Travel Hacking: How to Manage Travel Reward Card Programs

Caroline MacComber

“It depends.”

I feel like a bit of a buzz kill every time I give this response to someone asking about the best way to get into travel hacking, and yet, it’s by far the most accurate answer. The truth is, the “how to” of travel hacking depends largely on the travel hacker’s goals.

Travel hacking is not a one-size-fits-all kind of strategy. Even so, everyone benefits from being as informed as possible. In this article, we’ll highlight the insights that will help you to choose what’s best for you.

Choosing a Rewards Program

As you likely already know, a huge part of the travel hacking strategy revolves around travel rewards cards and the bonuses they offer, and it may seem like choosing a card is the obvious starting point. But, I think that’s backwards and a quick way to get very confused. First, you’ll want to learn about the currencies available to you, what they’re good for, and how they interact with one another.

Airline Miles

Most people will want to focus on airline miles first, because this is often a more prohibitive expense than accommodations. Here’s what to consider when choosing which airline miles you find most valuable.

Fuel Surcharges

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone complain that they tried to get into miles and points, but by the time they earned enough for their trip, the surcharges were hardly any cheaper than the full-price ticket would have been on a discount airline of some kind. This is because many rewards programs charge fuel surcharges on their award tickets.

Not all airlines do this, however. For instance United Airlines does not charge fuel surcharges on their reward tickets, and American Airlines (mostly) does not either. Yes, they will have some minor taxes, but not the hefty fuel surcharges that end up adding hundreds to a “free” flight, as is often the case with British Airways, for example. However, even the rewards programs that do charge fuel surcharges tend not to for flights within the Americas.

Note: You may have noticed I said American Airlines mostly doesn’t charge fuel surcharges. The scenario in which they do, is when American Airlines miles are used for British Airways or Iberia flights. If this seems confusing to you, don’t worry, we’ll discuss partner bookings within an alliance in a moment.)

Award Charts

If I say that I’m giving you 100 dollars, the value of that gift will depend on what kind of dollars they are. Are they Canadian dollars, US dollars, or even Australian dollars? (This anecdote packed a bit more punch when the Australian dollar was higher, but you get the point.) In the same way, if a reward program tells you they’re giving you 50,000 miles, you’ll want to know how far that currency goes in their program. The best way to do this is to compare award charts from program to program.

For example, a round trip ticket from the US to Europe can be as high as 95,000 Delta Sky Miles, but only 60,000 American Airline miles (45,000 in off-peak.) When your average award bonuses are around the 50,000 mile mark, this is important information to have. A 50,000 bonus is enough for a roundtrip flight to Europe in off-peak if you’re earning American Airline miles, but only slightly more than half a roundtrip to Europe if you’re earning Delta Sky Miles.

Alliances

The other gripe I hear, is that someone bothers to earn a slew of miles in a program, and then can’t seem to find available flights. This is where things get a bit confusing.

Luckily, most of the airlines are part of airline alliances. Essentially this means that when you earn an airline’s miles, you can spend those miles on flights with any of the alliance partners. Occasionally the cost will vary slightly depending on whether you’re spending your miles with the airline itself, or with its partners, so when you’re comparing award charts as suggested in point 2, make sure to also compare any award charts labeled for “partner awards.”

The thing that people often forget however, is that the price of an award ticket is determined by the currency you’re spending, not the airline you’re flying.

Let’s take for example British Airways and American Airlines, both members of the “One World” alliance. If you have American Airline miles,  but the award flight that best suits your needs is a British Airways flight, not to worry. You can redeem your American Airline miles for that British Airways flight. But whose award chart will you look at to decide that flight’s mileage price? American Airlines’.

There are over a dozen other airlines whose flights can be booked with American Airline miles. This isn’t unique to American Airlines, however. The other two major alliances have 20 or more member Airlines each. United Airlines, for example, is in Star alliance with ~25 other members.

Domestic Flights

While the programs we’ve mentioned so far can definitely be useful when booking domestic flights, there is one airline that is only useful for domestic flights, but is certainly worth mentioning.

SouthWest will definitely not help you get overseas, but it’s a strong program for any domestic needs you might have. It offers ample opportunities for earning, with a personal and business card that often has 50,000 mile bonuses, and other great qualities such as a free checked bag, no fees for canceling a reward flight, etc.

They’re beginning to add international flights to nearby destinations such as Mexico, Belize, etc, so even though they devalued their program a bit not too long ago, I’m still a fan.

travel hacking

Credit Cards

The popular mileage programs, in terms of earning through credit cards, are American Airlines, United Airlines, British Airways, Delta, SouthWest, and Alaska Airlines. Each program has various credit card options for earning. Which card is best for you will depend on the amount of spending you’re willing and able to do, and the current bonuses being offered.

Before you investigate this section, please read the travel hacking basics post to learn more about analyzing the bonuses these cards may be offering.

(When a credit card earns points that can be transferred to a mileage program rather than earning those miles directly, I’ll indicate it with “via transfer.”)

American Airline Miles

Useful Credit Cards: 

Alliance: One World

United Airlines Miles

Useful Credit Cards:

Alliance: Star Alliance

British Airways Avios

Useful Credit Cards:

Alliance: One World

Delta SkyMiles

Useful Credit Cards:

Alliance: Sky Team

SouthWest Rapid Rewards Points

Useful Credit Cards: 

Alliance: none

Alaska Airlines

 Useful Credit Cards:

Alliance: None

The Take-Home Message

The programs I most favor are United Airlines and American Airlines. This is because of the lack of fuel surcharges as well as the large number of airlines covered between those two alliances, Star Alliance and One World Alliance. Not to mention, their award prices are still quite competitive for economy flights. As a mostly economy flyer, these programs are totally sufficient for me.

Because of this preference for American Airlines and United Airlines, I favor the American Airlines credit cards, United credit cards (when the bonuses are good), and the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus, and Starwood Preferred Guest credit cards.

I also favor SouthWest points. Having SouthWest points around for domestic flights allows me to save my American Airline Miles and United Airline Miles for the needs they serve best: international flights.

TL;DR

Fuel Surcharges:

Some airlines’ rewards programs come with steep fuel surcharges. To avoid these surcharges, plan flights within the Americas, or earn United Airline Miles and American Airline Miles. United Airlines does not have fuel surcharges, and American Airlines will only have fuel surcharges when redeeming for British Airways, or Iberia flights.

Award Charts:

Not all airlines’ rewards programs are created equally. Compare different airline award charts to get a feel for how valuable a card’s bonus is. Try to decide how far the bonus would get you. Would it get you all the way to Europe, for example?

Airline Alliances:

Most of the major airlines belong to an Airline Alliance. This means that an airline’s miles can be used for flights with other airlines within their alliance. Some airlines have separate prices for “partner flights,” however,  the price of an award ticket will otherwise depend on whose points you’re using, not with whom you’re flying. In other words, to find out how many American Airline miles your Cathay flight will cost, do not look at the Cathay award chart, look at the American Airlines award chart.

Image Credit: Visual Hunt