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How to Fly Frugally with Points and Miles

There’s a topic in the travel world that has so much hype surrounding it that it has garnered a cult-like following. No, it’s not food – it’s travel hacking. I don’t claim to be “the expert” on travel hacking (I’ll defer to others for that) but I’ve earned many free flights to fund my travels thanks to points and miles. In our “Flying Frugally” series, I’ll try to spell out the travel hacking world in a few easy-to-understand posts.

Today’s post will focus on the very basics of gathering and using points and miles: what they are, how to earn them, and how to use them. This particular post does not discuss how to find cheap travel, so if you’re looking for advice on finding flight deals, check out my guide on finding ridiculously cheap flights. If you’re looking for a way to buy flights with frequent flyer miles, read on!

What are points and miles?

Points and miles are a form of currency for travel-related purchases, earned either through airlines/hotel chains themselves, or via a third-party credit card.  Hotel points are pretty straightforward – the number of points you earn directly translate towards future stays. For airlines, there are two kinds of “miles,” ones you can spend, and ones that help you earn frequent flyer status. In this post, I’ll be discussing the former type (but more on the latter to come!). In the credit card world, each dollar you spend on your card(s) equates to a certain number of points (depending on which cards you have).

You’ll notice that I called points and miles a type of currency. No, points and miles aren’t exactly free pixie dust that enable you to get flights when you want. You’ll earn them and spend them just like you would with real money. They come with an opportunity cost and are scarce. I say this to remind you: deciding how you’ll spend your points and miles should always involve some serious thought.

How can I earn points and miles?

Wing Tip
Photo Credit: Phil Roeder (Flickr)

Registering for loyalty programs and traveling often

The easiest way to earn points and miles is by doing what you do best – traveling! When you fly anywhere or stay in a hotel, make sure you are registered for their loyalty programs so you can earn points for each dollar you spend.

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A few of the main international hotel programs are Starwood, Marriott (now in the process of combining), Hilton, Hyatt, and IHG. The largest airline alliances are OneWorld, Star Alliance, and Sky Team. You’ll find that many airlines and hotel groups are better suited for particular destinations. For example, if you travel often to Atlanta, you may want to fly frequently with Delta (SkyTeam).

Making purchases with a points/miles credit card

Another way to earn valuable points and miles is through credit card purchases. If you have a travel or co-branded credit card, you can earn miles for purchases made on that card, even if you are not traveling. Depending on the card you choose to get, you can use or transfer your points in different ways.

(FWIW, I use the Chase Sapphire Reserve card almost exclusively. My secondary travel card is the SPG AmEx.)

Buying personal items through a branded portal

Some airlines or credit cards have a portal you can use to order household items, clothes, etc. online from popular brands. For each order, you can earn a certain number of points per dollar. Ordering your items through these portals rather than in stores can enable you to earn even more points than just using your credit card.

Signing up for special promotions

Often, frequent flyer or hotel loyalty programs run special deals to incentivize purchases from their brands or their partners. For example, Starwood will often have promotions where you can receive 2x or 3x points per dollar during a set time period. Sometimes, airlines will partner with companies to promote products or services by adding a miles bonus onto any purchase.

Complaining

If something goes wrong during your flight or your stay, bringing it up to the company can often result in points or miles as “compensation.” Of course, don’t make things up in order to get free points (usually this doesn’t work anyway), but if you sincerely feel that something went wrong (e.g., you got bumped from a flight, your hotel oversold your room, your towels were dirty, etc.), submitting a constructive complaint could result in additional earning opportunities.

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Purchasing miles

If you need additional miles to be able to pay for something, but don’t have the ability to earn them any other way, you can always purchase them directly from the airline. Miles vary in price, but often have some kind of promotion tied to them to incentivize purchases.

How can I pay for travel with points and miles?

Piggy bank travel (stock)
Roderick Eime (Flickr)

Once you’ve accumulated a few thousand points, you can start using them for purchases. For airline- or hotel-specific points and miles, you can typically only use them on the respective airline/hotel (or any partners). For credit card points, you can either transfer them to partner airlines/hotels or book on the card’s internal portal (e.g., Chase travel portal).

A few rules of thumb for making travel purchases with points or miles:

  • Flights purchased with airline miles generally do not earn additional miles or count toward elite status
  • Hotels purchased with hotel points generally do not earn additional miles, but may count towards your elite status (depending on the program)
  • Flights and hotels purchased with credit card points (e.g., Chase points on the Chase booking portal) do earn additional miles/points and count towards elite status
  • The cost of a flight or hotel room in points/miles often depends on the class (economy, business class for flights; the kind of hotel – economy, mid, luxury – for hotels) or, for airlines, the destination (domestic vs. international travel)
  • Budget airlines typically do not have loyalty programs

The Bottom Line

Getting into the convoluted world of points and miles can be tricky at first, but it’s worth learning more about these programs to maximize your travel. Stay tuned for follow-up posts on this topic that touch on more in-depth travel hacking topics. In the meantime, you can learn more about points and miles on The Points Guy. He’s basically the king of all things points and I’ve read his site for ages.

Kay is a full-time media professional located in Washington DC who takes every spare day of time to travel the world. In the last year alone, she's visited over 10 different countries and taken a dozen short trips in between. You can typically find her wandering the streets of a city, taking ridiculous self portraits, or hiking a mountain somewhere. Connect with Kay: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

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