Beginner's Guide to Miles & Points
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Hilary Stockton
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My Award Booking Service helps travelers book first class and business class with miles and points. As an independent affiliate of Cadence, I also have access to Four Seasons Preferred Partner, VirtuosoPeninsula Hotels PenClub, Dorchester Diamond Club, Belmond Bellini Club, Shangri-La Luxury Circle, Langham CoutureRitz-Carlton STARS, Starwood Luxury Privileges, Rocco Forte and other 5-star hotel partners, so I can book, for no extra cost, your perfect luxury hotel or luxury cruise with VIP amenities not available anywhere else. Become a client and upgrade your stay!

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If you're new to using miles and points for award travel, this Beginner's Guide to Miles and Points is for you. It may also come in handy as an easy reference guide, if you're looking for one of our more popular prior posts. 

To put this in context, for my family, miles and points enables us all to travel first and business class internationally to many of our dream destinations for the cost of taxes, instead of the retail cost of up to $25,000 per ticket. 

You don't have to be a road warrior or fly much at all to earn miles and points: you can earn 1 million miles and points in a year without flying and this is what my family does, since we fly very little on purchased tickets.

While everyone can differ on their favorite frequent flyer programs, credit cards and redemptions, what's common to virtually everyone is a concerted strategy and organization to earn the miles and points and then to redeem them. If you're starting out, chances are that even a few changes in your credit card applications and the cards you use for certain spend can make a significant difference in the miles and points you earn in a year.

1. Dream Big: Decide On Your Travel Goals

The very first step is also the most fun (apart from the actual travel, of course!): Decide where you really want to travel to over the next few years. This is a great thing to do anyway, since it helps move some destinations from only the "dream" or "bucket list" category into actual travel planning. And if you're part of a couple or family, it's good to see which places you both want to visit sooner rather than later.


2. Focus on the Best Frequent Flyer and Loyalty Programs for Your Travel Goals

The reason I especially recommend deciding your travel goals as the first step for a miles and points strategy is that it has implications for the miles and points you want to focus on earning first. While there are always exceptions, here are some rough recommendations I have by geographical region, in terms of miles. Keep in mind transferable points options and even buying miles as a way of topping up an account for an award redemption.

 

  • Europe in First Class: United MileagePlus Miles, BA Avios 
  • Europe in Business Class: American AAdvantage Miles, United MileagePlus Miles, BA Avios
  • Asia in First Class: American AAdvantage Miles, Singapore KrisFlyer Miles 
  • Asia in Business Class: AAdvantage Miles, United MileagePlus Miles
  • Australia/New Zealand in Business Class: Delta SkyMiles, United MileagePlus Miles (if routing via Asia)
  • South America in Business Class: American AAdvantage Miles
  • Middle East in First Class or Business Class: American AAdvantage Miles
  • Africa in Business Class: United MileagePlus Miles, British Airways Avios

 

3. Organize and Track Your Miles and Points

If you belong to a number of frequent flyer programs, you can use a service such as Award Wallet to track them. The basic service is free, and with a donation, you can track the expiration of an unlimited number of accounts. Do note that certain airlines don't allow automatic updating; there is sometimes a workaround whereby you can have your statements sent to AwardWallet in order to update your balances and history.

However you track your miles and points, be sure to familiarize yourself with Airline Miles Expiration Policies to Keep Miles from Expiring!


4. Check Your Credit Scores and Credit Reports

Many people shy away from earning miles and points because they fear hurting their credit score. And it is of course important to be careful with your credit score--what most people don't realize, however, is that you can maintain or even improve your credit score over the long term while applying for many miles and points credit cards.

As I wrote in Your Credit Score and Credit Card Rewards: Top 10 Tips, it's important to check your credit scores and credit reports before applying for new credit cards. Be sure that you're looking at your actual Equifax, Experian and/or Transunion FICO credit score, since there are a number of fake "FAKO" credit scores that aren't what issuers are actually using. See Credit Score: FICO or FAKO?

