By JESS MOSS
If you buy things online, use a credit card or eat at restaurants, you could be earning points to use towards a flight or hotel.
The problem is, there are so many loyalty programs, credit card reward promotions and mileage mathematics blogs out there, it can be overwhelming to figure out where to start.
Some people earn major rewards by “churning” through credit cards, signing up for new ones regularly to take advantage of large sign-up bonuses. DailyFinance has a good article about how to do it.
I recently tried the churning game, but soon learned it takes far more organization, dedication and credit card spending than I was willing to commit. Instead, I focused on trying to optimize the stuff I already do to get points and miles for travel.
There are some really easy ways to earn points on everyday things like buying gas, shopping online or ordering delivery. Sure, you’ll get to the free travel prize more slowly, but ignoring these options is like leaving free money on the table. Here’s how to do it:
Use airline mileage shopping sites for all online purchases
Do you like online shopping? You can earn miles-sometimes a lot of miles-by going through an airline’s frequent flier shopping site rather than directly typing the store’s website in your browser.
A few extra clicks get you to the same online store page that you’re used to, but you’ll automatically get miles for every dollar you spend by starting at the airline site.
Most airlines’ mileage shopping sites look similar; you log in with your frequent flier information and are taken to a directory of vendors, with some featured merchants that may be running sales.
If you’re shopping for a specific item, you can browse by type of store and see who has the best point offer. I recently needed a pair of Smartwool socks, but didn’t care where I got them. Looking through Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan Shopping site, I saw that a vendor called Backcountry.com was offering 12 miles per dollar spent. That was a far better deal than the 4 miles per dollar offered at The North Face.
Have your eye on a particular item or brand? You can search to see if it’s on the mileage shopping site and click through to the regular store page. Often the mileage shopping website will list discount codes and current promotions to use when you check out.
Prefer to try things on first? I do too, which is why I now go to the store to find my size, snap a photo of the product number, style and size, and then go home and order it through the mileage shopping site.
The earnings extend beyond clothing-you can earn miles for online purchases at grocery stores, electronics companies, wine sellers and even LivingSocial and Groupon. Just plan ahead to factor in shipping time.
So which airline mileage site should you use? If you’re loyal to one airline, start with that company’s site, but keep in mind that different carriers sometimes have different deals going on with vendors. Delta might be offering two points per mile at Staples while Alaska Airlines is offering three. If you have time and a few frequent flier accounts, try shopping around to see which program has the best deal.
Link your credit and debit cards to dining rewards programs
A lot of people don’t know about this perk, and it might be the easiest way to earn miles on something you already do: eat food.
Most airlines have dining rewards programs that let you link your credit and debit cards to a “sky dining account.” Then, any time you use any of these cards at one of the airline’s partner restaurants-or bars and clubs-you’ll get somewhere between three and five points per dollar you spend.
The process is automatic, so once you register you don’t have to do anything to get the points. In fact, they often come in as a surprise-after a recent afternoon of football and beer at my neighborhood sports bar, I got an email informing me my three Bud Lights had earned me 46 miles. Win-win.
The dining program websites also have directories, so you can also search nearby restaurants that will earn you points (plus see ratings and reviews). It’s even valid on delivery.
Choose a points-earning credit card
Rather than using a debit card for purchases, consider signing up for a credit card that earns you travel points. You don’t have to alter your spending habits-just pay for your standard purchases with the credit card instead and be sure to pay off the balance every month.
The best credit card reward program depends a lot on your spending habits (is it a personal or business card?) and earning goals (do you want a free flight or upgrades and travel perks?). There are some great blogs devoted to the ins and outs of credit card rewards-I’m a fan of The Points Guy, Million Mile Secrets and Indulge The Wanderlust.
I use two points-accruing cards to try to earn free travel: the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card ($150 annual fee) and the Chase Freedom card (no annual fee). (No, this post is not sponsored by Chase.) I travel a lot and like the flexibility to earn extra points on my travel purchases and use the rewards on multiple airlines and hotels. Other credit cards that offer similar flexibility include the Capital One Venture Card ($59 annual fee), the U.S. Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards Card ($49 annual fee) and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus($89 annual fee). If you generally stick to one airline or hotel chain, you might think about getting that brand’s card, since rewards extend beyond flights and hotel stays and can include upgrades, lounge access, priority boarding and more. Note that many of these cards have an annual fee, but it’s often waived the first year.
Whichever card you choose, be sure to read the criteria for earning a sign-up bonus. Most cards offer a 25,000 to 40,000 initial points bonus (enough to put you well on your way to a free trip) if you spend a certain amount of money in the first one to three months. So if you have a big purchase coming up, like a trip or a home update, it might be a good time to sign up for a card with a big bonus.