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5 Smarter Ways to Grow and Spend Your Miles

How to get more bang for your buck—and your hard-earned points

As you rack up the miles or spend them on your travels this holiday season, keep these five pieces of advice in mind to maximize your points balance, extract more value from your rewards, and keep your stash healthy into the New Year.

1. Online shopping malls are not created equal.

There are some great websites like Evreward.com and Web Flyer’s mileage mall that compare the earning ratios of various airline, hotel, and credit card shopping portals. These sites determine if there’s higher earning potential at various stores. Even more important is keeping an eye on the promotions that shopping portals often run. It’s also wise to sign up for various shopping portal emails—when they run bonus offers, it can mean extra miles coming your way.

For example, American and United shopping sites often provide bonus miles for spending a certain amount at online retailers via their websites. Another valuable option is to download the United MileagePlus X app on your smartphone. The app sells electronic gift cards to various online retailers and awards MileagePlus miles (including a bonus for shopping with United cobranded credit cards). You then use those electronic gift cards to shop online at various retailers reached via online shopping malls. It’s like double dipping on mileage earning, and that’s not even counting the miles or points earned from charging a purchase to your credit card.

2. Cash and points at hotels can be a steal.

When it comes to redeeming points for a hotel, don’t assume that cashing in points is always the best deal. Sometimes it can be worth it to check for alternate rates like AAA or AARP if they are applicable. Other times, it is worthwhile to consider taking advantage of cash and points combinations like those offered by Starwood Preferred Guest and Hilton HHonors. These allow travelers to pay part of the reservation with points plus a flat fee based upon the hotel’s redemption category.

These can often provide tremendous value. For example, the Doubletree London by Hilton Hotel London Victoria can go for around $300 or 50,000 HHonors points per night, but with cash and points, it costs 24,000 points and around $100, which turns out to be a fine bargain.

Don’t forget that when you dine at hotel restaurants at Starwood or Hyatt properties, you can provide the server with your rewards program number to score points for your spend—even if you’re not a guest. And save your receipt in case you need to follow up later!

3. Take advantage of the Starwood-Marriott transfer.

Members of Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest can transfer points between programs on an unlimited basis. This is important to know because the programs will not combine until 2018, and this is the best way for travelers to take advantage of their elite program and redemption benefits until then.

Also important to note is that moving points between programs can be especially beneficial sometimes. Three Marriott Rewards points equal one Starwood Preferred Guest point. Starwood has a great offer where travelers can redeem 20,000 Starwood points for 25,000 airline miles. This means that one can transfer 60,000 Marriott points to Starwood for 25,000 miles, which is a better bargain than transferring 60,000 Marriott points directly for 20,000 airline miles. But, if you’re transferring to United, there is a special Marriott partnership to take advantage of meaning that only 56,000 Marriott points transfer to 25,000 United miles.

4. Don’t miss out on credit card travel bonuses.

Many credit cards like the Citi Prestige, American Express Platinum, and Chase Sapphire Reserved cards come with travel credits that are valid for anything from airline baggage fees to gift cards for travel companies. Infrequent travelers who don’t necessarily spend a lot on travel could be missing out on these important credits. Be sure that your travel credits have been maximized before the end of the year.

Also, be sure to register for important offers from your credit card. For example, Amex Offers requires logging into your credit card account and searching for eligible offers that call for registration. They come with bonuses like extra points, discounts, or even rebates for shopping at certain retailers. American Express even notes eligible retail offers on your invoice, but by then it’s too late. Take the extra five minutes to sign into your American Express account monthly to check for eligible bonuses.

5. Choose cards wisely.

Be sure to use the right card at the right spot when shopping; some involve bonuses for booking travel among other categories. Chase Sapphire Reserved and Citi Prestige offer three times the points on airfare, hotels, and ground transportation while Chase Sapphire Preferred continues with dual points earnings (Ultimate Rewards). If you’re using a regular credit card without a spending bonus, you could be missing out.