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?