Travel

Playing the game to rack up airline miles, credit card rewards can pay off for savvy travelers

For the last year or so, travelers’ preoccupation with airline miles and credit card points was on hold. So was most international travel — just scrapped.

But banks and airlines have ramped up their campaigns as parts of the world are reopening to travelers. That means there are more bonus miles, more features and even some cash-back statement credits for travelers who want to play the game.

Not all cards are created equal, nor is there one perfect card for all travelers. But banks and airlines want to seize the opportunity to capture new travelers as flying picks up during the summer.

If you live in Alaska and you fly on Alaska Airlines, Bank of America’s co-branded Visa card should be first on your list. There’s a $75 annual fee for the card, but right now there’s a $100 statement credit when you charge at least $2,000 within three months. Travelers also receive 40,000 bonus miles as well as a $121 companion fare. The companion fare comes in handy for peak-season or holiday travel to sun spots like Hawaii, Mexico, Costa Rica or Belize.

How far can you go with 40,000 bonus miles? Well, you can fly round trip to Hawaii next month for 30,000 miles. Or you can fly from Anchorage to Puerto Vallarta for 40,000 miles — plus $110 — in October.

Delta was highlighting its Gold Business American Express card, which included 70,000 bonus SkyMiles points — if you charge $4,000 within three months. If you purchase a Delta ticket within three months, you get a $200 statement credit. I’ve seen that statement credit as high as $400 — but that offer has come and gone. Delta also will waive the first year’s fee of $99.

If you charge a lot, Delta offers a Platinum American Express card, with a 90,000 SkyMiles bonus. You have to charge at least $3,000. The annual fee is $250.

If you charge even more, there’s a “Reserve” card that offers 80,000 bonus SkyMiles. You have to charge $5,000 in the first 90 days. If you get this card, there’s a free companion fare and free admission to Delta’s clubs — including the new one in Anchorage — as well as American Express’ Centurion Lounges.

With the gold card and 70,000 SkyMiles points, where could you go? For 70,000 points, you could go to Paris in September. Tickets are available from Anchorage to Panama City, Panama, for 40,000 points in October. Between Anchorage and Reykjavik, Iceland, it costs 66,000 points in September.

United Airlines also offers a selection of Chase’s Explorer Mileage Plus cards, offering between 30,000 and 100,000 bonus miles. Features on the cards vary, including club membership, free bags, cash back and fee reimbursement for Global Entry.

Although United offers a bunch of flights in the summer, they just have one flight during the winter: Anchorage-Denver. Accordingly, the cards don’t have as much utility as the Alaska Airlines cards.

[Alaskans are benefiting from pent-up travel demand with more nonstop flights to Lower 48]

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American Airlines also offers a selection of cards through Citibank, including bonus miles and statement credits. But I think you’re better off using your Alaska Airlines card and getting your American flights with Alaska Airlines miles.

In addition to airline cards, frequent travelers benefit from flexible spend cards. Several banks offer these cards, which allow travelers to shift points from their main account to other partner plans. American Express, Chase, Capital One and U.S. Bank all have flexible spend cards.

American Express had the original flexible spend program. Under its Membership Rewards program, you can move your points to airlines like Virgin Atlantic, Delta, KLM, ANA, JetBlue, British Airways and others. Move your points to hotel plans from Hilton and Marriott.

Chase also offers a flexible spend program called Ultimate Rewards. Point grubbers — like me — often apply for more than one card to take advantage of big sign-up bonuses. For example, right now you can apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. Spend $4,000 in the first three months and receive 100,000 points. There’s a $95 annual fee. The points are worth about $1,250 when redeemed through Chase’s in-house travel office.

You can combine the Sapphire Preferred points with the Ink Business Preferred card. It’s a bigger minimum spend — $15,000 in three months. But you get an extra 100,000 points to travel with.

Another Chase card that I have is the Sapphire Reserve card, with a 60,000 point signup bonus. It costs $550 per year, up from $495, but includes a $300 travel credit. Also, you get 50% more redemption value on your points. So, when I get the extra points from the other cards, I call Chase and have them move the points to my Reserve account.

Another valuable benefit is membership in Priority Pass, which offers entrance to airport lounges around the world, including the Alaska Airlines lounge in Anchorage.

There are lots of tricks and tips on how best to use the flexible spend rewards. I use the Chase points most often for Hyatt hotels. But you can transfer the points to Emirates, to Singapore Air or United Airlines. You also can use your points for almost any travel expense: hotel or flight. Or you can get cash for the points. But the exchange rate is much less than if you trade your points for travel.

The Hyatt redemption ration is especially nice. For example, the Hyatt Regency in Maui goes for more than $700 per night. But you can exchange 25,000 points per night. That’s a much better deal.

Travelers love frequent-flyer miles and points, which is why banks continue to offer standout deals in conjunction with airlines. The challenge is making the points and miles pay. To do that, you really have to love to travel. Count me in.

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