Beginners Guide – Points in a Shrinking Economy

Rewards Programs all across the board have been looking for ways to “save money”, and give people less utility for their money. As a result many points programs have limited the ability to transfer points out. Others have slashed values by changing redemption values. Yet more have cut the value of the points earned by disqualifying some of them from certain programs, or making them harder to earn. Many programs have also instituted much stricter expiration dates on their points, normally linked to activity.

All of this leads to one simple conclusion, you need to be smarter with your Rewards. In order to do so here is a simple guide to beginning your adventure on Rewards.

  1. In theory you already have a list of brands and programs you prefer or are interested in. These programs are probably some of the best for your region. What you’ll need are ways to keep a healthy number of points in all of your programs. In order to do so you’ll need to start with a few Primary rewards programs that give you the flexibility you’ll need. The strongest programs for this are:

    All of these programs offer different transfer incentives and options which may provide you with better uses. It is wise to open at least one since they offer you a place to store points with at least some modicum of flexibility.

  2. Use Credit Cards to build up points. Many of the options above are specifically linked to Credit Card products from their issuers, but others don’t require you to have a credit card to signup. Many times the program signup bonuses, and specific spending bonuses for very specific programs can have a spectacular value. In order to maximize your point accrual it is wise to churn credit cards a little. That means to close the accounts, wait at least 18 months, and then re-apply to newer offers. The reason to do this is that most offers are available to people who aren’t considered as part of the program already. Normally 18 months clears you from the list and the programs try to recapture you as a member again. There are a variety of cards that are available for this purpose. Some of the most popular include:
    1. United MileagePlus Explorer Credit Card |
      It provides a whopping 40,000 bonus points available in the first year. That is broken up into 25,000 points for first purchase, 5,000 for adding another user to the account, and 10,000 for spending 25,000 in a calendar year (calendar year offer is repeatable).Other Incentives include:

      • First Checked Bag Free for up to 2 people
      • Priority Boarding
      • 2 United Club Passes per year
      • Double Miles on United Purchases

      Annual Fee of $95 is waived for the first year.

      This card can also be combined with a Business version of the same card for an additional 35,000 points (similar deal with 10,000 of those with $25,000 in spending per year)

      Pros: One of the most valued and flexible “dead-end” point systems around. It isn’t very easy to transfer points out from most similar programs but why would you want to? The overall earning potential for bonuses is spectacular, and if you fly United a lot the double miles on purchases will add up nicely.

      Cons: The 10,000 points for $25,000 is relatively weak, but it is repeatable. The rest of the benefits are pretty standard.

      Conclusion: This card is mostly worth it if you spend a significant amount of time and money on United. If not pickup the introductory bonuses and cancel the card without even worrying about the features, or the spending bonus.

    2. Premier Rewards Gold Card – American Express
      A similar number of points available on this card with another whopping total of 40,000 bonus points for the first year. The points are currently broken up into 25,000  as a signup bonus with $2,000 spending requirement within the first 3 months. Then an annual recurring bonus of 15,000 points with $30,000 in spending in a calendar year.Other Incentives Include:

      • Triple Points on Airfare
      • Double Points at Gas Stations & Supermarkets
      • Early Access to Event Tickets
      • Baggage Insurance Plan
      • Car Rental Loss & Insurance Plan
      • Travel Accident Insurance
      • Extended Warranty
      • Roadside Assistance

      Annual Fee if $175 waived for first year.

      Can also be combined with similar business card offers, as well as some other consumer card offers.

      Pros: Flexibility with your points and the earning potentials are much greater in terms of points. The 3x’s on airfare beats the majority of airline specific offers, and the 15,000 bonus points for $30,000 is a 50% bonus.

      Cons: The fee is higher than the majority of similar cards, but considering the rate at which it builds up points that fee difference is negligible. The $30,000 limit for the annual bonus is close to standard, but it is pretty high if you don’t know how to work the card towards that annual bonus. Also the list of partners has regularly been shrinking over the last couple of years as a result of the economy and increased competition.

      Conclusion: This is a fantastic Primary rewards card. Membership Rewards has 1:1 transfers with most of its partners and has regular bonuses. This is a great option as a “hub” for points. It provides you with quite a few routes to get points out at a relatively favorable rate if you time it right. Because of the number of routes (even the unfavorable ones), it can also provide you with a route to pass over small amounts of points to keep points from expiring in other programs. The ease of getting extremely high value for these points has been dropping a little, but the minimum guaranteed is around a rate of 1.25 cents per point.

