Lesser Known Ways to Max Out Travel Rewards

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People who travel mostly for pleasure face tough odds in compiling adequate miles to earn a free trip. The typical airline requires more miles than can be earned simply by flying a couple times a year. If you're going to play the mileage game, you need to pile up miles any which way you can, but also do it smartly—without wasting time or money.

As a travel fan, you already know many of the basics of frequent flier miles. But there are some pro tips you may not be as familiar with because they involve new websites and apps that are less than a year old.

Here are some ways to get the most, uh, mileage out of those rewards.

1. When choosing a rewards credit card, pick the one with an airline that make it easiest to REDEEM miles for travel.

A list of the best and worst airlines for redeeming frequent filer miles was published this spring by travel consultancy IdeaWorks. Delta and US Airways were at bottom of the list of global airlines. But now through the summer Southwest has the best availability of all airlines for booking reward flights. Since last year's survey, British Airways showed the most improvement in making reward seats available. Pick an airline that you plan to fly and that looks good according to year-old site Find the Best's frequent flier program ranking page, which rates the best frequent flier plans, according to the minimum number of miles you need to qualify for a free ticket and other factors.

2. Let online services track your miles to make sure they don't expire before you can use them.

When it comes to frequent flier mile, the rule is use ‘em or lose ‘em—generally within 18 months. To track miles, you may like Pageonce, a personal finance monitoring website that is a competitor to Mint. What makes it stand out is that you can use the site to monitor your various loyalty programs along with your finances. It will continuously fetch the latest points balances, expiration dates and reward opportunities from all your mileage, hotel, car rental and credit-card rewards programs. You can sync Pageonce data with downloadable apps for smart phones, too (free Apple, Android, Blackberry). It doesn't store your bank or credit card information, so you are safe from accidentally being hacked.

Another award-winning tool is Manilla sorts through your e-mail inbox to pull out the frequent flyer updates from airlines (along with other boring-but-important pieces of information to tell you when your frequent-flier miles expire. You just give it access to your Web-based email account, and the site does the rest. Free apps for Apple and Android let you access this information on the go.

A third rival website worth using is AwardWallet which asks you to manually load up the membership numbers of your various loyalty programs. The site then continuously fetches the latest points balances, expiration dates and reward opportunities from all your mileage, hotel, car rental and credit-card rewards programs. The data syncs with free mobile apps, so you can track your miles on the fly—handy if you need to request an upgrade at an airport counter (free Android/Apple).

3. Watch your credit score if you're going to get multiple miles-earning credit cards to qualify for sign-up bonuses and one-time purchase promotions.

If you’re going to sign up for multiple mileage cards, do it slowly over a period of time. Many travelers open multiple credit card accounts to earn thousands of "free" frequent flier miles as part of sign-up bonuses. Some of these travelers then go on to close the same accounts soon afterward to avoid annual fees, in a process called “churning” or “shotgunning.” Your credit score may be hurt if you open and close, say a half-dozen accounts around the same time, meaning you may not qualify for the lowest rates on mortgages and other loans. For advice on the best strategy and alerts on new offers, sign up for the year-old, fee-based Travel Hacking Cartel service.

4. Only pick a co-branded card if you’re an airline or hotel chain monogamist.

The rule of thumb is if you fly close to 30,000 miles with the same airline or stay 20 nights a year in the same brand family of hotels, go with the credit card of that particular company. But if you tend to shop around and aren’t brand loyal, it’s better to get a general card that will let you apply your rewards to any travel-related purchase, such as Chase Sapphire Preferred. Pick the best card for you by using card ranking site CardHub.com.

5. When booking a flight, get help in figuring out if you should cash in your miles or pay upfront with cash.

You may wonder how to get the biggest bang for the buck for your miles or points. Well, the answer to question "Should I cash in my miles or points for a particular flight?" can be found at two websites that debuted last year, PointHub and MileWise. The sites ask you question and then dole out advice tailored to your personal situation, revealing if you would be better off paying cash for a particular flight.

Here's a video about MileWise, mentioned above:


Keep Your Miles Alive Without Flying

5 Credit Cards Every Traveler Should Consider

Earn Miles or Higher Interest on Your Vacation Fund

The Risks of Churning Mileage Credit Cards

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