6 Smart Spending Hacks to Help You Rack Up Rewards Points in 2016

Experts share clever ways to score lucrative points and perks.

By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterJan. 14, 2016
By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterJan. 14, 2016, at 9:53 a.m.
U.S. News & World Report

6 Spending Hacks for Rewards in 2016

Reward card used on a computer.

Practicing these habits can ensure you receive a high return for your loyalty(Getty Images)

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Sure, you can try your luck at collecting loyalty points by paying for premium-cabin seats. But if you don't want to spend a small fortune to earn award tickets and generous elite-status perks, 2016 is a smart time to evaluate other avenues for raking in valuable points and privileges. And with increasing industry consolidation and ever-shifting program policies that reward travelers based on price paid versus distance flown, award seats and coveted elite benefits have become harder for infrequent travelers to obtain. Still, practicing simple but strategic spending tricks can ensure you receive a high return for your loyalty. Whether you're a seasoned road warrior or an infrequent jet-setter, read on for expert-approved tactics for securing generous rewards points and perks in 2016.

Select a Card That Aligns With Your Travel Goals and Spending Behavior

While many programs continue to dilute the value of their points, there's a silver lining: "There's more competition than ever in the credit card space," says Brian Kelly, guru of the points and miles advice site The Points Guy, emphasizing that companies are vying for the premium traveler. The key, according to Kelly, is ensuring that you're spending on the right credit card. He highlights the Citi ThankYou Premier Card as an ideal choice for travelers who want to accrue points quickly without getting hit with hefty interest fees. As an added bonus, the card offers a favorable exchange ratio when transferring rewards points to a variety of partners. For example, let's say your goal is to fly with Virgin America. With the Citi ThankYou Premier Card, you can transfer points at a 2-to-1 ratio. Or, if you want a reward stay with Hilton, you can transfer points to Hilton HHonors at a 2-to-3 ratio.

Also, factor in the categories you spend the most on (think: dining and travel) to select an appropriate card based on your spending habits, Kelly says. The Amex EveryDay Credit Card from American Express gives you 2 points per dollar spent at U.S. supermarkets and 1 point per dollar on everyday purchases, plus a 10,000 membership sign-up bonus for spending $1,000 on the card within the first three months. Meanwhile, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card allows you to collect double points for travel and dining expenses, enables you to convert points at a 1-to-1 ratio with participating rewards programs and has zero transaction fees. Plus, the card offers a generous 50,000 sign-up bonus for spending a minimum of $4,000 on the card within the first three months of creating an account and no annual fee until after the first year.

Consider Trading Loyalty Points for Cash Back

If you prioritize cash (and greater flexibility) over points, consider investing in a cash-back card like the Citi Double Cash Card, which requires no annual fee and gives you 2 percent back for everyday purchases, offering a "pretty lucrative" deal, Kelly says. And Fidelity's new Rewards Visa Signature Card also gives you 2 percent back on your purchases and requires no annual fee or maximum points cap. Plus, your accumulated cash back is automatically invested into a qualifying Fidelity account, such as a brokerage or 529 account, making it a great option if you have an existing Fidelity portfolio.

Don't Overspend to Reap Rich Rewards

Before you commit to a variety of cards to take advantage of lofty sign-up bonus, exercise caution. "It comes back to earning points where you're not going to have to spend more than you would otherwise spend," says Gary Leff, co-founder of InsideFlyer.com and author of frequent flier site View From the Wing. While it's a smart idea to use a card to pay for meals and enroll in affiliated dining rewards programs, "Don't go chasing the participating restaurants," he says. Instead of altering your behavior, earn points for the things you would do anyway, he says. And make sure you enroll your affiliated credit card with the Thanks Again Network, which partners with popular rewards programs and airports to give cardholders extra points and miles for shopping at participating shops and restaurants. 

Stack Up Points with Shopping Portals and Dining Networks

"I never shop in person anymore," Kelly says. When you shop using these portals, you get the same deals and airline miles or hotel points in addition to the points you're already earning, he says. "Another hack is dining programs," he adds, pointing out that it's easy to attach your credit card to the dining portal and automatically get your miles deposited. If you carry, or are interested in carrying, a Chase-backed card, the Chase Ultimate Rewards shopping portal allows you to accrue an extra point per dollar spent on hotels, flights, car rentals and other travel expenses booked on the site.

"Things like your online shopping portals are no-brainers," Leff says. After you've scoped out the mileage-award opportunities using platforms like EVreward.com, which allows you to find the points and cash-back rebates available with the merchants you're interested in, then there are even more niche opportunities to collect points, he says. For instance, you can collect points for paying a bill to a merchant or mailing a check to a landlord using the site Plastiq.com for only a 2.5 percent transaction fee – a worthwhile endeavor if you're trying to meet a minimum threshold for a sign-up bonus and elite-status privileges, he says.

Diversify Your Options

"Treat your miles and points like stocks and bonds," Kelly says. With ever-shifting program restrictions and policies, it's important to protect yourself, and stick with programs that offer transferable points and flexible redemption options, so that when there are changes you're not saddled with one option, he says. That way, despite devaluations, you can still take advantage of flexible reward currencies to redeem points for valuable offers with other frequent flier and loyalty programs.

It's also important to keep in mind that "there are ways to diversify while still relying on one program," says Scott Mackenzie, creator behind the travel advice blog Travel Codex. The Starwood Preferred Guest program, for example, allows you to transfer points to more than 30 airline partners, making its rewards currency highly valuable. "You don't want to end up with a 1,000 points in a dozen programs," he adds.

Leff echoes similar sentiments, emphasizing that it's important not to delude yourself into thinking you should spend more than you would otherwise to reach specific sign-up thresholds. Instead, earn enough points to achieve the goal you want and then diversify with different transferable points for greater flexibility and to ensure availability. "The most valuable points are those that can be transferred to a variety of programs," he says, pointing out that with fuller planes it can be harder to land award seats, making having the flexibility to apply points where you want them increasingly important.

Book Trips for Friends and Family Members

Beyond putting meals with friends on your credit card, if you enjoy doing the extra legwork to organize travel plans, put the hotel in your name, Kelly says. That way, you'll accumulate rich rewards for your efforts.

Another smart trick, according to Mackenzie, is adding your spouse or partner as an authorized user for your rewards credit card. "One person can apply, and you can share those awards," he says pointing to the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card as an ideal card to collect awards together.

Liz Weiss, Staff Writer

Liz Weiss is a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report. With more than six years of ...  Read more

Tags: travel

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