miles and points events and seminars such as Frequent Traveler University or Chicago Seminars are centered around those topics. I’ll leave the ‘manufactured spending’, ‘fuel dumping’, ‘secret tips’, and other similar topics to the experts in those fields!
A few weeks ago,at the Frequent Traveler University, my friend Ed from Pizza In Motion and I gave a session together entitled “Getting Started with Miles and Points” to kick off the morning. As I promised in that session, I will share the slides here for anyone who is interested in checking them out. I’m not entirely sure how helpful the slides are as a stand-alone, but I’m happy to share them in case they might have some value.
For everyone else who doesn’t want to cruise through the slides, here are five take-aways from the presentation that I think are good things for any beginning miles and points collector to keep in mind as they start their journey.
1. Know your travel goals and start earning with those in mind.
There are some offers you simply can’t go wrong with such as 500 free and easy United miles or some of the mega credit card sign-up bonuses. However, since the miles and points world is so big and varied, you will probably do better at first with earning if you have an idea how you want to use your miles. Even now, I earn many of my miles with a specific trip in mind. This keeps me focused on the types of miles and points I want, and lets me tune out the offers and promotions that aren’t relevant to my goals.
2. Start small and stay organized.
As you are getting started, it is more important to have a good system in place for your accounts than to take advantage of every offer. You need to set up a tracking system so that your miles won’t accidentally expire – AwardWallet.com is perfect for that. You also need a very solid system in place for tracking and paying your rewards credit cards, especially if you are used to just having one or two cards a month. Get credit cards slowly, and consider setting them to all be due on the same date, using a service like mint.com to help you track due dates, etc. Don’t get in over your head and start racking up interest charges or missing due dates as that will very quickly wash away the value of the rewards you are earning.
3. Free isn’t always free, but it might be darn close.
When I started getting serious in this hobby rewards travel was a bit more “free” than it is now thanks to lots of credit cards that awarded a bucket of miles after just one purchase and no annual fee the first year. Banks and various promotions make you work a little harder for your miles and points now, so what you are getting now isn’t always free. For example, if you are paying lots of annual fees, or buying points via Daily Getaways, or buying gift cards to earn points, or paying fuel surcharges when you redeem miles, you probably aren’t actually flying or staying in hotels for free…but sometimes it might be darn close. Also consider the time you are investing in the hobby as your time is worth something as well. I find the rewards to absolutely outweigh the costs of earning miles and points, but it is something to keep an eye on to ensure you are always coming out ahead.
4. Learn a little about the various ways to earn miles, and only use the ones that make sense for you.
There are lots of ways to earn miles and points including: credit card sign-up bonuses, gift card/reload card purchases, dining programs, online shopping portals, promotions, purchasing miles, actual travel, filling out online surveys, etc. I recommend learning just enough about each type of way to earn to determine if it makes sense for your life and travel goals, then ignore the ones you don’t need. For example, if your family rarely buys anything from retail stores then you don’t need to focus your attention on online shopping portal payouts. However, you should know that method of earning points exists for the rare occasion you might need to make an online purchase – especially a larger online purchase. You can then do some searching through blog posts to walk you through the process. However, if you don’t know that is a possible way to earn miles then you will miss it completely when the time comes to buy a new appliance or computer online.
5. Burning effectively is harder than earning.
Being skilled at redeeming your miles and points is actually harder for most people than racking up a decent pile of miles. Learning which partners might offer lower redemption rates, more favorable stopovers/routing rules, leveraging those stopovers to get more than one trip out of one reward, and determining when to use cash versus when to redeem points can be tough. On the other hand, some redemptions like via Southwest, or fixed value points you can use toward travel such as with the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard, or with many hotels, is pretty straight forward.
My advice is learn about partners and routing rules as they relate to your travel goals. Don’t feel like you need to be an expert in all programs, but do take the time to do some searching and read through forums on sites like Flyertalk as they relate to where you want to go. You can start with one of my recent posts on some of my favorite award chart sweet spots if you want to get an idea of what I’m talking about. Of course, you can also decide learning the ins and outs of complex redemptions isn’t worth your time and instead pony up the cash to pay a pro at an award booking service to book those complex awards.
I didn’t learn how to earn and burn the miles for things like our recent around the world journey overnight. I’ve been at this for years and am still learning, and the “game” is ever-changing. I’m more than happy to help you get started (here’s a Beginner’s Guide), and keep you up to date along the way.