Anyone who travels even a little bit knows the value of joining the loyalty programs of at least an airline and a hotel chain. So which ones are the best? There’s no one answer, because what’s perfect for one person may be so-so for the next guy. But with help from Joyce Gioia, The Herman Group president who is USA Today’s Road Warrior of the Year, we compiled advice to help you navigate the complicated loyalty-program labyrinth and nab the greatest possible rewards.
Sign up. You can join the vast majority of loyalty programs for free, so sign up for as many as you think you’ll use. Just keep in mind that you will rack up more rewards by consistently using one particular airline, hotel chain, car-rental brand, etc.
Consider a generic. If your travel is so scattershot that you can’t be loyal to a particular brand, then you may want to join a program that’s not brand-specific. A good example is Star Alliance, the oldest and largest global airline network, which lets you earn rewards redeemable on more than 25 airlines, including biggies such as United, US Airways and Lufthansa. In addition, several websites for booking transportation and rooms—Expedia.com and Hotels.com, for example—have reward programs that give you more flexibility.
Think about where you are and where you travel. It’s not brain surgery: You’ll want to join the program of the airline you’ll fly the most. If you mainly travel to your corporate office in Topeka, Kan., don’t bother to join Starwood’s rewards program if the hotel chain lacks a property there.
Go for perks, not just points. For example, if you’re a member of an airline’s loyalty program and reach a certain level of miles or flights, you may get free access to its airport lounges. Rewards available under a hotel’s loyalty program may include everything from free Wi-Fi to room upgrades. Cherry-pick based on what’s most important to you.
Don’t change “currencies.” Use hotel points to buy hotel stays, airline miles to buy airline tickets, etc., because points and miles seriously depreciate when used toward other things. Gioia cites this example: A relative bought a big-screen TV with 108,000 United Airlines miles. While the retail price of the TV was about $570, those 108,000 miles could have been redeemed for two round-trip first-class tickets to Europe worth $4,000 to $5,000. Ouch!
Go to the source. Whether you’re awarded points toward the loyalty program of a specific airline, hotel or car rental agency when you book online through a third-party site like Expedia or Travelocity varies widely. To always receive points, Gioia suggests going online to the third-party sites for prices and then calling the specific hotel, airline or rental agency directly to make the reservation. In many cases, especially hotels, the company will match the online price and you’ll receive the loyalty points.
Charge it. Dozens of credit card programs—from Capital One Venture Rewards and Chase Sapphire Preferred to certain airlines’ and hotels’ own credit card programs—award points for charging any products and services, and the points are redeemable for almost any travel expense. Some cards even offer a bonus rebate for specific products purchased—gasoline is one option, and the rewards to frequent drivers can add up quickly. Deciding on a program can be tricky, but don’t worry, there’s a free app for that: Wallaby. It analyzes your travel and spending habits to generate customized recommendations on which cards you should use to earn the most rewards.
Stay informed. It’s vital to keep up to date regarding the ins and outs of your loyalty programs so, for example, your points don’t expire. Programs frequently change their rules and requirements. “The program that was sterling last year may not be this year,” Gioia warns.
Use program partners. You can rack up frequent flier miles without a single takeoff or landing—by doing business with program partners such as hotels, rental-car and credit-card companies. The trick is to earn as many rewards from as many transactions as possible, so keep those partners top of mind when you make reservations for any travel or when you make any purchases, whether they are travel-related or not.
These websites can help you maximize rewards from loyalty programs:
InsideFlyer.com is a comprehensive site featuring a complete rundown of airline, hotel, car-rental and credit-card bonuses; individual program reviews; and more.
FlyerTalk.com includes a Miles&Points online forum where travelers can discuss how to make the most of their rewards.
AwardWallet.com is a tool that lets users track and manage reward balances all in one place.
FreddieAwards.com features a link to the list of winners of the annual Freddie Awards, the Oscars of the loyalty-program world.