On the surface, the idea of frequent flyer miles is a great one: rack up a bunch of miles for every flight you take or associated credit card you swipe, and before you know it, you have enough miles to fly somewhere on this planet for free! It’s a system that has allowed my family to travel far more often than we could otherwise. We flew on points to Spain…to New Zealand…to Paris…to Lithuania…and next year, we’re going to Greece and Turkey.
But the battle to get there can be a tricky one, and you need to know how to play the game. A game where the rules can change without warning.
Rule 1: One airline, one card. If I’d collect points from a handful of airlines, I’d have just as many points, but they’d be spread out–not enough to get anywhere on any one airline. And airline cards can be expensive. When Delta raised the yearly fee of their card to $185, I told them to go pound sand. Now I only use an American Airlines Aadvantage Mastercard and literally put every single possible purchase I make on that card because American Airlines is convenient for me. All the airlines have some kind of card, so do a little research and decide which one works best for you.
By the way, I do cheat on the “one card only rule:” I also have a Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card. I’ve found that I get the most bang for my buck with the Starwood group of hotels. They include Westins, W’s, Sheratons, St. Regis, and more.
Rule 2: No expense is too small to put on the card. A burger at a drive-thru, a couple of things at the supermarket. Every point counts, and once you get that ingrained in your brain, you’ll make serious headway. I pay all my bills with my credit card, when possible: utilities, cell phones, the post office, doctors visits. Even most appliance or house repairs can now be paid by credit card, so why write a check?
Rule 3: Pay your credit card off on time. The reason why it’s worth collecting points with your credit card is because you’re making purchases you would’ve done with cash anyway. The moment you get to the point where you’re paying interest on your credit card, you’re paying more per point, and then you may as well give up the fight and just buy your plane ticket.
Rule 4: Don’t let your miles expire. You worked hard to collect them. Always check to make sure your miles aren’t going to expire before you can use them. Sometimes all it takes is a simple credit card transaction to buy yourself and extra year’s life on your miles.
Rule 5: Do the math. If you’re flying somewhere and have enough miles for a free trip, check out the deals on your flight before you use your miles. If you can get a really cheap flight, you’re better off paying for it, and saving your miles for a future trip that might cost a lot more.
Rule 6: Look into upgrades. Sometimes you don’t have enough miles to buy a whole ticket but you might have enough to upgrade yourself from coach to Business Class. A nice perk if you’re going on a long flight!
Rule 7: When possible, book it yourself. Sometimes you can do all of your trip planning online. If you’ve got a simple round-trip flight, you can save yourself some money by booking it yourself. If you use a representative on the airline’s 800-number, there could be a fee of $40 or more for them to book it for you. But if you’ve got a more complicated route, with several stops and different cities, you may decide that a live person on the phone is the way to go.
Rule 8: Go First Class, even if you’re not flying First Class. When looking for flights online, I’ve found that I get better flight choices if I say I want to go First Class, even though I know I don’t have the points to do it. If I tell the airline upfront that I want to fly coach, they automatically treat me like a second-class citizen and show me trips that require several stops to get to my destination. If I tell them I want to go First Class, lo and behold, I get non-stop flights! Once I get to those flights, it’s often easy to downgrade to coach, but now I have a non-stop flight instead of a 2 or 3-stop flight.
Rule 9: Computers won’t give you answers to questions you don’t ask. I was trying to book 3 Business class seats. Every time I looked on line, I was told no. Then it dawned on me: see if there are 2 Business class seats on the flight I want. Bingo! The computer only told me what I asked for: 3 seats not available. It didn’t volunteer info for any alternatives. So I booked the 2 good seats for my wife and daughter, and I grabbed a 3rd seat in coach for myself. A little sacrifice, but worth it since we had the flight we wanted and we were all on the same plane.
Rule 10: Hang up!! This rule has helped me the most with hotel reservations and especially with airlines. If you call the 800 number, and the representative that answers the phone seems clueless or refuses to help you to your satisfaction, HANG UP AND DIAL AGAIN. There are hundreds of people answering those phones. Some will be good and some will be totally clueless. I’ve found that younger people are hard-working but are afraid to bend the rules even a little because they want to impress their boss and keep their jobs. The veterans are more interested in impressing you and are experts in finding ways around the rules that the young people haven’t figured out yet. Don’t ever settle. This is your big trip! A great rep on the phone can make all the difference.