This article is part of Middle Age Miles’ series, “How to Get Started” with Credit Cards, Points and Miles.
Earning Points and Miles
In our previous “How to Get Started” articles, we’ve covered Credit Card Basics and Points-and-Miles Program Basics. Now, let’s spend some time examining the ways we can earn points and miles to get good value from the spending we do anyway and help us achieve our travel dreams.
The first step here is to make sure you’ve signed up for all of the points-and-miles programs you might use. We talked about this in our article on Points-and-Miles Program Basics. To help make things easier for you, Middle Age Miles has compiled links to the sign-up pages for many airline and hotel loyalty programs, which you can access here:
Let’s turn now to the ways we can earn points and miles:
Fly on a Plane or Stay at a Hotel
This is the most straightforward way to earn airline miles and hotel points – fly on an airline and earn points in that airline’s frequent flyer loyalty program, or stay in a hotel and earn points in that hotel chain’s loyalty program.
For an airline, you’ll generally earn miles based on either the distance you fly (for example, on Alaska) or the amount you pay (for example, on American, Delta, Southwest or United). There may be multipliers based on any elite status you may hold with that airline. For example, on American, non-elite members earn 5 AAdvantage miles per dollar spent (excluding taxes and government-imposed fees), whereas Gold members earn 7 miles/dollar, Platinum members earn 8 miles/dollar, Platinum Pro 9 miles/dollar, and Executive Platinum 11 miles/dollar. Also, there may be multipliers based on class of service (that is, business class or first class tickets may earn more). For example, on Alaska, first class tickets earn a 75% mileage bonus on top of the 100% base mileage earned, for a total of 175% (that is, a first class ticket on an Alaska flight covering 1,000 miles will earn 1,750 Mileage Plan miles).
For hotels, you’ll generally earn points based on the amount you pay (excluding taxes and fees), plus there may be multipliers based on any elite status you may hold with that hotel chain. For example, at most Marriott properties, you will earn 10 points per dollar spent on your room rate. [Marriott has some exceptions and some additional earning opportunities. Extended-stay properties such as Residence Inn and TownePlace Suites earn only 5 points per dollar on your room rate. On the other hand, you may earn Marriott points for other charges in addition to your room rate (like meals) at some Marriott brands, including JW Marriott, Renaissance, Autograph Collection, and Marriott-branded hotels.]
Credit Card Sign-Up BonusesThe quickest way to get significant numbers of airline miles or hotel points is by signing up for co-branded credit cards with large sign-up bonuses. The screenshot above shows an example of the sign-up bonus as of August 2018 for Chase’s Marriott Rewards Premier Plus Visa card.
Sign-up bonus offers follow a standard format. They:
- offer a certain number of points or miles (75,000 Marriott Rewards points in our example)
- after a certain amount of spend on the card ($3,000 in our example)
- within a certain amount of time after account opening (3 months in our example)
Before I got into the points-and-miles hobby, I thought there was something deceptive, dishonest, or at least tricky about credit card sign-up bonuses. Maybe there would be a big fee later and they would make it impossible to cancel; maybe the benefits they advertised would last only a limited time and then they would be taken away; maybe it would destroy my credit score if I applied for a card with a bonus; or maybe there was some other hidden catch. But this is simply not the case. The banks and payment processors are subject to strict disclosure and compliance regulations. The biggest “catch” is that you will incur huge interest charges if you don’t pay off your balance each month (and huge fees if you don’t pay at all) – and we’re not going to carry any balances here at Middle Age Miles.
We have more detail on this subject in our earlier “How to Get Started” article on Credit Card Basics. The truth is that you can safely apply for and hold many credit cards so long as you manage things responsibly. We have collected more than 35 sign-up bonuses over the past 2.5 years, which have paid for a lot of fun travel (and we still have some significant point balances left to travel some more!).
Here are a few things you must know about sign-up bonuses:
(1) The terms are strictly enforced. In our example, if you hit $3,000 in spend on your Marriott Rewards card in 3 months plus one week, you won’t get the bonus. If you spend $2,999 rather than $3,000, you won’t get the bonus. Card issuers do not grant any grace periods. You must be very careful to track your spend to make sure you hit the bonus.
(2) Always allow some cushion in the bonus amount – you never know when something you purchased might be returned or credited back to the card, pushing your spend back below the threshold for the bonus.
