Getting into the Points and Miles Game: Travel Rewards for Teachers

One of the questions that I often get asked is how I can afford to travel so much on a teacher salary.  Certainly, traveling is one of the perks of teaching abroad, and I’ve done a lot of traveling with students while I was “on the clock”.  But, the other aspect that has allowed me to travel all over the world on a teacher salary is taking advantage of travel loyalty programs, AKA getting into the points and miles game with travel rewards.

For many people, diving into the world of travel points and credit cards can be a bit scary and overwhelming. There are so many choices for travel loyalty programs out there that it can be hard to know where to start.  Plus, opening credit cards can lead to financial problems if used irresponsibly.

However, if you spend just a little bit of time learning about some of the travel reward basics, you can save hundreds and even thousands of dollars every year on travel expenses. 

This post will give beginners an idea of where to start in the points and miles game. My little disclaimer is, of course, that none of this is financial or legal advice–you need to do your research and make decisions based on your personal situation. And, of course, the first rule of the credit card game is you always pay off your credit cards in full every month. If you can’t do that then you shouldn’t be opening new credit cards.  

This post contains affiliate/referral links.  If you sign up for a card you’ll be helping to support this blog at no extra cost to you.  Thank you!

Frequent Flyer Programs

First, if you aren’t a member of any frequent flyer programs, you should sign up right away. Every time you fly you can and should be getting mileage credit.  Being a member of a frequent flyer program is free and you don’t need a credit card for this; just sign up online or at the airport. In some programs your miles never expire but in others you need to use or earn miles every few years to prevent losing them. 

You can open a program on any of the major airline carriers, but you should also be aware of airline alliances, especially if you don’t usually fly the same airline. There are three big airline alliances with the following major North American airlines as of winter 2023:

If you have a frequent flyer program from one of these, normally anytime you fly a member of the airline alliance, you can get points on your airline of choice, even if it’s not the one you actually flew on. Plus, these days many flights are codeshare, meaning more than one airline is sponsoring them.  For example, this fall I flew home from Madrid through Lisbon on TAP Portugal and it was a codeshare flight with United, so when I realized I had forgotten to put my United frequent flyer number on the ticket, I was able to request the missing miles online and get them in just seconds.

It’s definitely best to make sure you have your frequent flyer number on the reservation when you buy the ticket, but you can add it up to and even during your trip. After the trip you can request miles online for a limited time if you’ve forgotten to do so, but this can be a hassle if you want the miles for a frequent flyer program on an airline different from the one your flight was on. 

Even if someone else is booking the ticket for you, if you are doing the flying you should be able to get credit for these miles. When I travel with students, I’m able to get credit for the trips that I’m taking even though I was not the one that personally paid for the flights.  

You should encourage any family members or students traveling with you to start a frequent flyer program and start earning miles as early as possible.  Here is a good list of what is required for minors to enroll in each airline’s frequent flyer program and if they need a parent or guardian to sign them up.

You can also transfer and donate miles on many programs, so you could invite family and friends or the local community to donate miles for school trips.  

Traveling with students? Read my post about the best field trips for Spanish classes.

Earning and Redeeming Frequent Flyer Miles

So how many miles are you actually going to earn on flights like this and how much do they cost? 

Well, an economy flight to Europe from Chicago would get you 2,000-5,000 miles depending on where exactly you’re going. That might sound like a lot of miles, but in the points and miles game, it’s actually a small amount.  

Redeeming a free economy ticket within the continental United States is generally going to run about 15,000-50,000 miles depending on when and where you are flying to.  If you are flying just a cheap flight or two a year, it will take years to get a free ticket just from flying (which is where credit cards and other ways to earn miles come in).  But, that free ticket is worth a few hundred dollars and you get it for FREE just by signing up for the program!

It is hard to estimate how many miles a person can earn and spend because each airline has a different program and awards miles differently.  Their miles are worth slightly different amounts, usually a cent or two.  Of the big three (American, Delta, United), United seems to have the flights with the lowest amount of miles, but I also get a much lower rate because I have their credit card (more on that later).

Miles used to be given for all seats for the actual mileage that you flew (hence the word “miles”), but nowadays most programs are based on how much you spend on your ticket.  Although sad for those of us flying in the low-cost seats, doing it this way probably makes more sense.  This also means that some very cheap tickets won’t get you any miles.  

In addition to earning airline miles on flights, many programs allow you to earn miles on hotels, car rentals, and even online shopping, so check your program for more details.

Which Frequent Flyer Program Is Best For Me?

The answer to this question will depend on what class you are flying, where you are located, and how you like to fly.  Alaska Airlines has a great program, but it doesn’t fly out of any of the airports near me, so it would be a waste for me to sign up for it, even if the miles are worth a lot.  Keep in mind it is possible to transfer miles for award flights, which is why those airline alliances are so important.

Overall, United’s MileagePlus program has been ranked one of the best for years, especially in terms of award pricing and availability.  I’ve been able to fly four or five free flights on United in my life, including trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights. Meanwhile I had 100,000 miles to spend on Delta and it took years to use them because I couldn’t find flights at the right time for the price of the miles I had. 

