Beginner’s Guide

Putting together an effective points strategy can be a daunting task. This site alone has hundreds of posts on a variety of topics, so I understand it can be difficult trying to find a place to start. So, welcome to The Points Guy’s Beginner’s Guide to Setting Up an Effective Points Strategy!

Step One

First things first, you should open up accounts with the major loyalty programs. Below is a list of the top programs for your convenience. Once you sign-up, write down your user name and password for step two. Here is a link to my monthly valuation of the major frequent flyer programs.

Airline programs (included is also whether that airline is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and/or the Starwood Preferred Guest program):

Hotels

Cars

Other

Step Two

Join an online mileage manager. I personally use Awardwallet.com which is a free site that will track your balances in one convenient spot and even alert you if your miles are going to expire. Other managers include Usingmiles.com and Tripit.

Step Three

Choose the right credit card(s). Having powerful cards with big sign-up bonuses is the easiest way to jumpstart your points strategy. Below are my recommendations for top overall cards. To view the current hot offers by hotel/airline check out my Hot Deals page.

Determining which credit card is best for your spending patterns and lifestyle can be difficult, so I decided to launch a credit card advisor, TPG Maximizer, with the help of Wallaby, to recommend rewards cards that will maximize your earnings. Visit maximizer.thepointsguy.com to try out the tool for yourself and watch the video below to see how it works!

Before you actually apply, I’d recommend getting your free annual credit report and making sure all of your accounts are in good standing. Most banks use FICO scores to determine your creditworthiness and that official score can be purchased from myfico.com, though you can learn about how FICO scores are calculated and which credit cards offer it for free here. Other sites like Credit Sesame will give their own estimations of their credit scores, but none of them are official. Read this post to find out how you can check your credit for free.

See also: Maximizing Category Spend Bonuses on Credit Card Spend , My Year to Date Credit Card Sign-up Haul: 553500 Points/Miles, My Experience Getting the Chase Sapphire Preferred® CardMy Credit Confessions and 8 Tips to Improve Your CreditA Round-up Of 50,000+ Point Credit Card Deals.

Overall Best Cards:

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Sign-up Bonus 40,000 points when you spend $4,000 within the first 3 months and an additional 5,000 points when you add an additional cardholder
Earning: 2x on all travel and dining
Redeeming: Transfer points at a 1:1 ratio to British Airways, Korean Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Southwest, United, Virgin Atlantic, Hyatt, Marriott, IHG, Ritz-Carlton and Amtrak
Annual Fee: $95 waived the first year
Foreign Transaction Fees: None

 

Barclaycard Arrival 
Sign-up Bonus 40,000 miles when you spend $3,000 within the first 90 days
Earning: 2x on all purchases
Redeeming: Get 10% of your miles back when you redeem for travel statement credits
Annual Fee: $95 waived the first year
Foreign Transaction Fees: None

 

Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express
Sign-up Bonus 25,000 points when you spend $2,000 within the first 3 months
Earning: 3x on flights booked directly with airlines, 2x at U.S. gas stations and U.S. supermarkets, and 1x on other purchases
Redeeming: Transfer points to Aeroplan, Aeromexico, Flying Blue, ANA, El Al, British Airways, Alitalia, Asia Miles, Delta Skymiles, Etihad Guest, Emirates, Frontier, Hawaiian, Iberia, Jet Blue, Singapore Airlines, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic, Best Western, Choice Privileges,Hilton HHonors, Starwood Preferred Guest
Annual Fee: $175 waived the first year
Foreign Transaction Fees: None

 

U.S. Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa Card
Sign-up Bonus 20,000 FlexPoints when you spend $3,500 within the first 4 months, equal to $400 in travel
Earning: 2x on the category you spend the most on between gas, groceries or airline and 2x on most cellphone charges, 3x on qualifying charitable donations. Earn 3,500 points every year you spend $24,000 on your card
Redeeming: Redemptions start at 5,000 for merchandise, gift cards, statement credits and more
Annual Fee: $49 waived the first year
Foreign Transaction Fees: None

 

Capital One Venture Rewards Card
Sign-up Bonus 40,000 miles when you spend $3,000 within the first 3 months, equal to $400 in travel
Earning: 2x on every dollar spent
Redeeming: Points can be redeemed for 1 cent towards travel and rewards don’t expire
Annual Fee: $59 waived the first year
Foreign Transaction Fees: None

