For many people, business travel is just part of the grind. But it also provides some great perks—if you know how to take advantage of them. In fact, if you learn the ins and outs of the travel loyalty program system, every trip you take helps you collect points (that you can use later for personal trips or other fun benefits).
Luckily for you, the best tips and tricks for collecting points is a common conversation among consultants. (Remember the scene in Up in the Air where George Clooney compares his collection of programs?) Because I know not everyone lives and breathes points like consultants do, I’ve collected my knowledge into a primer to help you collect points like a pro.
Know the Ground Rules
The #1 rule of travel loyalty programs is to pick just one to stick with for each category (e.g., flights or hotels). Since there are often point minimums for redeeming awards, you’ll want to collect as many points as possible in a single program instead of a small number of points across a large number of providers.
But there’s a lesser-known rule that’s almost as important: Look for programs that have partners or agreements that allow you to transfer points among them—such as Starwood hotel group and the Star Alliance. So when you’re short 1,000 points for a free hotel stay, you can pull those points from the extras in your airline program.
There are two key rewards you’ll work toward in your loyalty programs: points and status. Points are collected on every trip and can be used to redeem travel rewards (and sometimes merchandise or gift cards). It’s important when picking a program to look at the potential rewards and also how far a point gets you (e.g., with one airline, you may be able to redeem two miles per dollar spent, whereas with another one, it may be closer to five).
But while points are great, status (think United Premier or American Elite) is where the real magic happens. Once you hit a certain status level (you’ll get there either by collecting a minimum number of points or by hitting a certain number of trips), you’ll be entitled to a set of perks—things like free room upgrades, free upgrades to first class, free breakfast, or bonus points every time you travel.
A quick pro tip: If you travel a lot, there are a couple of sneaky ways to get early status, before you’ve accumulated the points or trips you need to officially earn it. The first is to challenge status—or ask for status now if you plan to travel so many times in a certain timeframe. Many programs offer this if you talk to their customer service department. The other option is status matching: If you currently have status with one hotel or airline and decide to switch, the competing program will often match your status in order to earn your business. Either way, it’s worth asking.
Pick an Alliance, Not an Airline
People generally assume the only way to amass a huge number of airline points is to stick to only flying on one airline—which isn’t always feasible if you often travel internationally or to smaller cities that aren’t main hubs.
But, while you should pick a primary airline (ideally a domestic airline that frequently flies to the hub you’ll be heading to most), what you really need to do is stay within the same partner program every time you travel. Partner programs are groups of airlines that have banded together and allow you to consolidate points on any of their partners—the main ones being Star Alliance (which includes United, Lufthansa, and US Airways), One World (the home of American Airlines and Cathay Pacific), and Skyteam (made up of Delta, Air France, and other international airlines).
Book most flights with your primary carrier, then, when you need to fly somewhere not covered by your primary, choose another airline from within your partner program, making sure to always use your loyalty program number from your primarily airline.
I personally have Air Canada (I’m based in Calgary), which is part of the Star Alliance, and have collected points traveling everywhere from China to Colombia to Russia. (Points that turn into access to airport lounges and free upgrades!)
Add a Hotel Program
In addition to flying the same airlines, you’ll want to start staying in the same brands of hotels. There are a number of chains you can pick from, but the main ones are Marriott, Hyatt, and Starwood, which covers the Sheraton and Westin chains. Preference on hotels can be personal (for example, whether you prefer the modern style of the Westin or the more traditional Marriott), but you should consider the location of the chain’s hotels (is it close to your clients’ offices or halfway across town?), where your team will be staying, and any special deals your company may have.
I personally chose Starwood’s program, as it provides me access to a large number of chains and hotels globally—there’s a Starwood in almost every city around the world. It also comes with great perks—free breakfast, room upgrades, late checkout—offers frequent promotions to multiply the number of points, and has great rewards available (one of my friends just redeemed her points for a free week in the St. Regis Bora Bora hotel!).
Pick a Car Program
While this may not be used as frequently, it’s still good to have a program selected. Car rewards programs can often be exchanged for free car rentals (road trip anyone?) or for items such as gift cards.
There are a lot of rental car service providers, but Budget, Enterprise, National, Hertz, and Avis are the most mainstream. Typically, companies will have one or two that they have preferred rate arrangements with, so it’s best to pick one your company works with. I use National, as its witty “Business Pro” commercials won me over (and its service is quick and professional).
Add a Credit Card to the Mix
The final tool in your arsenal is your credit card. Choose one that lines up with either your airline or hotel program to really maximize your points. You should also look into any one-time point bonuses that can kick off your point collection or any extra rewards offered (such as automatic elite status even if you haven’t met the minimum requirements). The Starwood Amex is generally believed to be one of the best travel reward cards that exists, but you can also pick one that aligns to your airline in order to get extra benefits.
Whether you jet-set constantly for work like a consultant or just travel from time to time, building up a solid travel benefits program can only ever help you. Now, go get collecting!