It's equally important to ensure the following is true:

  • You don’t have any credit card or other high-interest debt
  • You always pay your credit card bill off in full every statement
  • You have a steady income
  • You don’t plan to apply for a mortgage, refinancing, student loan or other major loan within the next year or so
  • You aren’t tempted to spend more by having more credit cards

If the above are true for you and your FICO credit scores are 720 or higher, strategic applications for credit cards that earn substantial sign-up bonuses and category spending bonuses are the best ways to earn miles and points, at least if you live in the U.S. Unfortunately, credit card bonuses are generally nowhere near as generous in other countries.

Don't forget to also discuss your plans to become a miles and points millionaire with your spouse, since he or she may need some persuading. Check out these posts for some help:

Credit Card Miles and Points Strategy for the Reluctant Spouse or Travel Partner

Are Frequent Flyer Miles Worth It? How to Convince Your Spouse

Which Travel Credit Card is Best if You Use Only One Card?

 

5. Apply for the Best Travel Credit Cards to Earn Miles and Points

In Step 2 you decided on the frequent flyer miles and points you're looking to focus on to achieve your travel goals. Let that guide you in terms of which credit cards to apply for. See our Best Travel Credit Cards page for the current best signup bonus offers.

If it's been 5-6 months or more since you've applied for any credit cards or other loans and you have a strong credit score and income, I would recommend applying for up to 5-6 credit cards all on one day, as close in time as possible. The reason for applying this way is that it minimizes the chance of being rejected for "too many recent credit inquiries" since each bank or issuer won't see that you're applying for a few other cards at the same time. And if you're applying for two or more personal cards from a single issuer, you may have the hard credit inquiries merged, which will take fewer points off your score.

Don't worry if you aren't instantly approved for some cards. You can often be approved after calling Reconsideration and offering to shift some of your credit line from an existing credit card to the card you seek to open.


6. Track and Manage Your Credit Cards

After you receive your new credit cards, be sure to do a few things:

  • Track your spend to ensure you meet the minimum spend required to receive the signup bonus. I actually place a small sticky on the card itself with the date and minimum spend required, and update it periodically with how much more I need to spend. Also see Meet Minimum Spend: Top 20 Tips
  • Set up autopay for each card, so that you never have to worry about missing a payment or late fees. Do note that while it's easy to do with certain cards, it can be more of a hassle with other issuers, and can take 1-2 billing cycles to set up. And of course ensure the accounts that you use for Autopay have sufficient balances, to avoid overdrafts.
  • Track your renewal date, so you can decide whether to Cancel or Close a Credit Card, or to request a retention offer. See 10 Tips: Retention Bonus Offers 
  • More Tips: Tracking and Managing Miles, Points and Credit Cards


7. Leverage Other Ways to Earn More Miles and Points

While credit card signup bonuses are the easiest ways to earn a large number of miles and points without flying, there are other important ways as well:

  • Category Spend Bonuses: I love cards that offer category bonuses, such as 5X, 3X or 2X for certain categories of spend. Also see 5X on All Amazon Spend and 5X on All Whole Foods Spend.
  • Shopping: Avoid buying anything at a physical store: instead, go through an online shopping mall to earn bonus points or miles when you click through to the online store.
  • Retention Bonuses (see links in Step 6)
  • BankDirect for American AAdvantage miles
  • Opening Fidelity Brokerage Accounts: See the links in these posts.
  • Dining: There are Frequent Flyer Miles and Points Dining Programs, but at least in NYC, the restaurants that participate in dining programs are for the most part ones I'd never go to, and I'm just not willing to eat bad, overpriced food for miles! Instead, focus on a card that gives you a category spend for dining.


8. Plan and Book Award Travel Well in Advance, Especially for Couples and Families

Many people wonder when the best time is to book flights to get the lowest airfare. Well, the lowest price of all, at least for international first class and business class tickets, is booking an award ticket with miles and points and paying only taxes and fees. But this does require advance planning, if you're traveling as a couple or family. Ideally, you've earned the miles and points a over a year in advance of your trip, and are ready to use them right when the award calendar opens. This varies, but is typically 331-355 days in advance, depending on the airline. 

While many airlines do release some award seats closer to the departure day, you can't count on seats opening up for a given flight. And when booking for more than one person, during peak seasons or with limited date flexibility, you really want to try for your award seats as far in advance as possible. Here are some of our past posts that can help when planning an award:

Airline Award Charts

How to Find Star Alliance Award Seats

How to Find Oneworld Award Space

How to Find SkyTeam Award Space

If you don't have the time to research and book your own award travel, TravelSort offers an Award Booking Service, with preferred pricing available as a TravelSort Client booking your hotel with us. 

