Miles And Points For Infrequent Flyers

Filed Under: Advice, Awards

Last week I wrote about how to book awards from multiple accounts. This can be a big challenge for families, particularly in the case of schedule disruptions.

Reader Matt S. left a great comment, which I think poses an interesting question:


I think this is a great article, but it also highlights my concerns about over-diversification with points/miles accumulation. I am a casual traveler only, and only fly 2-3 times a year. I live near DFW, so I mainly fly AA. For the same reason, I have AA Citi personal and business cards to rack up AA miles. However, after reading this post and several of Ben’s other posts on miles, I’m starting to wonder if that’s the best strategy. What point/mile strategy would you recommend for casual travelers? Thanks!

Now, full disclaimer: this might not be the same advice you’d get from Ben. We tend to agree on most things, but every so often we have passionate arguments different opinions about stuff like which airline is most awesome or which is the best One Direction song. 😉

So I think he’d agree with most of this, but just fair warning.

Anyways, Matt’s question resonated with me because the majority of the people I interact with are casual travelers. Not just my friends and family, but the bulk of our clientele would definitely fall into the “2-3 times a year” category. And I do think their approach needs to be somewhat different.

Set some travel goals

Ben talks about this all the time, but it’s even more important for casual travelers to have an idea of what they’re working towards. In my experience infrequent travelers care more about their destination than their redemption value.

So it might make sense to start with the destination and work backwards, rather than starting with the best/easiest/most valuable points currency.

We went to Malaysia for a wedding – the great AAdvantage redemption was an awesome perk, but not the goal

I can’t tell you how many times a day we get emails from people who have exactly the wrong points for where they want to go.

United miles to Tahiti. American miles to Africa. Delta miles to Canada. Qantas miles to anywhere.

You don’t need to become an award expert or anything, but just have a general idea of where you want to go, or how you want to get there. Know how many miles it takes to get to your destination in a premium cabin. Find out which airlines fly there. Know their alliance partners.

And then have a plan for getting the right points, and try to give yourself a few options by diversifying your miles.

You don’t have to diversify on your own

If you are seriously crazy about this hobby you can memorize award charts and sweet spots, and have every section of your AwardWallet account earmarked for a particularly aspirational redemption (something I’m certainly guilty of).

But you don’t have to make it that hard.

To keep it simple, consider focusing on American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest points.

Because those programs have multiple partners your points are diversified by default, without you having to put a lot of thought into it. I think of it a bit like investing in mutual funds rather than picking single stocks.

Around 160,000 per person in each of those currencies will pretty much get you wherever you need to go in business class. (Pending availability, specific programs, and all the usual disclaimers. We’re making sweeping generalizations here, because this is the internet.)

Pick up a cash-back card to create a travel fund to cover things the miles won’t, like fuel surcharges and phone ticketing fees. It doesn’t have to be a complicated system.

That way when you have the opportunity to go somewhere fantastic with your miles, you’re not locked in to a certain carrier and their partners.

Be opportunistic, but loyalty agnostic

Many people get stuck in the rut of thinking they need to accrue miles with the airline they fly the most often. If you’re hub-captive you might end up flying the same airline by default, but I don’t personally think it makes sense to be loyal to an airline unless you’re flying more than 25,000 revenue miles a year.

Otherwise you can get many of the same perks as you would get at the bottom loyalty tier by picking up a co-branded credit card.

Ditto for hotels. If you’re not staying at least 25 nights a year you’re probably best off as a free agent. My mother drives me crazy because she insists on staying “loyal” to Starwood, but she only has maybe ten hotel stays a year. If that.

So she’s paying more for every hotel stay, but she’s not staying frequently enough to leverage elite status or receive any of the perks associated with program loyalty.

Similarly, I had a phone consultation with a client last week, and we were discussing their credit card strategy for 2015. At one point in the conversation they remarked “well, we need to keep our SkyMiles card, because we live in Atlanta.”

No you don’t.

I mean, get a SkyMiles card, by all means. But get it for the signup bonus, or the baggage allowance, or if you need the MQDs to reach the next tier. Don’t just get it because of your zip codeThey’re not even the best cards for accruing SkyMiles in many cases.

I secretly love SkyMiles, and we used them to go to Edinburgh and Prague last year, but still…

Loyalty has a cost, and it’s harder for that equation to balance if you’re a casual traveler.

