I’m very excited to present the first Thrifty Thursday guest post from Cheryl Reynolds. She is going to be talking more about air loyalty programs and how she scored some incredible flight deals by using them.We’ve all heard the incredible free ticket stories from people using airline reward programs. “I went to Paris in First Class for pennies,” or, “I took my family of four to Hawaii for Christmas for next to nothing,” or in my own personal example, I went from California to England, with a stopover on the East Coast, for Christmas and New Year.
However, the reality is that these types of tickets are becoming harder and harder to find and, for the occasional miles user, the redemption process can be incredibly frustrating. But with just a little research and planning, you can cash in those rewards for a great travel itinerary.
Selecting the airline programs that work for you
If you are new to the air loyalty game (where have you been for the last 30 years?!), you will want to consider which programs will be of most value to you based on a variety of factors.
- Do you live near a hub airport?
- Are you looking for a great deal and are willing to work around limited award inventory and blackout dates?
- Do you want a fair deal and prefer more predictability and the ability to use your points whenever you want?
Once you have answered these questions, selecting a program should be easy. You should always try and earn loyalty points wherever you can, but I recommend limiting your active involvement to 2 or 3 carrier programs.
The two air loyalty programs I am currently active with are United’s Mileage Plus and Virgin America’s Elevate. These programs work for me because I currently live in San Francisco where both carriers have a significant flight presence, and although both programs are vastly different, they complement each other and get me to where I usually travel (Europe and the East Coast).
United is a member of the Star Alliance and due to their recent merger with Continental Airlines, their loyalty programs can be combined. If you have 15,000 miles with United and 10,000 miles with Continental, combining them would allow you to redeem them for a free domestic ticket that you would have otherwise not been able to get! Pretty sweet, huh?
In addition to the combined United/Continental network, you can generally earn and burn (redeem) your miles on most Star Alliance carriers. However, the rules do vary by carrier, so if earning rewards on all of your flights is important to you, make sure you check before booking that flight to Japan.
Virgin America is not part of an alliance but does work closely with the other Virgin carriers, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia so you can currently earn Elevate points when traveling on their sister carriers and will be able to burn those points in the near future. Virgin America’s program is part of the new wave of loyalty programs where the member earns points rather than miles. Points earned are based on the amount you have paid for a ticket rather than just the distance traveled. The same is true for redemption; the number of points required will also vary depending on how expensive the ticket is.The big advantage for points based programs is that you can use your points at any time with no blackout dates. One of the disadvantages is that your chance of getting a great deal, whether earning or burning, is drastically reduced as you will always get a “fair deal” as the conversion remains consistent. Sometimes they will also have promotions to earn double or triple points in certain markets or reduce the number of points needed to redeem, but if you prefer transparency and want to avoid the headache of blackout dates and limited availability, points based programs are your answer.
Other than air travel, there are literally hundreds of ways to earn loyalty miles/points. Purchasing flowers, hotel stays, car rental, shopping online, and even dining at certain restaurants can increase that mileage balance. However, the quickest way to earn a significant number of miles or points is through a credit card sign up promotion. Almost every air loyalty program has its own credit card and they often have amazing introductory offers for new customers.Back in 2005, I signed up for four United Mileage Plus Visa Cards over the course of an 18 month period, getting 25,000 miles for each card. A little greedy, I know, but at the time there was no rule preventing this practice. This loop hole has since been closed, and you can no longer get the sign up bonus when you are a current card holder.
However, while United and Continental continue to merge into a single carrier, Chase still has separately branded credit cards, The United Mileage Plus Explorer Card and Continental Airlines OnePass Plus Card both of which allow you to earn up to 40,000 miles as a sign up bonus. Both have similar features and benefits and an annual fee of $95 after the first year (do you see where this is going?), you can sign up for both cards earning the bonus for each and then transfer all 80,000 miles into a single account.
Do you have a spouse or a partner? Most programs allow you to add a person onto your account as an additional card holder for even more bonus miles (be careful who you choose, you are responsible for the bills and if they have bad credit, it could impact your credit score!). In addition to this, have your traveling partner also sign up for the credit card, and they will earn their own miles to pay for their own ticket. Miles for everyone!
Beware, I am not Suze Orman and this earning option should only be for those with good credit. You need to know how applying for multiple credit cards in a short time period could impact your credit score. But credit card signup bonuses are quick hits and can be done with great results for the right person.
In part 2, we’ll talk about burn and how to get the most of those rewards you worked so hard to earn. Happy earning!
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Disclosure: The author currently works for Virgin America and has worked for United Airlines in the past. Neither roles have been within their respective loyalty divisions.
Bio: Cheryl Reynolds is an avid collector of airline rewards and has worked for several airlines over the past decade. She is the author of the blog College Girl to Working Girl and has a passion for travel. Follow Cheryl on twitter @CGirl2WGirl for workplace tips or @CheReynolds for all things airline and travel related.