Using Shopping Portals to Earn Points and Miles

The introduction of the first web browser, Mosaic Netscape (better known as Netscape Navigator) in 1994 kickstarted a massive boom in electronic commerce (e-commerce) sites. Was it a mere coincidence that today’s largest e-commerce company, Amazon, was founded in 1994? Of course, in the early days, Amazon sold only books and their site looked primitive compared to their content-rich pages today. E-commerce sites are enabling a new “hobby” (or is it a “sport”?) – online shopping. They provide an easy way to research and buy almost everything for everyone in your life – and, of course, for the “occasional” spending spree. Among key enablers for online shopping, credit cards give a fast and relatively secure method to pay for goods and services on e-commerce sites. While earning points or miles from your online shopping should be a key ingredient in your travel rewards strategy, most credit cards offer minimal rewards for online shopping purchases – often only one point or mile per dollar spent. Of course, some cards offer bonus points or miles for specific categories such as airline flights, hotels, online services, etc. Fortunately, there are easy ways to boost your reward earning from online purchases made via airline, credit card and hotel shopping portals.

The good news is that many airline and hotel companies, and a couple of credit card providers (Chase and Barclays), offer bonus points or miles when you sign up for their shopping portals and click to a store and not going directly. Any subsequent purchases made at the store’s site earns you bonus points or miles – these are in addition to points or miles earned using a rewards credit card. Make sure you sign up for multiple shopping portals with all your favorite airline and hotel loyalty programs before you start shopping online. The various shopping portals often have different earning rates for the same store so a little more research is needed before clicking the buy now button. Further, shopping portals often offer special rewards for certain products or stores throughout the year. For example, United Airlines may offer one mile per dollar at Apple.com, whereas American Airlines may have a special limited-time offer earning two miles per dollar.

Deciding which of the many shopping portals to use depends mostly on your travel goals and, in a related way, the points or miles “currency” you are trying to collect for an award redemption. Even if you don’t have a current travel goal, it is worth collecting at least one airline and one hotel “currency” so you have a stockpile ready for your next trip or stay. I mostly collect miles for United and Alaska Airlines since I live in Los Angeles and they give me a lot of options to travel throughout the U.S., especially to Hawaii and to the U.K. and New Zealand, where my extended family live. I also stockpile Starpoints in my Starwood Preferred Guest account for hotel stays. If you have one of the Chase Ultimate Rewards cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred credit cards, you can also earn extra Ultimate Rewards points via their shopping portal.

evreward
evreward shopping portal aggregator

TIP #1: An important part of your online shopping strategy should include the use of a “shopping portal aggregator”, such as evrewardand CashbackMonitor. These great sites give rewards earning rates for multiple airline, hotel and credit card shopping portals. Before making a purchase, use one of these sites to search for the store you may wish to buy from and click on one of the links to transfer you to the right shopping portal.

TIP #2: You don’t need to use a credit card to earn points or miles when shopping online – debit cards, gift cards or PayPal work just as well. However, it usually makes sense to use a credit card to give an extra layer of security and to tap into special benefits to protect the items you buy from loss, damage or theft; even to extend your product warranty. Combining the points or miles earned via shopping portals with those earned from credit card spending is a smart way to boost your earning rates.

Major U.S. Airline Shopping Portals

United MileagePlus Shopping
United MileagePlus Shopping
United MileagePlus Shopping Portal

Earn United MileagePlus miles for every dollar you spend at over 850 online stores. Sign into the United MileagePlus Shopping portal using your MileagePlus number and account password. The site’s home page displays top stores, sponsored deals and limited time offers. Most of the time, you use the search function to find specific stores and products. The MileagePlus Shopping site includes many of my favorite brands and stores, including Apple, New Balance, Expedia, Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy and Samsung. For example, if I am buying a new iPhone I earn two miles per dollar, although as I mentioned earlier, earning rates change often so it is always worth double checking. Clothes, flowers, and many other categories earn even higher mileage rates.

Flower Arrangement

TIP #3: Remember to use shopping portals for purchasing flowers for special occasions, such as Mother’s Day or birthdays. I have used 1800flowers.com or FTD.com. Earning rates of 20 points or miles per dollar are not unusual.

United MileagePlus X App
United MileagePlus X App
United MileagePlus X App

United offers an excellent smart phone app (Apple and Google), MileagePlus X, that provides “on the go” mileage earning, up to five miles per dollar, by purchasing eGift cards to make payments at local stores and restaurants. In addition, if you have the Chase United Milea­­gePlus Explorer Card, you earn a 25% bonus. The MileagePlus X app can also be used to buy and store eGift cards in your smart phone digital wallet or store accounts. To setup the app, log into your MileagePlus account and the app syncs with any payment cards stored in your united.com profile. You search from a list of nearby stores, or via the online catalog with categories such as Entertainment, Food, Home & Garden, etc. If the app supports the store, you buy an eGift card for the total price (be sure to include sales tax) of the item you are buying, or the restaurant bill (include a tip too) you are paying. Within a store or restaurant, you show your smart phone with the open MileagePlus X app, displaying the store’s eGift card number and PIN, to the cashier or server for them to complete the purchase.

I often use this app to pay for meals at local restaurants, including P.F. Chang’s. For online shopping, you buy an eGift card for the total amount of your purchase, including sales tax and shipping/handling fees. Then, you enter the eGift card number and PIN in the site’s payment form (usually under Gift Cards) to complete your purchase. The MileagePlus X app has a feature to mark an eGift card as redeemed (on the app menu click on Purchases to display a list of previously bought eGift cards) to help you keep a list of active (with an unused balance) cards. The MileagePlus X app has a number great options for local shopping and entertainment, including AMC Theatres, Apple iTunes & App Store, Domino’s, Google Play, Starbucks and Uber. Currently, I earn two miles per dollar spent on Apple iTunes eGift cards, and five miles per dollar with AMC Theatres, in addition to credit card spending points or miles.

TIP #4: If you regularly pay for music, movie, app downloads/subscriptions, visit your local cinema, restaurants or coffee shops, pre-purchase eGift cards and store them on your smartphone for quick payment. I keep a few eGift cards for AMC, Apple App Store & iTunes and Starbucks on my iPhone and use them via the Apple Wallet app to pay for movie tickets, Apple iTunes downloads, and cappuccinos!

American AAdvantage eShopping
AA AAdvantage eShopping
AA AAdvantage eShopping Portal

As with the United MileagePlus shopping portal, American Airlines’ AAdvantage eShopping portal rewards you with AAdvantage miles for shopping at your favorite stores. The portal supports over 950 stores. Unlike United’s portal, you need to register for AAdvantage eShopping separately from your AAdvantage frequent flyer account, although the accounts share a common AAdvantage number. The list of stores is similar between all shopping portals although, as I mentioned earlier, they may offer different earning rates and special offers throughout the year. For example, at the time of writing, I notice AAdvantage eShopping has a limited-time offer of six miles per dollar spent with Apple.

