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How Holiday Shopping Can Get You a Free Trip: The Extra Mile

Use these tips to maximize your miles and turn them into travel

It’s nearing that time of year: You’ve primped and preened your budget, you’re ready to spend, and your credit card balances are poised to take the hit. But many of us dread duking it out with the crowds, and prefer to hold out for Cyber Monday to score the best deals, and that’s when you can exploit one of the Internet’s the best-kept secrets. It comes from the deep, dark world of miles and points: online shopping portals.

The online miles and points shopping center

Most major airlines and hotel chains have them. They bring together in one place many of the retailers you might normally visit individually. Those stores pay a commission to be part of the “online mall.” You benefit by earning a certain number of points or miles for every dollar you spend, and you’ll be surprised how fast you can grow your piggy bank of miles and points.

If you think this is the stuff dreams are made of, you are right. Vacation dreams, that is. There are stores, like magazines.com, where you can get as many as 25 miles per dollar spent. Many portals also offer bonus gifts based upon how much you spend.

If you’re loyal to multiple airline and hotel programs, then it’s smart to review which of your preferred program’s online mall offers the best deal for the retail store—Barnes & Noble, Gap, Target, Wal-Mart, or Macy’s, for instance—where you want to shop. To help sort out the options, make EVReward.com your first stop, and type in the name of the store you’re planning to visit. Let’s say it’s Sears: the site will tell you that American Airlines offers three miles per dollar spent, but United will give you six miles. That’s a big difference, especially if you’re making a large purchase. While not perfect, EVReward is one of the best resources when it comes to earning miles through online shopping. The few extra seconds it takes can yield bigger mileage payouts.

A quick how-to (as if you need to be told how to shop)

There are four easy steps: Go to your preferred travel partner’s shopping portal and log in with your frequent flier or hotel loyalty program number; find your favorite store; click through the link on the portal’s page and read the details to see if any items are excluded from earning points; click on the link to shop.

When you’ve completed a purchase, take a screenshot (or even cell phone snapshot) of the checkout page and the website portal. You can use it as a way to track the miles later and as backup proof of purchase.

Are there any drawbacks to online shopping? Well, you can’t try on clothes in the moment, and you can’t touch or feel a product the way you might in a store. But otherwise, there are very few downsides. Many outlets offer free return shipping, and even if they don’t, compare the outsize benefit of racking up thousands of miles to the prospect of paying $10 or $20 in return shipping charges. And many shopping mall portals allow you to use special discount or coupon codes online.

Remember, you must log in with your frequent flier or loyalty program number—it’s the only way the sites can keep a record of your rewards. And you must click through the link on the portal’s site and then make a purchase from the page that pops up. Do not navigate away and come back later; you may miss out on your bonus points/miles.

Patience is a virtue

It typically takes two to eight weeks for miles to post to your account. Be patient but vigilant. Follow up with the shopping portal (not the merchant) after the designated time has passed to make sure your points are delivered.

Shopping through online portals is something to do not only during the holidays, but also year-round. Most of the things you buy on a daily basis can be purchased online. It’s not only more convenient, but it comes with a reward. Of course, you can always earn cash back from sites like Ebates.com, but then what’s the fun in that? Miles can provide far greater value if you use them for something like flying to a distant destination.

Here are some of the most popular travel partner portals:

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan Shopping

American Airlines AAdvantage eShopping

Choice Hotels Choice Privileges Rewards

Delta Air Lines Skymiles Shopping

Hilton HHoners Shop-to-Earn Mall

Marriott Marriott Rewards Mall

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Shopping

Spirit Airlines Free Spirit Online Mall

United Airlines MileagePlus Shopping

Virgin America Elevate Fly Store

Credit cards offer similar programs. Chase has its Ultimate Rewards shopping portal, for example, and American Express awards points for those who shop through its Membership Rewards site. It all depends on what points or mileage currency is most important to you.

Just keep racking up the points, and take that trip you’ve always dreamed about.

Ramsey Qubein wings his way to every corner of the globe covering the hotel, cruise and airline industry, scooping up points and miles along the way. He has visited 164 countries and flies nearly 350,000 miles per year. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at DailyTravelTips or on his website RamseyQ.com.