(3) If your card has an annual fee, it does not count toward the spend requirement for the sign-up bonus. Make sure you’re excluding the annual fee from your calculations of hitting the minimum spend requirements (and any other charges that the card issuer excludes; these are fairly rare).
(4) You need to be confident that you can meet the minimum spend requirement within the designated time frame and have a solid plan for doing so.
If you’re jumping into points-and-miles with both feet, please understand that there is a lot of nuance and strategy about what cards to apply for (and what sign-up bonuses to hit), and when. Some of this is dictated by the card issuers’ Velocity Rules and Card Limits. Another important strategy consideration is your own travel profile – What airline do you fly? What hotel chain do you tend to stay with? Do you have elite status in any airline and hotel chains? Where would you like to go? What airlines fly there and what hotel properties are located there? What are your current point balances, that is, where do you have plenty of points already, and where could you use some more?
Credit Card Category Bonuses
Most points-and-miles earning credit cards have certain category bonuses – that is, if you spend within a certain category, then you earn more points. This can be an incredibly valuable way to get the most back for what you spend. Let’s look at a couple of examples:
The Chase Sapphire Reserve card gives 3x Ultimate Rewards (UR) points on its bonus categories, which are Travel and Dining at Restaurants. If you have a Sapphire Reserve card, you can redeem your UR points at 1.5 cents per point through the Chase travel portal. This gives us a baseline value of 1.5 cents per point for UR points (and you might achieve even more value by transferring UR points to airlines for mileage award tickets or to Hyatt for hotel stays!). Thus, for your Travel and Dining spend on the Sapphire Reserve, you’re getting a baseline return of 4.5 cents per dollar of spend. Basically all of our Dining spend goes on a Chase Sapphire Reserve card.
Here’s another example – the US Bank Altitude Reserve card gives 3x points on two bonus categories, Travel and Mobile Wallet purchases. US Bank points can also be easily redeemed at 1.5 cents per point for travel expenses, so spend in these categories gives you a return of 4.5 cents per dollar of spend. For me, the very interesting category here is Mobile Wallet purchases, which means purchases made through Apple Pay, Google Pay, or Samsung Pay. There are many places where my spend would not fall into any bonus category on any other card, but where I can use a mobile wallet to pay. With the Altitude Reserve’s bonus category, now I can increase my points-earning return substantially at those places. My most notable example is spending in Europe. There, almost every payment terminal accepts mobile payments, so I can use Apple Pay on virtually every purchase. (Most of this spend would otherwise be unbonused; note also that the Altitude Reserve has no foreign transaction fees. Also, using a mobile wallet payment in Europe eliminates the need for a signature on most transactions, which saves us time and which the merchants really appreciate.)
There is quite a long list of spend categories that are bonus categories on different cards. Here’s a non-exclusive list:
- Travel, and note that the bonus category may be only a subset of travel such as
- Airlines in general
- Specific airlines
- Hotels in general
- Specific hotel chains
- Car rental
- Airlines in general
- Restaurants/Dining Out
- Mobile Wallet payments
- Online Retail
- Computer hardware/software/cloud computing
- Office Supply stores
As you can tell, maximizing your earning through bonus categories can become complicated if you have a lot of cards. We will post an article with our “perfect” earning matrix later and provide a link to it here. We try to do our best to maximize return from bonus categories without stressing out over being “perfect.”
And that said, we understand that many people will prefer a simpler and more streamlined strategy with only 2-3 cards, and Middle Age Miles will provide advice for how to get the best return from only a few cards, too.
I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit, but just a few years ago before I learned about points and miles, I put a ton of business spend on a cash-back card with a 1% return (and to make it worse, the credit could only be redeemed once a year!). I cost myself untold travel rewards during this time. I could have made thousands just by getting the “right” couple of cards. At Middle Age Miles, we’ll try to help everyone get a good return on spend to help you fulfill your travel dreams. And we’ll also help serious points-and-miles hobbyists get toward the best return possible.
Put All Your Spend on a Points-Earning Card
Another way to maximize your points-and-miles earning is simply to put all spend possible on a points-earning credit card. This sounds simple, but I can’t begin to count the times I’ve seen people pull out a debit card or cash to pay a bill when there was a points-earning card right there in their wallet. (Granted, these people may have had credit card debt such that they shouldn’t be using their credit cards!)
