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Rookie Guide to Award Travel: Coordinating Trips with a Companion

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Double the points, double the benefits, double the fun! Today, TPG Contributor Carly Blatt presents the second installment of her Rookie Guide to Award Travel with a primer on how to develop a rewards strategy with your travel partner.

If you’re new to award travel, one of your earliest (and most crucial) missions is to get your favorite travel partner(s) into the game as well. Whether you’re planning a trip with an old friend, sibling or significant other, you can maximize your points, miles and benefits through teamwork. In this post, I’ll explain how when it comes to some travel rewards, it pays to join forces.

Planning a points strategy with your travel partner can help bring that dream vacation in reach.
Planning a points strategy with your travel partner can help bring that dream vacation in reach.

Why working as a team is so important

Combining forces can help you enjoy double the hotel stays, give you a wider range of award redemption options, allow you to take advantage of your partner’s elite benefits and more. To demonstrate the power of a joint plan of action, I cooked up two simple scenarios for imaginary travelers Andy and Bert. While I emphasized obtaining free flights and hotel rooms through credit card sign-up bonuses, you’ll see that ambitious travel partners can mutually boost their rewards in other ways as well.

Many veteran points and miles enthusiasts manage to balance more than a dozen rewards cards at a time, but as I did in the first installment of this series, I’ll focus on tips for newbies who are looking to start off small and participate in a modest variety of programs. This is by no means a comprehensive list of options, but rather a jumping-off point. You can use the general strategies presented below and swap in your preferred loyalty programs as needed.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Two business-class flights and four nights in San Francisco is a good place to start. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Scenario 1. A four-night trip from New York to San Francisco

Card strategy — Andy applies for the United MileagePlus Explorer Business Card, which comes with a sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles after you spend $2,000 in the first three months, and features priority boarding for the cardholder and one companion traveling on the same reservation, plus two passes to the United Club. Andy also applies for the Hyatt Credit Card, which comes with two free nights at any Hyatt worldwide after you spend $1,000 in the first three months.

Meanwhile, Bert applies for the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard, which comes with a sign-up bonus of 50,000 AAdvantage miles after spending $3,000 within the first three months, and includes priority boarding and a free checked bag for the cardholder and up to four travel companions. Bert also gets the Hyatt card for another two free nights.

Booking — Both United and American typically have generous economy award availability from the New York area to San Francisco, as well as a fair amount of business award availability, so scoring seats is doable with advance planning.

In order to fly together and take maximum advantage of having two co-branded airline credit cards, Andy and Bert each book one-way travel for both of them. Andy redeems 50,000 MileagePlus miles for one-way tickets in business class from JFK to SFO on United, while Bert uses AAdvantage miles to book the return trip. They could easily switch directions if availability worked out better that way. Though their business tickets come along with these perks, both Andy and Bert would receive priority boarding and a free checked bag even if flying economy, plus they’d get one-time United Club access, which would come in handy if they have a long layover or delay. As a bonus, Bert gets a refund of 5,000 miles thanks to the 10% redemption rebate from the AAdvantage card.

For the hotel, Andy and Bert both use their two free bonus Hyatt nights to book a room at the Grand Hyatt San Francisco, where room rates can easily top $350 per night. There are other properties where they could better maximize the value of those free night certificates, but that’s still a significant savings. Since the Hyatt Visa offers complimentary Platinum Elite status, they’ll be eligible for upgrades and other benefits that could make their stay more comfortable.

Enjoy a free long weekend in New Orleans by creating an effective miles and points strategy with your travel partner.
Enjoy a free long weekend in New Orleans by creating an effective miles and points strategy with your travel partner.

Scenario 2. A four-night trip from Miami to New Orleans

Card strategy — Andy signs up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which offers 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points when you spend $4,000 in the first three months, plus 5,000 points when you add an authorized user and make a purchase in the first three months. Factoring in the points earned from meeting the spending requirement (plus a little extra from bonus categories), we’ll say Andy comes away with 50,000 points total.

Those points are worth $625 of travel if you book through the Ultimate Rewards Travel Center, but you can get far better value by transferring to airline and hotel partners. In his most recent valuations, TPG lists Ultimate Rewards at 2.1 cents apiece, so you can realistically expect to get $1,050 worth of travel if you redeem strategically.

Bert signs up for the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express, which comes with a bonus of 25,000 Starpoints after you use your new card to make $3,000 in purchases within the first three months. We’ll again assume a bit of extra spending beyond the minimum requirement, and credit Bert with 30,000 Starpoints total.

Booking — Southwest Airlines routinely offers nonstop flights between Fort Lauderdale (FLL) and New Orleans (MSY) for around 4,000 Rapid Rewards points each way. That means Andy and Bert could cover both of their flights by transferring only around 16,000 Ultimate Rewards points to Southwest, leaving them with plenty more to spend elsewhere.

Starwood offers several hotel options in New Orleans, with rooms from 10,000 points per night at properties like Le Méridien New Orleans or the Four Points by Sheraton French Quarter. Bert could redeem Starpoints for the first 3 nights, and Andy could again transfer points from Chase to Hyatt to cover the fourth night (or even the fifth night depending on which property they choose).

The IHG Rewards card offers a free annual night, so it makes sense for both partners to get it.

The above are simple examples to get you started. Here are some more general tips to keep in mind when planning your larger, ongoing strategy:

1. Diversify your rewards — TPG often discusses how important it is to diversify your points and miles, and it may be even more so for couples or other traveling companions than it is for individuals. By earning in different loyalty programs, you’ll greatly expand your collective options. For example, if you both focus on earning points within a single hotel program and there’s no availability when you want to travel, you’re out of luck. If you’ve accumulated free nights through other programs as well, then you’ll have a better chance of scoring a free stay.

2. Diversify your rewards even more — One of the best ways to diversify your rewards is by earning transferable points in programs such as Amex Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards. Of course, you can double down by each focusing on one of those programs. That will give you a wider array of transfer options, which makes it easier to get the most out of each point.

3. Diversify your elite status — If you and your travel companion have elite status in the same programs, then you’re out of luck when you navigate outside of those programs. If you both earn Hyatt elite status (for example), then your benefits overlap and you’ll have nothing to fall back on when you find yourself with no Hyatt properties nearby. If one of you earns status with Hilton instead, then you can take advantage of elite benefits more often. This strategy holds especially true for hotel programs, but it can apply to airlines as well.

4. Determine when credit card overlap makes sense — In some cases, there’s no reason for both you and your partner to have the same rewards card. For example, most co-branded airline cards offer benefits like priority boarding and free checked bags for the cardholder and a companion, so having two cards would be somewhat redundant. However, plenty of cards are worth adding to both of your wallets, like the IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card, which offers an annual free night at any IHG property.

What strategies do you and your travel partner use? Share in the comments below.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

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