Don’t make these newbie mistakes when switching from earning to burning

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A lot of newbies I’ve met get really excited about the credit card application part of collecting miles, but then feel totally overwhelmed by the actual booking part. My family has been doing traveling lately so I’ve gotten to witness first hand what some of the common issues are for a newbie trying to crossover from earning to burning.

1.) “So do I sign into my credit card account to use my miles?”

I can totally understand how this misunderstanding happens.

A credit card promises you all these miles so you think you’ll manage your miles from the same account where you manage your credit card.

False.

Because an airline credit card is actually a partnership between a bank and an airline, you’ll have two accounts when dealing with that card. You’ll have the card’s account via the bank, then you’ll have an account with the mileage program via the airline’s website. If you already have a mileage account at the time of application, this is much less confusing because you just fill in your rewards number on the card application. In fact… let’s make that a point of its own.

 

2.) It’s going to be easier for you if you set up the mileage account first, then apply for the card.

My sister, brother in law, and dad all had the issue of needing to call someone to help them figure out their online account when it was time to actually use their points. They just didn’t know where to go to find their miles and use them. And when I told them they’d need to go to the airline’s website, they couldn’t recall ever setting up a username and password.

As I said before, if you don’t have an account with the mileage program at the time you’re applying for a rewards card, then it’s a bit more confusing because the card will basically make an account for you. You’ll generally have a membership number and some kind of online set-up pin or password that will be included in the letter when you receive your card. But, in the cases of my family members, those numbers weren’t all that obvious or they lost track of that letter and were left with no knowledge of what their online account information was for the airline itself.

Calling to get this worked out isn’t such a big deal really, but you can avoid all of that if you just sign up for a United, American Airlines, IHG, whatever account BEFORE you apply for the card, and include that membership number on your application.

3.) How do I book a flight with my bank points?

9 times out of ten you do NOT want to book a flight directly from the bank’s online account page, even though it’s offered as an option. A flight booked with Chase points via Chase’s online booking portal for instance will give you a much worse value than what you’ll be able to book yourself simply by transferring those points to an airline first, and booking from your account with that airline instead. We’ve got a few resources that can help you out with that. Firstly, this post will tell you how to transfer your bank points to miles. Then, you can also check out which credit cards transfer to which airlines.

 

4.) BUT FIRST, check award availability for the flight you want before you transfer your bank points to that airline.

Bank points are actually really valuable because they allow you to be flexible. But as soon as you transfer them over, you lose the flexibility perk because that can’t be undone. So even though I might often use my Chase points for United flights, I’m not going to transfer them over to United until I know exactly what flights I want and what flights are even available. Especially when you travel as much as we do, you need that flexibility to transfer here and there. Who knows when I’ll desperately need those Chase points for a British Airways flight instead of a United flight? Transfer as needed.

 

5.) Stopover and routing rules are dictated by which mileage currency you’re booking with, not which airline you’re flying.

Drew talks a whole lot about stopovers, particularly with United miles. (Because you can do a lot of crazy awesome things with United stopovers, but that’s another post.)

Sometimes people hear Drew talk about these stopovers and they get really excited about how they’re going to apply it to their award tickets….but they have American Airline miles or something. Well…American Airlines doesn’t allow ANY stopovers on their award tickets so that’s really disappointing. “Well ok, but I can use my American Airlines miles to fly JAL because they’re in the same alliance, and they allow stopovers, right?” Wrong. I mean, yes JAL miles allow stopovers, but American Airline miles do not. And stopover rules are dictated by the currency you’re using, not the airline you’re using that currency to fly.

So if you’re using American Airline miles to fly JAL, American Airline’s award rules will apply, not JAL’s. (See airline stopover and routing rules here.)

 

6.) Just because you’re not finding availability, doesn’t mean there isn’t availability.

For whatever reason, a lot of airlines’ websites don’t load all partner airline results into their search engines. Maybe because they’d rather you switch your dates to fly with their airline than keep your preferred itinerary and fly with a partner? I don’t know. For that reason, you will often need to find availability using other search engines first, and then call an agent to feed them the flights you found/want. If you’re using United miles, you may not need to worry about it because their search engine is fairly complete. But if you’re using some other miles currency or if you’ve got a really specific flight you’re after, it may be good to know which search engines include which airlines in their results.

7.) Just because your award ticket is coming out really expensive after all the fees, doesn’t mean it has to.

I have a friend who was so annoyed that she got a travel rewards card because when she went to redeem a flight, the ticket ended up being really expensive. (I wish I remembered what she was trying to book and whose miles she had…) The thing is, if you know what you’re doing, you can avoid at least fuel surcharges and that ends up being really significant.

First, understand that whether or not you’ll have fuel surcharges on your award tickets depends on both the miles you’re using and the airline you’re using them to fly.

Basically the airline you’re flying with will have fuel surcharges, and the mileage program will either inherit them from that airline or not. In many cases, a mileage program will just ignore the airline’s fuel surcharges for an award ticket. But you need to know who ignores fuel surcharges, and whose fuel surcharges are they ignoring. That way you can try to avoid redeeming your miles with an airline that it accepts fuel surcharges from.

For instance if you have American Airline miles, you just have to avoid redeeming your miles with British Airways and Iberia, since it ignores all other fuel surcharges. Or, even easier, with United miles you can trust that your award ticket will ignore everyone’s fuel surcharges.

This isn’t referring to airport taxes though. You’ll always get stuck with those. Once you feel like you get the concept of a mileage program ignoring some or all of airlines’ fuel surcharges, check out the master chart to avoiding fuel surcharges.

 

What are some of the other newbie mistakes we’ve all made when first transitioning from the earning phase to the burning phase? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

6 Comments on “Don’t make these newbie mistakes when switching from earning to burning

  1. I have AA miles, and UR points and even some Alaska miles. Want to see what your thoughts would be on getting 4 of us to and from Dallas to Europe. Prefer London but taxes are high. Aer Lingus is totally booked on every route. Very little Air Berlin per British Airways rep. Will connect out of wherever but just trying to find something better than 30k each way per person and pay as little as possible. Looking from 7/15-8/22. Thoughts? Btw, really enjoyed y’alls content at FTU!

    • Well unfortunately 30K is pretty much the option. If you wanted to avoid fuel surcharges, AA and United (via UR points) are both good for that, but they won’t help you out with London’s airport taxes unfortunately. :-/ London is tricky for that reason. Wish I had better news for you for this trip! 🙁 Give this post a look-through though, in case it’s helpful: http://travelisfree.com/2014/10/16/cheapest-miles-to-get-to-europe/

  2. “It’s going to be easier for you if you set up the mileage account first, then apply for the card.”

    The corollary to that: Often if you set up the mileage account first, you will start seeing targeted offers for the related credit card(s) that are better than the public offers.

  3. This post was super helpful and chock full of so many concrete tips. Thanks a bunch, Carrie!

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