In addition, check all of your payments to see if they can be made with a credit card (without a fee). Your cell phone bill can certainly be paid with a credit card. You might be able to pay your utilities with a card. Almost all medical providers accept credit cards. Your other service providers might accept credit cards – pest control, home security, landscaping, pool service, etc. Every time you can move spend to a points-earning card, that’s more rewards you’ll earn for travel.
In some situations, you can pay with a credit card but you’ll be charged a fee. In those situations, you’ll have to determine case-by-case whether the rewards outweigh the fee. For example, our son’s college tuition can be paid with a credit card, for a 1.8% service fee. I make that payment with a credit card every time, as I can earn points, miles or other card benefits that are easily worth more than 1.8 cents per dollar. Similarly, federal taxes can be paid using a credit card, for a service fee of 2% or slightly less.
And finally, even for places that don’t accept credit cards at all, like our business landlord or my life insurance company, you may be able to use a points-earning credit card. Plastiq is a service that mails a check to your vendor and charges your credit card (Plastiq can also make ACH payments under certain circumstances). Plastiq’s standard fee for this service is 2.5%. At a fee percentage of 2.5%, you’re going to want to be very careful to make sure you’re earning significantly more in rewards than you’re paying in fees. Cash in your pocket is better than points, unless the points are worth significantly more, and you can use them. But Plastiq can be a very useful option to help meet minimum spend requirements or to hit other spending thresholds if you use it correctly. [If you sign up for Plastiq, please support us by using our referral link or our referral code, which is 487070. Under Plastiq’s current offer (August 2018), when you apply through our referral link or code, you will receive 500 fee-free dollars after making $500 in payments.]
Credit Card Retention Bonuses
I had no idea there was any such thing as a retention bonus before I took up the points-and-miles hobby. Retention bonuses generally apply only to cards with an annual fee. Basically, shortly before or after you annual fee posts, you can call the card issuer to see whether they will offer a retention bonus for you to keep the card. The retention bonus might be in the form of an outright award or statement credit, or it might have a spend requirement attached to it.
My script for retention offer calls generally goes something like this: “Hi, my name is Middle Age Miles. I just received the statement for my XXX card where the annual fee posted. I’m not sure whether it makes sense to pay the annual fee. I’m trying to decide whether to keep the card or cancel it, and I wanted to check to see if there were any retention offers on the card.” This would be for a card that I’m already planning to keep, or for a card where I’m on the fence about keeping or canceling. For a card that I plan to cancel unless I receive a great retention offer, I might say something a little stronger, like, “I’m planning to cancel the card but wanted to see if there are any retention offers that would make it worth it for me to keep it.”
The nuances of what retention offers are offered and under what circumstances could fill several articles. Some issuers (like Citi) tend to be more generous with retention offers, whereas others (like Chase) tend to be more stingy. In addition, there are no hard-and-fast rules about what retention offers are given. At Middle Age Miles, we will encourage you to make retention calls, and we’ll report back to you with data points on our own retention call results. You can see some articles about retention calls at Did I Get a Retention Offer on My Citi AT&T Access More Card? and Did I Get a Retention Offer on My Barclays Wyndham Rewards Visa Signature Card?
Promotions run by airlines and hotels can provide additional points-earning opportunities. The large hotel chains tend to run promotions fairly often, so be on the lookout for them.
Some promotions are publicly available to all program members, and some are targeted. We encourage you to sign up for all of the promotions for which you’re eligible. It usually takes only a few seconds to sign up, and you can never tell when you might use them.
At Middle Age Miles, we’ll provide you with articles to let you know about promotions, along with our analysis of how much they’re worth and how to best use them. You can see an example, about a July-September 2018 promotion from American’s AAdvantage program, here: New Ameican AAdvantage 5k Promo – Earn Up to 5,000 Bonus Miles.
Hotel promotions can be quite lucrative at times. For example, at the time I’m writing this article in August 2018, Hilton is offering a double-points promotion that is publicly available and applies to stays at all Hilton brands through early September. Combined with other generous Hilton points-earning opportunities, this promotion can help us get a lot of points back from our Hilton stays. To see an article about a hotel promotion that was so good, we did a “mattress run” to book a Wyndham hotel without even staying there, see our article, My First-Ever “Mattress Run” – Wyndham Rewards.
