How to Make Airline Rewards Work for You

With a little preliminary planning and careful spending, you can do your own version of my 12 trips in 12 months initiative. When I first announced I wanted to do this, I got a lot of questions on Facebook about how I am going to make this goal happen. With a few years of experience, I want to walk you through how on a non-profit salary, I am going to reach my travel goals. By taking advantage of airline bonus miles and rewards, you can make traveling easier and a lot cheaper by optimizing your spending.

The airlines reward programs are a super easy way to get cheap flights and travel bonuses. Right now, I have 5 credit cards– American Airlines Visa, Delta Airlines AMEX, United Visa and Southwest Airlines Visa and Spirit Airlines Mastercard. It’s a lot of bills to keep track of so I always use autopay and stagger my payments, so there is 1 payment a week every month. Otherwise, it’s too overwhelming. Obviously, you don’t need to start with all 5. Just choose the 1 that makes the most sense for you.

For most credit cards, you get a bonus for signing up. It’s usually around 40,000-50,000 miles after you spend on the card, which is at least one flight if not two depending on where you go. Then you’ll get 1 mile for every dollar you spend, and 2 miles for every flight on the airlines you book. Some have better deals, like the Spirit card which offers 2 miles per dollar, and 4 for every flight you book.

You also usually get a bonus for signing up for their frequent flier miles accounts, all of which are free and easy to set up online. If you decide not to open a credit card, at least sign up for the frequent flier program, because otherwise you aren’t capitalizing on any of your travel. This guarantees that you will log your miles when you actually fly on the airlines, which is particularly good if you’re doing overseas flights, which are several thousand miles round trip. So basically, you’re getting double the miles because you’ll get the miles from buying the ticket on the card, as well as the miles from the flight itself.

Now for a rundown of my cards and what I like about them:

  • Delta Amex: I like this card because of the no foreign transaction fees, and they just updated their rewards to make it easier to book flights with rewards. I got a huge bonus for signing up (50,000 miles) and Delta flies through Madison quite a bit. As always, AMEX has amazing customer service and excel in the user experience. Delta is my favorite airlines, but the thresholds for the rewards are pretty high (a minimum of 25,000 miles for a free flight). The other bad thing about this card is that AMEX isn’t widely accepted abroad, so it’s hard to use while you’re traveling.
  • United Visa: I don’t have a ton of experience dealing with this card, since it’s still under my parents name and I rarely use it. My dad flies United a lot for work and has good experiences using his miles with them. I know he bought all the family’s tickets to Hawaii on miles, because they don’t have too man blackout dates. United is also a Star Alliance member, so it’s a great way to rack up miles that are redeemable on a ton of airlines.
  • AA Visa: This used to be my favorite, but they have foreign transaction fees and the points reward system is high with lots of blackout or high rate dates. So you’ll need a lot of miles to do any serious flights. Plus, their customer service is horrendous and the website is not very user friendly. I only use this one now when I’m actually booking AA flights. But AA is a member of OneWorld, so there are a lot of affiliate airlines you can use your miles on. This is best for South American travel, vs Star Alliance which is European and Asian affiliated.
  • Southwest Visa: This is my newest card and I’m really liking it so far. I got a 50,000 mile bonus for signing up and using the card, as well as 500 miles for enrolling in SW Rapid Rewards (their frequent flier mile program). Southwest offers a ton of flights out of Chicago-Midway, so this card makes a lot of sense for my current living situation. Plus, their website makes it super easy to search for flights using points or money. The thresholds for redeeming the miles are super attainable (I saw a round trip for 10,000 miles once!) And with a great customer service experience, this card is my new favorite. I’m going to do another post about this in a few weeks, but I’m going to try and get their companion pass perk this year as well!
  • Spirit Airlines Mastercard: I just got this card and have barely used it, but it has a few advantages. Spirit airlines is nothing to write home about, with its no-frill a-la-carte flight options; but, they have super cheap flights and their rewards program is really easy to understand. For a frequent traveler who’s got down the packing regime, this is a good budget option. Wait to sign up until you are on a flight, because they will give you a bonus 2,500 mile voucher to redeem. You get a large bonus for signing up (15,000 miles) and only have to use the card once to get the miles. Plus, you get 4 miles per airlines dollar spent and 2 miles for every normal dollar, so they add up a little faster. Plus Spirit’s threshold for miles is much lower and you can get a flight for as few as 2,500 miles.

Even though I don’t have it, I’ve heard great things about the Chase Sapphire Card. Sam has one, and he really likes it. This card is great if you fly on a lot of different airlines rather than just one, because the miles are redeemable 1:1 on multiple airlines, including United, Southwest, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. Plus, there are no foreign transaction fees, the customer service is great and the website is easy to navigate. I’ve heard the same is true for the Venture card, but I don’t have any experience with this program.

As you can guess, I racked up a ton of miles during my long trip last year, especially since most of the flights I did were on Star Alliance. It’s a lot easier than you might think to get the rewards, especially if you already know that you’re going to be traveling in the coming year.

For example, last year Sam planned a trip to Sicily for his mom. He ordered his new Chase Sapphire card before he bought the tickets. Then, he booked all the flights & hotels on that card, so that he reached the sign-up bonus threshold of $2,000 in 3 months. But he also signed up for the frequent flier miles programs of the airlines he was flying and hotel chains he was staying at, so he could log points while he was on the trip. Then when he came back, he was able to use the miles for a future planned trip to Turkey, which was also paid for on the same credit card. It’s all a cycle and timing the sign ups and rewards properly is the best way to optimize your spending.

No matter what one you choose, a lot of the features are the same. So it comes down to which airlines do you use most, how much do you use it while traveling, and how do you want to use your rewards. Then when you know you want to redeem the rewards, plan it out far in advance to capitalize on the best times to go and non-peak seasons. Want more information about online reward programs? Check out Triphackr’s list of all the ways to score big on travel hacking!

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Author: Megan Arz

I am a travel and food obsessed Midwesterner living in Chicago and dreaming of the world. I work as a full-time program manager for Greenheart Travel, but I am also committed to integrating the travel lifestyle into my every day routines. I am passionate about ethical travel, meeting new people, creating unique memories and eating local cuisine!

3 thoughts

  1. These are some great tips! I don’t fly often, but I am definitely going to look into this before I plan any more travel! Thanks for sharing :)

    1. Thanks Kristi! Yeah, you totally should. Even if you don’t fly that much, its good to save up the miles for future trips and the miles usually don’t expire, so you can just bank them over the years until you’re ready for a big trip!

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