(All photos: iStock/Thinkstock)
Like a jetset Rumpelstilksten, travel rewards blogger Greg Davis-Kean of Frequent Miler can spin straw into gold (status, that is). And with a keen strategy, so can you.
“It seemed almost too easy to earn points and miles,” he says, recounting his initial foray into points hoarding. “So I chose a nice, big, doable number and gave myself 30 days to accomplish it.”
The goal? One. Million. Miles.
As you lift your jaw off the floor and reign in your inner Dr. Evil, consider this: He achieved that extraordinary goal with little more than a spreadsheet and $1,000, albeit plenty of military grade fortitude. (He approached it like a full-time job). But even civilians like you can follow his example on a smaller scale — especially with a few of the more sneaky strategies.
USE ONLINE PORTALS FOR SHOPPING
Often overlooked, but ideal for big point gains are online shopping portals offering travel rewards. To reap their rewards:
Stick to a Budget
For Davis-Kean, this was $1,000. He recommends people buy no more than they usually would anyway, but just make their purchases through a portal to earn extra points.
During Davis-Kean’s million-mile challenge, he earned 150,000 points on British Airways’ portal, which, at the time, was offering 36 points per dollar for first-time portal users shopping at Nordstrom.
On another shopping portal, Davis-Kean purchased gift cards with one card, then doubled those points by using the same gift cards on purchases through appropriate portals. He kept an eye out for certain vendors — at the time, Kohl’s, Lowes, and Staples — where this kind of double dipping worked.
Buy to Sell
How all this shopping was accomplished while Davis-Kean stuck to his $1,000 budget? He sold many of the items he bought on sites like Amazon.
MAXIMIZE HOTEL STAYS
Other places to earn miles for free travel: hotels. Davis-Kean’s million miles weren’t all in one program, nor were they all gained that way. A trick he used with hotel stays:
Make it a Family Affair
Look for promotions like the one Club Carlson once offered: 50,000 points for a one-night-stay at any Radisson hotel. Davis-Kean’s wife and son had their own reward memberships, so three one-night stays between them (at less than $80 per night) — basically a long weekend with the reservation name changed each night — garnered the family a cool 150,000 points, that could all be later combined into one rewards account.
Watch for Bonuses
Additional points for booking online and, at the time, 35 points for every dollar spent at the hotel kicked the Davis-Keans way over the 150k mark.
GO BIG WITH CREDIT CARDS
An obvious way to grab free travel rewards is through travel rewards credit cards — see the best ones, here. Their hefty sign-up bonuses can run upwards of 50,000 miles. Some considerations:
Use due diligence when choosing a card, recommends Petersen. Though big mileage/points offers can be tantalizing, research aspects of a particular card via social media or current credit card holders before diving in to make sure it delivers in the end.
Leff says to make sure travel goals match a credit card’s bonus offerings. The pay-off? Tremendous rewards. “You can leverage the bank’s relationships to access things, like certain seats set aside for frequent flyer programs that you can’t when just using cash.”
Though a large portion of Davis-Kean’s million points came from travel credit cards, he doesn’t advise entering this territory lightly. “Start by signing up for a couple of credit cards with good sign-up bonuses and spend requirements that aren’t too big, unless you spend a lot all the time anyway.”
Though most people chasing awards won’t need spreadsheets like Davis-Kean did, the theory behind it is a sound one, no matter the number of cards in hand. “Tracking is involved to ensure you meet spending requirements so you can collect your sign-up bonus,” says Davis-Kean. Indeed, many credit card bonus offers require a certain dollar amount be charged on the card within the first 90 days.
Consider Category Bonuses
Credit cards offering extra points for certain kinds of purchases, like groceries or gas, can punch up miles/points counts. Says Davis-Kean, “If you have a large family and spend a lot at grocery stores, cards for this type of shopping can earn three miles per dollar, or more, versus one mile per dollar with a typical card.”
Careful card juggling, he adds, will be necessary. “You’ll need to think about which card gains you the most at the gas pump, versus which card you should be using to gain extra points through restaurant spends.”
Pay Off Balances in Full
Something all three bloggers concur on: Make sure to pay card balances in full every month. “Some people take on more than they can handle,” says Davis-Kean. “Not paying the balance and having interest charges make card benefits not worth the cost.”
All three experts agree — use rewards wisely and effectively.
Davis-Kean follows a certain calculation when deciding whether to purchase airline tickets the traditional way or with miles. “Think about miles as pennies,” he says. “When it costs 25,000 miles to fly somewhere, stick a decimal point before last two zeros, making the actual cost of the flight about $250. So if a ticket only costs $200 outright, using miles in this situation makes them worth less than a penny per mile.”
Do Use Rewards for Last-minute Travel
Last minute flights are pricey. However, most programs don’t raise their price for miles. Says Davis-Kean, “You can use 25,000 miles for a flight that takes off tomorrow.”
Don’t Waste Points on Goods
How not to spend miles/points? On items like household electronics. “That’s not a valuable use of your miles, coming in at about half a penny per mile,” says Davis-Kean. “Whereas, save up enough miles for a business class flight to Australia, and compared to paying for the same flight in cash, you’ll likely get three or more cents per mile value.”