You may already know that last summer, the S.O. and I booked a trip to Italy for $401.55/person — this included our round-trip, direct flights (Atlanta — Rome), our train passes that got us to Florence, Venice, and back to Rome, and our AirBnB stays in three cities (Rome, Florence, and Venice).
How did we do it? Primarily through Skymiles.
Note: For the purpose of this post, I’m using Skymiles to refer to airline points, because I used Delta Skymiles for my trip. However, these tips can apply to various airlines with reward travel programs.
It was only recently that I started getting into using points for travel. I’ve been a Delta Skymiles member for years, but I could never accumulate enough miles for it to actually matter. I didn’t fly frequently, and when I did fly, I couldn’t afford to go anywhere significant enough to be meaningful in terms of miles.
But then I learned about credit card reward points — and the miles started racking up.
What are Credit Card Reward Points?
Credit cards have developed various programs to incentivize consumers to use choose their cards versus others. It’s a way to differentiation their credit cards apart from offering lower account maintenance fees and APR.
One such incentive program is know as a Point Rewards Program (or what I like to call “credit card points”). Here’s how it works:
- You use your credit card to purchase an item.
- You get points for that purchase (the amount varies per card).
- You can redeem your points for a variety of items, such as merchandise, travel, or cash-back.
Are all Reward Programs the Same?
Not all reward credit card reward programs work the same. In fact, most are different in some way or another. Some have very strict policies around where and when rewards can be used while others are a bit more fluid.
For example, some reward credit cards, like my BankAmericard® Power Rewards® Visa Signature® Credit Card, allow you to use your rewards for purchases through their own “marketplace”, or for cash back.
Note: At the time of writing this, Bank of America no longer offers this card to new cardholders. To see what cards they do offer, please visit here.
Reward programs also have different rules about what you can get points for. Some cards, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, give you one point for every dollar you spend.
So, how do you choose?
NerdWallet has an amazing comparison chart to help you sort through various credit cards by comparing Annual Fee, Rewards Rate, Intro Bonus Value, and the Annual Rewards (which is NerdWallet’s own estimated value of rewards for each card). I definitely recommend checking it out.
When you do, keep these things in mind:
- Annual fees matter: I use my AMEX Platinum card for everything and get crazy good points with it. However, if I had done my research thoroughly, I would have realized that at the time, the Chase Sapphire Card would have been equally as good without costing me a hefty fee every year. The pros outweigh the cons now, but a few years ago, it would’ve saved me some cash!
- Numbers aren’t everything: Make sure you really read the details about how you get the points from a card and how you can redeem them. If you get 3X the points but only on gas and groceries, you’re missing out on hundreds of points per month. Or, if you can only redeem your points on one airline, you may lose valuable flexibility. It’s not just about the number of points you get… it’s how you use them.
- Beware of the miles-only mindset: It’s easy to jump on the miles bandwagon and grab a card that gives you a ridiculous amount of miles per purchase. However, think about other ways you may want to use your points. Sure, some airline rewards programs allow you to use miles to book hotels and transportation. But does it cost less to use credit card points to book? If so, go with a reward program that will let you use points toward both types of travel redemptions.
The Trick to Racking Up Miles — Fast.
Okay, this is going to sound extremely simple. BUT…
The best way to get miles quickly is to use your credit card.
Sounds straightforward, right? I thought so too… but then I started really paying attention to which card I used for various purchases. Here’s what I found:
- The card matters: Since my Visa was my first credit card, I was accustomed to using it regularly. I had it stored for online payments as well, which meant I usually just hit “buy” without thinking of which card I was using. This meant I was using my Visa a ton… and those points don’t transfer to a travel rewards program, like Delta Skymiles. This means I was missing out on at least 500 miles every single month.
- Offers change: Every so often, credit cards will switch up their offers so you can earn more points — and I wasn’t keeping track of these various bonus opportunities. For example, American Express has a few chances to get double, triple, or quadruple points on certain types of purchases (like booking your flight through them!). Just by taking note of when this was happening, I was able to tweak my spending to make sure I was getting the maximum points. Note: Some cards offer bonus points on certain types of purchases all the time (i.e.- dining out the first Saturday of the month gets you double points). Take some time to be sure you know the ins and outs of your point program to get the most points possible!
- Bills = more points: Do you pay your bills with your credit card? I didn’t. In most cases, I was using my bank account directly. By switching all of my bills over to my credit cards, I could gain an extra 800-1000 points a month.
Now before you run off putting everything on the credit card, here’s the catch — you have to budget. I cannot emphasize this enough! Jacking up your interest rate and destroying your credit in the name of travel isn’t cool.
I never put anything on my credit card that I can’t pay off that month. Make sure you keep track of your spending and know you have enough cash coming in to cover what you’re putting on the card.
Have tips of your own? Feel free to share them in the comments!