AA AAdvantage eShopping Button
AA AAdvantage eShopping Button

Tip #5: A recently introduced feature of the AAdvantage eShopping portal is a button installed as an extension to the Google Chrome browser. Once you install the button, you log into your AAdvantage eShopping account and Google search results include mileage earning offers. After selecting an offer and making a purchase, a pop-up displays your mileage earnings.

Alaska Mileage Plan Shopping
Alaska MileagePlan Shopping
Alaska MileagePlan Shopping Portal

Alaska’s shopping portal, Mileage Plan Shopping, offers mileage earning opportunities at over 800 stores. As with American’s AAdvantage eShopping portal, Alaska recently introduced their Mileage Plan Shopping button extension for Google’s Chrome browser.

Alaska MileagePlan Shopping Button
Alaska MileagePlan Shopping Button

Once installed, Google search results include miles reward rates for each store for comparison purposes. If you also installed the American AAdvantage eShopping button you see both Alaska and American earning rates displayed, if the store is supported by both portals. After selecting an offer and making a purchase, Mileage Plan Shopping displays the miles you earned.

Additional Airline and Hotel Shopping Portals
BA Avios eStore Portal
BA Avios eStore Portal

Other major airline and hotel brands offer point or mile rewards for online shopping. Here is a brief, but not complete, list along with links to their sites.

Chase United MileagePlus Card

TIP #6: Points and miles earned with airline and hotel loyalty programs typically expire within a specific time if there is no activity in your account. For example, United MileagePlus miles expire 18 months from your most recent activity. To keep your MileagePlus account active, you earn or redeem miles before their expiration date. Even if you do not expect flying with United in the coming months, earning miles via United’s MileagePlus Shopping portal is a simple way to keep your account active and avoiding the loss of miles you have already earned. Another method, is to apply for and use a United Milea­­gePlus Explorer Card. As long as your card account is open, your MileagePlus miles will not expire.

Stacking Rewards – My Shopping Example

In this example, I describe the process I used to earn points and miles for a wedding gift I bought from Williams-Sonoma. As you may already know, soon-to-be-wed couples select desired products from one or more stores and list them under their registry services. Invited guests buy items from the registry, thus avoiding unwanted or duplicate gifts.

Cooking Pot

First, I check the evreward site to search for Williams-Sonoma. The site displays a list of Frequent Flyer Miles & Hotel Rewards programs offering shopping rewards. I notice British Airways is offering six Avios per dollar. I click-through to their Avios eStore site and login to my Executive Club account. The portal passes me to the Williams-Sonoma store.

evreward results
evreward results for Williams-Sonoma

I search for my friends’ wedding registry and scroll through the list of their selected items. I find some good quality stock pots and pans, since I know they like to cook, and add them to my shopping cart. I continue through the checkout process, select the couple’s registered shipping address and enter my contact details (billing address). Not one to pass on an even better deal, I notice a free shipping discount code at the top of the page and enter it in the Promotion Code box and apply it to my order. At this point the Order Summary displays the Item Total, Shipping & Processing (less discount for free shipping code) and Sales Tax for a total price of $228.85.

I open the United MileagePlus X app on my iPhone to buy an eGift card. I search for Williams-Sonoma within the Home & Garden category in the app’s Catalog. I note United is offering three miles per dollar at Williams-Sonoma. I click on the Williams-Sonoma line at the bottom of the store listing and the app displays the store details, including locations of nearby “physical” stores. I click on the Pay now button at the bottom of the screen. The next screen asks me to enter the value of the eGift card I wish to buy, so I enter $228.85 (note: there are limits set for each eGift card type so you may need to buy multiple cards if you need to pay for items over the limit). The app also asks me to select the form of payment or use award miles (you can set a default method if you wish to use the same card each time you use the app). The app synchronizes with payment cards stored in my united.com account. I select my Chase MileagePlus Visa card and click on the Pay now button. I earn 686 + 171 (25% bonus for owning the MileagePlus Visa card) miles for a total of 857 miles. In addition, I earn 229 miles from Chase for using my MileagePlus Visa card. I copy the eGift card number and PIN over to the Williams-Sonoma site to complete the wedding registry gift purchase. Since I linked from the BA Avios eStore first, I earn another 1,260 Avios (6 x 210) – they don’t pay rewards for sales tax or shipping fees. Although thus may seem complicated, it only takes a few minutes extra to follow the other steps to earn bonus points and miles from this purchase.

United MileagePlus X
United MileagePlus X Williams-Sonoma

In summary, for the gift purchase I made at Williams-Sonoma’s online store, I earned the following points and miles:

  • 857 United MileagePlus miles with the MileagePlus X app
  • 229 United MileagePlus miles with my Chase MileagePlus Visa card
  • 1,260 BA Avios with the BA Avios eStore link (via evreward) to the Williams-Sonoma site

A nice total of 2,346 miles towards my next free flight award redemption.

TIP #6: Points and miles are not all worth the same. Their value varies depending on how you use them. For example, if you use them to buy products or gift cards you may net less than 1 cent per point or mile. However, if you use redeem them for travel rewards, such as hotel stays, airline tickets or upgrades, you often get higher value from them. For comparison purposes, I apply a relative value to each point and mile “currency”. For example, I value United miles and BA Avios at 1.5 cents each. In the above example, my reward for shopping online netted me about $35 in relative value, or just over 15% of the total price.

Citi Thankyou Premier
Citi Thankyou Premier card

TIP #7: If you plan to make significant purchases online over the next 2-3 months, consider applying for a new credit card that offers a sign-on bonus of points or miles. Thus, when you use your new card for purchases you already intend to make, you hit the spending requirement to earn the sign-on bonus faster. For example, when you open a Citi ThankYou Premier Card account and spend $4,000 within three months of account opening you earn 50,000 bonus ThankYou Points (worth $625 when redeemed for airfare on any airline through Citi’s ThankYou Travel Center, or $500 for gift cards redeemed from the ThankYou Rewards collection). Paying regular bills (auto, home or health insurance, TV or streaming/music services, Internet, cell phone and utility bills) with day-to-day spending (groceries, gas, travel, dining, gifts, etc.) throughout the month with your credit card, you earn the sign-on bonus even faster. But, please only apply for a new card if you have little or no existing debt and are able to pay off your monthly credit card statement balances to avoid interest charges.

Summary

I shop online for many types of products and services. I spend a few minutes extra each time to research points and miles earning potential. The use of shopping portal aggregators, such as evreward and CashbackMonitor, helps me to quickly find current reward rates and links via airline, credit card and hotel shopping portals to stores I regularly use. The use of credit cards earns me “stacked” rewards to boost my points and miles balances. And, often, I combine them with the United MileagePlus X app to buy eGift cards to make payments and earn more bonus miles.

It’s as easy as 1…2…3…! Shop away dear readers!!

 

Booking Free Hotel Rooms

Redeeming points for a well-earned vacation gives you a nice warm feeling and keeps dollars in your wallet. Cash you save on hotel rooms is useful for spending on meals, drinks and other activities. I also love booking free hotel rooms with points since it gives me more flexibility than paying with cash. Unlike free flight awards, hotel reservations made with points can be canceled or changed without penalty before your arrival. When you book with cash, especially via third-party sites or prepaid rates, you may be stuck should your plans change.

