Skift Take

You have about a one in three chance to redeem miles with US Airways, a survey found, and that doesn't bode well for frequent flyers in the American Airlines-US Airways merger.

Your rewards credit card, of course, is in your wallet. But where are the rewards? Do you know how many points you have, how you can use them and when they might expire?

Probably not.

“The good news is most people collect miles,” says Brian Kelly, proprietor of, a site dedicated to maximizing consumers’ travel points. “The bad news is they don’t know how to use them and many let them expire.”

Almost three-quarters of Americans who collect frequent-flyer miles or credit-card rewards points don’t know how many they have, according to a recent study by Princeton Survey Research Associates International commissioned by The study also found that only 41 percent of Americans even understand how frequent-flyer programs work.

Sounds as if it’s time for a rewards card/miles/points intervention, with help from The Points Guy, who once collected $3,000 in rewards points for signing up for two credit cards. (His secret to how you can make a score is below.)

How To Keep TrackOf Points, Miles

Kelly recommends two free online services, and [TripIt Pro], to track account balances on miles, hotel points and rewards points. These two sites also email you when your miles are about to expire and track your flights.

“Airlines are notoriously terrible when there’s actually a flight change,” says Kelly. “But Tripit and AwardWallet actually let me know about cancellations and delays before the airlines have.”

Best Airlines For Points

JetBlue, Southwest Airlines and Virgin America are just like money,” says Kelly. “You can pretty much redeem them for any flights. The hard part is that most of the traditional airlines — American and United — you kind of have to jump through hoops to get the tickets. But you can also redeem for much higher value international first class.”

Requests for a frequent-flyer award ticket on Southwest were available in 100 percent of requests in a recently released Switchfly Reward Seat Availability Survey for round-trip travel between June and October. Seats were available on JetBlue for almost 89 percent of requests. United, at 80 percent, scored much higher than American (49 percent), Delta (36 percent) and US Airways (36 percent).

Most Valuable Miles

United Airlines. Kelly says despite the trouble of redeeming miles for flights, United’s affiliation with Star Alliance — and benefits like priority airport check-in and boarding, extra baggage allowance — makes a difference.

“Star Alliance is the biggest alliance,” says Kelly. “People need to think beyond just the airlines that they fly. It’s all about the partners these days. Southwest is a great program, but if you want to go internationally it’s horrible, it’s the worst in the world. So it could be the best for someone and the worst for another.”

Cash Back Or Points Card?

How often do you travel and where to you want to go?

“What people need to understand,” says Kelly, “is that you can get cash-back cards that are easily 1 percent to 2 percent back on everything you spend. So you’re going with a mileage card, you’re going to have to get more than that in value.”

Recommended Cards

For airlines points: Blue Sky From American Express

–Earn 7,500 points awarded when you spend $1,000 in the first three months of membership.

–One point for almost every dollar spent.

–Unlimited travel options (any airline, hotel, car rental) with no blackout dates.

–No annual fee.

For hotel rewards: Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature Card

–Earn 40,000 HHonors Bonus Points after spending $1,000 in the first four months of membership.

–Bonus Points per $1 spent: six at participating hotels, three at supermarkets, drugstores and gas stations and two for all other purchases.

–No annual fee.

For cash back: Blue Cash Everyday (American Express)

–Earn 100 points after spending $1,000 in first three months of membership.

–Cash back: 3 percent at supermarkets, 2 percent at gas stations and some department stores, 1 percent on all other purchases.

–No annual fee.

How To Work The System

Kelly, a former college recruiter for Morgan Stanley, says he has 20 active credit cards yet had no fear of damaging his credit score after recently canceling some cards and adding five new ones.

“I know this sounds crazy,” he says, “but my score has actually increased. The No. 1 factor in credit scores is paying off your bills on time. The number of new cards you have is only 15 percent of your score. I don’t run a balance. Your score can go up 40 points in a single month if you pay off all your bills. It’s a two- to four-point hit for every new card you get but in a weird way the more available credit you have the less you’re using and the more your score goes up.”

Kelly looks for the big scores, like the recent 75,000-point sign up bonus offered by American Express’ Business Gold Rewards card. American Express asked Kelly to remove the sign-up link from his “What do 75K Amex Points Get You?” blog post, then reduced the offer to 50,000 points for those who spent $5,000 in the first three months.

A couple weeks before that offer, a secret American Airlines deal that offered 50,000 bonus points at sign-up reminded Kelly of one of his biggest hits. Two years ago, American Airlines offered a 75,000-point bonus for its City AAdvantage card. Kelly signed up for the maximum number of cards, two.

“So I got 150,000 miles,” he says, “which I value at at least $3,000. I redeemed it for a Cathay Pacific first-class trip home from Asia, which was incredible, beyond belief.”

Kelly never used the American Airlines cards.

“I don’t cancel right way,” he says. “I tell people, wait at last six months. You don’t want to be abuse to the credit card companies. I have another Citi card I put a lot of money on, the Citi Hilton [HHonors] Reserve, which gives me Hilton Diamond status.” ___

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Tags: credit cards, frequent flyers

Photo credit: The Blue Sky from American Express card enables cardholders to accrue 7,500 points with the first $1,000 spent in the first three months, and there are no blackout dates. American Express

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