Before you get started planning your next amazing vacation using credit card rewards, you need to get organized. It’s vital for long term success.
When I started this game, I jumped in with both feet, and had to learn a few things the hard way. One of those lessons was the necessity of meticulous tracking and organization. Things can get downright hectic when you are managing multiple cards and accounts, all with different signup dates, minimum spend requirements, and annual fees.
A good place to start is Microsoft Excel (or the free Google Docs version). Keep a running spreadsheet of any and all information that is relevant. I won’t get into specifics because everyone likes to do it a little bit different. Just figure out a tracking method that works for you.
But before you master the spreadsheet, and before you ever signup for one credit card, you need to make loyalty accounts at all the major airlines and hotels who offer travel rewards. These accounts will contain and track your miles or points across multiple credit cards.
For example, you would:
- Create an American Airlines (AA) account
- Obtain your unique AA account number
- Apply for a new credit card offering AA miles as a signup bonus
- Input your unique AA account number on the application page, which links the new credit card to your AA account.
- The AA miles offered as the credit card signup bonus will automatically deposit into your AA account once you meet the minimum spending requirement.
This becomes more important over time, as you accumulate additional credit cards. You will link all of them to the same AA account that you first created.
If you ever need to downgrade or cancel a credit card, the rewards remain in your account because they are attached to your rewards account, not to each specific credit card.
Points that are secured in your loyalty account often expire after 18-24 months if the account is not kept active. Using points for a vacation or earning points for a purchase will usually reset the expiration date.
This whole scenario is not unique to American Airlines, I was only providing an example. Almost all rewards behave in the same way.
To get started, you can apply for the following programs (No, I don’t get paid a commission for any of them):
Please note that this list is not conclusive. There are many other airline and hotel chains that have reward programs, but there is no need to sign up for every single one on the first day. Stick to the major ones and any others you will definitely use.
A Few Exceptions
While the majority of travel rewards will require loyalty accounts, there are a few exceptions. Rewards offered by banks, including American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi Thank You points, are tied to an individual credit card account. There are no loyalty accounts to input on the application page. The credit cards and the signup bonuses are tied together by the issuing bank, and if you cancel the credit card before using or transferring the points, they are gone forever.
That can certainly cause headaches if you are not aware of the situation, but it’s not a huge deal. There are three options available for card holders:
- Use all the points before you cancel the card
- Open another card issued by the same bank to keep the rewards alive
- Transfer to another loyalty account. (Most points can be transferred to other airlines/hotels and kept for later use)
With a little planning beforehand, it’s relatively easy to keep track of all your credit card rewards. Take the time to set everything up at the beginning, and you’ll save numerous headaches later on.