Starwood have some great opportunities for saving money with their SPG Starpoints. Hotels are grouped into seven categories ranging from basic Category 1 hotels (e.g. Four Points Kansas City Airport) to Category 7 luxury hotels and resorts (e.g. The Gritti Palace, Venice). The categories are based on multiple factors, including location, amenities, average rate, time of year (high/low seasons) and nearby hotels. One free night at a Category 1 hotels costs 2,000 – 3,000 Starpoints per room, for a standard room. At the other end of the spectrum, a free night at a Category 7 hotel costs 30,000 – 35,000 Starpoints. Specialty resorts, such as those offering only suite or villas, cost more and must be booked via Starwood’s service centers. For a complete list of SPG hotel categories click here

TIP #1: An added benefit of booking rooms with Starpoints is you do not pay any taxes. However, you still pay resort fees direct to the hotel or resort, if applicable.

I try to get the best value from my points by researching room rates for the dates I want to visit a destination and comparing them to award rates for free stays. Firstly, I log into my SPG account or SPG smartphone app on my smartphone. In either case, I enter my desired destination – city, airport, or hotel name – along with arrival and departure dates. Also, I make sure to add the number of guests who will be staying in the room, including children. This is especially important if I am booking a hotel at an international destination since the maximum number of guests per room is often lower compared to U.S. hotel. This avoids potential issues and extra costs at check-in time.

Booking Free Hotel rooms with points

Here’s an example of a hotel search I made for a visit to San Francisco in December:

SPG Search

Clicking on SEARCH, displays a list of available hotels along with the lowest rates and the cost in Starpoints per free night.

SPG Search Results

For example, in this display I see The Westin St. Francis on Union Square, a property I’ve stayed at many times, is offered at $265, or 20,000 Starpoints, per night. This hotel is an SPG Category 6 hotel. Occasionally, an SPG Cash & Points rate is shown, but this is not always offered for all selected dates. SPG Cash & Points provides a way to stretch Starpoints over more nights by combining a lower Starpoints rate with cash. For example, in this search, an SPG Cash & Points rate is offered for 10,000 Starpoints plus $180 per night plus taxes. Further down the list, I also see The Park Central hotel, a more reasonably priced hotel located near the Moscone Convention Center – it is an SPG Category 5 hotel. This hotel is offered at a rate of $163 or 12,000 Starpoints per night. Based on my experience, these hotels are offering relatively low cash rates for the selected dates, so if I were to book these I would likely pay cash rates with my Amex SPG card, and earn more Starpoints. When researching free hotel stays, I use a Starpoint value of 2.5 cents. Thus, if I can snag a free stay with a value of over 2.5 cents I am happy. However, for this example I select the SPG Free Nights rate, and check the Bed Type I want to reserve, usually a King Bed. I click on Book Now and check my personal information, such as name, address, SPG Number and email address are correct. As a Platinum elite member, I can select my room upgrade options, such as Largest Room, Best View or Highest Floor and more. I can also request early check-in and late check-out times and more. Finally, I click on COMPLETE RESERVATION and look for an email confirmation of my reservation. On the SPG smartphone app, I also check the reservation details under My Stays and Reservation Details.

Platinum Preferences
Platinum Stay Preferences

TIP #2: Reservations made with Starpoints may be cancelled without penalty before the date specified in the Cancellation Policy section of your reservation confirmation. In this case, Starpoints are returned to your account.

Westin Maui
Westin Maui Resort and Spa

TIP #3: Book five nights or more with Starpoints and get the fifth night free at Category 3-7 hotels! For example, if the SPG Free Nights rate is 12,000 Starpoints per night, you can book a one week stay for 72,000 Starpoints. I often use this benefit to stay at the Westin Maui Resort & Spa. For a recent stay in January, I booked seven nights for 120,000 Starpoints (one night is typically 20,000 Starpoints) with one night free. If I had paid cash, the lowest total price was around $3,500. As an SPG Platinum elite member I also received an upgraded ocean view room and daily full buffet breakfast for two (regularly over $30 per person per day), saving hundreds more dollars during our stay.

upgrading your free hotel room

After you earn SPG Gold or Platinum elite status, you often receive an upgraded room at check-in. I review my reservation, using the SPG app on my iPhone, a couple of days before I am due to check into a hotel to see if they have pre-assigned an upgraded room, or even a suite. Within the Room Features section of the Reservation Details I often find the room type is upgraded from my original reservation. If you aren’t too bothered knowing in advance it can be a nice surprise to hear that wonderful news “we thank you for being an SPG elite member and your continued loyalty and we have upgraded your room to a suite…”! Believe me, it does happen more often than you might think.

Vienna Imperial Suite
Hotel Imperial, Vienna

The SPG program states a benefit of being Gold or Platinum elite is an upgraded room (Platinum upgrades may include standard suites), subject to availability at check-in. However, this is far from a guarantee, especially if you are visiting a popular destination at a busy time. If you prefer to book into an upgraded room, you can call SPG at 1-888-625-4988 and ask about the rates. If you prefer to redeem Starpoints for an upgraded room, including suites, you may call Starwood Reservations. Ask the customer service agent for the Starpoint (or Cash & Points) rate for upgraded rooms at your selected hotel.

Here are the point rates per hotel category for upgraded rooms and suites:

SPG Upgrade Chart

These points are in addition to those required for standard award redemptions. Typically, booking a suite with points costs double the standard rate. However, you can also use these rates to upgrade a room you booked with a cash rate. In order to use points in this way, you must book a flexible rate that’s eligible to earn points and is also eligible for elite nights/stay credit – make sure to book rooms via the Starwood site since rooms booked via third-party sites aren’t upgradable.

If you have earned SPG Platinum elite status by staying a minimum of 50 nights in a calendar year, you’ll receive the option to select an added benefit of Suite Night Awards. These are used for both cash and award stays to upgrade to request an upgrade to a suite. This includes:

  • Award reservations using Starpoints
  • SPG Cash & Points reservations
  • Flexible and prepaid rates
  • AAA/AARP rates

Each Suite Night Award is used for one night, but you can use multiple awards for a longer stay. Once you’ve made your reservation, check the reservation details and you’ll see a link to apply upgrade requests using your available Suite Night Awards. You’ll receive an email notification when the upgrade request clears or not a few days before your arrival. In some cases, the hotel will upgrade you to a suite as a benefit of being SPG Platinum. In this case, your Suite Night Awards are deposited back to your account. Suite Night Awards expire, usually the end of the calendar year after the year you first received them.

As a reminder, you can start each calendar year with five nights toward elite status when you have either of the American Express (Amex) SPG credit cards. If you have both cards, you only need to stay 40 more nights at Starwood properties to earn Platinum elite status for the rest of this year and the next year. You can also link your SPG account with Marriott Rewards and receive an elite status match to Marriott Platinum too.

