Most vacationers that I speak to tell me that the biggest problem they face when thinking about award travel is that they never seem to have enough miles/points to get them where they want to go. This can be discouraging and so the small balances they have remain unused and eventually expire. There are usually two main reasons why this is the case:
1) They’re spreading their miles/points out across too may loyalty programs so they find it hard to build up a balance large enough for an award.
2) They’re not doing the day-to-day basics that would allow them to collect miles/points without ever setting foot on a plane.
Luckily there are easy remedies for both issues:
Reasonably regular travellers should pick one or two airlines that they like to fly and that are convenient for them and stick to collecting miles/points in their loyalty programs. Infrequent travellers would be best picking out one airline (if possible) and concentrating on that one.
To help you choose the best airline for you, try writing down a list of destinations that you like to visit (timeshare owners can list out their timeshare locations, for example) and then use a flight search tool like Kayak to note which airline is regularly the one with the best combination of price, comfort and convenience for each route (when considering comfort, be sure to refer to Smarter Tip #10 – Not All Seats In Coach Are The Same). Now see which airline appears most often on your list and you have your airline of choice.
Now that you’ve identified the most appropriate loyalty program(s), you should find out how you can collect miles in your program of choice without having to step on a plane.
The easiest way to do this, without going to much effort, is to have a credit card that earns miles in your program of choice and to then use that card for day-to-day-spend. All the major airlines have co-branded credit cards issued by the major banks so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding one to match your needs. You may be surprised how swiftly you can accrue miles and points when all your regular spend goes on one of these cards. As an added incentive, most of these credit cards come with healthy signing up bonuses (usually in the region of 30,000 – 50,000 miles/points) which will put you well on the way to a nice airline reward.
If you find yourself in a position where two airlines fit your needs equally well then you may wish to look into credit cards that have their own loyalty schemes. These loyalty schemes often allow their users to convert their points into points in other loyalty programs. An example of this would be the Starwood American Express card (available in both the US & the UK) whose points can be converted to any of 32 different airlines.
To earn miles/points this way requires very little effort but it does require a little bit of discipline:
Firstly, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, loyalty-point earning credit cards come with higher than average APRs. If you normally carry a balance on your credit card these cards are definitely not for you. If you hold one of these cards then make sure you pay the balance off in full every month.
Cash is your enemy (and I include debit cards in my definition of cash). If you’re paying for something in cash you’re giving up the opportunity to earn miles/points by using your credit card. You should be using your credit card for every transaction you can – from parking meters to dinners out, no transaction is too small. Once you get into the habit of reaching for your credit card every time you have to pay for something you’re on your way to healthier loyalty points balances.
Don’t be lured into spending more than you would have otherwise done just to earn some miles – that’s defeating the object of the exercise. Never spend more on your credit card than you would have spent had you been paying with cash.
There are many more ways you can earn extra airline miles, like the dining programs run by the airline loyalty programs, and, if you feel like you need more info, you can find out a bit more about these in an earlier post I wrote explaining how to Keep Your Airline Miles From Expiring.
For now, if you’re an infrequent traveller, just following the simple steps set out above should see you boost your airline miles balances far quicker than you would otherwise manage. That should help you get to that airline award that has, so far, seemed out of reach.
Next: Valuing airline miles & points (and why you need to).