In three years I earned over 2,000,000 miles and points, traveled to 30+ countries, and raised my credit score.
This is how I started.
But, first, a bit of history that should help persuade you. The first frequent flyer program was started by American Airlines in 1979; since then, over 20 trillion miles have been accumulated by people worldwide, which corresponds to well over a trillion US dollars in value. That's a lot of happy customers.
If you aren't among them, it is likely due to this thought: realistically it costs more dollars than the miles or points are worth. And it is a valid thought - why else would airlines and hotels dole out, essentially, free money? Like you probably guessed, companies do this because it is highly profitable for everyone involved with a program: airlines, hotels and, more recently, banks. A loyal customer will spend a lifetime earning and then maintaining elite status. They make money and give out a fraction of value in return - it is just good business.
And then there is the earners-and-burners crowd.
Loyal only to a good deal, this group of people earn miles and points every day across a variety of airline and hotel programs. While this process is best practiced with credit card bonuses, the ability to earn is not restricted to the category. Whatever method you prefer, earning free points or extremely high bonuses is an excellent way to stretch your travel dollar further.
Now, finally, we reach the point of today's discussion: what are the best programs, and why? Here are the programs I started with and those I recommend signing up for today. Click the name of each program to enroll.
American Airlines AAdvantage – There are many that complain about American, but I am not one of them. Their new fleet of planes is top notch, and their award flexibility is huge. Citibank has continued to offer big bonuses for their credit card as well.
Delta Sky Miles – Delta remains a top-tier airline for domestic award flights. With several American Express card options and the ability to transfer from Membership Rewards are a big plus, but recent miles devaluations have limited the program's competitiveness domestically. Still a must have for anyone in this space.
Southwest Rapid Rewards - A great program for domestic flyers, Southwest has been expanding their destinations rapidly. Their credit card is with Chase, the world’s largest credit card issuer, and many of the bank's cards are transferable to the airline, increasing the program's value even more.
United MileagePlus – This is, in my experience, the best U.S. carrier for international award flights, especially in economy class. Another credit card relationship with Chase means the same flexibility as Southwest, a considerable perk when redeeming award flights requiring more than a single card bonus.
Fairmont President's Club – The unique portfolio of hotels is somewhat limited in number of locations, but makes up for it in style. A great Chase credit card is also a big positive.
Hilton HHonors – Hilton properties are everywhere, with extensive redemption options. While value-per-point has dropped recently, good credit card options with Citibank and the luxury Conrad properties make it a must.
Hyatt Gold Passport – Hyatt properties, specifically Park Hyatt, are pure elegance and somehow redemption value is still better than most. Several credit card options with Chase make this my personal favorite.
IHG Rewards Club – An extensive collection of hotels, including InterContinentals, make this a solid program. As with Hyatt, a Chase credit card relationship means multiple earning opportunities.
Marriott Rewards – Marriott properties, as well as the luxurious Ritz-Carlton, are all over the world with good redemption options. Having a Chase credit card - and similar flexibility - makes it another must-have.
Starwood Preferred Guest – SPG may have the best quality-to-point ratio of any hotel program, a significant feat. American Express credit card options are available as well.
Amtrak Guest Rewards – This is ideal for those residing in the U.S. Northeast. Amtrak has a credit card and often runs point promotions. Less lucrative than international flights, but nonetheless a good value for some.
AAdvantage Dining Rewards – These are available for all the major airlines, but I recommend AA. Register your credit cards and then let it be; if you live in a big city, you can expect random bonus miles every week or two.
Okay, deep breath...you've made it! 12 different programs are open, which is an excellent start. And with several travel tools at your disposal, the process of remembering program details has never been easier.
The last step is the fun part: go earn miles. Whether it is through credit card bonuses or scouring the internet for other ways to earn, populating your frequent flyer programs with thousands or even millions of miles per year is absolutely achievable.
All you had to do was start - now let obsession and significantly cheaper travel set in.