Most of us carry wallets jammed with loyalty cards. Many of them get little use and provide little return. But frequent flier programs are different. If you’re smart, you can accrue miles at a rapid rate and then redeem them for travel, upgrades, accommodations, car rentals and even merchandise. How do you pick the best program and get the most out of it? Read on:
Pick your perks: choose a program based on the perks you most want: free baggage, upgrades to business class, lounge access or reward travel.
Know your patterns: will you be able to qualify for a status level given your travel patterns? For example: with Air Canada, you need to accumulate 35,000 miles per year to reach Star Alliance Gold status. Other Star Alliance airlines require 50,000 miles/year. Having status with an alliance means you have access to more perks on more airlines.
Research: perks vary widely between airlines. For example, some US airlines offer free upgrades for their elite level fliers but not lounge access unless you’re flying internationally. If lounge access is important to you, then concentrate on earning miles with an airline that specifically offers that.
Another thing to note is that redeeming miles with US programs/carriers tends to be cheaper than in Canada due to lower taxes and fees. However, if you’re with Aeroplan, you can take advantage of the lower fees by booking a reward flight on a US carrier.
Make sure you check plans for mile expiry dates. Some programs have expiry dates while others don’t. This is important if you accumulate miles slowly. Also ask about rolling over miles. Some airlines let you roll over qualifying miles into future years.
Once you’ve selected a specific program it’s best to go all in – concentrate on earning miles with that program, rather than spreading your travel over different airlines and/or alliances.
Going All In
Once you’ve decided on an airline and alliance, you’ve got to focus on earning miles only with them. And you don’t have to fly to earn miles – most airlines/alliances offer many different ways to build up your balance.
The most important thing you can do is choose a credit card that earns you miles with your program. If you use the card to purchase a flight, you’ll get the miles for the flight plus miles for the actual dollar cost. Many of these cards come with travel and rental car insurance in addition to yearly fees. If you rent a car a few times a year, the savings on insurance you get using your credit card will more than offset any yearly fees.
Use that credit card at your airline’s retail partners – gas stations, drug stores, hotels and car rental agencies. You can double dip – earning miles for your gas purchase and then more miles for the actual dollar amount charged to your credit card. It’s a super simple way to earn miles fast.
Another quick way to earn miles is to put as much stuff on your credit card as possible (and then pay it off right away). You can even buy merchandise or travel for your friends on your card, and then have them reimburse you. Can you put business expenses on your personal card? Do that, too.
If you plan to purchase duty-free items, see if you can do your shopping in advance online. You can often get 1.5 times your regular frequent flier miles on those purchases.
Remember to subscribe to your airline’s frequent flier emails. There are often short-term offers that give you bonuses of 2x, 3x or more on your purchase at a retail partner. Don’t forget to double dip by using your frequent flier linked credit card.
Don’t waste your miles on shorter hauls. Sometimes it’s better to pay for a trip. Why use 25,000 miles to fly from Vancouver to Winnipeg when you can buy the flight for $350? Better to use those miles to fly Vancouver to Halifax, which could cost $800+.
Maximizing frequent flier miles has become a bit of a game. If you master it, you can benefit greatly. One fantastic resource is Flyertalk.com – almost any question you might have is answered in their forums.