11 Ways to Maximize Your Credit Card Air Miles
Most people sitting in first class aren’t rich – they’re just smart spenders. Travel hackers know that credit cards with air miles programs are one of easiest ways to score free plane tickets, hotel rooms and first class upgrades. From strategic spending to which cards you carry in your wallet to managing all your air miles, traveling for free is just a matter of paying attention to how the system works.
If you’re ready to maximize your spending, here are 11 hacks to help you start traveling for free.
Look for sign-up bonuses.
Often, companies offer sign-up bonuses for new customers and if you’re lucky, they also waive the annual fee. This gives you an opportunity to earn up miles for an entire year without paying a dime. A popular strategy is to rack up miles on a new card with a sign up bonus, transfer the miles to another account or cash them in for plane tickets, and then close the card before you are required to pay an annual fee.
Just make sure to read your card agreement to make sure you won’t lose any miles if you transfer them. If the credit card has strict rules about this, it may be worth going with a different company. Sign up bonuses are popular ways to get customers in the door, so you shouldn’t have a problem finding a more flexible program.
Skip airline-branded credit cards.
If you really want to maximize your spending, don’t get an airline-branded card, which usually only offers one mile for every dollar spent. Instead, try a credit card that offers points that can be redeemed for miles. For example, the Capital One® Venture® Credit Card offer 1.25 miles for every dollar spent, plus an early spend bonus miles once you spend the minimum within your first month. With these types of credit cards, you’ll also have more flexibility with your points if you want to use them for a hotel room or rental car instead of just plane tickets.
Dine out strategically.
Many rewards cards have dining programs that offer bonus points or miles for eating out at select restaurants. You typically enroll in these programs when you sign up for the card and each time you dine out, you earn miles on what you spend – tax and tip included! These programs are totally free and most air miles credit cards have a variety of them, so sign up for every single one.
Shop through an online marketplace.
Online marketplaces are portals where people can access many different online shopping sites and many major credit card companies offer this service to their customers. For example, Barclaycard has a RewardsBoost program where card members can get rewards for shopping at popular stores like JC Penny, Kohls, AT&T Wireless, Budget or Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Discount Tire and much more. All you have to do is connect to these retailers through Barclaycard’s online marketplace and you can earn up to 4 points per dollar spent. And if you have multiple cards that offer online marketplaces, you can use a site like evreward.com to find out which one offers the best bonus for each store.
Upgrade your status.
Some credit cards reward customers with elite status if they spend a certain amount each year. For example, if you spend $40,000 a year on your Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®, you can get 10,000 elite qualifying miles on American. The Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® offers 40,000 bonus miles if you spend $3,000 in the first 90 days you have the card, which is enough to redeem a $400 travel statement credit. However, the tradeoff for these generous rewards programs usually comes in the form of a high annual fee (Citi’s is $450 a year!), so it’s critical to make sure the miles you are earning outweigh the cost of the card.
Keep your account alive.
Most air mile cards require some form of account activity a year or every 18 months, otherwis, your account is closed and you lose your miles. But this doesn’t mean you have to make a big purchase just to keep your account alive. Something as simple as a tank of gas or trip to the grocery store could be enough to keep your air miles account open.
Never carry a balance.
Paying interest on a credit card balance defeats the purpose of earning air miles. Say you have a $5,000 balance on your card with the average airline credit card interest rate of 14.62%. If you pay $100 a month toward the balance, it would take you 77 months and cost an extra $2,700 just in interest alone. That’s way more than a plane ticket!
It can be difficult to keep track of all the miles and rewards programs from your various credit cards. In order to get the absolute most out of these programs you have to stay organized. Avoid confusing and time-consuming spreadsheets and sign up for a free service like Award Wallet, which manages personal loyalty program accounts. You can track all your rewards in one place, plus you’ll get an alert when your points are about to expire.
Become a loyal customer.
Loyalty programs were created to reward customers for their repeat business, so find your favorite airlines and hotels and stick with them. Eventually, your loyalty will be rewarded with more points and free travel and hotel rooms. This takes more time than maxing out a sign up bonus, but it’s an important part of the travel hacking strategy.
Take online surveys.
You can actually earn free air miles without having to spend a dime. Sites like e-rewards and e-miles offer airline miles in exchange for taking surveys. E-miles has partnerships with major travel companies like Southwest, American Airlines, United and Hilton, and e-rewards works with Alaska Air, Frontier, Hertz, JetBlue and Wyndham. Just keep in mind that time is money, so make sure the payoff is worth your effort.
If your free air miles are spread across multiple rewards accounts, consolidating them can give you more purchasing power. Point.com is another service that helps you manage your air miles and rewards, but it’s also a place where you can trade, transfer and purchase points between your programs. If you decide to trade your points, the site will let you know if you will lose any miles in the transfer, as well as if there are any additional bonus offers you qualify for.