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- I earned over 1 million airline miles and hotel points while working a travel job.
- I stayed loyal to my favorite airline and hotel programs and put expenses on co-branded credit cards.
- Tricks like using miles for partner award flights and booking stopovers helped me maximize rewards.
- Read Insider’s guide to the best rewards credit cards.
At the height of my job as an admissions recruiter, I was traveling five to six days a week throughout most of the year. I was also sitting on close to 1 million frequent flyer miles and hotel points.
I spent three years working in a job that required 90% travel. I’ve also had over a dozen different travel credit cards. Over the years, I’ve gone on countless trips where my airfare, hotel, or rental car — sometimes even all three — were paid for with points. This has included everything from long-haul flights in first class to stays at hotel resorts that would normally cost upwards of $1,000 per night.
Here are all the best tips and tricks I learned about travel rewards as a road warrior.
Find a hotel chain and airline you like and stick with it
The best way to stack up rewards quickly is to stay loyal to one airline and one hotel chain. If you’re traveling very frequently — say, almost on a weekly basis — you could probably get away with bouncing back and forth between two different programs.
I chose which programs to be loyal to based on a balance of a few factors:
- Ease of earning rewards
- Ease of redeeming rewards
- How loyal I could stay based on my home base and travel schedule
I was living in Georgia at the time, so Delta was a no-brainer for airline loyalty. While Delta SkyMiles are notorious for being low-value, the airline has a hub in Atlanta, so I almost always ended up having to fly Delta for work. And when it comes to comfort, I find them to be one of the more enjoyable airlines to fly with.
Read more: Blue, Gold, Platinum, or Reserve: We break down which Delta Amex credit card gets flyers the most value
I split my hotel loyalty between two chains. My primary chain was Hilton because it’s easy to accumulate Hilton Honors points quickly, and I knew I could find Hilton hotels everywhere I went. My favorite hotel chain to stay with is Kimpton (part of IHG Rewards Club), but their footprint is relatively small. When I traveled to bigger cities with a Kimpton hotel, I tried to stay with them.
Airline and hotel credit cards are almost always worth it
I always had at least one credit card from my airline and hotel chain of choice — often two or three, since I flew so much. Most airlines and major hotel chains offer a whole lineup of cards, from no-annual-fee options to premium credit cards, for different types of travelers.
Read more: The best hotel credit cards in 2021
Since I traveled so much, I got the middle-of-the-road or premium version of my favorite airline and hotel credit cards as well as the business version. That way, I could get multiple welcome bonuses and switch out the cards depending on what I was purchasing to maximize my rewards. I also got generic travel credit cards like The Platinum Card® from American Express
and Chase Sapphire Reserve® that earn transferable points.
Even if you don’t travel a lot, the low or no-annual-fee versions are often worth getting, as they’ll help you boost your earnings and come with perks like priority seating.
You can hack your way to elite status
Getting elite status with your airline and hotel chain of choice will superpower your rewards-earning abilities. Elite status can mean earning double, triple, or more on your spending with any given hotel chain or airline. However, it can take months to get elite status, especially if you don’t travel often. Luckily, there are a few shortcuts.
Several credit cards will get you automatic elite status with major hotel chains, meaning you don’t have to complete a single stay to get there. For example, the Platinum Card and The Business Platinum Card® from American Express
offer Gold elite status with both Hilton Honors and Marriott Bonvoy** just for opening the card and registering. A number of airline and hotel credit cards will get you closer to earning status as well.
Read more: Airline credit cards from Delta, Southwest, and more can help you earn elite status — in some cases, you can qualify without setting foot on a plane
Some airlines and hotel chains offer status matching and status challenge programs. With status matching, you have to already have elite status with another hotel chain. Email or call the hotel rewards center and ask if they’ll match your status with a competitor for a year so you can see if you prefer their loyalty program.
I did this with Kimpton, emailing them screenshots of my Hilton Honors status, and they gave me elite status for one year. Some hotels and airlines also offer status challenges that let you fast-track your way to elite status by completing a certain number of stays or flights in a short period of time.
Use work expenses to earn points and welcome bonuses
Once you have a credit card for your airline and hotel chain of choice, putting all of your spending on it will help you stack rewards quickly. If you have work expenses, put those on the card and then have your employer reimburse you.
