Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Frequent Flyer Programs and Credit Cards for Infrequent Flyers

Given the fact that we don’t have to travel for business, combined with the awful experience that air travel is today, we’ve begun planning more driving vacations and cutting back on our plans for discretionary flying. Until air misery improves, we expect to be flying only 3-4 times a year. So we got to thinking about other folks in similar situations or, especially, people who are new to the frequent-flyer and reward-credit-card games.

If you’re a newbie or just normally an infrequent flyer, you may want to re-think some of the commonly offered advice. Let’s examine 4 scenarios. (If you fly more than our examples, or already have a lot of miles, you’re probably OK with whatever you’re doing now.)

1 You fly once a year domestically to visit family or friends. You almost never stay in hotels.
2 You fly once a year domestically. You stay in hotels several times a year on your travels.
3 You fly once a year internationally for vacation, and another 1-2 times domestically. You almost never stay in hotels.
4 You fly once a year internationally and 1-2 times domestically. You stay in hotels several times a year.

Here are our suggestions.

Situation 1 & 2
Credit-Card Frequent Flyer Buying: We have two suggested options. Get a cash-back credit card (some offer as much as 3-5%, depending on category and spending limits – see some of our previous posts) and buy yourself an airline ticket with the money you saved. Alternately, look to the travel-reward cards outlined below. If you’re in scenario 2, seriously consider a hotel credit card instead. Assuming you like a particular hotel chain, your room rewards may work out to as much as 5% – far better than most cash-back or travel-reward card percentages. Some hotel cards also allow transfers to airline frequent-flyer programs. Some no-annual-fee hotel card options are listed below.
Flying: Sign up for the frequent-flyer program of whatever airline you fly, whenever you fly. Over time you may accrue enough flight miles for a ticket, if... you fly one airline as much as possible; your airline stays in business; the program doesn’t change the rules.

Situations 3 & 4
Credit-Card Frequent Flyer Buying: We’d still suggest a cash-back or travel-rewards card as your primary credit card. Hotel cards can again be very worthwhile if you’re in situation 4. You could also possibly – just possibly – consider a no-annual-fee airline credit card (as a secondary card only) if you fly one airline almost exclusively. The only major U.S. airlines that we know of which offer no-fee cards are United, USAir, and American. Still, you should get much better reward percentages with cash-back, travel-reward, or hotel cards.
Flying: Sign up for the frequent-flyer program of whatever airlines you fly. But... try to maximize your miles into one or, at most, two airline programs. Your travel patterns should show you which airlines are best for you. Then, take advantage of all the additional earning opportunities for your preferred airline program(s). These include contests, surveys, purchasing products through the airline’s shopping partners, car rentals, etc. Take at look at the many options shown on FreeFrequentFlyerMiles.com. Finally, and although this can get complicated for newbies, research the international airline partners of your preferred airline. For example, if your annual international trip is to Europe, look into the possibility of crediting all your flying miles to bmi rather than United, or to British Airways instead of American.

Specific Credit Card Advice for Infrequent Flyers

Avoid any reward card that charges an annual fee. Avoid the airline credit cards (except as noted above). Once you chose a card, stick with it – if you jump around between cards you’ll have less chance to build a large-enough point balance for redemptions. Never carry a balance on a reward card – most reward cards carry significantly higher APRs than non-reward cards.

Some folks appreciate the incentive of a travel-rewards card, feeling they’re getting more of a “free” ticket than simply using cash saved from other rebate cards. If you decide to go with a travel-rewards card instead of a cash-back card, there are two common types of point-based cards (with some variations).

One type allows you to earn points (fake miles) that can be used as a statement credit against any travel purchase. This category includes American Express FreedomPass and Blue Sky cards, Miles by Discover, and Capital One No Hassle Miles cards. Our favorite of this group is the Amex FreedomPass card, giving you 1.33% credit for travel purchases ($100 statement credit for 7,500 points). We like it because the FreedomPass card also offers some worthwhile travel discounts (for example: 3% off Delta or JetBlue tickets just by purchasing with the card).

The second category consists of cards where you need to contact the card issuer’s travel department to redeem your points (miles). This category includes the Merrill+ card, several Citi cards (ThankYou network), and Bank of America WorldPoints cards. These can be useful for acquiring that basic economy ticket within the U.S. Our favorite in this group is the Merrill card, giving you up to 2% value (a ticket up to $500 value for 25,000 points) as well as some other travel benefits, such as discounts on American Airlines tickets.

For hotel cards, some of the no-annual-fee offerings we’ve discovered include Hilton, Wyndham, Choice, La Quinta, and Best Western. We’ve personally been very pleased with Hilton’s Amex and Visa cards (the Amex card offers a little better point-earning rate). Look carefully at room rates and calculate your rewards percentage before getting a hotel card in preference to a cash-back or travel-rewards card.

Make every purchase count for something.