Using Travel Rewards Programs

Posted by mitch on September 17, 2010

Tonight a fellow asked me about who has the “best” rewards program for travel.  I don’t really know, but I do have a few tips and notes on my experiences.  To frame my experience, I’ve traveled about 100,000 miles per year for the last few years.  I am by no means an expert traveler, but I know more about this than I did 10 years ago.

So, in no particular order:

  1. I really like the Choice Hotels rewards program.  It’s easy to earn free nights, and this chain includes Quality Inn, Sleep Inn, Comfort Inn.  I am not sure what the difference between the labels is (they seem about the same to me), but there’s thousands of these hotels in the US, they generally are clean and well-run.  Many of them have a slightly better breakfast than a donut + coffee on a folding table, and many of them have a few pieces of exercise equipment.  From a rewards perspective, it’s very easy to become a “Gold” member, which starts acceleration of points.  I’ve been in this reward program for 12 years and had no problem with redeeming dozens of free nights.
  2. I also really like  There’s a lot of choice with and I’ve had great luck with their rewards system, which is very simple–stay 10 nights, get one free.  There is a small caveat here in that the free room is actually a discount room if you stay at a higher end (priced?) hotel.  But I’ve gotten plenty of rooms for free with  Just beware when you check-in that is owned by Expedia and the hotel might ask, “You booked on Expedia?”
  3. I love Enterprise for car rentals.  However, they don’t have a rewards program that is useful.  The main reason to join their program is that large airports have a separate “Enterprise Plus” waiting line.
  4. The mainstream US airlines have about the same rewards system in many ways.  You should pick an airline that is convenient for where you live (if you live in Charlotte, fly US Airways; Dallas, American, etc.) for the best direct flight scenario.  I personally hate United, but if you fly enough to get into their 1K program, you will be all set.  I generally only fly two airlines:  Virgin America for BOS<->SFO and US Airways for everything else.
  5. While I love Virgin America, their rewards program sucks.  I’ve gotten several free tickets with them, but you have to spend a lot of money to pull this off.  Their rewards program is, in my opinion, far worse than American, US Airways, or United.
  6. The key with a lot of travel is to pick with certain vendors and stick with them.  I can go into Quality Inn and tell them I spent 60 nights with them this year.  I can tell Enterprise I’ve had their cars 150 days in the last 365.  When things go wrong, this can carry a lot of weight.  Once you’re in elevated levels of frequent travel programs, you will often get a separate phone number for elite travelers for service–put this number in your cell phone and use it when things go wrong.  The manager at the SFO Enterprise knows me by sight/name.  I know many airline and hotel employees personally as well.
  7. I’ve never had good luck trying to use points from one vendor with another (e.g, using Choice Hotels points for a discount at Enterprise).  YMMV.
  8. Whenever I buy from a new vendor, I open a rewards account with that vendor.  I only have a few thousand points with some vendors, but eventually they will turn into a freebie.
  9. I use TripIt to keep up with all my points (along with everything else TripIt does!).
  10. I only carry one credit card that is tied to a points system.  It’s tempting to move cards around, but it’s not efficient for me to do so.
  11. I try to stay within vendors from 6 or so groups of points for airlines and hotels.  This lets me optimize price without paying a premium for a particular vendor just to get points.
  12. A friend of mine has had luck buying bundles with Orbitz for lower prices.

I’m sure others know more about this than I do.  I haven’t read up on travel program tips, these are just observations I’ve picked up on along the way.

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