To apply for the Amex SPG cards, click one of the links below (I do not receive any referral fee from these links).

Summary

While there are several ways to earn SPG Starpoints, the easiest are to book and stay at Starwood hotels, and use one of the Amex SPG cards for your regular spending. Booking free hotel stays is easy – check out the redemption rates for your destination and dates using either the Starwood web site, or the SPG smartphone app. You can top up your SPG account using airline mile transfers, and earn bonus Starpoints from SPG partners, such as Hertz. You’ll be amazed how quickly you can earn tens of thousands of Starpoints for a free or upgraded vacation stay at thousands of hotels and resorts worldwide.

How to Earn SPG Elite Status

UPDATE 4/16/2018: Marriott announced plans for a combined loyalty program between Marriott Rewards, The Ritz-Carlton Rewards and SPG. See details here. Some of the terms and benefits discussed in this post may change from August 2018.

As with airline’s frequent flyer programs, hotel groups offer their own elite membership levels. Starwood’s Preferred Guest (SPG) program offers several elite membership levels, including SPG Gold and SPG Platinum. Each elite level offers valuable benefits, such as bonus Starpoints from paid stays, guaranteed room availability, choice of welcome gifts (even more bonus Starpoints, breakfast) and 4pm late checkout. To earn SPG elite status, you must earn the required number of night, or stay, credits at Starwood hotels during a calendar year. For the legal details, here is an excerpt from SPG’s Terms and Conditions

An “Eligible Night” is a credit awarded pursuant to these SPG Program Terms that counts towards earning the respective “Eligible Night” thresholds for Elite Preferred Guest Membership Status, SPG Lifetime Gold Status or SPG Lifetime Platinum Status. An SPG Member will earn one Eligible Night towards earning Elite Preferred Guest Membership Status, SPG Lifetime Gold Status and SPG Lifetime Platinum Status for every night during a Stay at an SPG Participating Hotel for which the SPG Member pays an Eligible Rate or redeems an SPG Award or an SPG Promotion Reward, and for every night during a Stay at an SPG Partner Hotel for which the SPG Member pays a Partner Eligible Rate.

SPG defines a hotel Stay as a period of consecutive nights staying in a room at a Starwood property. If you book and pay for more than one room, and stay in one of these rooms, up to three rooms count towards your nights and stay totals.

TIP #1: If you are arranging a wedding reception or business meeting where a lot of rooms are booked, you may want to investigate SPG Pro.

SPG Gold

To earn SPG elite status at the Gold level, you must earn 25 nights, or 10 stay, credits in a calendar year. I don’t recommend booking rooms via third-party travel agents since you aren’t guaranteed to get room rates that are eligible for elite stay credits. In any case, Starwood offers their Best Rate Guarantee so if you find a lower qualified rate with 24 hours of booking they will match the rate and give you a 25% discount or 2,000 Starpoints. In my earlier post, Earning Points for Free Hotel Stays, I mentioned the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express benefit of five nights and two stay credits to your SPG account at the start of each year. Plus, if you also own the Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card, you only need to add 15 nights or six stays in a calendar year to make SPG Gold status. Another, more expensive, method to make SPG Gold status is to spend $30,000 with an American Express SPG card within a calendar year.

Amex SPG cards

NOTE: The terms of the American Express SPG cards are changing on August 1, 2018 with Marriott’s announcement of their new loyalty program. SPG will convert every Starpoint in your account to three points in the new Marriott combined loyalty program. Subsequent spending on the Amex SPG card at participating Marriott/SPG hotels will earn six points in the new program and two points for all other eligible purchases. Beginning in January 2019, you will need to spend a minimum of $35,000 to earn Gold elite status in the new program.

 

TIP #2: If you are a member of Marriott Rewards program and you have linked your account to SPG, you’ll also receive Marriott Rewards Gold Elite status.

Link Marriott and SPG

As an SPG Gold member you earn three Starpoints per U.S. dollar spent on stays. You may also receive an upgraded room at check-in (corner room, higher floor, or better view) and 4PM late checkout. Here’s a summary of SPG Gold benefits:SPG Gold Benefits

SPG Platinum

To earn SPG elite status at the Platinum level, you must earn 50 nights or 25 stay credits in a calendar year. If you have linked your Marriott Rewards account to SPG, you’ll also receive Marriott Rewards Platinum Elite status.

As an SPG Platinum member, I earn three Starpoints per dollar spent during my stays (plus two more Starpoints per dollar from the Amex SPG card). Among the added benefits I enjoy are frequent room upgrades, sometimes to amazing suites, such as the W Paris Opéra Wow Suite (see my photo below). After earning 75 nights credit in a calendar year, you earn an additional Starpoint per dollar spent. Thus, if you pay for a hotel stay with the Amex SPG card you earn a total of six Starpoints per dollar. Since I value Starpoints at 2.5 cents each, this is like getting 15% return on your hotel spending. Unlike cash back cards where the earning rate is fixed in dollar terms, points and miles can have substantially more value depending how you redeem them for hotel rooms, flights or upgrades.

W Paris SuiteW Paris – Opéra Wow Suite

TIP #2: If you are a member of Marriott Rewards program and you have linked your account to SPG, you’ll also receive Marriott Rewards Platinum Elite status.

Here’s a summary of SPG Platinum benefits:

SPG Platinum Benefits

SPG-Hertz Benefits

With the recent introduction of a Starwood and Hertz partnership, SPG Platinum members can register to receive Hertz Gold Plus Rewards Five Star status. Five Star members receive car rental upgrades, and bonus points.

SPG Nights Benefits

After staying 50 nights at Starwood hotels you can select from a choice of more benefits, including Suite Night Awards to request suite upgrades. After 75 nights, you earn four Starpoints per dollar spent and the flexibility of choosing check-in and check-out times over a 24-hour period. I like to use this latter benefit for an early check-in after an overnight flight, such as from the West Coast to the U.K. In many cases, I have been able to combine this with the  SPG Gold/Platinum benefit of 4pm late check-out to stay over 24 hours at the price of a one-night stay, including free award reservations! After 100 nights, you are matched with a personal SPG ambassador to help you with your reservations and other needs during your hotel stays.

Lifetime SPG Elite

After 250 nights staying at Starwood hotels, and five years of SPG Gold or Platinum status you earn SPG Lifetime Gold status. After 500 nights staying at Starwood hotels, and 10 years of SPG Platinum status you earn SPG Lifetime Platinum status. Lifetime elite status does not come with Suite Night Awards unless you actually earn at least 50 nights credit in a calendar year.

Note: The Lifetime elite terms will change in January 2019 with Marriott’s recently announced combined loyalty program. After this year you will need 400 nights to earn Lifetime Gold or 600 nights for Lifetime Platinum.

Summary

Elite status provides free and upgraded travel benefits, whether for business or pleasure. One of my favorite hotel companies is Starwood (now part of Marriott) and I am fortunate to have achieved lifetime SPG Gold membership, and now SPG Platinum. I love the benefits of free upgraded rooms, complimentary breakfast and WiFi. If you have a different favorite hotel company, I’d love to hear how you are earning elite status and the benefits you are receiving.

