If you’re a wanderluster, or you read a lot of travel blogs, you’ve probably seen at least one post bragging about how a blogger “spent 3 weeks in Bali for only $24!” or something similar. In these posts, they aren’t really traveling for “free,” they’re taking advantage of reward point programs. But it probably got you thinking “Hey! I want free trips!”
But how do you even get started earning enough points to score a free trip?
Which rewards program should you join? Flight or hotel or both? How loyal do you really need to be? How long will they take to actually add up to a free trip? There’s a lot to consider.
Even if money is no object for you, it might be a good idea to join some of these programs and start getting room upgrades and free wifi in some hotels. But where do you start?
I’m going to try to help today, but I want you to know that this advice is a reflection on what’s worked well for me, not necessarily on what will work great for you. Spend your money however you see fit. Okay, disclaimer over.
Where do you already spend the most money?
When deciding where to start, it can be hard to decide between looking at airline loyalty programs versus hotel programs. If you’re flying a lot but never staying in a hotel because you’re visiting family, start with airline programs. If you are a master of finding cheap flights on whatever budget airline so that you can stay in nice hotels, start on the hotel side of things.
Are you already loyal to one and just not earning points?
Have you noticed that Delta always has the best options for flying from your local airport? (True for me in Minneapolis.) Or does United usually get you where you need to go? If you’re already using the same airline or staying in the same hotels consistently, it’s a good idea to start earning points for that loyalty.
What partnerships do they have?
Often you can earn perks by signing up for crossover rewards. I have Delta Skymiles, for instance, and I get perks in Starwood hotels because of their crossover program. And now that SPG has merged with Marriott, it’s easy to transfer Marriott points to SPG rewards and get some perks there as well. See if you can link accounts to get your loyalty to go that much further.
Do they have a credit card?
Okay, travel credit cards could (and probably will) have an entire post of their own, but if you already know you what kinds of fees you’re willing to pay and whether you can pay it off every month, you might consider getting the credit card affiliated with the rewards program you use the most. You’ll get points faster, and you’ll probably get other perks, like early boarding for an airline card.
Should I stop comparison shopping?
No! Even after you’ve picked a loyalty program, you should always comparison shop when you’re checking out hotels in a new city or when you’re flying a new route. Check Tripadvisor or Booking.com to get a sense of the average hotel prices for your dates and don’t pay a huge premium just to stay loyal to a hotel program (what “huge” is is up to you, but be honest with yourself about your budget).
Keep in mind that you can comparison shop within hotel brands, and most of them have a wide variety of brands within the larger brand at this point, so you can shop around. For instance, Starwood owns both the Luxury Collection (luxurious and pricey) and the Aloft hotels (funky, modern, and budget-friendly). Look on the hotel brand website to compare prices between the different brands under their umbrella.
If you end up staying in a hotel that you aren’t a member of, it’s probably worth it to sign up anyway. You can start earning points (in case you end up staying with them more than you planned) and it’s free. The last couple of times I’ve done this, I’ve gotten room upgrades for being in their membership program, despite the fact that I had only just joined and had literally zero points with them. You might only get free wifi, but hey, it’s probably worth it!
Are you a member of any travel rewards programs? Let me know in the comments which ones are your favorites!