Many of us have travel reward program cards and dutifully bank our award points or miles but  very few participate in an active way opting instead for the passive approach but in doing so fail to maximize the potential return which could be achieved. Having long been an avid member in dozens of loyalty programs I wanted to share some ways that have helped me work the system.

  • Know the rules of the game. All award programs have fine print that’s essential reading to learning the terms & conditions on earning and redeeming miles or points. Outlined in the rules, for example, is the bare minimum amount of activity required to keep your account open and active and is usually at least one credit or redemption per year and failure to do so will see all your accumulated miles forfeited which could equate to losing hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of value. Also determine if or when your banked miles/points may expire as there are some programs who have limits as to how long you have to spend the. Air Miles for example added a five-year expiry policy back in 2011 which sees all miles earned before then lost if unused by 31st December, 2016. There’s more on that in this Toronto Star article.
  • Use your miles wisely for the biggest return. Rather than redeem 25,000 for an economy ticket within North America, for example, that may cost $500 to purchase redeem instead for business class for twice the miles but whose value may be five times as much. Award travel in economy within North America is generally a poor return on your investment, especially on airlines such as Air Canada as their fees and surcharges can add up to half the cost of a paid ticket
  • Likewise consider buying business class seats on routes where they are often discounted and save your miles for another destination that rarely goes on sale and whose cost for premium cabin seats can be several times as much. For example, redeeming 100,000 points and $400 miles in fees for a Europe award ticket is a relatively poor return if the route often has paid business class seats for $2200 with taxes so save those miles for a trip to Asia as paid business class seats to that region can run up to $5,000 per person
  • Don’t hoard your miles for long periods as loyalty programs periodically raise their award levels making your banked miles/points worth less
  • Plan early and be flexible with dates to find the lowest award levels
  • If you have a loyalty program credit card charge everything you can to it to maximize your earning. This doesn’t mean spending more than you normally would but rather don’t divide your focus and pay for some things with cash or debit. Credit cards are accepted in more places than ever before so use them as much as possible
  • Decide whether the points chase is a game you enjoy playing because if it isn’t then just you might as well dump your points or miles and get a cash back credit card which offers as much as a 1.5% cash back for everyday purchases with effort required. Getting the most value from a loyalty program requires effort so ask yourself whether you are willing and able to put forth an effort to play the game and if not consider cashing out as passive playing yields limited results

There are many excellent online resources to help those interested in taking a more hands-on role in the point/mile game including which has been publishing newsletters since 2001, a website I’ve been a long-time member of as well as The Points Guy which recently had a story about is publisher flying Delta Airlines business class to Africa for a next to nothing:

TPGtv Episode 1: Flying Delta Business Class to Africa for 90k Miles and $5.60

For those sitting on the sidelines join those of us who go the extra mile for an extra mile.