Meet George Papadopoulos. By day he's a certified public accountant and financial planner. At night, he uses the same analytical skills for his hobby: cashing in big-time on travel rewards.
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Recently he took his family of four on an Amtrak trip from Ann Arbor, Michigan, through Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle in a luxe sleeper car, using Amtrak points. His out-of-pocket costs? Meals and tips. Before that, he went on a Carnival cruise with his wife to the western Caribbean -- paid for entirely with rewards points from his Capital One Venture Card.
Papadopoulos is hardcore, and he is not alone. There is a cadre of people who make points their serious avocation, and that distinguishes them significantly from people like me. I get points randomly and waste them on trips that have so many inconvenient stopovers and surcharges, I don't save anything. And so, I asked George and a few other key players for their best advice. Here it is.
-- Go big, or go home. Sign up for multiple programs and keep track of all of them via a Web-based service like Points.com or AwardWallet.com. If you want to make the rewards really rewarding, be willing to spend a significant amount of time looking for deals, comparing bonuses and managing your rewards. Otherwise, you will just be a dabbler like me, and that can end up costing you money, time and brain power.
-- Follow the bloggers and the chatters. "These are very generous communities, everyone is willing to help," says Angelina Aucello, another hobbyist who recently traveled, along with her fiance, from her East Rutherford, New Jersey, home to Hong Kong (nonstop), Macau, Bangkok, Phuket, Singapore and back to New York for a total cost of $194.35 per ticket, plus points, on Cathay Pacific Airways. Popular online points communities - where users share promotions and tips - include BoardingArea.com, Flyertalk.com, and MilePoint.com.
It also helps to follow specific airlines and hotels on Twitter and to "like" them on Facebook. You will see deals early.
-- Get a "workhorse" credit card, but do not limit yourself to one. Summer Hull, who blogs under Mommypoints.com, says she uses a variety of rewards cards but currently prefers Chase Ink Bold, which is giving 5 points per dollar spent on telecommunications like cell phone and cable bills, as well as at office supply stores. Her technique for maximizing card points: Use different cards for different purchases, so you are getting the most points per card. Charge (and pay off every month) everything.
A perennially popular card for people trying to accumulate travel points is the Capital One Venture Card, which allows users to "spend" their points like cash on all travel.
-- Match up credit card points with the program that will make the most of them. Hull says that Chase will give her one cent per point in cash back, but she can get 2 cents per point if she uses those points at United Airlines or Hyatt Hotels.
-- Find your own flights. Use online databases like OneWorld.com, specific airline websites, and the travel aggregators like Kayak.com. If you really want to get serious, you can pay $10 a month to join ExpertFlyer.com, where you will gain access to comprehensive flight, seat and award data for more than 400 airlines. Once you have found your perfect itinerary, contact the airline you want to fly, with your points in hand.
-- Start online, but don't be afraid of the phone. If you can book your flight/room on the website of the airline or hotel you want to use, all is good. But some airlines do not give easy online access to partner flights or all flights. If you are not seeing what you want, it may be worth call. Some airlines may charge you a booking fee of $25 or so, but if they will get you flights you can't get yourself, it could be worth it.
-- Call back. Every airline agent is an individual. Some know more about all the flights and some know less. Some are more helpful than others. If you get one agent who is not being helpful (or whom you think is charging too much), you can call back and try another agent.
-- Don't assume the obvious. The big mistake I made most recently was in thinking I would get maximum value for my British Airways miles by actually flying British Airways. I was wrong. The best values can often be found by flying on partners in places where your points airline does not fly, says Papadopoulos. Using British Airways miles on American Airlines for domestic U.S. flights will get you far more for the money.
-- Every trip does not have to be a big one. You can either accumulate points or spend them wisely on weekend hops to domestic destinations, says Hull. "I like the fancy first-class international trip as much as the next person, but way more often we are using miles and points to see places like Yosemite and Disney World."