Ok, so we’ve been over the basics, and now we know what points and miles are. That’s a great step and puts us on a nice path. So how do we start collecting them? How do we end up going on free trips already?

There are a few ways to collect points and miles, and we are going to focus on some of them here. One, credit card signup bonuses, is potentially the most lucrative, but also has the most potential pitfalls, so we will leave that for a column in roughly two weeks. Today, we will focus on rewards earned through actual travel, shopping portals, and credit card spend.

Earning Points/Miles Through Travel

This is the easiest way to start to collect points and miles, and all it takes is a few minutes, a password you’ll remember, and an Excel spreadsheet. Let’s say you are flying from Los Angeles to New York City on Delta. You’ve spent $300 for the flight. In most cases, Delta will award you 5 miles per dollar spent, so you will earn 1,500 redeemable SkyMiles for that flight. (There are some exceptions. Deeply discounted fares will earn at 50-75% of the rate.) If you have elite status on Delta – what they call the Medallion levels: Silver, Gold, Platinum, or Diamond – you will be awarded additional miles as a multiplier.

All you need to get those miles is a Delta SkyMiles account, which you obtain for free. Then, when you purchase your ticket, you’ll add in that account number, and voila, free miles. Remember, if you don’t have an account, you are simply giving away something that potentially has value, so there is literally no downside to signing up.

The same goes for every other airline, and for every hotel chain. All award their own points and miles, and do so for free with every dollar you spend. That’s where the Excel spreadsheet comes in. These numbers can be hard to keep track of!

Let’s talk about a couple of basic items with earning travel-based miles and points. Most – not all, but most – points and miles expire after anywhere from one to two years (or eighteen months) of no account activity. So if you earn AAdvantage miles on American Airlines this year and then don’t fly again, those miles will go poof unless you pay to have them reinstated, which is almost never worthwhile. (The Delta SkyMiles we mentioned don’t expire, so you won’t have to worry there.) But if you earn even a single mile on American within their eighteen month window, the clock will reset fully.

Finally, what happens if you fly on international carriers? Will you end up with a dozen different accounts and types of miles? Airlines tend to help this by sorting into three “alliances”: One World, Star, and SkyTeam. Each of these is associated with a major US carrier – American, United, and Delta, respectively. Airlines within an alliance will allow you to earn miles booked on any of their carriers in the currency of whichever you want, although it can be at a slightly lesser rate. So if you fly on Air France from Chicago to Paris, you can earn those as either Flying Blue miles (Air France and KLM’s joint currency) or as Delta SkyMiles. Even at a lesser rate, it can be worth consolidating like this, unless you intend to fly Air France regularly enough to earn consistently.

Shopping Portals

Need to buy things online? Want to earn miles/points for those purchases? Welcome to the deep, dark hole that is called the shopping portal, a website you use to access online shopping on behalf of an airline or credit card company (for those transferable points we spoke about last time).

How does it work? You go to the portal, one like American Airline’s AAdvantage eShopping. You will log in with your AAdvantage number, American’s miles program. You’ll then search for the online retailer you wish to purchase from, let’s say Dell for a new laptop. The site will tell you how many AAdvantage miles you will earn for each dollar you spend. (Right now there is a bonus at Dell for 5 miles per dollar, but it is normally 2, it tells me.) You click on the link, and a new window opens up with Dell’s website. Use this to make your purchase directly through Dell, and the cookie the shopping portal left on your device will register and American will issue those miles, typically within 90 days. American can do this because they get a commission from Dell for each referral, and a bit of that is passed back to you in the form of miles. (Note that this counts for account activity to prevent your miles from expiring.)

Several airlines and credit card companies have shopping portals, so you might want to do some comparison shopping before visiting. Cash Back Monitor will tell you which portals offer you the most miles, points, or percent cash back for a given retailer (although it doesn’t have some of these specials). Doing this can be a pain, but if you end up with 5 miles per dollar (equivalent you about 8 cents or so), that’s a hefty reward on a major purchase.

Credit Card Spend

Unless you are a frequent traveler, this is probably the way to collect the most points/miles on a day to day basis. All airlines and hotel chains have credit cards that are co-branded with one of the issuers (like Chase or American Express, for instance), and will give users of those cards miles or points based on the money they spend, anywhere from a single mile per dollar to exorbitant numbers in specific areas, like the AmEx Hilton Honors Aspire card that offers 16 Hilton Honors points per dollar spent at Hilton properties. These cards range from having no annual fee to hefty ones in the $450+ range, and the benefits (and earning rates) will largely reflect those.

How does this work? Similar to a normal cash-back credit card, the banks are competing for your business, wanting to be your primary credit card so that they can earn fees from merchants and charge you ridiculous interest rates if you don’t pay your cards off each month. To get that business, they will bulk purchase huge amounts of points and miles from the airlines and hotels, and then offer those to you.

Many issuers have their own points as well, and these can be traded for cash back or – in some cases – transferred to airline and hotel partners for their “currencies.” We spoke a bit about this last time, but let’s delve in a bit more here. Chase is one of the most popular credit card issuers, and their Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred to a number of airlines and hotel chains. They also have a wide variety of credit cards that earn Ultimate Rewards points, at different rates for different categories, and at different annual fees. One of the most popular credit cards on the market these days is the Chase Sapphire Reserve (which I personally have and use as my primary card). This card comes with a $550 annual fee, but one of the benefits (there are others and we will do some card comparison later in the series) is earning 3 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on dining out or travel, and a single point elsewhere. By comparison, the Chase Freedom Unlimited card has no fee, and earns 1.5 points per dollar spent everywhere.

If you have multiple credit cards, it is important to decide where to spend your money. Using the two Chase cards from the example above, if I have them both, I will want to use the Sapphire Reserve for dining out and travel purchases (3 is greater than 1.5) and the Freedom Unlimited on other purchases (1.5 is greater than 1). Comparing across different points presents more of a challenge. Do I want a single Chase Ultimate Rewards point or a single Delta SkyMile? Or 3 Hilton Honors points? We will compare redemption values of all of these later, but for now, just try to get the largest number possible for each purchase.

I hope this made the process of beginning your points and miles collection a bit more approachable. Stay tuned each Tuesday for more advice and practical tips on starting out in points and miles.

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