Game Your Way to Elite Status - The Airline and Hotel Guide
Loyalty programs, airline points, hotel points, and the perks that come along with them are not exclusive to the frequent business traveler. In fact, they're even sweeter if you earn them playing the game right, because you didn't need do something like spend $110,000 on a credit card or take 50 flights in a year. Come back down to earth, and listen to my tale.
First: Set Your Goals
Take a look at your monthly and annual travel and spending. Use Mint.com, your credit statements, or something else to give you a deep look at what you spend on credit cards historically.
Check out a few rewards programs that might interest you, explore their Card offers, and map out some general milestones.
Then set some specific goals. Do you want to earn A-List and Companion Pass status with Southwest? Perhaps "Discoverist" level with Hyatt, or"Gold" status with Hilton? How many flights/hotel stays do you think you want to earn. Plan an ideal vacation, and set your goals around that, if you need to.
Southwest: Companion Pass
Let's just get started. I'll assume you're aiming high here. One of the best airline perks out there is the coveted Companion Pass - This one requires 110,000 points, and lets you take someone with you on any of your flights for free. Stack that on flying on points, and you've got yourself a good year to plan some quality free travel. You're going to start by making sure you've actually got an account with the Rapid Rewards. Next, sign up for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Card Once you get the card, you're going to switch all of your monthly credit card charges to it, and start using it for normal day-to-day purchases like gas, restaurants, appointments, groceries, etc. This is both to make sure you hit the spending requirement to get the 40,000 point bonus, but also because spending on the card is one of the primary ways you're going to pile on some points.
If you travel often or periodically for personal or business, switch your loyalties to Southwest. Especially if traveling for work. And when you do this, ALWAYS opt to use your own card. Using a corporate card that you don't get benefits from is for schmucks anyway. Always charge your own expenses if offered, even if it means you need to spend more time filling out expense reports.
Anyway, this is where the path diverges. If you know you're traveling and spending enough to hit the 110,000 points required to get the companion pass in a calendar year, just keep up the good work on this card.
If you know you can't hit this amount in a single year, I know people who've been successful getting the Southwest Rapid Rewards Business Card during the same year to stack an additional 40,000 point bonus in their account. The requirements for this have seemed pretty loose. Individuals have signed up with their "business" literally being their name.com, doing something like selling something on an Etsy shop - filling the "annual business income" form field with something as low as $800. Rinse and repeat.
Or, just do this for A-List (50,000) and the free flights. Normal roundtrip US flights are between 14,000 and 22,000 when you book ahead, so you've probably gotten a few flights out of this just from points, and you're bumped to A boarding with a fairly minimal credit spend in a year.
Now - this same method can get you status, free flights, stays, additional perks with Delta, Hilton, Hyatt. Sign up for their rewards program, get their card (or a good Travel card like Chase Sapphire), spend/travel/stay enough to earn some of the goals you mapped out to hit.
A note on annual fees:
Yes, these cards typically range in $69 to $99 in annual fees. First year is usually waived or discounted to encourage you to sign up. Here's the thing. This is worth it for the first few years of the card for most people. If you stop using the card, don't just let it sit there. Call, say you haven't been using the card and that you need to cancel unless they waive the fee for another year. Hell, even cancel it. I won't waste your time on this post with a lesson on playing the credit score game (i'll save that for another time), but this really doesn't impact you much unless you already have some other factors going against you.