How to make the most of your travel loyalty program

The first thing to know about flying is that you should always credit the loyalty program where you will earn the most points.

Australians love to travel but how can we make our journeys more rewarding? The first step is to be aware of all the options available, so that we can navigate the complex world of travel loyalty programs to secure optimum benefits.

Airlines, hotels, car hire: reward programs are everywhere. Loyalty is big business powered by big data and calculations, yet at the consumer level it’s mostly driven by emotion, trust and perceived value. Here are some shortcuts to earn loyalty bonuses across three platforms.

Lofty airline bonuses

The first thing to know about flying is that you should always credit your airline miles somewhere. With the exception of a few low-cost carriers, every airline has an associated rewards program that enables you to earn points (or miles) from flying. Do not miss out.

For example, you can fly Cathay Pacific and credit points back to your Qantas Frequent Flyer program. Always credit the program where you will accumulate the most points. 

Secondly, don’t switch to autopilot when it comes to airline loyalty. You could be blindly chasing status with a program that doesn’t really benefit you. Upgrades are getting tighter, and the cost to upgrade is now higher than ever (outright business class points redemptions are now only 10 to 15 per cent more in points). 

Loyalty is lovely, but key benefits centred around upgrades, exclusive lounge access and flying business class can all be obtained easily in other ways. Consider why you need the status. If you are just seeking a lounge before you fly, there are alternatives such as the Qantas Club, Priority Pass or Amex lounges to achieve the same outcomes. 

Cash in on credit cards

The lowest cost route into business class is to earn reward points through your card. If you earn points purely through air travel, you will have to fly a lot to accumulate the same volume of points. 

A cardholder running a small or medium-sized business can shortcut their way to the pointy end of an aircraft by leveraging the points earned paying for everyday expenses with the right card. It is a lot easier to accumulate one million points bit by bit, every day. 

"The first thing to know about flying is that you should always credit your airline miles somewhere."

If you use points to fly, you don’t have to simply hope an airline will recognise your loyalty and reward you. In fact, you are in control of designing your own rewards. 

Ask what type of points you are earning. Card points can be earned direct to an airline, or first to a credit card reward program that has multiple airline partners to select from later. Not all cards are the same. 

Speed up car savings

In general, there is nothing exciting in the car loyalty game. There are shortcuts, though. If you secure Virgin Velocity Gold, it has reciprocal benefits to Hertz Gold, and Virgin Velocity Platinum links you with Europcar Privilege Elite Partner membership or Hertz Gold Plus Rewards Presidents Circle. 

Select cards issued by American Express also offer complimentary insurance excess and a loyalty bonus. You can get discounts on Hertz car hire with American Express: between 3 and 25 per cent depending on your specific card. 

Driving safely will keep your five-star standing with programs such as Hertz. This unlocks upgrade benefits to more prestigious vehicles. 

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Hotel upgrades

IHG Rewards, Hilton Honors, and Starwood Preferred Guest are just three of the many large hotel programs available. It’s a good idea to join the loyalty program before your stay, to increase your opportunity for a better room above that of unknown guests. 

Hotel loyalty status can be harder to earn, as it is more difficult to stay at the same chain in all destinations. You can shortcut hotel loyalty through certain credit cards. For example, the Amex Platinum charge card elevates you directly to SPG Gold, Radisson Hotel Gold status, and Shangri-La Golden Circle Jade level membership benefits. 

Generally, upgrades are more readily available in hotel loyalty than airlines, as there are many more room types than spare airline seats. Be aware, though: if you book through an online travel agent (OTA), it can harm your chances of an upgrade. Additionally, most hotel sites have a price-match policy, so best to compare online, then call up and book direct. 

Find out to which program your accommodation belongs to ensure you’re crediting your points and stays. If you have already booked, give them your account number at check-in. 

In summary, the smartest path to building loyalty across airlines, hotels and cars is the credit card. 

Are you holding a card that gives you hotel, car or airline benefits? If not, it may be time to review your current cards to see how rewarding they really are. With the right card, you can shortcut your way to luxury benefits, without putting in the hard yards. 

Steve Hui CPA is chief executive of iFLYflat. He founded the company in 2012 to provide a fully managed service helping businesses and individuals to uncover the hidden value of their frequent flyer and credit card points.

Merger on the horizon 

Starwood Preferred Guest, Marriott Rewards, and Ritz Carlton Rewards will soon combine under one umbrella program. At the time of publication, the new program name had not been announced.

Read next: How you can beat the business travel blues

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