Mr. Dolphin and I love traveling and want to pass on this love to our children by taking them abroad, even when they won’t remember the trip. At some point, we want to take a long trip and live in a new region or travel extensively for a period of six months or longer. While we love traveling and usually find a way to do it every year, it can be tough on a tight budget, especially now that we have more travelers to account for. The solution? Points and miles!

Prior to getting pregnant with Lion, I was lucky enough to travel extensively for my job. Sometimes, this travel could be exhausting, like when I traveled 50% of the year, or when I spent 80 hours in transit (roundtrip) for 35 hours on the ground. But the benefit of all that travel was the accumulation of miles and elite status, thereby granting me free upgrades. Once I stopped traveling, I lost my status and had to find new ways to earn miles and points. Enter the world of “travel hacking.”

We’ve used our points and miles to travel quite a bit, including when we took Lion to several countries in Europe on Babymoon #2. We’ve used miles for emergency flights when cash prices were exorbitant, but airlines still had saver space available, like when Mr. Dolphin flew to California for his grandfather’s funeral last year. Now, we’re saving up miles both for our normal vacations, but also trying to up our earning strategy for an extended trip with the kids in a few years.

2015-10-30 10.58.30

This poor little guy caught an AWFUL cold the first day in Venice and developed an allergic reaction to his medication, but bounced back after two days.

I’ve put together a brief overview and some tips for those interested in using miles and points to travel. In Part 1, I’ll discuss ways to earn points and miles. In Part 2, I’ll discuss redeeming those points and miles. Part 3 will cover some other tips and resources.


Earning Points and Miles

Actual flights and hotel staysI used to think that taking actual flights and staying in hotels was basically the only way to earn points and miles. While that’s definitely not true, they are still a great way to earn miles for something you’d already be doing, anyway. In a previous life, I traveled like crazy for work and we had a good bank of miles. In 2013, I earned 1K status on United after traveling over 100,000 miles over the course of a year on that airline alone, and earned a bonus on all of those miles; my total accumulation of miles that year was probably around 180,000 just from flights flown. If you have elite status, you will usually receive a percentage bonus on every mile flown, depending on what tier of status you have.

Credit card sign-up bonuses. The number one way to generate a lot of miles and do it quickly is through credit card sign-up bonuses. They vary, and the valuation of miles/points earned by a particular card also vary, so do the math and figure out which ones you might want to sign up for.

Note that credit card sign-ups usually require you to spend a certain dollar amount within a certain period of time to earn that bonus. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve required expenditures of $4,000 in the first three months of the card to earn the 100,000 point bonus (which was recently dropped down to 50,000) points. Make sure that you know how you’re going to earn that bonus within the time period allotted. For us, it’s easy to meet the minimum spends simply by putting daycare tuition on it.

Some cards, like the Sapphire Reserve, also have annual fees which generally range from $95 on the lower end to $450 on the higher end, though they all come with other benefits that can help offset the cost. The Chase United Explorer card, for example, has a $95 annual fee (waived the first year), but you get free checked bags when flying United and booking with that card, plus two United Club one-time-use passes, these benefits can more than offset the costs of the card. The Sapphire Reserve has the $450 annual fee, but a $300 annual travel credit, priority pass membership, global entry fee credit, travel protection and more. The IHG credit card costs $49 annually (waived the first year), but one free night at any IHG hotel in the world each year, beginning after your first year. One night in pretty much any IHG hotel is going to cost more than $49, so if you use the benefit, you’re more than making up for its cost.

In determining which cards to sign up for, it’s important to have a strategy to figure out which ones are best for your situation. I like Chase Ultimate Rewards because the points transfer to partners I use a lot and the flexible currency is very helpful, especially if you don’t have specific travel goals in mind.

One note about credit cards: these rewards programs generally have a much higher APR than non-points earning cards. As a result, if you’re carrying a balance and not paying off your cards in full, using credit cards to earn points may not be the best idea. Some people are completely anti-credit cards, so it’s something you need to decide whether this strategy is good for your family.

Credit card spending. Most credit cards give you a point per dollar spent, but many give you bonus points for certain categories. The Chase Sapphire Reserve, for example, gives you 3 points per dollar for entertainment and travel, with 1 point elsewhere. The Chase Freedom card (no annual fee!) has rotating bonus categories that change quarterly; I’ve seen travel (which includes metro fares), gas stations, grocery stores and even Amazon! If you’re able to keep track of the different categories, you can really maximize your bonuses. Some American Express cards give you 2 points per dollar at gas stations and 3 points per dollar on groceries, items that we regularly need to purchase to live; might as well put it on a credit card (and pay it off, of course) to earn those extra points. Some cards also give you a bonus if you spend a certain amount on the card in a year. For example, Chase United Explorer card gives a 10,000 point bonus if you spend 25,000 in a year; in 2015, we put all of Lion’s daycare tuition on that card which basically got us to the 25,000 threshold, giving us a forty percent bonus!

Shopping portals. As I mentioned in this post, I use Ebates quite a bit when I shop online. But I usually also check a shopping portal, like United Mileage Plus shopping because I have a lot of United miles. Sometimes, Ebates doesn’t partner with a particular store, but United does. Or sometimes United has a much better deal, like 5 points per dollar instead of 1 point per dollar. I will also use shopping portals to make sure that my miles don’t expire because any activity on your account will “renew” your account and extend the expiration date on the miles (something I wish I’d learned sooner). For example, I don’t stay at Hilton properties every year now that I don’t travel for work, but I have quite a few points that I don’t want to lose. I went onto the Hilton HHonors shopping portal and found a merchant where I was already going to purchase something from to complete the transaction, even though Ebates was giving a better deal. Those miles do you no good if you let them expire. You can stack these points with the points you also earn on your rewards-earning credit cards. You can similarly shop through your credit card’s portal, like the Chase Shopping Portal.

Dining programs. Another way to earn extra points and a great example of stacking is through dining programs. Using MileagePlus Dining, I earned 2,500 points just for signing up and doing one dine. You can connect any of your credit cards to the dining portal and whenever you eat at the partner restaurants, you earn between 1 and 5 points per dollar spent, including tax and tip. By linking a credit card that earns bonus points for dining, you can really rack up points. For example, if I spend $50 at a restaurant and I use the Chase Sapphire Reserve which earns 3 points per dollar for dining, I would get 50 x 3 = 150 points. As an “online” member of the MileagePlus Dining program, I get another 3 points per dollar, meaning I can earn a total of 300 points from my single $50 of spending at a restaurant. If you don’t use United, you can try the AAdvantage Dining or SkyMiles Dining programs. You can also use these dining programs to extend your expiration dates just by walking into one of the partner restaurants and charging a bottle of water, such as the Hilton Honors Dining program.

Surveys. Another method for earning points without ever taking a flight or staying in a hotel is through online surveys. I tried to do this but kept getting messages that I wasn’t eligible for particular surveys, so I gave up. If you’re eligible, though, you can often earn 300 points or more for just a few minutes of your time.

Manufactured spending. This one is too complicated, risky and time-consuming for me to do, but some people manage to generate millions of miles through manufactured spending. Some think it’s unethical, others consider it part of playing the game. The basics of manufactured spending is that you use your credit card to purchase a money equivalent, or something that can be turned into cash, and then deposit that cash into your account and use it to pay off your credit card. I can’t really give you any tips or tricks, or really any information on this front because it’s not something we do.

.  .  .  .  .

While earning points is a big part of the equation, figuring out the best ways to redeem and maximize the points you earned is also very important. Stay tuned for Part 2 where I’ll cover redemption strategies.