In our first discussion on the Basics of Miles & Points, we talked about the one simple yet crucial step towards getting the most out of your reward points. I encouraged you to change the way you fundamentally think about reward currencies – rather than merely thinking they're "nice to have" each time you pay with your credit card, view them as essential tools that can supercharge your travel patterns and help you see the places you want to see, in a fraction of the time and in much greater style.
Okay, so you've thought about it and adopted this new mindset already. What next? What are the concrete steps you should take that'll get you to that shower in the sky or a luxury break on the Champs-Élysées?
Well, there are two sides to the game: earn your points as cheaply as possible (preferably for free), and redeem them as "expensively" as possible – that is to say aim for high-value redemptions, such as those first class flights and 5-star hotels, or, since value is ultimately a subjective measure, anything that makes you personally most satisfied at a particular time.
This is really no different from what many stock traders do for a living, or what "flippers" of real estate get up to – buy low, sell high.
In this post, we'll delve deeper into the earning side of things. If you're starting from scratch, or if you've got a couple thousand points saved up with your credit card and a few flights over the years, how do you go about boosting those figures?
As I briefly touched on in the last post, by far the fastest way to earn the points and book those killer trips is through credit card signup bonuses. In general, the quantities of points given to you as a signup bonus dwarf the points you earn through everyday spend by many orders of magnitude. By rotating through credit cards and nabbing the signup bonus on each one, you're therefore able to acquire vast quantities of points in very little time.
A brief word of warning here. Credit cards, and the concept of credit itself, can be scary to a lot of people, and in many cases there's a good reason for that. If you're unable to control your spending, or have a history of spending beyond your means, or aren't in the habit of paying your bills on time, then this isn't quite for you.
The same is true if you regularly keep balances on your credit cards and pay monthly interest, since the interest you pay will far outweigh any rewards you earn. Financial responsibility is the bedrock of any sustainable travel aspirations, so make sure you can manage your money before you strive to maximize your rewards.
Now, by some distance, the most generous Canadian financial institution in terms of doling out mouthwatering signup bonuses is American Express. Their introductory travel rewards product, the American Express Gold Rewards Card, is the perfect starting point for a miles and points newbie. The card is easy to get approved for, waives the first year's annual fee, and its signup bonus is currently at an all-time high: 30,000 Membership Rewards points when you add a supplementary card and spend at least $1,500 on the card in three months.
Depending on availability, these points can be used for a long-haul return flight within North America (if you transfer them 1:1 to Aeroplan), a couple of short-haul return flights (if you transfer them 1:1 to British Airways Avios), or saved up for a larger redemption to farther destinations, perhaps in business or first class.
If some of the above sounded like Greek to you, keep reading the blog and we'll cover how to use points to make all of the above such redemptions in great detail.
Power to the Plastic
Some of the other excellent credit card offerings in Canada that routinely have great signup bonuses are as follows. These cards all present great opportunities if you're just starting out, and I'll be doing a full profile of each of the above cards in the coming weeks.
The American Express Business Gold Card currently offers 40,000 Membership Rewards points after spending at least $5,000 on the card in three months. The annual fee of $250 is waived for the first year – another great starter card if you're uncomfortable with paying annual fees for now.
The American Express Platinum Card currently offers 60,000 Membership Rewards points after spending at least $3,000 on the card in three months. The annual fee of $699 is not waived the first year but can be effectively brought down to $299 by making full use of the annual $200 travel credit. This card also provides multiple stellar travel benefits.
The American Express Business Platinum Card currently offers 75,000 Membership Rewards points after spending at least $5,000 on the card in three months. The annual fee of $399 is not waived the first year. However, this card currently has the greatest "referring power" of all the Membership Rewards cards and is therefore an excellent card to have. More on this later.
The American Express Starwood Preferred Guest Card offers 20,000 Starpoints after you spend $1,500 on the card in three months. The annual fee of $120 is not waived the first year. However, it's a paltry amount to spend in exchange for the 20,000 Starpoints, which are some of the most valuable rewards currencies around. For example, Starpoints transfer at a 1:3 ratio to Marriott Rewards, so you can pool them with the points you earn from the card below!
The MBNA Alaska Airlines MasterCard offers 25,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles upon your first purchase. Mileage Plan is an excellent program that allows one to redeem for some of the world's best flight experiences, such as first class on Emirates, Cathay Pacific, and Japan Airlines. The annual fee of $75 is not waived for the first year; however, by using the signup link on Great Canadian Rebates, you'll get $60 in cashback, making it an effective annual fee of $15.
The TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite currently offers 15,000 Aeroplan miles upon your first purchase, 10,000 additional miles after one year, and a first-year fee waiver if you apply through GreedyRates.ca. However, the offer for this one changes all the time, so I'd wait until after March 7, 2017 to see if any better offers come around. [UPDATE March 24, 2017]: The GreedyRates offer has improved: now it's offering up to 30,000 miles with a first-year fee waiver. Jump on it!
Frequently Asked Questions
The answers to each of the below could be full posts in themselves, so I'll just list here the questions I frequently encounter when introducing people to the credit card merry-go-round, and I'll progressively update this section with links as I deliver the answers in future posts.
Isn't applying for a lot of cards going to ruin my credit? (Hint: The answer is no.)
Can I sign up for business credit cards if I don't have a business? (Hint: The answer is yes.)
How long should I hold a card before cancelling if I want to avoid paying the second year's annual fee?
Is this sustainable in the long run? Can I cancel a card, sign up for it again later, and get the bonus again?
We've covered a lot of ground here, but keep in mind that while what's been outlined in this post is a great place to get started, it barely scratches the surface of what's possible, and I for one can't wait until we get to the really good stuff. We'll continue the Basics of Miles & Points series in the next installment with a look at even more ways to take your miles and points balances to the next level. Until then, happy card-crunching and feel free leave any questions in the comments below!
Disclaimer: Note that the above-mentioned American Express offers are only available when signing up through a referral link; the standard offers that appear on the Amex website are slightly inferior. The links I've included are my own referral pages; if you want to support the site and use the above links for your application, I would of course appreciate it.