Airline and hotel loyalty programs have some partnerships that allow you to earn airline miles or hotel points when you make a purchase with another business that “partners” with the airline or hotel program. For us, the most lucrative recent example is the United-Hertz partnership. United and Hertz have a long-running partnership-promotion that allows you to earn good amounts of United miles when you book a Hertz rental through the United portal. These Hertz rentals earn a minimum of 1,750 United miles, and up to 2,750 United miles if you hold Premier Platinum status or higher on United. I earn 2,500 United miles as a United Silver elite member. At our baseline valuation of 1.4 cents per United mile, that provides about $35 in value to us. That’s a very nice return for a rental car. At one point, United and Hertz ran a further promotion that doubled the return on this partnership, so we were earning 5,000 United miles per Hertz rental (about $70 in value to us).
Another example of a useful partnership is the one between Delta and Airbnb. When you book your Airbnb through the portal at www.deltaairbnb.com, you earn 1 Delta SkyMile per dollar spent on your Airbnb stay.
Frankly, many of the better partnerships have tailed off over the years. We earned 200,000 American AAdvantage miles in 2015-16 through that program’s partnership with Fidelity, but that deal has ended, sadly. In any event, we’ll do our best to keep you apprised of the most valuable partnerships for earning points and miles, and we’ll give you our perspective on the best ways to utilize them.
A great way to pick up extra points and miles for doing things you’re already doing is to use shopping portals for your online shopping. With a few extra clicks to go through a portal, you can earn plenty of valuable points and miles. There are also cash-back shopping portals, so you’ll want to compare returns on the various portals to make sure you’re getting the best return on your spend.
We have prepared a step-by-step guide to help you use shopping portals, which you can find here: Our Step-by-Step Guide – How to Use a Shopping Portal to Earn Miles or Cash Back.
All of the major US airlines (Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and United) have shopping portals that allow you to earn miles by going through the portal to make online purchases. British Airways also has a shopping portal that works in the US and allows you to earn Avios for purchases. In addition, Chase Ultimate Rewards has an online shopping portal that gives you bonus UR points for purchases, although you must use a Chase UR points-earning card to pay. Finally, there are also a number of cash-back shopping portals. For simplicity, we generally use only 3 of them – Ebates, TopCashback, and UPromise.
To show an example of miles-earning with a shopping portal, here are a few featured offers on the American AAdvantage eShopping portal that I pulled while writing this article:
As you can see, you can earn 1 AAdvantage mile per dollar of spend at Walmart.com; 2 miles per dollar at Dell, Banana Republic and Kohl’s; 3 miles per dollar at Neiman Marcus; and 4 miles per dollar at Lenovo and Athleta. These miles are in addition to the points or miles you’ll earn by paying for your purchase with a miles-or-points earning credit card. The rewards can really add up and bring you closer to free travel!
In this example, I also want to specifically point out that the AAdvantage shopping portal allows you to earn miles when you book at Holiday Inn Express (there are other hotel brands on the shopping portals, too). When you go through a shopping portal, the hotel booking will still be made directly through Holiday Inn Express, so you can also earn IHG Rewards points for your stay (and any other IHG Rewards benefits or promotions). This can be a nice way to stack benefits for even more rewards earning.
As we recommend in our Shopping Portal Guide, you should take a quick look to shop around to get the best rate on your online purchase. We use Cashback Monitor to quickly compare portal earning rates. Earning rates change frequently, so it’s best to check immediately before making each online purchase.
Note that the shopping portals sometimes run promotions where you can earn extra miles or points if you spend up to certain thresholds. Back-to-School, Mother’s Day, and of course the Christmas holiday season are times when we routinely see shopping portal bonuses. As an example, United Mileage Plus Shopping is running this Back-to-School promotion as of the time we’re writing this article in August 2018 (and some other airline portals are running similar promotions):
Finally, some hotel loyalty programs also have shopping portals, although I have never found their rates to be competitive with the airline, Chase and cash-back portals.