As an example, even with the 100% mileage bonus as an American Executive Platinum, and flying over 100,000 revenue miles this year, I’ll earn more miles this year from the Citi Executive sign-up bonanza than I will from flying.

Of course I receive other benefits along with those butt-in-seat miles, all of which have a value to me, but as a means of accruing miles flying is definitely the more difficult route nowadays.

If you can earn a few hundred thousand miles from leveraging credit cards, shopping portals, and promos, does it really matter which airline you fly most on the few paid tickets each year?

Bottom line

If you only get one trip a year, would you rather have one option for redeeming your miles, or dozens?

That’s ultimately the choice you’re making when choosing to accrue miles in a single airline program versus a transferable points currency.

Instead of being loyal to a certain brand, look to take advantage of the best promotions and deals that will help with getting you where you want to go. With some strategic applications most casual travelers should easily be able to accrue enough points to cover the handful of flights and hotel stays they need each year.

What do you think? What would you recommend for a less-frequent flyer like Matt S.?

  1. I’d agree with you, Tiffany. I generally get 3 trips of a week or more per year and maybe 1-2 weekend trips. Two of my week-long trips are domestic ski trips so I can usually use any of AA/DL/UA for that. My bigger trip in the fall I’ll use whatever is best for the destination.

  2. This all made me laugh a bit because you’re completely — and I mean 100% — assuming out of the equation the one thing that’s actually critical to me, namely a non-stop flight at a reasonable time. And for a DFW hub captive, that means AA miles and only AA miles.

    Would I value Avios for domestic flights (on AA, of course)? Yes. Have I flown to AMS non-stop on KLM? Yes again. I don’t mean to imply that there can’t be exceptions, but in the main AA miles, via BIS miles, bonus miles or CC sign-ups, are the way to go.

    I’m not really going to go somewhere where I have to change planes . . . unless, maybe, it’s back to Italy. But you get my point, right?

    For hotels I don’t disagree. There’s no such thing as too many connections and hub captives when it comes to hotels.

  3. @ Tom — I’m not Tiffany, but to chime in, I don’t think she was disagreeing. Specifically, the best way to rack up American miles for everyday spend ISN’T actually with an American co-branded credit card, but rather with a Starwood Card. And then you have the added flexibility to transfer to other partners so you can redeem Alaska miles on Emirates out of Dallas, Delta miles on KLM out of Dallas, etc.

    I think the point was to counter the notion that “I live in Atlanta, and therefore I need a Delta credit card,” and the like.

  4. @ Lea — Sounds perfect! Do you think in advance about what is going to be best for the destination, or tend to accrue lots of different points “just in case?”

  5. I would agree with Tiffany wholeheartedly. My boyfriend and I decide what aspirational awards we would want to take and then earn points that make sense to get us there. We try to have a well-rounded points portfolio, with lots of Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards points in addition to airline miles, which is usually the best way to do crazy things like Singapore Suites or Emirates First. Having only one source of miles means that many aspirational travels are out of the question – and isn’t that the point of this hobby in the first place?!

  6. How about a general “Just because you are hub captive and fly that hub’s airline does not mean you must bank your miles with that airline’s frequent flyer program” statement? I value having a nonstop option of getting somewhere, but it makes more sense to see if accruing points in another program makes more sense, not only because of the # of points needed for a redemption, but also due to another frequent flyer program’s rules. *casual traveler who is Delta hub captive, stopped accruing Delta points because of “no one-way” rule*

    I also go for a middle-ground- instead of being “loyalty agnostic”, I have a primary program along with a backup or two brandwise when it comes to hotels/airlines, since I still want to have an opportunity to “hedge” against a deval. Basically, I see it all as a balancing act, it’s just that casual travelers have a different set of issues to contend with than frequent flyers. IMO, he just needs to find his “ideal balance” so to speak.

  7. Excellent idea for a post! I love your posts (the earlier one re multiple award bookings was awesome). I fly usually only fly 2-3x per year and maybe one is personal (sometimes none). So work pays. I flung myself into cc bonuses and shopping portals last year after educating myself on how best to use miles for business class to South Africa. I couldn’t believe what I’d been missing all these years! I mean, I was good about charging everything to my Delta Skymiles or Usbank flex perks cc, but I had no idea the many perks available with various cards. Since blowing 800k points on biz class to SA with a stop in Europe, I have racked up another 1,500,000 points in one year. I probably can’t keep up this pace but I’m so thrilled with the hotel status, airport lounge access, etc that I’m getting. And the AFs are (for me) momentarily worth it, though I’ve begun canceling a few unnecessary cc’s when AF comes due.

