Make a New Year’s Resolution to Use Your Points Better: Here’s How
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Like many travel lovers, I make a goal each year to visit some of my bucket list destinations. But, the problem is always how to do it most cost-effectively. While I use my credit card points to book flights often, I never really know how to score the best deals. That’s why I decided one of my 2019 New Year’s resolutions was to learn how to use my points better. After all, more efficient point use means more travel at a lower cost.
Here are the five things I’m doing to maximize my travel rewards this year without having to become a dedicated points master.
1. Use Credit Card Points to Book More Than Just Flights
Whenever I go to plan a trip, I see how many points I have at various airlines and via my Chase Ultimate Rewards portal to book my flights. But, there is so much more you can use those points for — hotels, experiences, sporting events, etc. — that can also help reduce the cost of a vacation.
For example, I can use those same Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book any Hyatt hotel by transferring them to World of Hyatt and then booking award stays without blackout dates (IHG and Marriott are also options with some restrictions). 30,000 Hyatt points are enough for a free night at a Category 7 property like the Park Hyatt Zurich or Park Hyatt New York, which could easily get you $1,000+ worth of a hotel stay. Depending on your vacation, that could cover all accommodations for the trip (read: huge cost savings). You could even use additional points to upgrade to a nicer room.
To take advantage, just log in to the hotel chain’s website, see how many points your intended stay would cost and then head over to the Ultimate Rewards portal and transfer your points to the hotel travel partner. Just note that Chase only allows 1:1 transfers for certain cards with annual fees (like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Ink Business Preferred Credit Card). If you have a credit card from a different issuer, see what travel partners they work with to ensure you’re getting the 1:1 transfer ratio.
Beyond hotels, you can also use the points to fill your itinerary once you get to a destination. A London Hop-On-Hop-Off bus tour, for instance, is just a couple of thousand points per person, which can be a great way to use any leftover points to further defray your out-of-pocket costs. Some cards even offer exclusive access to events, concerts and one-of-a-kind experiences. The redemption value might not be as high as using your points traditional travel, but you can undoubtedly come home with some Instagram-worthy moments.
2. Learn How to Transfer Points
Remember how I mentioned transferring your points above? That is one of the biggest tricks to maximizing the value of your points. Why? Well, most award charts are fixed. While prices for a given flight or hotel stay can change daily, most saver award prices do not. The trick is to compare these award rates to the number of points you’d need to pay for the flight or hotel directly. If you find an airline ticket or hotel stay where an award is cheaper than booking directly, transferring your points to the airline’s program means you’ll save points (and keep cash in your pocket).
Let’s stick with the Chase Ultimate Rewards example from above. If you have the Sapphire Reserve in your wallet, you can redeem Chase points directly for travel at a rate of 1.5 cents apiece. Now let’s say you find a United Airlines round-trip domestic flight for 25,000 miles at the Saver level. You could transfer 25,000 Chase points to United to book the flight, but if the price of that same ticket is $210, that’s only 14,000 points when booking through the Chase portal. You’re thus better off either paying for the flight or redeeming points directly, as you’ll save 11,000 points.
However, what if that same flight is $510? In this case, you’d need 34,000 Chase points to book directly, so transferring 25,000 points to United is the better option under these circumstances. This is magnified even further for business or first class award tickets that would normally cost thousands of dollars but may require just 60,000 or 70,000 points each way.
The same theory holds true for hotel stays when the nightly award cost is lower than the standard per-night rate. While math isn’t everyone’s strength, it’s critical to do this break-even analysis to make sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck (point).
Bottom line: look for award saver flights and hotel award stays and transfer points when paid prices are high.
3. Use a Mileage Manager
It’s impossible to be good at using your points if you don’t track them properly. My old system was a Word document listing the various places I earned points, and I’d update the document occasionally. That meant I needed to manually login into every website where I had a points account, take that balance and jot it down in my Stone Age-esque document. Needless to say, this was not the best way of maintaining a record of my balances.
Then I learned some websites do all the tracking for you. Free sites like Points.com, AwardWallet, Usingmiles.com and Tripit keep your balances across all your programs up-to-date. This gives you a snapshot view of where you stand and can help inform travel plans more easily. When you log in, you’ll see where you have the most points and can then begin flight/hotel searches based on that information. Alternatively, if you see there’s a good flight/hotel deal (like one of Delta’s frequent award sales), you’ll quickly be able to know if you have enough points or miles to take advantage.
4. Sign Up for All Loyalty Programs
To take advantage of loyalty programs, you need to have points or miles in them. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Well, many people (including yours truly) fail to sign up for every loyalty program because they think, “Oh I never really fly JetBlue or stay at a Hilton.” That mindset has cost me thousands of miles when I’ve traveled to places like Asia and failed to sign up for a loyalty program, especially when you consider that most programs offer wide expiration windows.
Even if you don’t have loyalty to one airline or hotel chain, signing up for the program when you stay means that whenever you do fly or stay again, you add more points to your balance. There are only advantages. You might even find yourself becoming loyal to a brand and consequently start racking up more points (or even go as far as to open a cobranded credit card with a hotel or airline). I had to stay at a couple of Hiltons for family functions over the past few months and could have earned those points. In addition, signing up for these programs often comes with immediate perks like free Wi-Fi in a hotel.
Now, don’t go crazy joining every program out there at once. Just remember to do it either before or during your travels, and you’ll slowly build up points in many loyalty programs that could equal a free trip down the line.
5. Use Online Shopping Portals
I have to buy diapers, presents and other odds-and-ends online regularly. But I could be earning more points on those purchases if I go through the shopping portal of my preferred credit card, airline or hotel. These portals are essentially online shopping malls that partner with hundreds of merchants. By starting at the portal rather than going directly to the retailer’s site, you can earn bonus points or miles on thousands of items.
For example, when writing this article, Sephora was letting me earn 5 points per dollar spent via the Ultimate Rewards portal. I was in the market for new makeup costing a total of $100. If I started at Sephora’s website directly, I’d only earn the standard number of points on my credit card. However, by purchasing through the portal, I was able to earn 500 extra points. Based on TPG’s most recent valuations, that’s an extra $10 worth of points on something I was going to buy anyway. Better yet, after starting at the portal, you’re taken to the retailer’s website, so the shopping experience is essentially the same (except you’re racking up additional points!).
This process can also be done for cash back bonuses through sites like Ebates or Mr. Rebates. My tip? To figure out which portal is best for a purchase at a particular retailer, use a portal aggregator like CashBackMonitor.com. These sites compare current rates across these different shopping portals so you can then select the best one. This gives you everything you need to make an informed decision that boosts your earning potential in the way you want.
A new year brings a a wealth of opportunities to adjust your approach to earning and redeeming points and miles, and there are several simple steps you can take right now. I’ve already started using the above strategies and already have my eyes set on my next award trip. Here’s hoping that you’ll be able to do the same in 2019!
Featured image by @sstodola via Twenty20
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