The payoff of planning ahead? A vacation that begins from the moment you step on the plane, if you're flying international first or business class, and at price less than what you'd pay for coach.

I'd also recommend that you indeed redeem the miles and points you earn sooner rather than later--it's not a retirement fund and you don't want to hoard points, because airlines and other loyalty programs periodically devalue their programs, making awards more expensive to book. So make sure to "earn and burn" miles, and Diversify Your Miles and Points Portfolio.

Since this Beginner's Guide to Miles and Points is for all of you new to miles and points, what questions do you still have?

Related Posts

10 Best International First Class Seats for Award Travel

Best First Class Seats for Couples

Virtuoso Hotels: Bookings with Upgrades, Complimentary Breakfast and VIP Perks

 

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Comments
Avatar_60_masha Masha G. commented 23 Apr 2013
Thanks for this very helpful post. I will definitely email it to all my family and friends who question why I focus so much on miles and points.
Avatar_60_hilary Hilary Stockton commented 29 Apr 2013
Thanks Masha, glad our Beginner's Guide to Miles and Points is helpful and thanks for sharing with your family and friends!
Avatar_60_img_20130404_150640 Elizabeth L. commented 04 May 2013
I'm so glad that I found your site! Million thanks for putting in all the research, time, and effort for us!
Avatar_60_img_20130404_150640 Elizabeth L. commented 04 May 2013
Not sure if you would be able to help but my family and I (2 adults and a 7mo old) are planning to visit Xi'an China within 1 month at the latest (preferably before 5/15). This certainly isn't a trip that was anticipated well in advance. We haven't even book a ticket yet. Will reward points help us any at this point of game? Or am I too late to do anything other than trying to buy the cheapest coach?
User_avatar_default Sally J. commented 19 Jun 2013
Hello Thank you for the wonderful article. Can you please explain to me, what use a British Airways Credit card is. For example I tried to book a flight to London from DC in November. Its 40 K avios and 700 in cash. How is this any cheaper ttrahan just buying a ticket using cash? Additonally I have a lot of delta miles that I cannot use as their are no direct flights to London from DC. Do you have any recommendations on what I can do? Any credit cards you would suggest to get if I travel to London at least twice a year. Thanks so much SJ
Avatar_60_hilary Hilary Stockton commented 19 Jun 2013
Sally, glad it's helpful! British Airways Avios do incur high fuel surcharges on all trips going through London, so it almost never makes sense to use them for an economy class award to Europe on British Airways. That said, you could use them on Aer Lingus for cheap awards from Boston to Ireland, and from there you can get a cheap flight to London. See http://travelsort.com/blog/maximizing-british-airways-avios-fly-aer-lingus-to-europe-and-avoid-fuel-surcharges Avios are also good for short, nonstop awards on AA in the U.S., U.S.-Canada or U.S.-Caribbean, as well as LAN flights to South America. See http://travelsort.com/blog/50-percent-amex-transfer-bonus-to-british-airways-avios-best-deals For nonstop award flights from IAD to London I'd say United miles are your best bet--you could fly coach for 30K United miles + $2.50 or business class in a flat bed seat for 50K United miles + $2.50 on the outbound, and on the return, coach for 30K miles + $185.30 or biz for 50K miles + $290 (LHR airport taxes are high, and higher for premium cabins). I may elaborate more in a future blog post, thanks for the question!
User_avatar_default Chris J. commented 23 Jun 2013
Can anyone tell me which credit cards would best serve me if I'm trying to earn frequent flyer miles for Hawaii. I've noticed the Bank of Hawaii cards are not available. Looking for another option. Thanks, Chris
Avatar_60_hilary Hilary Stockton commented 24 Jun 2013
Chris, the BOH Biz card is still available with 35K bonus at http://travelsort.com/go/bohbiz35k but I don't really recommend using Hawaiian miles from the mainland. From the West Coast I'd use Avios (only 25K for coach roundtrip) and from the East Coast you could use Singapore KrisFlyer miles to fly coach roundtrip on United for 35K miles, or just 60K for BusinessFirst on 2 cabin United flights. See http://travelsort.com/blog/20-percent-amex-transfer-bonus-to-hawaiian-but-krisflyer-a-better-deal-to-hawaii
Picture?type=large Olvia V. commented 06 Jul 2013
