Top 10 ways to make travel rewards programs go the distance

On March 1, United joined Delta, JetBlue and Southwest in rewarding price paid for a flight rather than miles flown in its frequent flyer loyalty program. Other airlines around the world have or are expected to make similar shifts. As points become harder to acquire and quick to expire, the price in points for a ticket continues to rise, blackout dates block key travel windows and fees and tax charges for “free” tickets become more common. You have to work harder and be smarter to cash in on past travel for future adventures. At Cheapflights, we say “game on!” and have compiled these tips for getting the most out of rewards programs from airlines and everyone else.

Know your range of options­

Airlines were among the first to launch loyalty programs with frequent flyer programs that date back decades. However, nowadays hotel chains from Best Western to Marriott to Fairmont all reward regular guests (your airline may do so as well). And, of course, credit card companies do their very best to keep you spending with their cards. And a host of them, from American Express to Chase Sapphire to Capital One Venture, offer incentives geared toward travelers (and aspiring travelers). Even travel booking sites are getting in the game. Register with Orbitz or Expedia and you can start to accrue benefits and costs savings there as well. You can even rack up points with services like restaurant booking platform Open Table — snag some money for eating well on the road!

Check out our guide to choosing the best credit card travel rewards program for you.

Double (or triple) dip where you can­

With so many companies lining up to reward you, make sure you take full advantage. One flight should mean points accrued with the airline, the credit card company and possibly the booking site. Don’t forget to give your mileage account number along with your credit card to the rental car company, too. Tack on points for the hotel and dining out, and you have a good collection started — even from a short trip. And remember, you can often book hotel rooms with airline points and flights with hotel points, adding to the incentive to rack up points everywhere you can.

Don’t pay to get into the game

With the possible exception of an annual fee on a credit card, all of these rewards programs are free. (And shop around on the credit card front as many travel perk cards don’t carry an annual fee.) The only cost to you should be the time and effort to keep track of the different accounts and your points. To keep it simple (and to keep points consolidated), odds are you will find yourself picking a few rewards programs and sticking with them (which is of course why the companies offer them). However, if you have the patience, having a broad mix of programs you are accruing points across means you can get something out of almost any travel transaction.

Don’t let blackout dates get you

Expecting to cash in your earned points for a trip over Christmas break? Some airlines (and hotels) are going to let you down when you go to use miles because they blackout popular travel dates for those booking with points. Plan ahead and start building your points with a program that doesn’t have blackout dates (e.g., jetBlue, Orbitz or Expedia). If you are committed to that path, you may even want to pay the annual fee and get the added points (and occasional companion ticket) that come from signing up for an associated credit card — as well as the points accrued using the card. If you want more flexibility, though, rack up points with a travel credit card and skip the blackout window blues. When you buy using credit card points, it looks like any other transaction to the airline, so the dates won’t be blocked. In all cases, if you are looking to travel over a major holiday or school vacation, book as early as you can so you can get the best deal, even if the currency is rewards points.

Book strategically

One of the reasons sites like Orbitz and Expedia are getting into the rewards program game is that some airlines and hotels offer more points (or only offer points) if you book directly on their sites. So you should think ahead when booking about where you want to accrue your points. Pay attention to partnerships, too. If your dream is to go to Asia, make sure you’re building points with airlines and hotels that are partners with the airlines and hotels that will take you where you want to go down the road. And read the fine print on your credit cards. You may find some offer more points than others on travel bookings.

Get the best (or at least a better) seat in the house

In many ways, upgrades are the best part of rewards programs. You don’t have to save up enough points to get a flight or a hotel room to cash in for a better trip. Many airlines and hotels let you buy an upgrade for fewer points than it would take to snag a free flight or hotel room. This is particularly great for when you know you’re never going to get enough points with that particular airline or hotel for a big reward. Or, if you just want a treat!

Status can be a traveler’s best friend

The true reward of loyalty is status. We don’t mean A-list celeb status, of course, but rather gold, silver or platinum. Whether you’ve earned it with an airline, hotel chain or booking site, you’ll find many doors suddenly opening for you: doors to the plane whenever you would like to board (first, last or even when the line is 50 people deep), doors to hotel suites and doors to the first class cabin. Free upgrades when rooms or seats are available are standard fare for those with status, and their bags (which they generally check for free) even come off the carousel first. The only downside: Status must be earned every year unless you travel so much you earn lifetime status (think George Clooney in “Up in the Air”).

Say “hello” to a concierge

Even if you haven’t reached platinum status, membership has its advantages. Travel credit cards generally offer added rental car and trip insurance and often waive foreign transactions fees. Run into a weather snag while traveling, or need to change a flight? Expedited customer service and travel booking help are often just a phone call away, especially if you’ve got a few points or hotel stays under your belt. Expedia+ is even upping the ante with concierge services in Orlando and Hawaii for Silver+ and Gold+ members. (Plan a big family trip to one of those resort destinations and you may find you qualify.)

Share with friends and family

Because we often want to travel with others, it’s good to know you can buy for others with the points accrued in almost all of these programs. And, if you are a few points short of making a purchase, you can often get them from someone else. It’s generally easy to transfer airline points in particular, especially among family members. Some airlines, like jetBlue, have gone one step further and created family pooling points programs. These programs are designed so that some or all of the points for everyone in the house, including kids, are pooled into one account to buy tickets, upgrades or vacation packages for anyone in the family.

Use your points to give back

No matter how well you plan, you will always end up with miles you can’t cash in. Fortunately, you can use them to give back. Charities like the Make a Wish Foundation and St. Jude’s Hospital always welcome miles as they can turn them into flights and hotel stays for patients and families. Other charities, like the Red Cross, have arranged for credit card points to be converted to cash donations. It may be one of the easiest ways for you to make a difference.

Check out our tips for making the most of travel your rewards including hotel and airline loyalty programs.

(Featured image: xlibber)

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