How do you start collecting miles (points) to travel the world for free, especially, if you live in Europe, where credit card sign up bonuses are not as generous as in the USA? I have prepared this introductory article for all those just thinking to start collecting points. Be warned – this is just the tip of the iceberg and points travel can become highly addictive! Once you have traveled for free, you don’t want to pay ever again!
1. Want miles? Don’t forget to register!
Whenever you check it at a hotel or for your flight, don’t forget to give them your loyalty card number! Sometimes you may be able to register to a program even after your first stay, but it is always best to do that before actually staying/flying!
Which program to choose? Depending on where you live, where you fly and how far, this may be very different. Many airlines have formed alliances. An alliance is like a club with many airlines, so you can collect points from one airline to the card of the other. For example, Lufthansa and SAS are in Star Alliance, so you can get points for your Lufthansa flights on Eurobonus (SAS) card (that’s the one I use for Star Alliance, as during their promotions I can get flights for as cheap as 10 000 to such places like Svalbard). Not all airlines are part of an alliance.
Note that sometimes the cheapest flights won’t give you any points in one program but at least some in another. So if I have several cards in one alliance, I will always check WhereToCredit.com to see if and how many points I will get. I do try to collect all miles in one program, as I don’t want then to be too spread around.
Some airlines allow to create family accounts. While some airlines may allow to transfer points, it is not too common and usually is very expensive.
For hotel programs, there are a few main leaders, such as IHG, Marriott Bonvoy, Radisson Rewards, Hilton and many more (my primary program right now is IHG, but I also have a status with Marriott and Radisson). If you don’t care too much which hotel you stay at, it makes sense to check how many points you would get for the same price and how many would you need for a free stay. In some hotels you need to stay just a few nights to get enough points for a free stay. Note than usually you won’t be able to get points for hotel reservations through agencies and with a voucher. Program terms and conditions can also be change at any time, and most points/miles expire. Note that sometimes you only need to register as a member to get perks – for example in Hilton hotels you would get free internet access.
Important: if you are travelling for business, check your local legislation to determine if you are allowed to keep points or they are your employers property or points may also be a taxable benefit.
2. Checking how many points do you have
After your stay/flight, always check if you did get the points. It happens to me very often that I don’t get points/stays counted, or those are counted wrong. Then I email the hotel/airline or fill in their retro claim form. Usually, after a few emails, you will get your flights and points credited.
I use AwardWallet app for all my loyalty accounts. This way I don’t have to carry a wallet full of cards, and I can easily see how many miles I have, when do those expire and my account number to show the check in staff. The app will also send you notifications when the points are about to expire. I only caryr physical cards for those programs where I have benefits such as fast track security or lounge access.
3. Know thy promotions
before you fly or stay at a hotel, check if they don’t have any current promotions. Sometimes all you need is to register for them and you automatically will get extra points for your next stay! I often make printscreens for these promotions to make sure that I do get what I am promised. I have seen cases when rules suddenly change mid-promotion. In these cases, you can write a complaint and get extra miles or even status upgrade.
Some hotels offer extra points if you don’t take room cleaning. I usually don’t let anyone in my room anyway, so this is an added bonus. Besides, I don’t change towels every day at home, why would I at the hotel? Sometimes they offer points or welcome gift (a bag of cookies) or welcome drink at check in. I always take points.
Check partner offers – sometimes for a taxi ride to the airport you will get more points that for the actual flight! Keep an eye for lotteries and surveys. I have gotten 1000 points for filling a 10 min survey, which helped me get me the missing points for my next free stay! Some of the promotions are only available for certain regions – so may be your friends address in Australia or USA can come in handy to get extra promotions, freebies (free e-books!) and surveys!
4. How to use your miles most efficiently?
Before deciding to buy something with points, you have to really see what is out there and what will be the best deal. Often, there are promotions – deal of the month for certain routes or hotels, birthday discounts, specific promo dates when you need significantly less points than normal. Never leave your purchases to the last night before expiration – if there is a delay of any kind, 10 min before midnight is too late, and your points will be gone.
