Hello from the glimmering Frigate Bay on the island of St. Kitts! The trip has been a blast so far, and altogether I've been pleasantly surprised by how much the island has to offer. Pristine beaches, the friendliest people, and a ragtag legion of monkeys – it just doesn't get much better than that. Stay tuned for the full trip report on that one.
I wanted to do a quick few posts on the basics of maximizing travel rewards, something that's essential for me in making the most of my trips. The world of travel rewards is large and ever-growing, encompassing dozens upon dozens of airlines, hotels, credit cards, and more. It's immensely helpful for anyone wishing to see more of the world to have an understanding of how best to leverage rewards currencies to fulfill their travel goals. Sure, cash is king, but you're reading the Prince's blog today, where miles and points run the show.
For the vast majority of people, "rewards" are pretty much an afterthought at best. Many are content to pay with cash or debit at the register, forgoing any bonuses altogether. Others are diligent in carrying a good credit card and earning points for their purchases over the years, but have little idea in the end what to do with the mountain of points they've earned.
Some have perhaps heard of the miles and points game at one point, having read a clickbait article along the lines of "How I Flew First Class Around the World for $50”, but soon lost interest for whatever reason. Relatively few people, on the whole, are in the habit of carefully considering their travel goals and developing a strategy to meet those goals using miles and points. Why is this?
Well, it's sort of ingrained in the name of the game. We’re meant to be merely "rewarded" for our normal, everyday spending behaviour with a pinch of cash back in our pocket or a stash of miles we can use a few years down the road – so goes the conventional thinking. It can therefore be a little unintuitive to many people that leveraging travel rewards to their full potential can drastically widen the playing field when it comes to travel.
For this reason, I would say that the hugely important first step towards becoming a guru in affordable travel is changing the way you think about travel rewards. Aim to alter your mindset from those of the first and second type of rewards user described above (the non-participant and the hoarder, respectively) to the third type (the strategic planner).
Think of a few places you’d like to go, research if there are any ways to get there by redeeming miles or points for a good value (there usually are), get the points you need, and book it.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Of course, in a business like this there are many nuances to learn and consider. It’s of course important to spend a little time understanding how the basic things work; beyond that, however, the more time you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it. Let me break down specifically what I mean for you.
Newbie vs Expert
A beginner user, or someone with a burgeoning interest but a busy schedule, might spend a few minutes a day reviewing their points balances, making sure they’re on track to book those upcoming flights they’ve had their eye on, and reading some of the blogs and forums that serve as fantastic resources for eager learners (as you are doing now). As the fruits of his or her labour, this user might enjoy taking his wife and child on a business class trip to Asia in July, with a stopover in Europe and a few weeks’ hotels thrown in, all paid for with points.
An advanced user, on the other hand, might spend a considerable amount of time researching creative ways to earn points, pondering strategies to redeem for ultra-luxurious travel experiences, or discussing incredible, unpublished deals with fellow travel enthusiasts. He or she would travel in the throes of luxury, taking a transoceanic trip once every few months in business or first class (a few would even scoff at “every few months”) while staying at five-star hotels that retail for over $500 a night.
Frequently Asked Questions
Of course, if you’re starting out, you’re probably feeling intrigued, curious, and perhaps a little daunted. You’re likely wondering about quite a few things. Since my aim is to make this as easy a process for you as possible, let’s address some of the questions that crop up most frequently when I first introduce people to miles and points.
Quickfire: What basic facts do I need to know about earning and redeeming points?
I’ll cover all this in more detail in future posts, but if I were to list the most basic things to be aware of, they’d be:
- Taking advantage of credit card signup bonuses is by far the fastest way to earn lots of points; contrary to popular belief, if done correctly, this does not have a material adverse impact on one’s credit score
- Different rewards currencies are not necessarily exchangeable, so don’t collect Aeroplan miles if you need British Airways Avios
- Redeeming points for flights requires a different set of availability than purchasing flights; just because a flight is available on the airline’s website or an online travel site like Expedia doesn’t mean it’ll be available for a points booking
Isn’t this a lot of work?
True, some might find it an arduous task to stay on top of their points balances and research flight and hotel possibilities, and therefore might have to dedicate some more effort. However, the implied second part to this question, is “…for very little reward?” and the answer there, for anyone who enjoys travel, is a comprehensive “no”, given the immense quantity and quality of the fruits of labour you can enjoy. Furthermore, many enthusiastic travellers love the process of planning their trips, and for them the extra “work” they put in is time well spent.
Will my vacation be truly free?
Let’s be upfront here. Even when redeeming miles or points, there are certain components of your airfare that you’ll need to pay out-of-pocket. For example, airport taxes and government-imposed aviation fees are almost never covered by points.
Some airlines impose, rather nefariously, a mysterious “carrier surcharge”, which can substantially eat into your savings; however, one can almost always opt to fly with other airlines and thereby avoid the surcharge.
Lastly, in general miles and points can’t be redeemed for tours, shows, activities, food and drink, and what have you, and depending on the destination you might end up spending a bit more while traveling than if you were sitting at home, so that’s something to keep in mind.
What if I’m not interested in business or first class flights and outrageously opulent hotels?
The other important aspect about miles and points that I haven’t discussed so far is the freedom they provide you – they allow you to add a touch of luxury to your travels but also open up many other alternatives. For example, if you prefer to remain in economy, you could use your points towards taking many more trips, or you could use them for a last-minute booking when the need arises, when cash fares can be insanely expensive.
How is this possible?!
Honestly, I’m not quite sure. It’s pretty incredible to me that profit-seeking banks and credit card issuers have created a system in which anyone can travel the world, in glamorous style and at rock-bottom prices. Call it the invisible hand in action, I suppose. I will say that, in my experience, most things that appear too good to be true are indeed so. This is one of the rare exceptions.
What if I’m uncomfortable with the idea of getting something for (pretty much) nothing?
That’s fair enough. To each their own. I’d only say: don’t knock it until you try it. I know many people who were doubtful or skeptical at first, until their partner or friends brought them on a “free” vacation. Now they’re hooked.
Personally, few things excite me more than the prospect of traveling to new places and strapping up for new adventures. Miles and points are a key tool for me in optimizing both the number of trips I can afford to take and the quality of my flights and hotels on these trips.
Anyone can do the same with just a little bit of legwork. My hope is that this blog will serve as a useful resource for those hoping to start dabbling in miles and points as well as those hoping to master the game. To that end, I'll have a few more posts coming up on the basics of earning and redeeming points, and as always do leave any questions in the comments and I'll be readily on hand to discuss.