Earning Points for Free Hotel Stays

UPDATE 4/16/2018: Marriott announced plans for a combined loyalty program between Marriott Rewards, The Ritz-Carlton Rewards and SPG. See details here. Some of the terms and benefits discussed in this post may change from August 2018.

In the early 1990’s, I signed up for Sheraton’s loyalty program. At the time, I paid $20 per year to upgrade my membership to their Gold level. As a result, I often received free upgrades and access to their Club lounges for free food and drinks. Sheraton was one of the first hotel chains acquired by Starwood, a hotel management company with over 1,500 properties in over 100 countries. In addition to Sheraton, Starwood brands include Westin, The Luxury Collection, Four Points, W Hotels, St. Regis, Le Méridien, Aloft and more. Since 2016 Starwood is a subsidiary of Marriott International following their merger. Starwood’s loyalty program is Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG). As a member, you earn Starpoints on hotels stays and related spending. While many hotel chains offer similar loyalty programs, most of my personal experience is with Starwood so that’s what I’ll be covering in this post.

NOTE: Marriott, Starwood’s new owners, recently announced the merger of their three loyalty programs into “one powerful program”. As a result, in August 2018, SPG, Marriott Rewards and The Ritz-Carlton Rewards combine into one program. At that time, SPG’s Starpoints are multiplied by three in a one-time conversion to the new program’s points system. There are a number of other changes being made to Marriott’s related credit cards – for further details read Marriott’s site.

Marriott New Program

Earning Starpoints WITH HOTEL STAYS

To begin earning Starpoints, sign up for SPG membership. As a basic member, you earn two Starpoints per dollar spent at Starwood hotels. You earn more Starpoints as an elite member, Gold or Platinum (see my post on Earning SPG Elite status). Whenever you book a room, and at check-in, give your SPG number to make sure you earn Starpoints from your stay. Note that you earn Starpoints on the basic room rate, not including taxes and other fees, such as the notorious resort fee. You also earn Starpoints spending at hotel restaurants and bars, so make sure you put your meal and drink charges on your room account.

Tip #1: I prefer booking my Starwood hotel reservations using the Starwood website (www.starwoodhotels.com) or their SPG phone app. This gives me easier management of my reservations. I can give more information to the hotel to improve the chance of room upgrades, early check-in or late check-out. Additionally, you may not always earn Starpoints or elite benefits when booking your room on a third-party travel site. One exception is that I use the Citi Prestige “4th Night Free” benefit by calling their “concierge” to make reservations of four or more nights. I give my SPG number to the concierge so they can contact the hotel to add it to the reservation.

Tip #2: I use SPG’s “Make a Green Choice” sustainability program to decline housekeeping services during stays. You earn up to 500 Starpoints for each day you opt out of housekeeping services. The hotels typically offer door hangers to show you are opting out of housekeeping services the following day. You can also “opt out” for your entire stay by setting a preference in the reservation on the Starwood site, or asking at check-in time.

Marriott Rewards

Marriott Rewards

Even a couple of years after their merger, Starwood and Marriott now run separate loyalty programs. Marriott’s loyalty program is Marriott Rewards (clever name, right?). If you have a Marriott Rewards account already, you can link it to your SPG account to enable point transfers and to receive reciprocal elite status. Since I have SPG Platinum status, I was automatically matched to Marriott Platinum status when I linked my accounts. You transfer Rewards points to Starpoints at a ratio of 3:1. Thus if you have 30,000 Marriott Rewards points, you could transfer them to SPG for 10,000 Starpoints. Since you earn Rewards points from spending at Marriott properties and their airline, car rental and credit card partners, these are more ways to earn Starpoints. You can also transfer the other way, if you want to use Starpoints to book a free stay at a Marriott (or Ritz-Carlton) hotel.

TIP #3: Ritz-Carlton Rewards links to Marriott Rewards. As such, wherever I mention Marriott, you may also consider Ritz-Carlton too. Points earned at Ritz-Carlton hotels transfer to Starpoints at the same 3:1 ratio. In addition, Ritz-Carlton’s credit card partner, Chase, offers the Ritz-Carlton Rewards credit card. While the card has a high $450 annual fee, it comes with some great benefits if you like to stay at their luxury hotels, including two free nights at Tier 1-4 Ritz-Carlton hotel after spending $4,000 in the first three months from your account opening.

Earning STARPOINTS WITH Credit Cards

American Express
Amex SPG cards

Since I primarily stay at Starwood hotels, I earn Starpoints for rooms I pay for (up to three rooms per stay), plus spending at hotel restaurants and bars. However, I earn two more Starpoints per dollar using my American Express (Amex) SPG credit card to pay for the rooms. I also earn one Starpoint per dollar using my Amex SPG card to pay regular bills, grocery shopping, and more. You also earn Starpoints using Amex SPG cards to pay for stays at Marriott hotels. Amex offers two versions of their SPG card:

If you spend $30,000 in a calendar year, you earn SPG Gold status (see my post How to Earn SPG Elite Status for benefits). Note: the spending requirement changes to $35,000 in January 2019 as part of the new Marriott combined loyalty program announced in April 2018.

TIP #4: With each Amex SPG card you own, you earn an annual credit of five nights and two stays towards SPG elite status. For example, owning both Amex SPG cards, starts your elite earning year with 10 nights and 4 stays. These credits typically appear in your SPG account in early January. Therefore, to earn SPG Gold status you need only 15 more nights, or 6 stays, compared with the regular 25 nights or 10 stays in calendar year. To earn SPG Platinum status, you need either 40 more nights or 21 stays.

Amex Membership Rewards Logo

In addition to their SPG credit cards, Amex offers its own Membership Rewards cards. Membership Rewards points transfer to many airline and hotel loyalty programs, including SPG. Membership Rewards points transfer to SPG at a ratio of 1000:333.

Amex offers a few charge cards and credit cards that earn Membership Rewards. Charge card balances are paid off in full every month, but otherwise run similar to credit cards. Some examples are:

  • American Express Platinum Card – 60,000 bonus Membership Rewards points after spending $5,000 in the first three months. If you transfer the points to SPG, you will have enough Starpoints for a couple of free nights at an SPG category 4 hotel (10,000 Starpoints per night)
  • American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card – 25,000 bonus Membership Rewards points after spending $2,000 in the first three months. If you transfer the points to SPG you have enough Starpoints for one free night at an SPG category 3 hotel (7,000 Starpoints per night)
Chase

Chase Marriott Rewards

Chase Marriott Rewards

This card earns five points per dollar spent at Marriott and Starwood hotels, and two points per dollar spent on airline tickets, car rentals and restaurants. Chase offers 75,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 in the first three months. Chase waives the annual fee of $85 for the first year. Another useful benefit is one Free Night Stay at a Category 1-5 hotel each year after your account anniversary.

