Rewards programs are meant to encourage loyalty. In an ideal world, you could join just one mileage program that would reward you for every single transaction you make, from flights to credit card purchases to restaurant meals. With that kind of set up, many of us could achieve elite status without even trying.
But in the real world, it’s pretty much impossible to join only one program that rewards us for everything we buy. That means that if you are a dedicated rewards collector, you’ll have to join more than one program. However, you don’t want to actively use too many programs. If you spread your earnings too thin, chances are you’ll lose track of points you’ve accrued, or they’ll simply expire before you ever get enough of them to redeem.
Most of us only have so much time and attention to devote to tracking our miles and points. But how to know which ones to focus on? Here are some considerations.
1. Choose your next destination
It’s almost summer camp sign-up season, which means I really need to decide on my next international destination ASAP. Why are these two things related?
Well, major expenses like camp fees are good opportunities to quickly reach the minimum spend required by most credit card bonus offers. But you don’t want to sign up for just any new card. You want to figure out which new card can get you to your chosen destination.
When I’m planning a trip, the first thing I do is plug my starting point and destination into Google Flights and take note of what airlines fly from Point A to Point B. That way, I can look at offers for cards and programs that could get me flights on one of those airlines.
My next frequent flyer trip will probably be a family vacation to France. For that reason, I won’t be focusing on accumulating miles for Hawaiian Airlines or Southwest Airlines right now, because neither of them fly into Paris.
2. Note what destination you visit again and again
If you are more like my parents, who don’t travel internationally but visit the San Francisco area about twice a year, this also plays into your rewards program strategy. If this is your situation, you may want to focus on the awards program for the airline you typically take, and look for ways to get more points within that program. My parents already have credit cards for their preferred airline, but I showed them that they could earn more points by making online purchases through the airline’s shopping portal and by registering their cards with the airline’s dining program.
3. Take stock of points you already have
Before you apply for any new credit cards, online shopping programs, dining programs, etc., do an inventory of all the programs you hold points in. If you have the choice of two airlines to get to your desired destination, and you already have one-third of the needed miles in a frequent flyer account for that airline, you’re better off looking for opportunities to earn more of those miles, rather than starting fresh with the other airline.
When surveying your rewards programs, also take note of exchange partners. For instance, the large card-issuing banks and several hotel programs allow you to transfer points into certain airline programs. If you are able to combine points from various programs, you may realize you’re a lot closer to getting that award seat than you thought.
4. Watch for temporary bonus increases and special deals
Like department stores offering sales, credit cards vary the number of bonus miles they offer for new sign-ups. Since you generally can’t apply for the same credit cards and still get the sign-up bonuses over and over, it pays to apply only when you’re getting a good deal, like 60,000 sign-up points instead of…
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