 

The Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express
Sign-up Bonus 25,000 points – 10,000 after first purchase and an additional 15,000 when you spend $5,000 within the first 6 months
Earning: 2x on purchases charged directly with hotels and resorts in the SPG program, 1x on all other purchases
Redeeming: Redeem points at SPG properties or transfer to 32 different airlines, most at a 1:1 ratio, and receive a 5,000 mile bonus for every 20,000 points transferred
Annual Fee: $65 waived the first year
Foreign Transaction Fees: Yes

 

Best Business Cards:

Some of the best credit card offers out there are for business cards. Luckily you don’t need to have a business in order to be approved, you can simply sign up using your social security number instead of an EIN and usually that suffices. Read these posts for more information: Top Ten Reasons To Get a Business Credit Card, Do You Have to Have a Business to Get a Business Credit Card?

Ink Plus® Business Credit Card
Sign-up Bonus 50,000 points when you spend $5,000 within the first 3 months
Earning: 5x on the first $50,000 spent in combined purchases at office supply stores and on cellular, landline, internet and cable TV services each account anniversary year, 2x on the first $50,000 spent in combined purchases at gas stations and hotel stays booked directly with the hotel each account anniversary year, 1x on other purchases
Redeeming: Transfer points at a 1:1 ratio to British Airways, Korean Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Southwest, United, Virgin Atlantic, Hyatt, Marriott, IHG, Ritz-Carlton and Amtrak
Annual Fee: $95 waived the first year
Foreign Transaction Fees: None

 

CitiBusiness®/AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World MasterCard®
Sign-up Bonus 50,000 points when you spend $3,000 within the first 3 months
Earning: 2x on American Airlines and US Airways purchases, 2x on select purchases in business categories, 1x on other purchases. Earn an American Airlines companion certificate each year after $30,000 spent
Redeeming: Transfer points at a 1:1 ratio to British Airways, Korean Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Southwest, United, Virgin Atlantic, Hyatt, Marriott, IHG, Ritz-Carlton and Amtrak
Annual Fee: $95 waived the first year
Foreign Transaction Fees: Yes

 

Club Carlson Business Rewards Visa Card
Sign-up Bonus 85,000 points – 50,000 after first purchase plus 35,000 when you spend $2,500 with the first 90 days
Earning: 10x on eligible net purchase at participating Carlson Rezidor hotels, 5x spent in eligible purchases everywhere else. Earn 40,000 renewal bonus points each year
Redeeming: Receive your last night free when you redeem Gold Points for 2 or more consecutive award nights
Annual Fee: $60
Foreign Transaction Fees: Yes

 

The Business Platinum Card® from American Express OPEN
Sign-up Bonus 40,000 points when you spend $5,000 within the first 3 months
Earning: 2x for each dollar of eligible purchases made when you book on the American Express Travel website, 1x on other eligible purchases. Earn a 20% travel bonus when you use Pay With Points. Receive a $200 airline fee credit, complimentary lounge access to over 700 airport lounge, Global Entry fee reimbursement and unlimited Boingo WiFi
Redeeming: Transfer points to Aeroplan, Aeromexico, Flying Blue, ANA, El Al, British Airways, Alitalia, Asia Miles, Delta Skymiles, Etihad Guest, Emirates, Frontier, Hawaiian, Iberia, Jet Blue, Singapore Airlines, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic, Best Western, Choice Privileges,Hilton HHonors, Starwood Preferred Guest
Annual Fee: $450
Foreign Transaction Fees: No

 

The Enhanced Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPEN
Sign-up Bonus 25,000 points when you spend $5,000 within the first 3 months
Earning: 3x points on a category of your choice from a list of 5 categories (advertising in select media, gas stations, shipping, hardware/software/cloud computing purchases), 2x points on the 4 remaining categories, 1x points on other purchases
Redeeming: Transfer points to Aeroplan, Aeromexico, Flying Blue, ANA, El Al, British Airways, Alitalia, Asia Miles, Delta Skymiles, Etihad Guest, Emirates, Frontier, Hawaiian, Iberia, Jet Blue, Singapore Airlines, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic, Best Western, Choice Privileges,Hilton HHonors, Starwood Preferred Guest
Annual Fee: $175 waived the first year
Foreign Transaction Fees: Yes

 

Step Four

Put all of your finances on your credit cards and then make sure to pay them off each month or else the interest paid will most likely negate any of the points you accrued. Use cash only when you absolutely have to! In general though, if a merchant is going to make you pay a 3% fee to use a credit card (like most universities or tax services do these days), it’s not worth it in my opinion.

