Five Things to Do When Starting Out With Airline Miles and Points
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With almost everything in life, you will usually be better and more knowledgeable about something if you do some research and/or practice. For example, if I headed out the door this muggy morning with my rainbow colored Asics laced up tight and tried to run a marathon, I would likely die...or at least would want to die and pass out from exhaustion at some point along the way. However, if I did some research on training techniques and spent months slowly building up my running stamina, I could (maybe) get there. Even if I never hit the 26.2 mile mark, I could certainly improve my distance and pace.
Learning how to effectively earn and use miles and points is pretty much the same. You can start from 0 and go running full force into earning and trying to book the trip of your dreams (almost) for free using miles and points, but it may not work as well, or as efficiently, as if you do some research on the front end, and build slowly and steadily toward your travel goal. Though I promise earning and using miles and points isn't as hard as running a marathon looks!
While on a family trip last week I chatted with a woman who was working on a story for the New York Times about some of the recent hits that have come to airline frequent flyer programs, such as the announcements United and Delta are heading toward revenue based mileage earning models in 2015. This means you will earn frequent flyer miles based on how much your flight costs, not how far you fly. For most leisure travelers, as well as many in the miles and points world, this is not a good thing for our mileage accounts. If you fly on more expensive fares, often using "other people's money" for business travel, the new system may actually help you, but that isn't the reality for most of us.
We talked about how elite status is still tied to distance flown even with those airlines, though revenue thresholds also come into play even with elite status. We talked about utilizing partner airlines to sometimes earn more miles, and booking through those partners to make your miles go further. In the end we talked about how it is all pretty complex. Of course you can keep things simple and stick with an airline like Southwest where you earn points based on how much you spend, and then redeem them at a fixed value based on on how much the ticket you want costs. However, if you want to really take advantage of all miles and points has to offer the way my family has, you will do much better if you put some thought into your goals and approach. I told the reporter I thought doing an hour or so of research on the front end should be sufficient to start you in the right direction, and that's the part that was used in the story.
What isn't in the story is what to research in that hour, so I'll expand on that here. You won't be an mileage expert after an hour, but you will have a great deal more knowledge than if you just earned miles and points here and there without a plan. Earning without a plan is a recipe for waste and frustration. Here are five things to do and think about when starting out with miles and points.
Think about where you want to go with your miles and points:
Your miles can take you around the world, but to start out most effectively think of one or two specific trips you want to take using your miles. If you want to fly your family in economy to Orlando your earning mileage plan will likely look differently than if you want to fly in business class to Europe. Once you know where you want to go, do a little research both on what miles and points you already have, as well as which airlines fly where you want to go. There are many ways to research that, but Wikipedia is actually very helpful. For example, if you wanted to learn about which airlines fly which routes into Vienna, you could see that info displayed in Wikipedia.
View some award charts:
Now that you know where you want to go, how many miles you already have in your accounts, and a rough idea of what airlines can take you there, it is time to see how many miles you need to book your desired award. You can do this by searching for something like "American Airlines Award Chart" on google or cruising around your airline's website, or you can just check out a handy list of airline award charts that Million Mile Secrets has complied. While you are there, you might as well take a peek at who some of the partners are for your airline of choice, as they can be very helpful in reaching your travel goal. Don't stress about the amount of info you may encounter, just look at it for a few minutes, and then bookmark that site to revisit later.
Earn more miles:
Unless you are already swimming in airline miles or credit card reward points from years of racking them up without paying attention, you will likely need to earn some more miles for all of your dream travels. There are tons of ways to do this, but a popular way for those in the United States with good credit is to get a rewards earning credit card (or two) and use it not only for the often sizeable sign-up bonus, but also to start paying for everyday expenses such as gas, groceries, insurance bills, take-out, dry cleaning, and more. If you have a rough idea of what type and how many more miles you need for your first (almost) free trip, then it will be easier to know which rewards card would be a good fit for you.
Many beginners do well with a card that earns flexible points you can use in different ways. A popular and solid option for beginners and old pros alike is the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card that earns points you can transfer to a variety of hotel and airline partners such United, Hyatt, Marriott, British Airways, Singapore Airlines, IHG Rewards, Southwest, and more. Another good choice for many is the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard since it earns 2x points on everything and those points are worth a fixed amount toward any travel charge. I have some basic info on lots of different rewards credit cards here.
I will also add that it only makes sense to shift your daily spending to a rewards credit card if you will pay it off each month and not spend more than you otherwise would with cash or a debit card. If you pay interest or rack up debt to earn miles, you are not coming out ahead.
Start following those in the know:
Don't waste time reinventing the miles and points wheel, because many have come before you and have lots of great information to share. Only you can determine your personal travel goals and assess your current situation, but once you have done that, others can help you along the way. I post pretty much daily tips, stories, and updates related to miles and points from a family perspective, here at thepointsguy.com. There are many other blogs that also post daily updates from various points of view. You can head to boardingarea.com to view many of those blogs. I also highly recommend getting a Twitter account, even if only to follow along in real time with travel deals. You can find me there @mommy_points and I would also immediately follow @theflightdeal and @airfarewatchdog as they both share great airfare deals! When you find a blog you like, also follow their twitter handle, as they will often not only tweet their new posts, but also share or re-tweet other limited time travel related info.
Many sites, like this one, also have a Beginner's Guide that will give you some specific action steps to get started. The miles and points forums Milepoint and Flyertalk are also treasure troves of information, though they can be a bit overwhelming at first.
Track what you have and set a routine:
The possibilities are endless with miles and points, but at first just set a routine that you are comfortable with and track your progress toward your (almost) free trip. I would use Award Wallet to track your miles and points account balances. I would also recommend coming up with how frequently you want to stay in the loop on miles and points updates. Many people spend a few minutes a day checking their favorite miles and points blogs, or Twitter feeds, or forums. Before I started blogging myself over three years ago that is exactly what I did to help my family rack up miles! I think 5-10 minutes a day is all you need to stay pretty informed on most of the current news and deals. If that is too much for you, I think even just checking in once a week would keep you in the loop on the major stuff. I would find 3-5 sites that you like and stick with those as most bloggers cover similar information, just from different points of view.
Tune out the information that isn't relevant to your goal trip or situation and stay focused on your goals...at least at first.
Once you get that first (almost) free ticket or hotel room booked, the adrenaline rush will likely have you coming back for more. The sky is literally the limit. The complexities that some frequent flyer programs have introduced can be a barrier, but it can also be an opportunity for those who put in a little bit of effort to discover new ways to earn and redeem miles for trips they may have never thought possible. I know that is exactly what my family does, and I'm happy to help you along the way.
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