The major US airlines also each have a dining program that allows you to earn miles based on your spend at participating restaurants. All of these programs operate similarly. You join the program, you enroll one or more credit or debit cards, and when you use an enrolled card to pay at a participating restaurant, you earn miles. Without going into the exact rules for program, generally you earn about 3 miles per dollar of spend at the restaurant, and after you hit a certain number of restaurant visits in the program in a year, you reach a higher level of status and your earning increases to about 5 miles per dollar. This is in addition to the points or miles you earn on the credit card you use to pay for the meal.
One reason for the similarity in the programs is that they are all administered by the same company, Rewards Network. Also for this reason, you cannot double- or triple-dip the programs. Each of your credit cards can be enrolled in only 1 airline dining program at a time. For example, if I have a card enrolled in the American program and I then add it to the Alaska program, that card will be deleted from the American program. You can have accounts with multiple programs, but you can’t enroll the same card in more than one program.
The list of restaurants that participate in these programs can be thin, but if you can find one or two in your area that you like, you can certainly earn some extra miles. For us, our favorite Greek place just down the street participates in the American dining program, so it’s always nice to earn some extra AAdvantage miles when we eat there!
Other Miles-and-Points Earning Opportunities
Here are a few other miles-and-points earning opportunities that are worth knowing about:
United MileagePlus X – I love MileagePlus X (MPX), and I earn many thousands of miles from it each year. The basics are that you download the MPX app on your phone, then use the app to purchase gift cards with participating merchants. Each purchase earns United Mileage Plus miles, with the amount varying depending on the merchant. For example, as of August 2018, a Walmart GC earns only 0.5 United miles per dollar, but a GC to Bath & Body Works earns 5 miles per dollar. The United miles you earn through MPX are in addition to the points or miles you earn on the credit card you use to buy the GC. One beauty of MPX is that you can generally purchase the GC in the exact amount that you need, at the time you’re checking out – this is incredibly helpful as you don’t have to keep up with physical GCs or remember where electronic GCs are stored. The full scope, power and nuance of MPX is beyond the scope of this “Basics” article, but we’ll plan to post a more detailed article about MPX soon.
Amex Offers – American Express’ “Amex Offers” are offers that you can add to an American Express card, that reward you with Amex Membership Rewards (MR) points or a statement credit when you make a purchase above a certain amount with the particular merchant. Most of the Amex Offers are for statement credits, but some (particularly on Amex Platinum cards) can help you earn Amex MR points. In the recent example that we’ve shown below, spend of $250 or more on the enrolled Amex card at a Hilton-, Curio- or Canopy-branded property will get you 5,000 MR points. If you value MR points at 1.5 cents per point (our baseline values vary, depending on which Amex cards you hold), then you’re receiving $75 in value back for your $250 spend (30%). When you have these offers, they can be a valuable way of getting rewarded for your spend at places where the offers are available. And importantly, the MR points from the Amex offer (or the statement credit) are in addition to your normal points earning on your Amex card. We will try to post articles on Middle Age Miles about Amex Offers that are travel-related that we believe can be particularly valuable.
Survey Programs – Most of the major US airlines partner with a provider that allows you to earn modest numbers of airline miles for taking online surveys. Generally, the juice is not worth the squeeze on these programs because the value of the miles you earn is very small compared to the time commitment, but I do the surveys sometimes when the time commitment is low. Perhaps the most important thing about the survey programs is that they often run “first-timer” promotions where you can get a few hundred miles in an airline program by signing up for the program and completing your first survey. Survey programs can also hold some value to generate activity in a program to keep points from expiring.
Hotel Booking Portals (Rocketmiles/Kaligo/Points Hound, and others) – These hotel booking portals allow you to earn airline miles for hotel bookings. We’ll continue to examine these, but our experience so far is that prices are inflated on these sites, and the miles you would earn aren’t worth the extra money you’ll pay for your hotel room if you’d booked direct (especially with a reasonably-available discount). In addition, when you book through these portals, you generally won’t receive any hotel points for your stay or any elite benefits if you hold status. For these reasons, the hotel booking portals rank low for us at this time, but they are an option. Sometimes, these portals run “first-timer” promotions for a few thousand extra miles, and if you have a stay with a non-chain hotel or one where you don’t care about earning points or receiving elite benefits, this could tip the balance in favor of booking a stay through one of these portals.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our guide to Earning Points and Miles. Now get out there, earn a bunch of points and miles, and travel somewhere great!
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