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As “America’s Veterinarian” – the nickname bestowed on me by my friend Dr. Mehmet Oz – I travel a great deal, as in all the time. And as a “road warrior,” I never miss an opportunity to pick up extra affinity points with airlines and hotels. It’s not just that I’m the kind of person who still stops to pick up a penny – although I am – but it’s so that I can always look forward to the next free vacation with family. I just booked a family trip (the whole family is going, including my granddaughter, Reagan) for 36 days to Southeast Asia and the Middle East in 2013, and the airfares and hotels were all free with points I’d earned with my business travel.
Sure, I travel much more than most people, but I can give you some tips-from-the trenches I’ve learned to build up your own travel accounts and bank for free trips:
Concentrate on one airline and one hotel. I fly primarily Delta and stay almost exclusively at Hiltons. Why? Because not only do you reach premier status quicker with more benefits at each level (like bags fly free, expedited security, early boarding, airline lounge access), but you also get mileage bonuses at each level. For example, with Delta I get 1.5 miles for each mile flown.
Get a credit card from the same airline and hotel. Using a Delta Skymiles card from American Express, I get credit for two dollars for each buck spent on Delta airline tickets. For hotels, I have cards for Hilton and Marriott and get five points for each dollar spent at Marriotts on my Marriott American Express. When you are a premier status flyer and purchase Delta tickets with the Delta Skymiles card, you get 1.5 miles for each mile flown plus two times the miles on the dollars spent.
Take advantage of bonus offers. Hilton hotels allow you to “double dip,” earning both hotel and airline points. So every stay at a Hilton gives me 1,000 Delta Skymiles. Also, when a hotel has a bonus offer like, “stay three times in the next three months and get 5,000 miles,” sign up! Even if you don’t reach the threshold this time, they’ll keep sending you offers until you match up with the right one.
Shop Skymall around the holidays. Nearly everyone has noticed the seat pocket catalog called Skymall. Around Christmastime, they often have bonus offers where you get 10 times the dollars you spend in airline points. We once bought an expensive massage chair from them and got enough bonus points for two free round-trip tickets anywhere Delta flies in the continental United States. Plus, the chair was competitively priced with free shipping. Even if you don’t fly, you can buy from Skymall online.
Watch for airline sales on points. The last I heard, frequent flyer points were worth 1-2 cents per mile. Every once in a blue moon, you’ll find points for sale at less that this amount. If they're 1 cent or less, snap them up.
If I could use an airline or hotel credit card to buy penny candy out of a gumball machine, I would. I put everything on an affinity card (airline or hotel), whether is costs $1 or $1,000. When I bought my last car, I even asked to put the maximum on a credit card before paying cash for the balance.
Points are like a savings account for fun. And believe me, you smile all the way “not to the bank” when that free ticket puts you on a plane on its way to somewhere tropical, where palm trees, a cold drink, warm water and a complimentary room await.
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