Without frequent flier miles and hotel loyalty points, my passport wouldn’t be nearly as full as it is. And I certainly wouldn’t have had the luxury of so many first class flights or suite upgrades. In fact, we take travel points very seriously in my home because it impacts our travel experiences in a big way.
Between my husband and I, we have credit cards for American Airlines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Starwood Hotels, Marriott Hotels, Hyatt Hotels, and a few others like the Chase Sapphire Preferred card which you can convert as travel points. We also have frequent flier and hotel rewards accounts for any airline, hotel, or even rental car company we’ve ever used. While the whole process can get complicated, it doesn’t have to, especially for someone who isn’t traveling quite as much.
So, if you don’t know where to start (or maybe you just haven’t gotten around to it), follow these steps to get started:
1. Choose a preferred airline: In the US, the main options are: American Airlines, United, Delta, and Southwest (these are, of course, not all of your options). If you fly a lot, like I do, you’ll want to choose two airlines to stick to, but most likely, you’ll just need one. Which airline is best suited for you depends primarily on where you live and which airline most heavily services your home airport. Some other things to consider are whether you plan to fly internationally and how flexible you need your fares to be.
Once you choose an airline (or several), be sure to sign up for their frequent flier program. Don’t forget to sign your kids up too!
Here is my (very brief) overview of the big US airlines:
- American Airlines: American flies to a ton of destinations both in the US and outside of it. They have the largest fleet, carry the most passengers, and are making huge investments in their aircraft. They also treat preferred customers very well, handing out the most frequent upgrades (in my experience). The one place they are lacking though is in redeeming mileage awards for upgrades or direct routes. These sell out quickly so making last minute plans isn’t ideal on mileage awards.
- United Airlines: United is great in the one place American is lacking. They offer great mileage awards, even at the last minute. However, if you’ve read the news lately, you know they are hugely lacking in customer service and taking a lot of heat for that right now. Hopefully that means some improvements are on the horizon.
- Delta Airlines: Admittedly, I don’t fly Delta a ton, but I do know a lot of loyal Delta fliers. Delta is nearly the size of American and has recently made a lot of improvements to amenities in all classes. They are definitely a good option if Delta has a big presence at home.
- Southwest Airlines: Southwest has a much different business model than the three major airlines, but that comes with some big perks. All Southwest flights come with no change fee. That is a huge benefit for families who might run into travel hiccups, like a sick kid or an unforeseen scheduling conflict. There is no assigned seating either and families get to board fairly early on, giving you the chance to sit together, anywhere you like. One drawback to Southwest is the very limited international presence and all-coach seating. They also don’t fly very far so if you’re going far, it’s probably going to involve a layover.
Who do I fly? American Airlines most of the time and Southwest for regional trips or travel I want to keep flexible.
2. Choose a preferred hotel chain: Again, you have plenty of options. Each hotel chain is going to have hotels on all spectrums of quality and price. And all of them have different loyalty programs. I’m not going to go into details on this one, because hotels are a bit more subjective, but here are a few of my favorites (and don’t forget to sign up for their loyalty program):
- Starwood Preferred Guest: SPG points have the highest value, upgrades are frequent, and they provide a number of other perks for members. While they have beautiful properties, there are not a ton of them. But, after a recent merger with Marriott, it looks like the expanded portfolio will fix this.
- Marriott Rewards: Marriott has even more properties, but their points aren’t worth quite as much. However, they recently merged with SPG so it looks like that may change as well.
- World of Hyatt: Hyatt has a great points redemption program (on par with SPG) and is spectacular at upgrading loyal customers.
- Hotels.com Rewards: If you can’t commit to one brand, Hotels.com is great to hold onto your flexibility. Plus, you get one free night for every ten nights.
- IHG Rewards Club: IHG has a ton of locations and brands. This is a great way to get some additional flexibility without going the route of an aggregator site.
Where do I stay? Previously, my husband was an SPG guy and I was a Marriott girl. Like I said above, the two companies recently merged so the combined company will now boast a massive portfolio. Assuming they hold onto SPG’s loyalty program, this is easily the best option for US-based travelers.
3. Open one or two credit cards: Just because you’re not traveling, doesn’t mean you can’t be working toward your next trip. If you’re new to the world of frequent flier miles and hotel points, or maybe you’re not very comfortable using credit cards, your safest option is going to be a credit card that isn’t tied to a particular hotel chain or airline.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great option. After spending $4,000 in the first three months, you’ll get a 50,000 point bonus (a $625 value). Travel and dining purchases get 2% back and travel redemptions receive a 25% bump in value versus getting cash back. It is $0 the first year and $95 a year after that, making this a break even card if you’re spending about $320/month on travel and dining (or $640 if you’re spending on other things).
If you feel really committed to a particular hotel or airline, then their credit card is also a good option because you’ll get higher returns for different types of spend (for example, the SPG card gets 3 points for every dollar at all SPG properties). However, that bank card is going to give you the flexibility to get cash back if you ever need it.
The best way to get points when not traveling is to use your rewards card for all or most of your everyday purchases. For example, I never use my debit card — for anything. I don’t even know where it is. Just make sure you pay off the balance every month!