  8. @ Tom — Ben is right, I don’t disagree (other than maybe about collecting AA miles exclusively). That’s why my first point was that less-frequent travelers should start by identifying their travel goals. If your priority is to fly non-stop then you’re absolutely going to be spending a lot of time on American. No argument there (though Ben makes a strong point about SPG cards being more lucrative for everyday spend, and your point about Avios for domestic flights is spot-on as well).

    I’m neither hub-captive nor a casual traveler, so that’s my bias. Would you recommend that your neighbor or other folks living in Dallas who only fly 3-4 times a year collect AA miles exclusively as well?

  9. @ Beck — Awww, thanks! I wish I could take credit for the idea :p

    So even with only flying a handful of times per year, are you finding juggling multiple cards “worth it?” That’s something I struggle with when making recommendations to less-frequent travelers.

  10. I agree with the points Tiffany made. I’m an infrequent traveler, but I take at least two “big” international trips per year because my sister lives in New Zealand and my husband and I take an anniversary trip (I’m writing this from Ireland). I fly domestically 3 times a year at least. 2014 was all about earning SkyMiles because I knew that they have good award availability to Australia (and now a couple of cities in New Zealand). I am stuck at a crosshairs because I do want to try out different premium cabins (I wouldn’t call the current 2-3-2 Virgin Australia biz class cabin an aspirational award but it will get me to my sister, brother in law and nephew without being cramped in coach for 15 hours).

  11. You also need to keep your goals in mind when you value your various points currencies. For example, “prevailing wisdom” is that UA, AA, and AS miles all have about the same value. But most of my international trips are to Europe in late spring and summer; I’ve found my UA miles are much easier to get good value out of than my AA and AS miles (sorry, I’m not willing to fly through the Middle East to get to Europe). So, personally, I put about a 50% higher value on each UA mile than on each AA or AS mile.

  12. I’m pretty much like Beck (and not to answer for her/him) have to say that it’s “worth it” for a year or two, but I think I’ll but back a little in a year or so. It’s pretty time-consuming trying to juggle 18 credit cards and all the loyalty programs. The blogs help so much–and I think Ben’s it the best.

    I kind of use a hybrid approach to goals, though. I have not been many places outside the U.S., so I pick a flight/airline/hotel I really like (or two) and design a trip around those. My next trip (which Alex helped arrange–thanks, Alex!), involves Cathay and Singapore, HK, Singapore, and Bali. The next trip will be either Down Under or South Africa. I’m starting to think about who flies down to those places and how I want to get there.

    I totally get the “minimize changing planes” priority. I’m from Atlanta, and have been known to say (in a slightly condescending tone) “we don’t change planes.” It sucks being a hub-captive, but unless I’m changing countries, I can at least fly there directly. And, yeah, it’s worth the extra hundred or so.

  13. @Tiffany, I tend to think about what’s the best for where I’m going. Fortunately I like to plan very far ahead so I can accrue what’s best. For example, for 2 years I’ve been planning for a trip to Australia in October 2015. I knew I wanted Qantas and thanks to Ben I learned to use BA miles to get the first class seat I wanted. My friends going with me are also able to use miles thanks to what I’ve learned here.

    We haven’t picked an intl destination for 2016 (may stay domestic due to 2 long Intl trips this year) but we’re looking at China for 2017 so that’ll give us time to accumulate more AA miles, hopefully for flights on CX.

  14. @ UAPhil — TOTALLY agree! I redeemed some AA miles in a pinch last summer to get home from Europe quickly, but United, Aeroplan, and even Delta have been more personally useful to me for European trips.

  15. Another great post. BTW, I flew 115,000 miles this year – 17% for business, the rest personal. Does that make me a leisure traveler, or what? (flying addict?).

  16. @mbh and @Tiffany, it is kind of a pain to juggle, but I’ve managed to keep my main cc’s with Chase and Amex, so they are all in the same online access place. I’ve got 2 outliers: USbank and Citibank AA exec. Citi I will likely let go once AF hits. I keep a spreadsheet. And I’m about to put little stickers on my cards to remind me which for groceries, etc. Miraculously, I also got a Suntrust SKymiles debit, so that’s a big part of my rotation.