Deciding which credit card to use at retailers is often difficult especially when some cards like the Chase Freedom Visa, have rotating quarterly categories.  Our mobile app, TPG To Go, will tell you which card in your wallet will earn the most rewards. The app also pulls in recent posts from the blog, shows the current hot credit card deals and for $3.99 will track your bonus spending so you will know when you have hit your spend requirements.  The app is available on both iPhone and Adroid, visit mobile.thepointsguy.com for more information.

Step Five

Sign up for dining programs. They are free and once your credit card is linked, you will automatically earn miles/points every time you swipe you use your linked credit cards at participating restaurants.

Step Six

Shop online! Never go directly to a favorite retailers website if possible. Click through one of the online mileage malls and you will automatically get points for every dollar you spend. It’s amazing- they take you to the exact website, but as long as you click through the mileage mall, you get miles- plus the miles from using a mileage earning card. This adds up quickly!

Popular online points/miles malls:

Step Seven

Stay up to date with the hot deals. Of course, read my site daily and follow me on Twitter. I also recommend reading the following other blogs:

There are also two main forums that serve as great resources for the avid points collector.

  • Flyertalk.com is the oldest and has tons of information. It’s main downside is that it’s not exactly user friendly and the discussion in certain forums can be hostile at times. See also: 9 Flyertalk Tips for Newbies
  • Milepoint.com is the new kid on the block. It was founded by Flyertalk vets who wanted to create a fresher new forum for newbies and experts alike. I know the founders and they are good people. While they have good intentions, the site does lack the deep levels of content that Flyertalk offers.

Step Eight

Understand that attaining elite status (building loyalty with a brand) is a huge aspect of a successful points strategy. Not only can elite customers get enhanced customer service and upgrades, they almost always get bonuses on points and miles earned. Once you get status, you can “match” or challenge it to other airlines and hotels per my post on Airline Status Match and Challenge Information.

See also: How to Cope With Losing Elite Status, Mid Year Hotel Elite Status Check-in: How Have You Fared So Far, Mid Year Airline Elite Status Check-in: How Have You Fared So Far,  My Year End Elite Status Sprint Begins, My Mileage Run Decision

Step Nine

Understand that accruing points is only half of the equation. Familiarize yourself with the tips and tricks of the programs that you are focusing on. Highlighted are some of my key posts on redeeming miles and points:

General tools everyone should know how to use:

Definitions: Video Blog Post: What are Stopovers and Open Jaws?

Air Canada Aeroplan:
One of the biggest benefits of Aeroplan are the extremely generous award routing rules. Read more about them in the post on creating a Round the World Award.

American Airlines:
Maximizing Stopovers, Transfers and Open Jaw Ticketing on American Airlines Awards
American’s Million Miler program is changing December 1, 2011. Read this post on how to maximize your miles before the new changes go into effect.

American Express:
I did a 10 part series on Maximizing Amex. See Maximizing Amex Post 1: Understanding the Card Offering and the table of contents includes links to others in the series.

British Airways:

I did a multi-part series on Maximing British Airways Avios. See the first post: Master FAQ post of Chase British Airway’s Visa 100,000 Avios offer.

Delta:
Skymiles are among the hardest to use, but as a (former) Delta Diamond who has earned and redeemed millions of Skymiles, I’ve come up with a bunch of ways to creatively use them for maximum value.

United

US Airways

Step 10

Set a goal and achieve it! Do you want to use your miles to fly first class or would you rather take two trips in coach? Want to take a family trip when your budget would not normally allow it? I always recommend putting a goal in mind so that you can always come back to it when you are tired and don’t feel like collecting miles and points anymore or you run into roadblocks- like a promotion that didn’t work out as planned. It will inevitably happen, so as long as you have your eye on the prize it makes it easier to persevere and come out ahead! Here are some links on example of how I’ve used points to travel to places in a way I’d never thought I’d be able to.