Photo by Joe Diaz

Introducing a new, bi-weekly column on AFAR, written by Ramsey Qubein, in which we will dig deep into the various tricks and tools available to the traveler to collect and redeem miles.

At the moment, I am plotting a visit to Tibet. And that’s on the heels of visiting Ayer’s Rock in Australia, floating down the Mekong on a river cruise, and country-hopping in the Caribbean earlier this year. And all this is free—thanks to the points I’ve earned.

As an obsessive mileage collector, I actively search for ways to travel in style, but on the cheap. It helps, also, that I am an avid aviation geek and near-constant flyer for my job as a travel writer (164 countries and counting). I’ve learned a lot over the years about how to rack up those miles and keep top elite status with all three major airline alliances —and in this column, I intend to share the wealth.

The Most Important Advice

And my first advice to you: don’t hoard.

That means never sit on a pile of miles hoping to redeem them for a big-budget trip in a few years. For all you know, that mileage program may change the number of miles it takes or they may stop partnering with an airline that you were counting on to get there. Collecting miles without spending them only leads to more opportunity for them to lose value. If you have zero trips planned, many programs allow you to redeem for gift cards or bid on special experiences like concert tickets.

But, if you’re going to spend them, you also need to keep earning, too. Last year, I jumped on a “mistake fare” that the airline published in error, and I flew to Alaska and back five times in one week, in first class. I netted close to 100,000 miles plus sipped wine in posh lounges and enjoyed some great mountain scenery.

Grab the Low-Hanging Fruit

There are lots of good point-earning opportunities out there if you know where and how to look for them. For example, have you signed up for the bonus miles (up to 125,000 in total) for flying American or its partners to Europe? Have you connected your Starwood loyalty program number with Delta Air Lines to double dip and earn miles for hotel stays and Starwood points for Delta flights? Or how about Starwood and Uber? Link those two programs to earn Starwood points for any Uber ride you take.

If you shop online, there are huge advantages to using airline shopping pages to score big mileage bonuses. And those credit card stands you see in the airport are not the best sources for earning miles. There are often much better offers online if you need a new credit card (try 100,000 miles for a new credit card with no annual fee the first year, I got two of those last year!).

Miles to Go

The world of loyalty programs has never been more in flux than it is right now. Airlines like Delta and United are switching to revenue-based models where you earn miles based upon how much you spend, not how far you fly (a long-standing jackpot for enterprising flyers). It used to be that you could find cheap tickets that flew long distances, and rack up miles at a discount. United and Delta’s move nixes that plan although Alaska and American still allow you to do that (for now, at least).

But loyalty programs are here to stay. In fact, they are incredibly profitable for many airlines, so that’s good news for the traveling public. So, when airlines shift their strategy, we as travelers have to be nimble, too.

So what is an eager traveler to do? Well, that’s why I’m here. The pages of AFAR are filled with exciting places to explore, and your miles can take you there in style. From now on, think of me as your tour guide to show you the winding path of how to collect and redeem your miles and points to maximize their value.

Keep your eyes on this column. We have some great tips and pointers in store. See you in first class!

Ramsey Qubein Ramsey Qubein is a freelance travel journalist covering hotels, cruises, airlines, and loyalty programs from around the globe.

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