    @mbh. Since you are in ATL, you can do Air France/Delta to South Africa (JNB) via Paris (only one stop). We did this last year. Stayed 10 days in Nice, then a weekend in Paris, en route to SA, where for three weeks we explored the Garden Route, Cape Town, then safari in Kruger. It was so nice to be over our jet lag before we hit the “big” part of our trip. We’d all been to France before, so that part was less stressful and a perfect pre-trip. SA was absolutely incredible. Once my youngest kid is a teenager (about 6 more years), I plan to go back (but will only do safari this time).

    The CDG-JNB flight is on an Airbus 380. An INCREDIBLE experience on its own. On return we could have chosen JNB-ATL direct, but we decided to route via CDG again b/c I wanted the 380 both times. Plus, I wasn’t sure I could do that JNB-ATL in one go. That’s a long flight. But for you it would probably make sense.

  17. @ Tiffany — another great article! I think another advice would be for people to have a healthy balance between accumulation & redemption (i.e. “earn & burn”, lol). I think we’ve all known people who accumulated huge balances and then got hit hard due to an inevitable devaluation.

    I also think it’s important for people new to the hobby to seek help from their friends, blogs/forums, or a booking service. Some people do enjoy learning about miles & points, but — let’s be honest — a busy person who needs to plan 1-2 trips a year probably doesn’t need to know all of AS partners 😀

  18. Hello Tiffany,
    This thread is so old, I do not know if you are still monitoring it. OR if you are still following one direction.
    You mentioned Qantas miles not useful anywhere. Please explain.
    In fact, this is possibly outside your knowledge, but I believe my 100k QFF would have expired some years ago; and can’t find my card, or remember the number. I believe they expire, if they have not been added to, or used in 18 months.
    Do you know, if they are reclaimable, after expiry/lapsing?
    One other (basic) question. Do you get credit for miles flown, on a flight redeemed through accumulated miles?
    How did Beck accrue 1.5 million miles in a year?

    Thanks Tiffany

  19. @ Greg — Hmm, I don’t believe Qantas lets you reinstate expired miles, but your best bet is to call and have them look up your account details.

    You don’t earn miles on a flight paid for with miles (the exception is if the flight was booked with certain credit card programs which call their rewards currencies “miles” but are really just cash-back).

    Earning miles is a bit trickier in Australia, but I’d suggest checking out the Beginners Guide for a good overview of how this all works:

  20. Thanks for your reply.
    Yes, it was points (100k+) It gets confusing, as I am not on top of this. I am looking for a flight to Phillipines in next few months, so I sortof, by chance, came across this site only 2 days ago. It stimulated my interest – and my memory. I will be intending to travel a lot more over next few years, so am investigating all possibilities and options that lay before me.

    What did you mean by “qantas miles not useful anywhere”? I did read the beginners guide.

    This is a news clip from last week
    “Qantas CEO spends $5m on Sydney weekender. With $12m pay Alan Joyce …. just one day after his company topped a list of public companies which dodged paying any tax last year. In the past 12 months, Qantas has reported earnings of $14.9 billion.”

    Great to see that he has saved up all those 35 daily commute miles, so he could redeem them for the house.

    Whereon this site, can I find a list of abbreviations: like NH, CX, SPG, MIA?

    P.S Are you still headed in the one direction?

  21. P.P.S
    Yes, thanks re qantas. It has reminded me to look in a few boxes for my card number. OR I will contact them today. If I was in Sydeney, I could drop in and ask Alan. He’s got a great view.

    Just saw SPG = Starwood Pre-screened Guest. And I do know some, can guess others … but not all

  22. Just trying to figure out which card is right for me. I am a casual traveler at best. We do a yearly vacation either to Europe or to a sunny beach with clear waters. So I am in between cards at the moment. I am not sure if a strict airline card would be good, a co-branded like Starwood, or the venture card would be best. Cards I have been reading over have included chase sapphire preferred card, capital one venture rewards card, but I am open to other cards . I do the usual spending (ie: groceries, daily activities, entertainment, dining…) I’m mainly looking for something that I could gain miles/points from and when we do have a “vacation” I can use the accrued miles/points to help pay the flight or the hotel, or both if possible. Any help/advice would be greatly appreciated!

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