Chase Ultimate Rewards

You earn Ultimate Rewards points using one of the following cards:

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred – 50,000 bonus points with $4,000 spending in first three months, $0 intro annual fee, after that $95. This is a great starter credit card for anyone wishing to earn points for free travel with a variety of airlines and hotels
  • Chase Sapphire Reserve – 50,000 bonus points with $4,000 spending in first three months, $450 annual fee. This is a premium version of the Chase Sapphire Preferred  card and comes with a premium annual fee of $450. However, there are many ways to cut the real annual cost of this card, including the annual $300 annual travel credit, complimentary airport lounge access and more
  • Chase Ink Business Preferred Card – 80,000 bonus points with $5,000 spending in first three months, $95 annual fee

Ultimate Rewards points transfer to Marriott Rewards at a 1:1 ratio. From your Marriott account, transfer to Starpoints at a 3:1 ratio.

Earning Starpoints with Airline Flights

United Airlines

You earn bonus Starpoints when you register with SPG’s airline partners and buy flights. However, you must have SPG elite status to receive these bonuses.

  • Delta – one Starpoint per dollar spent on Delta flights. Plus, SPG Platinum members enjoy priority check-in and boarding, complimentary upgrades and first checked bag free
  • Emirates – one Starpoint per dollar spent on Emirates flights. SPG Platinum members enjoy priority check-in and boarding
  • China Eastern – one Starpoint for every four Eastern Miles with China Eastern flights. SPG Platinum members enjoy priority check-in, boarding and luggage handling; and access to China Eastern business-class lounges
  • United – while United is not a direct SPG partner, it is a partner of Marriott. As such, United and Marriott offer reciprocal benefits to their members via the RewardsPlus program. United’s MileagePlus elite members (Global Services, Premier 1K, Premier Platinum and Premier Gold) receive Marriott Gold status. Marriott Platinum elite members receive United Premier Silver status. I already have United Premier Gold and Marriott Platinum status so there is no extra elite benefit to me. However, the partnership does enable me to transfer up to 50,000 United MileagePlus miles per calendar year to my Marriott Rewards account at a 1:1 ratio. This isn’t the best conversion rate, but I occasionally use this path to top up my Marriott/SPG accounts when I’m running low on points for specific free hotel stays I want to book

 

Earning starpoints with Car Rentals

Hertz

Hertz – earn 200 Starpoints per rental. In addition, by registering with Hertz, SPG Platinum members are eligible for Hertz Gold Plus Rewards Five Star elite status.

Hertz Marriott-SPG Partnership

Five Star status offers upgrades and bonus points.

Hertz Gold Plus Rewards Benefits

Sixt Logo

Sixt – you earn 250 Starpoints for every rental. Members also earn 500 Starpoints for Sixt Limousine Service.

Earning Starpoints with Broadway Shows

With SPG’s Audience Rewards partnership, you earn up to 2,500 Starpoints per Broadway show ticket. Starpoints may also be redeemed for show tickets.

Earning Starpoints by Hosting Meetings or Events

Meeting Modern Conference Room

When you host a wedding reception or a business meeting at a Starwood hotel, you earn Starpoints for all your spending. You may also benefit from Starpoints earned for booking your guests’ rooms too.

Special SPG Promotions

SPG Great Weeks

Starwood promotes bonus offers and challenges throughout the year. Check for the most up-to-date offers on their website. Occasionally, SPG sends out email notices of these extra earning opportunities although I have found this is not dependable. The current offer is for double Starpoints starting with your second stay, and 500 bonus Starpoints when your stay includes a weekend night. For most SPG offers, you must register using your SPG number and email.

Buying Starpoints

Buy Starpoints

You can buy up to 30,000 Starpoints per calendar year. The regular price is 3.5 cents per Starpoint. However, SPG is currently offering 35% discount for 5,000 or more Starpoints. With the discount, the rate is more attractive at less than 2.3 cents per Starpoint. If you decide to buy Starpoints, make sure to pay with an Amex SPG credit card to earn even more Starpoints!

Summary

While there are several ways to earn SPG Starpoints, I recommend starting by registering for the SPG program and using one of the Amex SPG credit cards to earn Starpoints with your regular spending. If needed, top up your account using airline mile transfers and earn bonus Starpoints from SPG partners. You’ll be amazed how quickly you can earn tens of thousands of Starpoints for a vacation stay home or abroad. Next: Check out my post on how to book free hotel rooms.

Earning Miles for Free Flights

For many years, earning miles required buying tickets and sitting on real flights. I could easily estimate the miles I would earn from a trip by looking up the flight distance. If I flew more than 25,000 or 50,000 miles with one airline in a calendar year I would earn elite status. At that point, I could use elite bonus multipliers to calculate how many more miles I was earning for a trip. Ah…the good old days! Unfortunately, over the past few years, major U.S. airlines have moved to a revenue-based system, using the base fare, to calculate earned miles. Base fares do not include airline or government-imposed surcharges or taxes. Travelers who have no elite status in an airline’s program typically earn five miles per dollar. However, elite members continue to earn bonus miles. For example, United MileagePlus Premier Gold members earn an extra three miles, for a total eight per dollar spent. In addition, airlines are devaluing their miles by steadily increasing the redemption cost of awards. As a result, it is more difficult earning miles for free flights. But, this is really the old way of earning miles. Rather than spending cash to buy tickets and sitting for many hours in cramped planes, there are easier methods – one of which I’ll discuss in this post.

What’s Your Travel Goal?

Even if you eventually earn tens of thousands of miles, it may still be difficult to spend, or redeem, them for award travel. You may find your favorite airline doesn’t have award seats available on the dates you want to travel. Or, you may discover the redemption cost is double what you have saved for. Why is this the case? One of the reasons is you are competing with thousands of smart travelers, with more experience than you. They have plans for earning miles to meet their travel goals, and book early – often up to a year in advance. In addition, airlines are quite clever at limiting award seats on popular routes since they would prefer to sell tickets for as many seats as possible to boost their profits – after all, isn’t that what their shareholders expect? If you need to fly at short notice or to a popular destination with few flight options you should prepare to redeem miles for higher cost standard awards than the early-bird specials, or saver awards.

Hope

Making a Travel Plan

So, let’s take a look at travel planning step-by-step. Firstly, set your goals for destination and timeframe that match your interests and availability. If you can fly during an off-peak season, or even a less popular day during the week, you will have an improved chance to score lower cost award seats. Are you traveling alone, with a partner, or with a family?

Secondly, research flight routes from your local airports to your target destination. One great search tool I like to use while researching flights for a trip is Google Flights. By entering my nearest major airport, Los Angeles International (LAX in airport code language) and the city nearest my target destination I can get a quick list of potential airlines that serve the route I want to take. In the example for this post, I set my destination for London (LHR). Next, I enter target dates for travel. For this trip, I have flexibility to avoid the Summer peak travel season so I enter October 1st to October 15th as a baseline. Below, you’ll see the first results displayed by Google Flights.

