5 Tips for Collecting Valuable Reward Points — and Spending Them

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My husband and I recently flew first-class on a major airline from Washington, D.C., to Hawaii for just a few hundred dollars.

Nope, we don’t know anyone who works for an airline. We just collected and redeemed reward points we accrued by using the airline’s credit card.

What is remarkable is that most of us believe it makes financial sense to pay for expensive travel with loyalty points — 58 percent of us, according to a recent survey conducted by Harris Poll for the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) — but far fewer of us actually manage to do it. The poll found that only 15 percent of respondents used reward points to pay for all or part of their travel. And almost as many people — 14 percent — took a trip that resulted in a credit card balance.

It’s crazy: More than $16 billion worth of reward points and miles go unredeemed each year, according to Colloquy, a research publisher specializing in loyalty and business practice analysis.

The reason is that most of us lack a strategy. But you can change that by following some simple tips for gathering, tracking and redeeming loyalty points:

1. Collect them wisely

First, remember that you shouldn’t spend more on credit cards than you can pay off. It’s seldom a good idea to run up a credit or debit card in the hopes of accruing enough points for a free airline trip, hotel stay or other big-ticket reward.

“When chasing after elite status with hotels and airlines, it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that miles and points often have a dollar value associated with them,” Gregory Anton, chairman of the AICPA’s National CPA Financial Literacy Commission said in a statement. “Spending extra money in hopes of earning free nights and flights has the very real potential to leave Americans feeling like they’ve been travel hacked when their credit card payments are due.”

2. Choose the card that fits your needs

My husband and I carefully chose a credit card that would reward us with one airline point for each dollar spent — on an airline that has frequent flights from Washington, D.C., to the main destinations we visit. If airline rewards aren’t something you are sure you’ll need, you may want to look for a card that allows you to transfer points among companies such as airlines, hotels, car rental firms and elsewhere, recommends the AICPA. Frequent foreign travelers may benefit from a credit card that waives foreign transaction fees. Basically, look carefully at benefits offered by various cards, and apply for one that aligns with your needs.

One great place to start shopping for a card is here, in our Solutions Center.

3. Choose a card with a sign-up bonus

You don’t want to apply for too much credit because it could negatively impact your credit score. So look for a card that gives you a bonus — perhaps a significant amount of airline miles or a waived annual fee, recommends the AICPA. Other bonuses might include significant reward points for one purchase. Remember, you want to earn rewards without overspending.

4. Track your points

Mim King, a money manager from St. Paul, Minnesota, recommends you track your point balances and expiration dates on a spreadsheet.

You could also use a free tracking system

AwardWallet.com is a free service that allows members to track their loyalty programs — including credit card points, frequent flier rewards and hotel rewards. AwardWallet — just one such service out there — claims to cover 661 programs. If they don’t cover some of yours, King suggests tracking the outliers yourself. But don’t leave it to chance. Consider that most households have 29 reward memberships but use less than half of them.

5. Use technology to meet a goal

Have a specific destination in mind? London, Paris, San Francisco, Marrakesh? Consider RewardExpert.com, an online service dedicated to helping you “craft a strategy” using rewards and points to “get you where you want to go sooner than you think.” The program does everything from guide users to rewards programs that best suit their goals to show them how to combine points from various programs. It also determines how long it will take to meet your goal.

What’s your way of accumulating and using loyalty points? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

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