Ever since my college days, I’ve found ways to leverage frequent flier miles and hotel loyalty points and turn them into some pretty amazing — and super low-cost — vacations. I’ve given my family travel experiences that would otherwise be out of our reach. I’ve earned and redeemed miles for nearly free flights to Hawaii, London, the Maldives and many other destinations. Points have netted my family many virtually free hotel stays around the world, too.
People are sometimes skeptical about the possibilities, but the fact is this: If you are not earning and redeeming miles and points, you are leaving money on the table. There are so many ways to earn loyalty currency these days — often without even traveling.
Here are six easy ways to earn miles and points so you can jump-start your plans to redeem nearly free flights and hotel stays.
1. Sign up.
Start by signing up for the major airline and hotel loyalty programs—like American Airlines, World of Hyatt, Marriott Bonvoy and United Airlines. Then watch your email for notification of any promotions that offer bonus miles for taking a flight, staying in a hotel, interacting with the brand on social media or doing business with one of its partners.
2. Take a few surveys.
Sign up for programs like e-Rewards and MyPoints that reward you with free miles and points for reading a short marketing message or responding to an online survey. These programs won’t make you points-rich, but you can add a few hundred or even a thousand miles/points to your accounts each year if you have just a few minutes to spare each week. At the very least, this can keep your points from expiring in many cases.
3. Use your rewards credit card as often as you can.
Adjust your spending habits so you pay for everything with a rewards-earning credit or debit card instead of using cash or checks. Just be sure to pay off the balance of your credit card — in full — each and every month.
Use your card to pay for normal and everyday expenses, but don’t buy anything extra. Just concentrate on changing your method of payment. That means swiping your card when you buy your morning coffee and bagel, charging your phone bill and buying groceries with your card.
Just make sure not to pay any “convenience” fees when paying your bills via credit card. Some utility companies only take credit cards via a third-party service like Western Union and in those cases a small service fee is added to your total. As long as you avoid those situations, you can use your rewards credit card to earn miles and points at zero cost to you.
Your grocery bill is the perfect example to illustrate just how much money you’re leaving on the table if you’re not collecting miles and points. According to the USDA, Americans spend on average between $675 and $1,344 monthly on groceries for a family of four. At the lowest amount, that’s $8,100 a year.
If you buy those groceries using an American Express EveryDay Preferred card, you’ll earn two points for every dollar spent on groceries, up to $6,000 annually. So, in this example, you’d net 14,100 Membership Rewards points in an average year and those points can be transferred to a variety of airline and hotel programs.
It gets better though. If you use an EveryDay Preferred card at least 20 times a month, American Express gives you a 20% points bonus so those 14,100 points would become 16,920 points per year. You are well on your way to a free round-trip domestic flight.
You can see how a tiny bit of strategic thinking in terms of how you pay for your purchases will net miles and points that you can redeem for amazing vacations.
4. Understand your credit card benefits.
It’s important that you know the benefits of any rewards-earning credit card in your possession. Credit card companies are vying for your business and so each type of credit card lures you with different benefits.
Some cards offer double bonus miles and points for purchases made in certain categories (gas, groceries, dining, travel, transportation, office supplies) while other cards offer statement credits for travel expenses like baggage fees. Make use of those benefits!
If you can’t remember which card offers what, simply write something like “2x gas/groceries” on a tiny piece of paper and tape it to the front or back of your card. Then you’ll always know which piece of plastic to use for which type of expense.
If you don’t already have a rewards-earning credit card and if your credit is good (credit score of around 720 or higher), you should consider signing up for a new card or two. Wait until the card of your choice is offering a hefty sign-up bonus. Hobbyists consider 25,000 to 35,000 bonus points to be “OK” and will often wait for an offer that conveys 50,000, 60,000, or even in some rare cases, 100,000 miles or points.
Some sign-up bonuses require that you spend a minimum amount of money ($500, $2,500, $5,000) during the first few months of card membership. Other cards, however, like American Airline’s AAdvantage Aviator Red card, can require no minimum spend at all. You’ll get the bonus as soon as you are approved for the card, pay the annual fee and make a purchase. Consider those factors when determining which rewards cards are best for you.
6. Use shopping portals.
One of my absolute favorite ways to bulk up my stock of miles and points is to shop for everyday items through an online shopping portal sponsored by an airline, hotel or bank. You can earn tons of points if you regularly buy clothes and shoes, magazines and newspapers, computers and electronics, books and digital downloads, flowers and gifts, or office supplies online.
One of my favorite online shopping portals is United MileagePlus Shopping. The number of bonus points you earn varies per merchant and the payout rate can change at the drop of a hat. Usually, you’ll just get one, two, three, four or five points per dollar spent. However, sometimes you’ll hit pay dirt and find a shop offering even more points per dollar spent.
Summer Hull is one of America’s foremost experts when it comes to planning affordable family vacations with frequent flier miles and hotel loyalty points.
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