Google Flights

I typically look for airlines that offer nonstop flights and I note the general range of ticket prices. Nonstop flights from the West Coast to Europe help to cut to likelihood of connection issues due to bad weather or incoming plane delays. Next, check how many miles you will need to redeem for an award ticket with these airlines. Here are links to some of major U.S airline award charts to start your research. Note: Delta doesn’t publish an award chart but you can get an estimate by doing a Google search, such as “Delta award chart”.

American

Alaska

United

In my example, I’m going to research American’s award chart (see below).

AA Award Chart - Main Cabin

I find a range of award redemption prices for Main Cabin (aka Economy) travel for my target destination region, Europe. Yes, I know the UK is now Brexiting from the European Union (EU) but, geographically speaking, it is still technically in Europe. Most airline award charts only give you the cost for a one-way trip. You’ll need to double the number miles to get the total cost for a roundtrip flight. In my example, I am able to travel to and from London for as low as 45,000 AAdvantage miles to as many as 130,000 miles. From my experience, I’ll most likely be able to find MileSAAver awards for off-peak travel a few months in the future at a cost of 60,000 miles roundtrip. For this trip, that’s a reasonable target for earning miles. If for some reason, you have earned miles for many years, especially via business paid travel, you may already have enough miles to redeem your award ticket already. Super cool – go get ’em cowboy! Or, you may want to consider the fares at this time are actually quite low – I would typically pay for this trip by credit card and not use miles. There are a couple of benefits buying the ticket with a credit card: first, I don’t need to wait to earn enough miles for the trip; and, secondly, I’ll earn more miles toward future free travel.

Earning Miles FROM CREDIT CARDS

In the case of American Airlines, we have several options for earning miles from credit card signup bonuses – via co-branded credit cards, or indirectly through points transfer partners.

Credit Cards

American AAdvantage Co-branded Credit Cards

Citi® AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®

Barclaycard® AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®

At the time of writing this post, Citi and Barclaycard both offer 60,000 AAdvantage bonus miles. However, they have different methods of earning signup bonus miles. Firstly, with the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard (try saying that fast) you earn bonus miles after making $3,000 in purchases within the first three months of account opening. Citi is waiving the annual fee of $95 for the first 12 months. On the other hand, the Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard (just as difficult to say fast) offers bonus miles when you make your first purchase in the first 90 days and pay the annual fee of $95 with your first statement. Bonus miles are deposited to your AAdvantage account at the end of each monthly billing period. I received bonus miles from Barclaycard only 22 days after I applied for the Aviator Red card – I made my first purchase within a few days of receiving the card. In the case of Citi, I received bonus miles almost seven weeks after I applied for the Platinum Select card, even though I met the minimum spending requirement within a couple of weeks of receiving the card.

With both cards, you earn 2 miles per dollar spent on eligible American Airlines purchases. All other purchases earn you 1 mile per dollar spent. Neither card is the most flexible card in terms of earning miles for multiple airlines or hotels but, in terms of signup bonus and annual fee, for a targeted free flight with American they are among the best options to begin. In addition to the bonus miles, I also like the following benefits that come with both cards when traveling with American:

  • First checked bag free for the primary cardmember and up to four companions on eligible bags when flying domestically. Fortunately, for our target destination to the UK, American doesn’t charge a baggage fee for the first bag. But, if you are planning to fly to Hawaii, such as, this card benefit is valuable and will likely pay for the annual fee in one roundtrip. American’s regular domestic baggage fee is $25 per bag. So, a family of four with one bag per person needs to pay $200 to check their bags roundtrip. Compared to the annual fee of $95, this is an easy decision.
  • Preferred boarding for the primary cardmember and up to four companions on their reservation. Why is this important? If you are traveling with carry-on bags, such as wheelies, or get stressed out waiting in long lines, this benefit makes your travel a bit more enjoyable. Since many travelers do not check their bags, above-seat storage space is often limited on crowded flights. If you can board your flight earlier you have a better chance of finding space for your carry-ons directly above your seats.
  • 25% savings on in-flight purchases – for example, food, beverages and headsets.
  • 10% redeemed miles back per year – up 10,000 miles are credited back to you AAdvantage account when using miles for award travel when you have either of these cards. For example, if you use the 60,000 bonus miles for an award trip, your account is credited with 6,000 miles – that’s like getting a 10% discount on your awards!

Another important benefit for your international trips is:

  • No foreign transaction fees when you make purchases outside the U.S. While many credit cards in the U.S. now offer this benefit, it’s best to check what’s in your wallet otherwise you may find yourself being charged up to 3% of purchases made while traveling internationally. Since our target trip is to the UK, I highly recommend taking a credit card that has this benefit with you and making as many purchases on your trip using this, or similar, card. You will also earn more miles to use on future free or upgraded trips – getting the hang of this miles and point game?

There are other travel benefits with each card. I recommend you to check out the offers yourself and decide which works for your circumstances. In particular, read the benefit descriptions for Trip Delay and Trip Cancellation coverage. The Aviator Red card offers $1,500 trip cancellation coverage for when an illness or other covered reason forces you to cancel your flight or trip purchased with the card. The Platinum Select card offers $5,000 trip cancellation coverage and trip delay coverage up to $500 for lodging if you experience a flight delay of  12 hours of more.

Note: I do not receive compensation for recommending these cards.

American AAdvantage Transfer Partner

American Express® Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card

The Amex SPG card is one of my favorite credit cards for general spending. I can typically receive the best value using my Starpoints for hotel stays at Westin, Sheraton, W and other Starwood branded hotels. I can also transfer Starpoints to Marriott Rewards at a rate of 1 Starpoint to 3 Rewards points. However, for the purpose of my example I am looking at the transfer value of Starpoints to American AAdvantage miles. Starpoints transfer at a conversion rate of 1 point per mile, but you also get a 5,000 mile bonus for every 20,000 points you transfer. This is an insufficient number of miles, in itself, to redeem for a free flight to Europe. However, you may consider using this as an option to top up your AAdvantage miles, if you are running low for an upcoming trip.

Other American AAdvantage Partners

As mentioned in my earlier post, American Airlines is a founding member of the oneworld global alliance. As such, you can redeem free award flights via American’s airline partners. Each airline has its own redemption award charts and partner award travel inventories. In addition, several premium credit cards have established their own travel points that are earned and redeemed within their travel portals to buy airline tickets and book hotels and rental cars. I’ll be covering these topics in future posts.

Happy travel planning.

List of Airline Frequent Flyer Programs

I joined two frequent flyer programs in 1990, shortly after arriving in the U.S. from the U.K. I was flying with American and United with my job as a technical consultant. Fortunately, both airlines survived despite many mergers in the industry. Many airlines offer frequent flyer programs. You can find comparisons of these programs on various frequent flyer discussion group web sites, such as FlyerTalk. However, just as with wine, where many experts will tell you “drink what you like”, I say similarly about frequent flyer programs – “fly with who you like”. There’s no cost to join a frequent flyer program, so why not join as you book flights? Earn miles when you fly and earn more for dining, shopping, staying at hotels, renting cars, using credit cards, and more. Many airlines have frequent flyer program partnerships with other airlines via one of the three global alliances or with other cross-marketing agreements.