Hi, thank you for the information. I'm confused on something. I want to take a trip to Rome, from SzfO, with a stopover in Paris. Whats the best way to use my mileage? Do I book on luftansa directly?
Avatar_60_hilary Hilary Stockton commented 08 Jul 2013
Olvia, not quite sure from your question which miles you intend to use, but you would need to book with the frequent flyer program for the miles you're using. So for example, if you're hoping to fly Lufthansa with United miles, you'd need to book with United MileagePlus. If you're using Lufthansa Miles & More miles, you'd book with Lufthansa's Miles & More frequent flyer program. Hope that helps.
User_avatar_default Jennifer W. commented 17 Sep 2013
Hi, I've never had a credit card but I want one to build up my credit so that when I do leave home, I won't need my parents to sign off for my apartment. I'm just wondering, what card would you recommend me getting for my first one? I plan on traveling a lot when I'm a little older. Chase Freedom? Or would I even be allowed to apply for that?
Avatar_60_hilary Hilary Stockton commented 17 Sep 2013
Jennifer, thanks for the question; you may want to check out the post Best College Student Travel Credit Cards (not saying you're a college student, but it's also useful for those applying for a credit card for the first time): http://travelsort.com/blog/best-college-student-travel-rewards-credit-cards I would recommend the Chase Freedom as a first card, with a view towards applying for the Sapphire Preferred once you've established your credit history, since you'll then be able to transfer points out to United, Hyatt and other partners. Just keep in mind the Freedom *does* charge foreign transaction fees, so don't use it while abroad.
Picture?type=large Laquel W. commented 03 Nov 2013
Hi there, this was actually very helpful for me as I am brand new to the whole awards/miles thing. I do have one question: when you apply for multiple cards in one day you do basically add up those minimum spends right? So if I applied for 3 cards all with $5000 min spend in 3 months I would essentially have to spend $15,000 in 3 months correct? Is there a way to stagger that? Thanks for the information, I'm loving this site and learning so much!
Avatar_60_hilary Hilary Stockton commented 03 Nov 2013
Laquel, yes, that's correct--you would need to complete all that minimum spend during the 3 months if those are the terms for each of the three cards. What can help in this situation is buying Vanilla Reload cards and loading them to AMEX Bluebird to pay the bill for one of the other cards. Please see http://travelsort.com/blog/best-credit-cards-to-buy-vanilla-reload-cards
Picture?type=large Laquel W. commented 06 Nov 2013
Thanks so much Hilary for the quick reply! I decided to get the Chase Sapphire Card to start as well as the Hyatt card (nice low minimum) considering we are looking to take a trip int he next 2 months or so. I think those were good ways to get me started while I continue to learn and plan my mile/point strategy! Thanks for all the great information!
User_avatar_default Mark B. commented 12 Dec 2013
Hilary Looking to change some personal credit cards to business cards and would like your recommendation. Here are some facts: We Live in Detroit Market 1. Card would handle $60,000 in spending - almost always in large chunks over $10,000 a transaction. 2. Would handle $100,000 with charges from Gas to business supplies. Some travel maybe $15-20k. My Personal Amex platinum and Barclays miles & more for Lufthansa I would be keeping. My company pays for my business travel first or business class. Personal travel is when we us card - all travel is first class only. Think of an SPG for one of the cards any idea for the other? Mark
Avatar_60_hilary Hilary Stockton commented 12 Dec 2013
Mark, is your first class travel mostly international or domestic, and to which destinations? For international flights, are you willing to connect in another city in order to fly first class, given that Detroit is a Delta hub, but Delta doesn't offer a true international first class product, only Business Elite? Once I know more about the destinations you want first class awards to, that will help me recommend specific cards and programs to focus on.
User_avatar_default Mark B. commented 13 Dec 2013
Hi Hilary We always look to First class if possible and only go to business when none. We travel once a year to Europe and Hawaii. (Other misc domestic that I would pay for business class) In past we will transfer points (SPG or Amex) or buy miles when on sale. I'm also concern that Miles & More will be dropping the First class ticket on Lufthansa. We have a trip in Oct to Venice and nothing past May 5th shows in M&M tickets first class to Frankfurt. Mark
