Currently I'm in the middle of my trip to London, Cape Town, and Dubai. This seems like a great time to get back to the basics of earning and collecting airline miles, hotel points, and other travel rewards. For me these loyalty programs are essential to travelling the world not only for extremely low cost, but also in some of the best seats you can find on the plane.
Airline miles are some of the most well known loyalty programs in the travel world. Flying on board airlines will earn you miles with all of the airlines. If you focus on a single airline and remain fairly loyal to them, you may even earn those higher level elite statuses. These elite status programs come with flying perks, and extra earned miles that can then be put toward more free trips.
In the United States, all the major carriers have a loyalty program. Even if you travel very little, grabbing an account with them may be well worth it. Those miles will add up and maybe faster than you realize, you might be able to grab a free one way or even round trip ticket in the US, or internationally. If you want to maximize your miles, business class is usually the most bang for your miles.
Hotels are very similar to airlines, if you are new to points and miles, you may have already joined a hotel loyalty program in the past. My suggestion is to make use of Starwood hotels and the SPG program that comes with those hotels. The SPG program is the best points you can own almost anywhere since they are transferable to almost any airline you can think of.
Like airlines, hotels earn miles based on stays with the hotel, often earned points are linked to how much you paid, much like all the major airlines in the US. Points earned can be used toward free nights at hotels. Also just like airlines, there is elite status based on how many stays or nights spent with the hotel. Elite status again brings extra points for use toward free nights or events.
Credit cards can be used in conjunction with airlines, and hotel, but many also have their own points that can be transferred to partner airlines and hotels. Citi has ThankYou Points, Chase has Ultimate Rewards points, and Amex has Membership Reward points. Each of these can be transferred, often at a 1:1 ratio to airlines selectively partnered with the credit card company.
Taking advantage of big sign up bonuses and using the right card at the right time will help grab many points and build up large stores of points that can be used quickly and often. Credit cards have become a quick way to earn lots of points fast.
Airlines often partner with stores and restaurants to provide additional miles when you dine/shop with these companies. Shopping portals work for online purchases. First going through the airline specific shopping website, you'll be directed to the online store you'd like to make a purchase from. This will then act like a normal checkout procedure. Once the purchase is completed, you'll receive miles in a few weeks for that purchase. No additional cost, just a bonus for shopping through the portal.
For the dining programs, you sign up with the airline specific dining portal and register you credit card with them. Any time you eat at a partnered restaurant and use your registered card, you'll receive a miles bonus for eating their. Once again, no additional cost.
There are other methods to gain miles and points, being on the lookout for them can boost your miles wallet and make your next trip free or even put you in a business class cabin.
Rental cars have loyalty programs, and there are even mortgage companies that will give miles for getting a mortgage with them. Use what there is available and take advantage of these offers. Always keep in mind that you do not want the use of a service to cost more money in the long run or else the miles may not be worth the effort and money that may come with acquiring them.