    3. AAdvantage® Credit Cards
      This is a “dead-end” program that you may love or hate. It is spectacular for its upgradeability on purchased fully qualified fares, but can be somewhat limited on other items. Especially with its restructuring as it goes into bankruptcy it is also slightly unclear for now what effect this will have on the rewards system. So far the promise has been it will not disappear. For now though they offer a variety of products for slightly different uses.Consumer Cards

      1. Citi® Gold / AAdvantage® Visa Signature® Card & Citi® / AAdvantage® American Express® Card
        These are essentially the same card, although in certain cases you can apply and qualify for bonuses on both. The bonus is smaller, but much more easily attained than in other cases. It is 25,000 points for $750 in the first four months of membership. The only really additional benefit is a reduction in the points necessary to claim rewards, which would make your points more valuable. Annual Fee is $50 and is waived for the first year. This card is perfect if all you need is points and some added value to your points.
      2. Citi® Platinum Select® / AAdvantage® Visa Signature® Card & Citi® Platinum Select® / AAdvantage® World MasterCard® Card
        Again two duplicate cards. The rewards on this card are a little stronger than on the last pair. Signup bonus is 30,000 with $1,000 in spending in the first three months. The shorter time period isn’t really a problem since the cap is so low. The benefits also include:

        • Free checked bag up to 4 people
        • Priority boarding
        • 25% discount on inflight purchases
        • $100 credit towards a flight every year as a reward for making purchases throughout the previosu year
        • double mileage on American Airlines purchases
        • 10% of redeemed miles refund up to 10,000 AAdvantage miles refunded per year
        • Mileage is prevented from expiring

        The fee is $95 and is waived the first year. The features of these cards is just about the most practical to keep for an extended period of time. They also seem to reward you for just about every action possible with American Airlines in one way or another.

      3. CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® World MasterCard®
        As with most products there is a business version. This is closely related to the previous cards, especially in its signup bonus. It adds the requirement that double miles be earned in select business categories, removes the 10% mileage refund on AAdvantage point redemptions, and gives a 5% bonus on ALL eligible purchases per year if you renew the card. Fees are the same as above at $95, waived the first year. This card is a nice add-on card for the points, but overall is a little weaker. The biggest benefit is that annual 5% bonus which can be better than the offers in #2 if you really want to hold onto the card, but the tradeoff of losing the 10% redemption value kind of makes it a tie. The bigger question is wether you are trying to earn points or spend points at this time, and wether or not you fly business a lot since the point accrual at those prices would way outweigh the 10% redemption value for now.
      4. Citi ExecutiveSM / AAdvantage® World EliteTM MasterCard®
        This is the last card really offered for AAdvantage and it has some very specific perks that can be worth it. For one it is the only one offering a membership to the Admirals Club. That offers unlimited access to the cardmember and family. Its regular bonus mileage structure is less favorable at 25,000 miles for $1,000 in spending in four months, but it has a second level of rewards that might be interesting to some. AAdvantage no longer allows most mileage accrual methods to qualify as Elite Qualifying Miles (EQM). EQM’s are important because as you accrue enough miles in a year, you get some perks, and when you get to a million miles, you get some more really nice ones. This is the only card that allows you to earn EQMs, and you can earn them every year. This bonus is limited to 10,000 miles after $40,000 in spending per calendar year. This is repeatable. While it doesn’t seem like too much, those 10,000 miles can easily boost you up a category early in the year, and help you approach million miler status quite a bit faster. Other benefits include expedited airport screening, priority boarding, priority check-in, double miles on American Airlines purchases, free checked bag for up to 8 additional people. The annual fee is $450 and is not waived for the first year. The benefits do not easily outweigh the up charge for this card, nor do 10,000 EQMs easily outweigh the huge increase in spending requirement compared to other cards. Combine the two so-so features and this is a very limited card. If you like the little luxuries when traveling, or travel with a large family this card can be great for you if used correctly. Make sure you can reach that spending cap for the annual bonus, or there is no mileage bonus for you. Anything above that would probably be worth putting on another card for the extra mileage/point bonuses.
  • The last step you really want to take is to find a way to track your miles. You can attempt to consolidate into only a few programs, or you can try to deal with multiple bonuses on different programs over time. If you choose the second route, its becoming almost impossible to operate without a tool to help organize your points. I’m not going to do a detailed review of them now, but there are many programs around. For now I really prefer using the free tool AwardWallet, since it offers a great way to consolidate the majority of your point balances into once place. There are benefits to using the pay features, but it does a great job of tracking itineraries and points in the free version. It also seems to have support for the largest number of programs of all the options available. This field is relatively new and untested, so many airlines are understandably a little nervous. Many of these airlines limit the availability of the information to these programs, so you may have to enter some information in manually.

Anyways Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed and learned a lot. There will be much more to come and a little reorganization of this information o make it shorter and easier to digest.


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