1. Never book a ticket with miles if the ticket is under $350. Sure, if money is tight for some reason, this might appeal to you. But I’m a huge proponent of spending within your means, so I’m sticking to this one. There isn’t a reason to book a ticket with miles if the ticket is less than $350. Let’s say a domestic ticket is 25,000 miles round-trip (at best). That’s 1.4 cents per mile: not theworstever, but you could do a lot better. I typically don’t even look at miles options unless the ticket is $500+, and even then, I weigh the options carefully.
2. Always keep one credit card open that accrues miles/points. We put nearly all our expenses on a credit card. In fact, it’s a weird day if I have cash in my wallet. So having one of these open does 2 things: first, it provides free checked bags (that we never use), and early boarding (can’t live without), in addition to other perks. Second, we are constantly accruing some miles with just regular spending. Ideally, this card should not have foreign transaction fees so you can use it overseas. If you typically fly one airline or frequent one hotel chain, check out their cards first as you will likely earn more when you spend on that brand.
3. Jump on the credit card offers worth 60,000 miles/points or more, once yearly (or more, if you are comfortable doing so). I do not play credit card roulette very much, but I do watch for the wonderful targeted offers. DH does the same (well did, he had some jacka$$ steal his identity this year, so he’s been benched temporarily). This means that each year, we should have no less than 60,000 miles or points, and often much much more, which is enough for a round trip or multi-night stay. Last year’s deal was a targeted offer from Marriott, this year’s was a targeted offer from Amex. Depending on the usefulness of the card, and the annual fee, I assess cost/value at the end of the first cardholder year. I try not to cancel more than one card at a time, since it can impact your credit score when there is significantly less credit available.
4. Don’t sacrifice good connections and shorter travel time for “free” flights. Since we work full-time, we value our vacation time really highly. Sitting in an airport for 10 hours to fly for free isn’t worth it, when that day could be spent exploring our destination. Sure, there are times with international connections that layovers are not avoidable. But I don’t use miles if the tickets aren’t pretty close (itinerary-wise) to what I would book if I was paying. The more stops, the more opportunities for mechanical problems, lost luggage, tornadoes, strikes, crews who stopped at McDonald’s instead of heading straight for the plane (all true stories…). And when you have limited time, missed connections are not what you want to deal with. Just pay for the flight and avoid the misery.
5. Follow the professionals, and ask for help if needed. There are many of them, but I typically use ThePointsGuy.com; there are lots, so shop around and find one you like. Check in to see if there are any good deals, great redemption offers, or weird things going on. Furthermore, stay on top of program changes. When airlines increase the number of miles needed for a round-trip to Asia by 30%, that’s going to impact you. Same with hotels shifting the categories of properties: a category/level 3 property shifting to a 5 may increase the number of points you need by 10-20,000 per night. Pay attention, and you can often jump in front and book before the increase. Most of them (the professionals) are also willing to help you out if you have a specific question, which is a resource you shouldn’t ignore.
6. Plan in advance. I’m a planner at heart, so this seems totally obvious to me. This is particularly true if you are booking more than one ticket with specific dates. Many airlines don’t open lots of miles seats (particularly the “saver” redemptions), so look in advance and keep looking (or use a paid service, if that’s your perogative…I’m too lazy/cheap for that). You might get lucky, you might not. But at least try to do it more than a month ahead of time (and definitely avoid the last minute booking fees that many airlines charge). Sometimes you don’t get lucky and there is only one seat. But it’s ok! Even if only one of you flies on miles, you’ve still saved money and spent half of what you would have for 2 tickets.
7. Save miles/points for big or expensive trips and destinations. For example, plane tickets to Australia cost a bunch o’ cheerios and that’s a long flight–same usually applies to South & East Africa. You might consider stockpiling miles to get those places, perhaps in business class. Similarly with hotels in many cities in Europe–super expensive. Save your points to use where a hotel costs $400 a night (or $300 or $200) in Europe rather than $89 in Latin America. Sure, there are times where it might make sense to redeem otherwise (for example, certificates that expire), but we try to stick to this guideline.
Now the hardest part…deciding where you want to go to use the miles you’ve earned!