The primary airline frequent flyer programs I use are American AAdvantage. United MileagePlus. I joined other frequent flyer programs for specific regions or routes where the airlines are not members of the three global alliances. For example, I often take Southwest flights to San José and San Francisco, so I’m also enrolled their Rapids Rewards program.

Global Airline Alliances

Alliances provide expanded networks with more destinations, while enabling me to earn miles with my primary frequent flyer programs. Through my elite status with American and United, I can also upgrade my travel experiences with their partners. Priority check-in and boarding, free checked bags and, for international flights, access to airport lounges. I can also redeem miles for flights operated by alliance partner airlines. This is very useful when my primary airlines do not offer flights between my preferred departure and destination airports. It’s important to note that some airlines are joint marketing partners with other airlines, even though they do not work within one of the major alliances. In these cases, the partnership may include reciprocal benefits in their frequent flyer programs, code-share flights or other joint activities. And, there are some airlines, such as Southwest, that do not include any airlines within their frequent flyer programs.

oneworld

American Airlines

American Airlines, British Airways and Qantas launched their oneworld alliance in 1999. It is the third-largest global alliance in terms of passengers. Here is a list of the alliance’s current members and their respective frequent flyer awards program (with links):

Star Alliance

United Airlines

Star Alliance was the first global airline alliance formed in 1997. It is now the largest alliance by passenger count. Founder members are United, Lufthansa, Air Canada, Thai Airways and Scandinavian Airlines (SAS). The alliance’s current members include:

SkyTeam

SkyTeam is the most recent major airline alliance, and the second largest by passenger count. The original members of the alliance are Delta Airlines, Air France, Aeromexico and Korean Air. The alliance’s current members are:

Other U.S Airlines

Several airlines in the U.S. are not in any of the alliances. However, several of these airlines are partners with other major airlines. As such, you may earn and redeem miles within their respective frequent flyer programs when flying with these specific airlines or with their partners.

Other International Airlines

There are many other airlines around the world offering frequent flyer programs and benefits. Among those that have flights to and from the U.S. are:

Summary

Bottom line: I recommend that you join an airline’s frequent flyer program when you book your flights. I add the airline contact information, including website link and phone number along with the frequent flyer number in my phone contacts app. This makes it easier to find your membership number when you book later flights. You should always include your membership number when make travel reservations. Some airlines offer travel benefits only to their frequent flyer members. You do not want to miss earning valuable points and miles. You should also book your flights with a credit card to earn extra points and miles. Most credit cards also offer extra travel benefits, such as free checked bags, travel delay and lost baggage insurance. I’ll be covering some of these other benefits in subsequent posts.

I wish you safe travels.

Collecting Miles and Points for Free Travel – Part 1

In 1990, my wife and I moved from the U.K. to the U.S. with our two young children. I remember being asked by our travel agent what date she should use for our return trip. I said “never, it’s a one-way trip”! A high technology company hired me as a technical consultant in Silicon Valley. As part of my job, I traveled often – domestically at first and then, within a few years, internationally. My manager was well versed in the American Airlines AAdvantage travel awards program. He traveled much more than I did, living in Southern California and attending company and customer meetings across the U.S. As a result, he was an AAdvantage Platinum elite member. His generosity was outstanding and would treat me to First Class using upgrade coupons he received. With colleagues like this, I was in heaven – literally! He encouraged me to sign up for AAdvantage membership during a visit to the airline’s Admirals Club lounge in San José airport. I joined United’s MileagePlus program the same year. This is how I got started on a fun hobby my wife and I refer to as #upgrademylife.

So, after almost thirty years I should be a points millionaire by now, right? Well, collecting miles and points during the early nineties was tedious. I had to actually get on a plane and travel somewhere – what an inconvenience. There were airline credit cards available, but I had no one educating me how useful they were. I used my bank’s no-fee Visa card for business expenses and checks for everything else. It took a lot of time to collect enough miles to get free flights for all the family members. So, I just kept saving miles and not taking much interest in them. We eventually spent most of them on a trip to Disney World traveling first class with American.

In-flight View

One frequent flyer benefit when you travel a lot with one airline is you can earn elite status. Traveling as an elite flyer comes with benefits that you can use on every flight you take. These benefits may include priority check-in and boarding, upgrades, free checked bags, and free food and beverages. Also, you earn miles at an accelerated rate based on combinations of flight distance, ticket class and amount spent. Traveling for business, I regularly attained AAdvantage Platinum and Premier Gold elite status. This definitely improved my travel experience when flying. By the late 90’s, I had traveled enough with American to earn Million Miler status, and recently achieved United’s Million Miler stats too. I’ll discuss this aspect of airline awards programs in a future post.

Hotel Lobby

A related aspect of business travel was getting to stay at many hotels around the world. Hotel chains have their loyalty programs too. Each program comes with varying points earning and redemption rates. And, of course, multiple levels of elite status and related benefits. Unfortunately, during my early career I wasn’t able to focus my stays on just one or two chains. My corporate travel agent booked my business travel. I could only stay at specific hotels per place. So, it took a lot of trips to earn enough points to get a free hotel night. But, I remember you could buy Starwood Gold membership for $20 per year in the early 90’s. Today, that takes 25 nights or 10 stays in a calendar year to achieve. However, with improved planning, I have now achieved Starwood Preferred Guest Platinum status over the past few years. The benefits of this status include regular upgraded rooms, free breakfasts, and lots of bonus points.

Now if all the above sounds like a very bleak environment for collecting miles and points, it wasn’t really. Flying was a lot less stressful due to lower levels of security requirements. Another reason that it wasn’t the Dark Ages of Frequent Travel was that airline awards programs were simpler. It’s a more complex environment today, with airline award programs shifting to revenue-based models. Changes in the hotel industry, for example Marriott’s acquisition of Starwood, is causing uncertainty for loyal fans of their respective award programs. In addition, frequent devaluations within award charts are being announced regularly. Fortunately, there are many good strategies to improve your earning and redemption power to counter these changes.

Westin Maui

So, you may ask, what is the point of all this nostalgic time travel? I want to give you a sense of my early experiences collecting miles and points. From this background, I will fast forward to today and share my experiences from the past few years. The environment for collecting miles and points for free travel has never been better. Financial and travel companies are in a heated battle for your business. They are willing to deliver rich rewards for your loyalty. In future posts, I’ll discuss how credit card sign up bonuses can supercharge your miles and points balances. Also, I’ll share with you some tips I’ve learned about smart use of credit cards for shopping and bill paying. In addition, I’ll cover how to use your airline, credit card and hotel miles and points effectively. Along the way, there will be reviews of places, hotels and restaurants that we visit. And, more…

Subscribe to my newsletter

Please subscribe to my newsletter so you can keep updated on my posts about collecting miles and points. And, perhaps more importantly how to redeem them effectively for free or upgraded flights and hotels. I’ll also include reviews of the places where we visit, stay and eat.

So remember, #upgrademylife is the name of the game – play well my dear readers!