All the books and websites on travel loyalty programs boil down to knowing how to maximize your point accrual while minimizing out-of-pocket real-dollar investment. The key is to know which brands belong to which programs. That said, the programs are usually free to sign up for, so get a membership to everything.
In most cases, airline travel points – or “miles” – are awarded to the traveler, not the ticket purchaser. Using your company card to collect personal miles is fantastic, unless tax rules are changed and you have to report those miles as income. Fingers crossed that doesn’t happen.
In general, it’s a good idea to use one airline or cluster of affiliated air carriers as often as you can. Choose the cities you are traveling to and from most frequently and figure out which airlines have the most flights at the rates you like best. Then book with that airline as often as possible. When going somewhere that airline doesn’t fly to, book with one of their partners.
Here are some examples:
- American Airlines is part of the Oneworld airline alliance. Most airlines have a big New York presence and American is Dallas/Fort Worth based. So let’s say you’re flying from New York to Dallas. Be sure to enter your membership number when buying your ticket to collect miles that can later be redeemed for perks or ticket discounts. If you are carrying on to Tokyo, book with Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines or British Airways or another Oneworld partner. You’ll get loads of miles that way.
- Delta partners has hubs in Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Detroit, among other airports. Internationally, Delta partners with Air France, Korean Air, ChinaAir and countless others for its Skymiles program.
- United Airlines has its MileagePlus program that partners with Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines, Air China, and more. Its domestic hubs are in San Francisco, Denver, and Washington, DC, and others.
- But these things change! JetBlue recently took over most of American Airlines’ Puerto Rico business, meaning all those AAdvantage miles you’ve been saving up for a Caribbean adventure will have to be used for a trip elsewhere. Internationally JetBlue partners with Emirates Skywards, South African Airways, and IcelandAir.
But accruing airline miles doesn’t stop there. You’ll get more miles by renting a car with an affiliated rental service. Avis, Budget, Alamo, Hertz, National, Dollar, and countless other national and international rental services are linked to one or more airlines. It’s easy but it’s also easy to forget. These miles add up.
Likewise, be sure to enter your airline membership number when checking in to your hotel. So many people – eager to put the flight behind them – forget to do this.
- American Airlines partners with Marriot/Starwood, Hyatt, InterContinental, and more.
- Delta partner with Airbnb, Marriot/Starwood, Hilton, Radisson, Shangri-La Hotels, and Hyatt brands.
- If you’re collecting United points be sure to book at Wyndham, Hyatt, Radisson, or Marriot/Starwood.
Brand loyalists shuddered when Marriot International acquired Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide in 2016 – becoming the world’s largest hotel chain. Would their preferred guest points carry over, and if so, at what rate? Marriot valued their guest reward points at nearly three times the dollar equivalent of the famed Starwood Preferred Guest points.
If you are not a frequent business traveler or points fanatic this controversy might not have registered on you radar. But for those who know their miles balance by heart, this was big news. In the end, Marriot reportedly offered a generous 1:3 exchange for Starwood points. The integration finalizes in August 2018, creating one unified program. Those holding vast sums of points and loyalty status with the brand rejoiced.
Gain enough loyalty points at hotel chains and you could get room upgrades, special amenities, and other perks.
What’s in your wallet?
By far the best-advertised travel loyalty programs are airline-themed bank cards and credit cards. All the major banks have cards linked to airlines in some fashion, usually offering points or miles for every dollar spent.
Capitol One’s Venture Rewards credit card and the Chase Sapphire Preferred card receive high praise for either no annual fee or a first-year deferred fee. Citi, PNC, Barclay’s, and all the rest have competitive cards too.
Non-bank credit cards like those from American Express offer miles or points with various airlines, often of your choosing. American Express card holders can also choose an airline for in-flight purchase redemptions. That’s right. Those $7 peanuts will be reimbursed if you use your AmEx. Of course, there is an annual fee. The Discover It Miles card, however, has no fee.
Use it or lose it
Saving up miles or points is useful and can even be fun, but don’t save them too long. Just ask any Starwood points holder how they felt when news broke that Marriot was taking over. There’s always a chance of devaluation. The best advice we’ve heard is to use your miles or points when you can. Have enough for a free leg on a long trip? Use them. Use them now.
If you are savvy – and have the inclination – it’s possible to rack up miles, drink for free in-flight, use elite airport lounges, skip lines, and upgrade your rental car and hotel room, all for doing little more than entering your program number every time you travel.