Beginner’s Guide Part 4: Coming Out On Top

Coming Out On Top is the final part of the Just Carrying On Miles and Points Beginner’s Guide. This guide is an introduction to the world of earning and using miles and points to help you travel the world and spend less money doing it. This Beginner’s Guide is meant to be short and sweet. It isn’t comprehensive. But throughout the guide I will point you to additional resources if you’d like to dive deeper. To read the rest of the Miles and Points Beginner’s Guide, follow the links below:

Part 4 – Coming Out On Top

In the end the goal of earning miles and points is to travel more, do so more cheaply, and have fun doing it. This final part of the Miles and Points Beginner’s Guide is a set of reminders for how to do this successfully.

Remember that enjoyment is measured cumulatively, not continuously

Miles and points chasing is not always fun. Here are some examples that come to mind: waiting to find out if a bank will accept your credit card application, struggling to find award space on an airline website, calling a bank to close your card before the annual fee comes due, and tracking your miles to make sure they don’t expire. There are plenty of moments that feel more like work than fun. But the joy of taking a free flight, staying in a free hotel room, and experiencing something that might have not otherwise been possible, is worth it in the end.

If you’re not saving yourself money, you’re doing something wrong

Chasing miles and points should definitely save you money in the end. If it isn’t, it probably means you’re doing something wrong. Here are the most common pitfalls:

  • Not paying off your credit cards every month (the cardinal rule of the hobby is to only participate if your finances are in order—i.e. you don’t have credit card debt). This is an error you do not want to make.
  • Forgetting to cancel your credit cards before the annual fee comes due. You might be able to get away with this for a year or two but with each $49 or $99 (or even $450) annual fee you pay, the benefits earned from the sign-up bonus erode away.
  • Not taking advantage of extra perks. These are some of my favorite things in the miles and points hobby. Things like Priority Pass airport lounge access, the Global Entry pass, free Gogo Inflight and Boingo internet, and airline cash credits. Many cards (usually those with higher annual fees) come with benefits like these. They can be incredibly fun. But they’re also part of the cost-benefit calculation when you pay the annual fee. If you forget to utilize them you can end up paying more than you save or at a minimum, leave valuable perks on the table.
Try your best to use your miles and points for high-value redemptions

While not absolutely necessary, one of the best ways to come out on top in this hobby is to use your miles and points for high value redemptions. Unfortunately, this often doesn’t happen, mostly because redeeming award tickets and hotel nights can be confusing. Here are some reminders for how to redeem for high-value:

  • Become familiar with the programs that allow you to transfer points to partner airlines and hotels. These programs are Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou, AMEX Membership Rewards, and SPG Preferred Guest. Remember that these programs give you the option to use their points directly to buy airline tickets or book hotels, but these redemptions are rarely more valuable than transferring to the specific partner program first.
  • Don’t overlook the details. When moving points from one program to another you need to consider three things: the value of the points you’re transferring from, the transfer ratio, and the value of the points you’re moving to. This sounds more complicated than it is, but basically don’t redeem a lot of high value points for just a few low-value points.
  • Pay attention to redemption levels. Different programs (usually airlines) have different award levels, each with their own names (i.e. Saver vs Standard). You can lose value by redeeming at non-saver levels.
  • Take advantage of global airline partnerships: Oneworld, Star Alliance, and Sky Team. Many people have heard of these but are not aware that you can book award tickets on a partner airline using a different partner airline’s miles. Sometimes these are good deals and sometimes they are not. Read up before you redeem.
  • Consider a business-class redemption. While this tickets are way out of most people’s price range, often costing 10-20 times more than an economy ticket, they are usually no more than 2-3 times the miles when booking an award. While they cost more miles in absolute numbers, they are much higher value in terms of cents/mile redeemed. And they’re really fun.
Good luck on the journey

I hope that this Beginner’s Guide has both exposed you to the hobby of miles and points and piqued your interest so that you can continue to explore it on your own. Again, this guide is by no means comprehensive and to succeed in the miles and points game you need to do your research. But know that you can also participate on the margins, to a lesser degree, and still travel more, do so on the cheap, and have fun in the process. Read our Miles and Points: Top Sites and Resources and Miles and Points: Top 5 Travel Credit Cards to get started.

Bon voyage!

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