Cash back, discounted gas or frequent flyer miles? Figuring out which credit cards offer the best deals can make your head spin. The comparisons are challenging even for the savviest of shoppers. But hey: if you’re going to spend money, you might as well get some free airline perks while you’re at it.
Although credit cards are by no means a solution for limited cash flow, they can dramatically help your financial life if you use them wisely. Having solid credit score, for instance, means you’ll end up pay less if you ever need a loan for a down payment on a house or a car. By the same token, credit card rewards like cash back rebates and frequent flyer miles, can add tremendous value to your spending. If you’re passionate about travel like I am, I highly recommend taking advantage of reward miles programs which most credit card companies offer.
Keep these rules of thumb in mind to maximize your travel rewards and steer clear of common spending pitfalls. You can also consult MONEY’s Best Credit Cards rankings or the Wallaby Financial app to understand all of the options that are out there.
Use credit cards which offer the most travel options.
Do you want more free flights, better upgrades and other perks when you fly? Then you may need to switch your airline rewards program.Alaska Airlines has the best airline rewards program for travelers, according to the U.S. News & World Report annual travel rewards ranking released this month. Unlike many airlines, Alaska rewards points based on the number of miles flown rather than dollars spent, which “makes it easier for budget-conscious travelers to earn free flights,” U.S. News writes.Plus, Alaska’s rewards program might be a sensible choice, even if you don’t always fly Alaska Airlines; the airline has a network of more than 15 partners, including American Airlines, Air France, British Airways. The JetBlue rewards program is also quite generous, and confers a travel mile for each dollar you spend.
Use a card card on big purchases.
Think: cars, furniture, rent (if permissible)– to make the most of your earned rewards. Do you look for opportunities to double and triple your points? If not, start seeking out these bonuses.
Occasional fliers should play the field.
Occasional fliers shouldn’t commit to a single carrier. People who are steeped in racking up the airline miles are advised to play the field. Choose flights based on practical factors (cost, desirable airports and times), but continue to sign up for and use frequent flier numbers. It’s easy, free, and you might amass enough miles for an award ticket.
Literal Frequent Fliers: choose one airline to patronize.
For those who fly 25,000 miles or more a year, considering staying loyal to one airline, says Gary Leff, the author of the miles-and-points blog View From the Wing. Travelers who fly 25,000 miles a year can usually gain extra perks and VIP benefits from their go-to credit card.
Spot a friend or family member.
Offering to put dinner on your card when you go out with friends is a no-brainer, but you can also use your card to pay friends back by using a payment service such as Amazon Payments, PayPal, or Venmo.
Segregate Your Spending.
Some cards give you extra points for gas, while others give you a bonus for purchasing stuff on Amazon.com. Make sure you’re making a conscious choice about which card to use where. If you are too lazy to keep track, consider downloading an app like Wallaby or NerdWallet to determine the optimal card to use for your transaction.
Maximizing your airline rewards and travel miles is really a matter of being mindful and making the right choices when you spend money. Next time you reach into your wallet, think about if you are using the right card for your purchase. And remember: while airline rewards programs often sound compelling, consumers shouldn’t expect them to be exponentially rewarding. There’s no such thing as a free lunch and it isn’t easy to game the airline miles system.