5 Steps to Get Started with Rewards Travel

Rachel Morgan CauteroDecember 5, 2019
On a similar note...
On a similar note...

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So you’re not a points connoisseur — yet. That’s OK. Here, we’ll walk you through five simple steps for getting started with rewards travel, from choosing a travel rewards credit card to choosing an airline, familiarizing yourself with the rules and award chart of said airline, and even how to begin pursuing airline status. (Plus some bonus tips for taking advantage of hotel loyalty).

Open a rewards card

Getting started with rewards travel means you’ll need to choose a rewards card. But the choices can be overwhelming for a novice. Here’s what you need to consider:

First, you’ll need to decide if you want a travel credit card that earns points or miles. Mile-earning credit cards allow you to earn miles with one airline’s frequent flyer program, while point-earning cards earn points that can be transferred to several different airline and hotel programs. Points offer more flexibility when redeeming your travel rewards. There are solid card options for both, and your decision should depend on your travel goals.

Mile-earning credit cards are affiliated with a specific airline, like the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card or the United℠ Explorer Card.

There are also hotel credit cards to choose from, like the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit Card or the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card. You should choose a hotel credit card based on the chain you’re loyal to (or are likely to be loyal to in your upcoming travel).

Once you’ve chosen a card, it’s time to focus on building up your points balance. Follow our tips for racking up points on everyday spending, from shopping online via your airline card’s online portal to using your card to pay for eligible travel and hotel spending.

Pick an airline

Getting started with airline loyalty programs is relatively painless. You just sign up for your favorite airline’s frequent flyer program, then sit back, buckle up and earn points with every flight. Signing up for a frequent flyer program can earn you perks like airline miles, seat upgrades and elite status if you fly often enough.

Before signing on the metaphorical dotted line with one airline, consider the following: How often do you fly? Does this airline service the cities where you travel most? Do you travel enough to work toward a benefit like the Southwest Companion Pass, or are you more of a casual traveler who wants perks like free checked bags? If you have several airline options, consider the ways that different loyalty programs will allow you to reach these goals.

Work toward airline status

While airline elite status may seem out of reach for a beginner, some airline credit cards can help you get there faster. For example, the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard® lets you earn 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) after spending $40,000 in a calendar year.

After choosing an airline based on your travel habits, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with what your airline requires to earn status. For example, to earn Silver status on Delta, you’ll need the following:

  •  25,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) or 30 Medallion Qualification Segments (MQSs).

AND

  •  $3,000 in Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs) or MQD Waiver.

The requirements for Gold, Platinum and Diamond status increase from there.

On American Airlines, you can get Gold status by earning:

  • 25,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) or 30 Elite Qualifying Segments (EQSs),

AND

  • $3,000 Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs).

While the acronyms can sound confusing at first, just remember: It’s the airlines' fancy way of saying "money spent on flights." Your airline of choice should explain what qualifies — and what doesn’t — on their elite status page.

Learn the rules

Once you’ve chosen your rewards card and established your airline of choice, it’s time to familiarize yourself with the rules. After all, the last thing you want to do is miss out on a huge bonus or mismanage your hard-earned miles because you didn’t read the fine print.

While all cards have slightly different rules, there are some big ones to keep in mind. Some travel cards allow you to redeem points for any travel expenses, while others provide an incentive when you redeem through a specific site. As a general rule of thumb, you should shoot for a card that offers between 1.5%-2% rewards for your spending and a high welcome bonus.

Overwhelmed? Keep in mind the 80/20 rule to help you sort through the information that you need to know versus what you can ignore. While this principle was originally used to describe economic conditions, it can also be applied to personal finance and yep, even rewards travel. Focus on what matters to you, like earning airline status or taking advantage of your rewards card’s sign-up bonuses, and ignore the rest (for now).

Establish hotel loyalty

Finally, you’ll need to pick a hotel chain of choice, since establishing status can earn you perks like late checkout, free Wi-Fi and even free nights.

When choosing a hotel loyalty program, consider annual fees, welcome bonuses and of course which hotel chain you prefer. Personal preference is a big factor in this decision. The major hotel loyalty programs include Marriott Bonvoy, Wyndham Rewards, World of Hyatt, IHG Rewards Club and Hilton Honors.

Consider if staying in the same hotel chain on all your travels is worth the perks a hotel loyalty program offers. You should also see if your hotel chain of choice offers a branded credit card, which can help you rack up hotel points and achieve status that much quicker. For example, the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless™ Credit Card gets you a hefty bonus: Earn 5 Free Nights after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.

While playing the points game can earn you some great benefits, not to mention huge savings over time, it’s important to still be a discerning consumer when booking your hard-earned travel. That’s why it’s important to avoid blind loyalty to your hotel chain or airline of choice. Be sure the benefits outweigh the costs, that the points are worth the spend, the juice is worth the squeeze… you get the idea.

How to Maximize Your Rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2020, including those best for:

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