I usually use points in the system I collected them – so flight points for flights, hotel points for stays. Usually buying things like luggage, toasters or jewelry is a colossal waste of your points and there are many memes about this in the circle of experienced point freaks. It has happened to me, when I discovered that a large number of my Etihad points is absolutely unusable due to total unavailability of the award I wanted (to this day I this this was false advertising that they even had it on their site, as we looked at ALL of the available dates with an agent on the phone and there were no seats). So I bought a Swiss watch. I still use it, but it could have been 2 tickets to Seoul…
There are charts and blog posts about best mile redemption. Sometimes, you can get a really good deal booking last minute (where cash flights are crazy expensive), but in my experience last minute availability usually is very low. Usually 3 to 7 months before the flight is a good time to book to get a seat. You will still have to pay airport taxes, sometimes a booking surcharge and also a sneaky little add-on called fuel surcharge for some programs, pretending it is a tax. This is the reason I don’t collect miles in Miles & More. Eurobonus doesn’t have any surcharges, so I can get much better deal. For hotels, often you won’t be able to get breakfast. Any city tax is extra.
5. Program status – yay or nay?
Before you set on a quest to become diamond platinum sapphire everything in every program, see if it makes any sense or do you even need the perks. My rule of thumb is that I don’t pay more to fly with a certain airline or stay at a certain hotel just to get points or status. Only few occasions will warrant this – when you need just a few points for a massive point chase, or you are near a status that you really see value in. My philosophy is the reason why with 75 flights and 90 hotel stays a year last year I was silver in four hotel chains and one airline. And nothing else. This year, thanks to a myriad of good promotions & good luck, I have managed to get the highest tier in one hotel and silver status with an airline it makes most sense to me. However, would I have paid to just get the flight segments for status? Absolutely not.
Important: if you do have a cool status with one program but for some reason will stay at a another chain/fly another alliance now, inquire about status match. Usually that can be done once for one account.
Also, you must know the perks you are entitled to. Is that a free upgrade, free points, free fast track or anything else, you have to ask for it, and sometimes, demand. If I got a penny for every time check in staff told me “this is only for gold members and you are silver” and I pulled up their website to show otherwise, I’d get a few more free flights! How do I usually ask about upgrade? I say – would my complimentary upgrade be available today, since I am silver/golden/platinum member?
Sometimes, they may say hotel is full an no other rooms available. Sometimes, they give a room on a higher floor (which is considered to be a a higher room in the same category! not a big bonus in my opinion, and certainly explains why I say – don’t go chasing status for the sake of status!). But also many, many times I have gotten suite rooms, with enormous bathrooms, separate bedroom and living room etc. Usually you can score these upgrades for shorter stays, as hotels are less likely to need these for someone else.
These are just the first, basic tips & tricks to know. There are many blogs and forums on the internet writing only about points & miles, so you can learn a lot more. Some of those tips elsewhere might be very good deals, others – borderline to get expelled from a program. It does take some flying and some hotel stays to be able to get free nights, so if I flew once every five years and stayed at a pre-paid hotel with a voucher from a tour agency, I would not bother collecting points. But I know so, so many people who travel regularly, and don’t use any of the benefits!
Does it take time to collect the points? Sure. But see some examples how I have stayed, & flown for almost for free with miles:
- 4 nights out of 7 in Texas roadtrip (Marriot, Radisson, IHG)
- 5 nigths & 2 rooms in Istanbul, with breakfast (Radisson Rewards)
- 2 nights in Abu Dhabi (Marriott Bonvoy and Radisson Rewards)
- Fight for 1 to Paris and to Rome (+ taxes, reservation fee in airBaltic Club)
- 2 nights in Hamburg (IHG)
- 1 night in Incheon (IHG)
- flight to Tromso for 1 (+taxes in Eurobonus)
- free BMW SUV rental in Tromso (Europcar)
- 2 tickets to Athens (+ taxes, reservation fee in airBaltic Club)
- 3 nights in Athens (points+cash, and just points in IHG, but with a promo I”ll get most of those points back anyway with this stay)
- 2 nights in Sweden and Norway for 3 (Eurobonus)
- Almost always some kind of better room with IHG, Marriott Bonvoy, Radisson Rewards, as well as welcome gift and more points because of a status
- Free fast track in Riga, as well as free heavy hand luggage and more luggage items with premium ticket (airBaltic Club)
- Movie tickets and a Swiss watch. I also have my fair share of stupid mile redemptions 🙂
Good luck getting the miles and points you need for your next free stay!