Some variation of the same question popped up at least five times in the last week: on Twitter, on Facebook, in a comment, even at this TravelingMom’s daughter’s Tae Kwon Do practice: “How do I get the most from my travel reward credit cards?” At TravelingMom, we take our points seriously and we are here to help you, too! Here are the secrets to getting the most from travel rewards credit cards.
Disclosure: TravelingMom may earn a commission on credit cards approved via links on this page. Opinion is solely that of the author.
Before You Begin
Before you even consider applying for a rewards credit card, you have to be comfortable with paying off the balance monthly. If you want a card to carry a balance, so many other cards offer lower interest rates that more than offset any rewards you might earn with your spending. Frequent Flyer TravelingMom Leslie covers this and more mistakes you can make with frequent flyer credit cards.
The Most Important Thing You Can Do
Now that I’ve made sure your financial house is in order and you are indeed ready for a rewards credit card, it’s time to take the single most important step to guarantee you’re getting the most from your travel rewards points: Set a goal.
Every decision you make after setting a goal will be much easier because it either will or will not get you closer to your goal.
I’m floored by how many people I meet are shooting in the dark. Those people end up with random scraps of points and miles in about 12 different programs that add up to exactly nothing. Or even worse: they don’t bother signing up for any rewards programs thinking they’re not worth the effort.
However, once you’ve set a goal, you can find a credit card that earns you points and status towards that goal. You can evaluate each offer and see how it measures up against both your spending patterns and your stated goal. An example: if you want to go to Europe, a card with a regional budget airline will not help you.
I’ve identified three easy ways you can earn points from things you do every day. Do these three things and you’ll be up in the air in no time.
Earn While You Pay Bills
Autopay bills with your rewards card. This is both for simplicity and for racking up points faster. You only pay one bill for insurance, electric, cell phone, cable…most of your monthly bills will let you pay with a credit card without an additional fee. If you pay $2,000 a month in bills you’ll earn enough for a round trip ticket in the US on most airlines with a card that pays just 1 point per dollar.
Earn While You Shop
Portals are your friends. Most airlines and many credit cards offer you bonus points for entering e-commerce sites through their portals. Unfortunately, payout amounts vary daily. I like to use Cash Back Monitor which monitors the portals for you.
You can even earn when you shop brick and mortar. The United Mileage Plus X App is a total no-brainer as you just use it as you shop to earn miles instantly.
TravelingMom Tip: The Mileage Plus App buys gift cards so don’t use it on anything you might return unless you’re OK with getting a gift card when you bring the item back.
Earn While You Eat
Category bonuses are your best friend here. Cashing in points (besides on gift cards, which is not a great value) isn’t in play, but earning a ton of points is. Typical category bonuses are in the 2-3% range, with an occasional 5% quarterly bonus. Take a look at your cards before going out to eat and figure out which one will earn you the best return.
Another no-brainer way to earn points is by linking your credit or debit card to a dining program. Most airlines have one and will give you up to five miles per dollar for doing nothing extra. Search “(program name) dining” to find the details for your favorite airline. Just pay with a registered card and you’ll rack up miles quickly. Most let you register up to six cards so not using a dining program is like turning away free miles.
Miles expire but there’s a really easy way to keep them active. Above I mentioned shopping portals as an easy way to earn miles. They are also a really easy way to extend the life of your points as portal activity counts in keeping miles alive. Just buy an iTunes or other inexpensive item through the portal to reset the clock.
Ready to get started? Check out some of our favorite credit cards below!