Avatar_60_hilary Hilary Stockton commented 14 Dec 2013
Mark, just wrote a blog post sharing my thoughts, it's live at http://travelsort.com/blog/which-new-business-credit-cards-to-fly-first-class-to-europe-and-hawaii
Avatar_60_hilary Hilary Stockton commented 13 Dec 2013
Thanks for the additional color, I'll post my thoughts on this on the blog tomorrow or Sunday. While at some point Lufthansa may well go the way of SWISS in terms of restricting First Class to elites, that's not a problem yet; what is a problem is that that Lufthansa hasn't loaded any nonstop flights DTW-FRA from May 2014. May need to fly via Chicago or NYC.
Picture?type=large Joe P. commented 09 Jul 2014
I am a newbie, but I have three cards and Sspphire on the way. I will have 170,000 miles by the end of July since I began this. How many cards should I have at the same time while I am accumulating bonus miles?
Avatar_60_hilary Hilary Stockton commented 10 Jul 2014
Joe, thanks for your question. It really depends on your credit score and travel goals. For most folks, it's best to think of it as a marathon, not a sprint, so when starting out I would be focused on the miles needed for your next trip and not be overly aggressive in applying for a lot of cards at once. This is also because periodically there are award chart devaluations, so it's best to "earn and burn" your miles. If you can give more context in what your travel goals are and which type of miles/points you've accumulated already I can give more specific advice.
Picture?type=large Joe P. commented 15 Jul 2014
Thanks for your response. My goal is to accumulate enough points for two round trip business class or better tickets from Richmond, VA to London, England in three years. I would also like to have enough points to fly AA, US Airways or United from Richmond to Dallas and / or Chicago once a year. I currently have have 40K AAdvantage miles, 40K US Airways Dividend miles, 40K Chase Sapphire points that could transfer to United miles or others and 40K Amex rewards that could be transferred to British Airways or other airlines or hotels. Could you advise me on my next steps and / or correct my current path?
Picture?type=large Joe P. commented 15 Jul 2014
A secondary goal would be to accumulate a million miles in travel points just for bragging rights. However, my main goal is two round trip business class tickets to london and some domestic flights to Dallas or Chicago.
Picture?type=large Joe P. commented 15 Jul 2014
Thanks for your response. My goal is to accumulate enough points for two round trip business class or better tickets from Richmond, VA to London, England in three years. I would also like to have enough points to fly AA, US Airways or United from Richmond to Dallas and / or Chicago once a year. I currently have have 40K AAdvantage miles, 40K US Airways Dividend miles, 40K Chase Sapphire points that could transfer to United miles or others and 40K Amex rewards that could be transferred to British Airways or other airlines or hotels. Could you advise me on my next steps and / or correct my current path?
Picture?type=large Mark G. commented 05 Jan 2015
Travelsort is fantastic! By following this site and reading the numorous posts on awards, miles, and points, I was able to book a amazing up coming vacation! 3 nights in Paris, 4 nights in Santorini, and 3 nights in Athens Greece!!......We used a combination of United Miles and Chase Ultimate Reward Points and were able to book the following all for free (except for airline taxes and fees)..100k United Mileage Plus miles per person for the following airfare: Outbound: Seattle to Toronto // Toronto to Paris // Paris to Athens (Biz Class).....Inbound: Athens to Istanbul (Biz Class) // Istanbul to Houston (Biz Class) // Houston to Seattle.....We then used our remaining Chase URs to book a hotel in Santorini for all for 4 nights paid for and reviecing a 20% discount by booking through the Chase Travel portal. Our room has a private balcony w/ hot tub! Can't wait for this trip and wanted to give a shoutout to Travelsort for helping!
Picture?type=large Paul D. commented 08 May 2015
I think this page needs updating. I don't think United and BA are still the top pick for 1st class to Europe. But, you'd know better. I was going to forward this page to a novice and I didn't want them to get it wrong. thanks for all you do here. It is appreciated!
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