Beginners Guide Part 1: Starting Out – REALLY Know What You Want

So you’ve just entered the points game, and you know enough to know the best way to accrue points quickly is through credit card sign up bonuses. You do a quick search of the most popular travel blogs and you pick Credit Card x, because that’s the one everyone seems to be talking about right now.

This seems like a pretty good strategy, and it definitely could be, but isn’t necessarily the best strategy. But wait…how do you know what the best strategy is? I’m glad you asked!

Basically, there is no one strategy. Yes it sounds cliche, but it happens to be true. Particularly with something as personal as travel plans, everyone has their own goals in terms of what they want to do. Maybe you want to have an amazing honeymoon next year and want to do an exotic beach location. Maybe you want to do a 3 week tour of Europe and hit up all the popular spots. Maybe you want to go visit your family back in India, or China, or Australia. Maybe your in-laws live in Canada, and you fly out there twice a year to keep the spouse happy. Literally endless possibilities for where you want your points to take you.

There is no question, then, that step one must be to know what you want. Knowing that you want a lot of points isn’t good enough. Knowing you want to be able to travel is getting closer, but still not good enough. Unfortunately, I’m a very good example of the latter scenario, which I quickly learned from and is a mistake I hope that no one else makes.

When I was first told about the existence of this points and travel blogging world, I was absolutely amazed. I was reading amazing blog posts about one guy who just flew to Singapore in Business Class and is staying at a super expensive hotel and was upgraded to a suite, and all using points and a few dollars in taxes. The next guy flew first class to Bora Bora to stay five nights in an over-water room that routinely costs $1000 a night, and of course all on points. I needed to get in on this!

So, I jumped on the first good credit card offer that came along to jump start my new-found passion for collecting points for travel. It didn’t take long, as the Southwest Airlines credit card became available for a 50K point bonus after the first purchase. This was extremely attractive to me because it was 50K points AND the card didn’t have a spend requirement…perfect!

I jumped on it immediately. Got approved immediately. Got the card and made my first purchase pretty quickly. Then I finally asked myself, “awesome…now what should I do with these points?”

I asked myself that question a bit too late, because as it turns out, I realized that I really don’t want Southwest Airlines points. I don’t really have much of an interest in domestic travel, and the locations Southwest flies from Southern California, where I live, are very un-interesting to me for a variety of reasons. “Crap,” is the first thought that came to mind.

“Okay, well at least Southwest was having a holiday sale on gift cards from their website,” I recall thinking. I remember I could get about $600 worth of Amazon gift cards, which to me is almost like cash, by using those 50K points. Not a bad consolation. But I looked at my account and my points hadn’t posted. What gives?

Long story short, it takes 6-8 weeks to get your points. By then, the holidays were over, and my 50K points were only worth $500 in gift cards. Still not terrible, but I wasted a credit card application, a credit card from Chase (which is an important bank that doesn’t just hand out credit cards), and got points that I really don’t want. I plain and simple messed up.

Even if all I knew was that I want to travel internationally, it would have helped me significantly. I could have gotten any “normal” airline’s credit card or any hotel’s credit card and been perfectly fine. But I didn’t REALLY know what I wanted.

My advice to you is this: sit down, decide where you want to go and what kind of trip do you want to have. Details are your friend (i.e. are you cool with economy or do you want business or first class?). You can get off to a very good start in the points game if you just take some time to figure out what you want.

Below is a very basic rundown of the different options you have, and what they’re good for. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it will hit some of the biggest players in the points game. Hopefully this will help you determine what kind of points you want to start collecting in order to reach your goals, whatever they may be.

Bank Credit Cards - Usually the most valuable because these points can be transferred to a variety of airline and hotel partners.

  • American Express - Transfer to Delta, Jet Blue, Singapore Airlines, British Airways, Hawaiian Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Starwood Hotels, Hilton, Best Western, and MANY others.
  • Chase - Transfer to Southwest Airlines, United, Korean Airlines, Hyatt, Marriott, Priority Club, and others.

Airline Cards Valuable if you’re interested in flying and/or saving on flights. Note many of these can be transferred into by the above credit cards.

  • United - Arguably the best airline points there are. Has one of the best online award search engines. Access to Star Alliance airlines provides great access when flying to Asia in particular, but you can get nearly anywhere with United miles.
  • American - Not the best online search engine for awards. American miles are difficult to obtain via credit card sign-ups (Citi bank has a few cards). Has several good partners to get you around the globe, and some good off-peak reward redemptions.
  • US Airways - Terrible online search engine for award tickets; you will have to call in and talk to hard to deal with people. But, has some very valuable redemption options, like their off-peak awards. You can also buy points regularly for very cheap prices and get great value.
  • Delta - Their Sky Miles are commonly referred to as “Sky Pesos” because of how little the points can sometimes be worth. Still, good values can be found, like on a Business Class Round the World trip.
  • British Airways - The distance based award chart can sometimes drive you nuts, but can sometimes be an amazing value (for example West coast to Hawaii or very short flights). Frequently has transfer bonuses with partner American Express.
  • ANA - Also a very good rewards booking search engine, and lots of partners.

Hotel Cards - If you’re interested in free accomodations at nice hotels, there are plenty of options.

  • Hilton - Hilton has hotels everywhere in the world. Their points have lost some of their value recently, but there are still lots of good opportunities out there.
  • Starwood - Starwood points are valuable because of the “Cash and Points” option, which can provide tremendous value, particularly in Europe where rooms are expensive because the Euro is stronger than the dollar. Also, points can be transferred to almost any airline, with a bonus on top.
  • Hyatt - The ability to accrue points from Chase make this valuable, as there are a few hotels that charge $1000/night, but can be had for 22K points per night (sign up bonuses for chase can be 50K points or more, potentially giving you $2K+ in value!)
  • Priority Club - The best part about Priority Club are the “Point Break” hotels, a list of hotels that rotates every few months and offers reward nights for only 5K points. And yes, InterContinental hotels can definitely be found on this list!

Next up in the Beginner’s Guide series will be Part 2: Do Not Underestimate the Importance of Timing. Look for this post in the coming days!

Beginner’s Guide to Points – A 5-Part Series

Part 1: Starting Out – REALLY Know What You Want

Part 2: Do Not Underestimate the Importance of Timing

Part 3: It’s Good to Diversify…Usually

Part 4: Know Your Spending Habits Really Well

Part 5: There are LOTS of Ways to Earn Points

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