This is what I did in my last job, even though my company offered a company credit card. I asked if I could use my personal credit card and apply to be reimbursed after each trip instead. While that involved a little extra work on my part, it helped me earn thousands of additional points and miles each month.
Read more: The best small-business credit cards of 2021
I also used my work expenses to earn credit card sign-up bonuses regularly. If a credit card had a really good welcome bonus but required a lot of spending to get it, I’d get the card and offer to cover any work expenses I could think of for trips and events to hit the minimum spending requirement.
Book flights and hotel stays that earn more
While it can be inconvenient, booking flights with multiple layovers and breaking up trips into multiple hotel stays can help you earn more miles and reach elite status faster. You probably don’t want to do it for every trip, as it can get tiring, but this is a good way to boost your rewards or elite status progress if you need to.
Read more: 2 of Delta’s credit cards offer bonus Medallion Qualification Miles — the key to getting elite status
At one point, I was really close to earning Platinum status with Delta, but I was running out of time. I started booking flights with multiple legs that went in round-about ways to my destination so I could earn enough segments and miles to hit Platinum.
Another time, I had a three-week stay in one city. Rather than spending it all at one hotel, I broke it up into three different stays at three different Hilton properties, which helped me earn status with Hilton Honors faster.
If you experience a flight delay or hotel issue, write to customer service
You shouldn’t complain for no reason, but if you genuinely experience an issue during your travels that the airline or hotel is at fault for, you should always write an email to customer service that includes mention of your loyalty. If the issue is big enough, they’ll often throw some hotel points or airline miles your way.
Once on a trip from Atlanta to Hong Kong, we got stuck on the runway for hours due to mechanical issues with the plane. I eventually missed my connecting flight and ended up arriving in Hong Kong over 24 hours later than intended. I emailed customer service about the issue, and they deposited 15,000 airline miles into my frequent flyer account.
Refer a travel companion and pool your rewards
If you have someone you travel with, refer them to your favorite loyalty programs and credit cards. Not only could you earn additional points and miles for referring them, but you and your travel companion may be able to pool your rewards if you plan an award trip together.
Read more: 3 steps for getting over ‘points paralysis’ and starting to use your credit card rewards for travel
This doesn’t work as well with airline miles as you still have to purchase two separate award tickets. However, if you’re splitting a hotel room together, this can essentially double the value of your hotel points. Even if you don’t want to stay in the same room, you might be able to pool your hotel points and book a suite for less than booking two separate rooms.
Take advantage of stopovers and open jaws on award tickets
You can’t do this on all airlines, but some do allow you to build a stopover or an open jaw into your award flight so you can travel to multiple destinations for the same price. A stopover is a stop in a connecting city during which you leave the airport before continuing on to your destination. I did this once with my Delta SkyMiles, booking an award flight to Paris with a layover in Amsterdam for the same price as a direct flight to Paris.
Read more: 17 airlines offer a certain kind of layover that sometimes comes with lavish perks like a free hotel room or city tours — here’s how to master the stopover
An open jaw allows you to book a departing flight from your home to one destination and then a return flight from a different destination back to your home, and you figure out how to get between the two cities on your own. For example, you could book your first flight to Amsterdam, take a high-speed train to Paris, and then fly home from Paris.
Look at booking award flights through partner airlines
Most frequent flyer programs let you use your miles to book a flight with them or any of their partner airlines. Many major airlines are part of large alliances that allow the use of your miles on any airline within that alliance. The major alliances are Star Alliance, Oneworld, and SkyTeam.
Read more: The best credit card rewards sweet spots that get you the most from your hard-earned points and miles
It’s important to know this because you can often find better deals on award tickets by using your miles to book a flight with a partner airline. If you want to fly first class to Europe or Asia, you’ll often find flights with far better first class cabins and service at the same price by booking with a foreign airline partner like Lufthansa or ANA. I’ve gotten better deals on flights to the Caribbean using my SkyMiles by booking through Air France rather than Delta.
It takes a while to learn the ropes, but if you travel regularly, familiarizing yourself with the ins and outs of credit card rewards, frequent flyer programs, and hotel loyalty programs is well worth it.
Elizabeth Aldrich is a finance writer specializing in credit cards and loans, retirement planning, investing, economics, and small business. She’s an avid credit card points collector and perpetual traveler.