If you don’t already have a few open accounts, start signing up for airline frequent flyer programs, hotel reward programs and even car rental reward programs. You don’t have to sign up for every single program all at once, but pick a few that you think you will use and sign up for their programs. (it’s free)
Plan, plan, plan!
Anyone who knows me knows I am a consummate planner. I plan all my trips at least a year in advance. If you’re going to play this game, you can’t say, “I want to take a trip next month (or even 2-3 months from now) so I’m going to open some credit cards” That’s not going to work. You could maybe get the points for hotel stays…. but airfare? Forget about it! It’s hard enough to get it 331 days in advance! Sure you could pay 50,000 miles for a 25,000 mile ticket, but that is not a good use of your miles.
Spend some time looking at airline schedules and figure out which airline goes to where you want to go. Check the Wikipedia page for your chosen destination’s airport and see which carriers service it. Then, familiarize yourself with airline alliances. One World, Star Alliance and (the very hard to redeem awards on) SkyTeam, which has many members that block awards on partners. (Looking at you, Delta!) Alliances are constantly changing, so it helps to check each alliance’s web page when planning a trip.
Many credit card reward programs allow you to transfer points to an airline frequent flyer program on a 1:1 (or better) ratio. For example, American Express Membership Rewards program lets you transfer to 16 different partners BUT those 16 different partners have partners which gives you over 90 airlines to choose from to use your points!
Another great option for transferring to airlines is the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card (SPG). SPG points can be transferred to 31 different airline programs. And don’t forget about the partner’s partners! That takes you to over 100 redemption options. You can transfer to American Airlines and US Airways at 1:1 ratio and if you transfer in increments of 20,000 points, Starwood adds a bonus of 5,000 points! Be careful though, not all airlines are 1:1 with SPG points. United, for example, is 2:1 and Air New Zealand is 65:1! (gah!)
Another great non-loyalty program specific option is the Chase Ultimate Rewards program which is available with the Chase Freedom, Sapphire Preferred and the Chase INK and BOLD business credit cards. Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer to United, British Airways, Southwest, Marriott, Hyatt and IHG – all excellent programs.
Don’t be. Start simple and work your way up. Trying to figure out multiple airline alliances and credit card partners can be very overwhelming. Just looking at what I have written in the above paragraphs, I could decide I want to go to Paris for spring break next year. American Airlines flies there AND they offer “off peak” award redemptions. Roundtrip to Europe, off peak (Oct 15-May 15) is 40,000 miles roundtrip. I need 3 tickets, so I need 120,000 miles. I can get 2 Citibank American Airlines Mastercards (one for me and one for hubby) that will earn 53,000 (signup bonus and required spend) miles each (almost there). I can then apply for a Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card for myself which will earn 30,000 (sign up bonus and required spend) Starwood points. I can transfer 20,000 points to American Airlines and get 25,000 miles and now I have a total of 131,000 American Airline miles. Or, you could just transfer the 14,000 SPG points you need to reach 120,000 American Airlines miles and leave the rest in your SPG account to redeem for hotel stays. That is a personal choice depending on if you plan to churn American Airlines cards or build more miles into your AA account. Keep in mind you will have to spend $6,000 in 3 months on the American Airlines cards and $5,000 in 6 months on the Starwood card, but it’s not as hard as it sounds. (see my next page)