New to Frequent Flyer Programs and Credit Card Bonuses? Don’t Be Freaked Out…

I saw a post on Flyertalk where someone new to the whole frequent flyer world was asking about how to get started while suggesting that the whole thing is rather daunting. He’s not wrong – if you’re new to this, it can sound like a whole new language, even if you’re not into the more advanced frequent flyer tricks.

Consider this piece of advice: While Continental allows a one-way award booking, they do not permit stopovers on a one-way. You can book a roundtrip with an open jaw and you are permitted a stopover, which is great if you’re flying to Asia via the Atlantic, something you can do with Onepass, but not with Skymiles.

That is why people who are new to this are scared off.

But don’t worry about stopovers and openjaws, and which ocean you need to cross so you can travel to Asia. You’ll get to that. That’s really useful information, don’t get me wrong, and certainly the hope is that one day it’ll be important to you which frequent flyer program allows multiple stopovers for international travel. But for now, you’ll want to focus on the basics.

And here are the basics: You’ll want to make 3 decisions to get you started:

– Which credit card(s) to carry
– Which frequent flyer program to focus on
– Which hotel loyalty program to focus on

Step 1 is to get yourself a quick victory so you learn how great it is to be able to travel for free just from opening credit cards. You can open 2 American Airlines credit cards and earn a total of 100,000 miles by spending $2,500 in 3 months on each (double that if you have a spouse, of course). You can apply for cards here, but look at this post first on how to apply for these cards (there is a quirk on applying for this specific card). Enjoy your free trip.

Next, you should get an everyday card to maximize the points you’re receiving. Since you’re new to this, I recommend one of two options. The first is the Chase Sapphire Preferred card (info here). Why do I recommend it? Mostly for its flexibility to use the points you earn. You’ll get an initial 40,000 points after spending $3000 in 3 months. Plus, you get double points on travel spend and double points on dining. Those points can then be transferred into Continental, United, Marriott, Hyatt and Priority Club programs. Or, if you want, you can use it as cash to pay for travel through their travel site (you’ll get a 25% bonus for that — ie, those 50,000 points are worth $625 in travel). For someone getting started, that flexibility will come in handy. First year fee is waived, then it’s $95 in subsequent years.

I do use that Sapphire card, but my daily spend is (for the most part) on the Starwood Preferred Guest Amex. Why? Again, for the flexibility. You earn a point for every dollar you spend, but the real benefit is the long list of airline partners (see here) into which you can transfer those points. You’ll get 25,000 bonus points for spending $5,000 in the first 6 months. Annual fee is $65. When you do transfer points into airlines, you’ll get a 5,000 mile bonus for every 20,000 points you transfer – effectively a 25% bonus.

Then, you’ll need to decide which frequent flyer and frequent stay programs to focus on. That’s a much longer discussion. I’ll start with hotels. Obviously, if your company mandates where you stay, your question is answered. If it does not, people certainly have strong feelings about all programs. Me? I like Starwood, especially if you’re not going to be traveling enough to have high elite status. They have a wide range of properties both at the low end and on the higher end, so you’ve got options on where to stay. They have a nice cash + points program to allow you to pay a small co-pay plus a smaller number of points to get free rooms. And they have great aspirational properties around the world so you can splurge when you save up those points for a dream trip. Sure, you can argue for the others, but I’m going to argue for Starwood.

Airlines? Again, if your company has mandated who you fly, there’s certainly no use in fighting that (though God knows I’ve tried). But if you have a choice, and, since you’re new to this I’m assuming you don’t fly a ton, I would go with Star Alliance. Remember, you’re not really choosing an airline, you’re choosing an alliance. I fly almost exclusively on Star carriers (primarily Continental), but I like the flexibility of being able to also fly US Airways and credit those miles on Continental. The real reason I recommend picking a Star carrier to focus on (and I personally credit most of my miles to Continental) is because of Aegean Airlines. If you haven’t heard this before, I know this will sound ridiculous: Aegean Airlines is a Star Alliance carrier based in Greece. You will likely never fly them. But you should open a frequent flyer account with them. They’ll give you 1,000 miles to do that. Then, you will credit 3,000 more miles worth of flights to Aegean. Why? Because 4,000 miles on Aegean earns you Star Alliance Silver status, which will get you free checked bags and early boarding on any Star Alliance carrier. That’s right – you’ll be elite after 1 flight or so. That’s powerful.

That’s your start. I know, this is a lot of stuff to learn. I’ve written a longer starter’s guide here – that’ll give a bit more detail. But there’s no reason to be overwhelmed by this. By picking a credit card, airline program and hotel program, you’re already very much on your way to traveling for free wherever you want.

Three last quick things:

1) Always – ALWAYS – sign up for the loyalty program regardless of which airline you’re on or hotel you’re staying with. You never know when it will come in handy. I last stayed at a Radisson in 2000. Earlier this year I noticed I had some points that I had never spent and used them for a free night’s stay in Costa Rica. Everyone who invests time in frequent flyer miles has a story like that.

2) Don’t worry about missing out. You can kind of drive yourself nuts keeping up with all of the various promos out there. If you miss something, move on. We’ve all got lives and jobs and spouses and kids and stuff we like to do. Figure out how much time you have to invest. For me: I spend a LOT of time on miles. A lot. Possibly too much (eh, nahhhh). I made the decision that I was not going to get involved in the US Airways Grand Slam promo. Don’t know what that is? In short, you have to do a whole ton of stuff to generate up to 100,000 miles with US Airways. The amount of time that takes to do isn’t worth it to me. It’s worth it to a lot of other people. I’m happy for them. I’m also happy for me not to do it. You’ll figure out what part of this whole thing is worth it to you – remember, it’s supposed to be fun. And it will be when you’re taking a free trip to your dream destination.

3) There is no such thing as a bad award redemption. Some ways to use miles return more value, obviously. 100,000 miles for a $6,000 business class ticket to Europe is a great exchange rate. But if you have 2 kids, it may very well be worth it to you to use those same miles for 4 coach tickets to Disney World, even though it’s only “worth” $1,200. A friend of mine blows 200,000 miles every year on 4 first class tickets to Florida for his family. It gives me the shakes each year when he tells me about it (Dear God, you can go first class to Singapore on that!). But he has a 2 year old and a 4 year old and won’t be going to Singapore. He will, however, have a really pleasant flight to Florida. Don’t worry about what other people say – only you know your travel habits.

Have a nice trip.


  1. I am not in the target audience for this post… But loved it anyway.

  2. Superb post. I had no idea about Aegean. And I needed to do a reality check about US Airways Grand Slam: it’s so easy to get caught up in the excitement of earning miles but I have never flown US Airways, have no desire to ever fly them, and have enough miles in other programs, so why go to all the hassle?

  3. Great post!!

  4. Soon to be the proud holder of 18 Avios - Rapid Travel Chai - pingback on November 14, 2011 at 10:57 pm

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