Airline miles for normal people

How to Use Travel Rewards (Imperfectly) for Normal People

Are you intimidated by airline miles and points?  Does it seem like an overwhelming mess of rules, points, and redemptions?  Do you want to use miles and points, but are afraid you’ll mess it up somehow and not do it right?

Me too.

I had known about miles and points for years, but I was scared of them.  Scared that I would somehow mess up and waste them.  I didn’t want to do it wrong.

When my kids expressed an interest in traveling to Paris, it was the kick in the pants I needed.  I decided to learn more about award travel, and we got serious about collecting miles.  In the past seven years, we’ve accumulated enough miles for three round trip tickets to Europe and one to Washington DC for our family of four.  We probably still have enough for three more trips to Europe.  

Here’s the best part: I’m not that great at travel rewards.  You don’t have to be perfect at the game in order to win. Get 80% of it right and don’t make yourself crazy worrying about the other 20%.

Here are some things that I have learned over the past several years:

Sign up bonuses can be really useful (but don’t let that stop you from starting)

 Yes, signup bonuses are a great way to boost your miles.  Definitely get them whenever you can.  But don’t worry so much about finding the right card that you don’t start. I totally missed out on any significant signup bonus for my first card and it still worked out for us.  

Shopping portals can be a great source of miles

We have gotten a lot of value from the Delta (and now Chase) shopping portals.  Although some stores offer only 1 mile per dollar spent, others offer more—sometimes a lot more.  I’ve gotten as many as 12 miles/dollar at ebags and Backcountry.  We try to wait for high miles/dollar before making purchases.

At some stores, like Home Depot and Lowe’s, in store purchases don’t qualify for miles, but online orders do.  When shopping there, we usually place an order online for in-store pickup.  (A double win—saving time and getting miles!)  See if your favorites stores offer this as well.

Knowledge is power

Fortunately, there are people who know a LOT about award travel—and write about it.  I appreciate the people who take the time to learn all the ins and outs and then summarize them for the rest of us.  Read posts about your chosen cards.  Take some time to read about your first card.  You’ll begin to learn more about how it works and how to optimize. Start to build a framework of knowledge that will help your card become a valuable tool. 

Don’t be afraid to use your points 

It’s fun to watch your point balance grow, but don’t forget that your points exist to be used.  Don’t be scared to use them, and don’t wait until you’ve found the “perfect” redemption.  I know that I’ve spent more miles than absolutely optimal on our tickets.  It’s ok.  We live in the real world and have to plan trips around school, work, and life.  

Realize that there are times when the available redemptions don’t make sense 

Your miles and points are valuable assets.  You wouldn’t necessarily spend $4000 on a round trip main cabin ticket to Europe, so don’t spend a crazy number of points on a ticket, either.  

It helps if you have a rough idea of what a point or mile in your program is worth.  You can do the math to see if the “price” is good.  For example, Delta SkyMiles are worth between 1.6 and 2 cents.  A round trip ticket to London from our town cost about $1400.  We used 80,000 points per ticket, so our points were worth about 1.8 cents—not bad, but not stellar.  (I’ll take a free trip to London any day of the week, though.)

And there you have it, the information you need to start using travel rewards (imperfectly).  Go ahead, make the leap and start collecting miles and points today.  

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