Having an airline’s frequent flyer program will also make you more likely to get a seat upgrade. Of course, your chances are not very good unless you have higher program status (usually decided by the number of flights flown and money spent), but it does put you a little bit higher on the list as they see you as an important customer with their program.

Sunset outside O'Hare airport

Hotel Loyalty Programs

If you’re more of a road tripper than a jet setter, you’ll want to look into hotel programs.  There are a lot of hotel programs where you can get free nights, free upgrades and free extras like Wi-Fi.  The two main chain programs, especially for credit cards, are Hilton and Marriott, but just about all major hotel brands have a loyalty program.  Take a look at which hotels are in the program, see which cities you’ll be traveling to in the future, and then decide which you might stay at most.       

If I’m staying in a place for a week or so, I’ll usually split my time between Airbnbs and cute local places. I don’t stay in big chain hotels that often anymore, except for a night or two here and there in big cities.  You might not either, but at a minimum you should sign up for their free programs because you never know when the points are going to come in handy or when you’re going to get other free goodies. If you’re staying at a place that is part of a chain hotel, you should definitely be earning points on your stays. 

You should also consider signing up for a frequent stay program that is not restricted to one hotel chain like Expedia or  I have earned Genius level on (how fun is that to say?!) so I get bigger hotel discounts.  This works well because I tend to book whatever hotel looks good based on the location and not necessarily based on loyalty to a certain brand.

Travel Credit Cards

After you’ve signed up for these free programs, you’re ready to graduate to getting your first credit card!  

There are a few different types of credit cards and this post will focus on three:

  • Hotel branded credit cards
  • Airline branded credit cards
  • Bank branded cards like Chase, American Express, and Capital One

Things To Watch For

Many people get shiny card syndrome; they want to get whatever new card they see, lured by a signup bonus and they sign up on a whim. You might see a card advertising $200 cashback and think “oh, that’s a great deal” but there are a few things that you need to look at first to find out if a card is actually going to be worth your time.  (And psst, you can do a lot better than a $200 cashback sign-up bonus!). 

The first thing to look at is the annual fees. The more perks the card gives you, the higher the annual fee, in general.  I recommend getting your first card with no annual fee or a low annual fee, under $100.  Obviously if there is an annual fee you’re already starting out in the hole with money you owe.  But, depending on the card’s benefits, the card may pay for itself right away with some of the perks it offers. 

Next, you will want to see if the card has international fees, or foreign transaction fees.  If you’re going to be traveling abroad, you’ll be using your credit card in other countries, so you should look for one that is not going to charge you when you use it because those fees add up very quickly.  Most premium cards or cards with a travel focus won’t have foreign transaction fees, but many cards for U.S.-based companies or cash back cards will.

Other things to consider are the interest rate and APR, but those matter less as long as you follow the golden rule which is to always pay off your credit card in full every month. 

Card Benefits

Now the fun part: let’s look at what the card actually gives you. 

Travel Insurance

Most travel cards give you some degree of travel insurance if you put flights, hotels or other parts of your trip on the card.  You may be able to get money back for lost or delayed luggage, or delayed or canceled flights.

Coupons and Deals

Most cards have built-in temporary deals that you just need to activate.  You might get 15% off at Athleta, $20 off Turbo Tax or 5% cash back at Chipotle.

Sign-up Bonus

Almost all of these cards are going to have a sign-up bonus. You should never open a card that is not offering one because the sign-up bonus is where you get the really big points and miles.  Sometimes you’ll see sign-up bonuses of 70,000, 80,000, even 100,000 miles. That’s a lot of miles!  But as mentioned before, it’s important to note that not all points and miles are created equal. That means that 50,000 miles in a Marriott Hotel could be quite different from 50,000 miles on Delta or even between Delta and United Airlines.  Some of these sign-up bonuses give you miles that you have the option to take as cash, but the miles are usually worth more when used for travel. 

TSA precheck sign at airport

Usually, to get the sign-up bonus you’ll need to spend a minimum amount on your card and then wait for bonus miles to be deposited in your account. These minimum spends are usually $2000-$6000 in the first three months.  You may have to plan ahead to make sure that you’re going to have some large purchases in order to meet the minimum spend. Signing up for a card right before you pay tuition for education classes or right before you go Christmas shopping is a good idea. There’s nothing worse than opening a new card and then not meeting the minimum spend and losing all those free points!

TSA Precheck and Global Entry

Many cards will cover the fee to get TSA Precheck and/or Global Entry.  These programs do take a bit of work to sign up for, but once you are in your coverage is good for five years.  TSA Precheck allows you to skip to the front of the line at airport security points (at least in the United States).  Global Entry means you get expedited entrance into the U.S. when you are returning from other countries.  Taking five minutes to get through customs at Chicago O’Hare as opposed to an hour of waiting in line?  Yes, please!

Some Recommended Travel Credit Cards

A Great Starter Card: Chase Sapphire Preferred

A commonly recommended starter card and one of the first I opened is the Chase Sapphire Preferred. This is a great card because it only has a $95 annual fee, but provides a lot of perks that will make up for the fee before even considering the miles.  And along with that you get some great bonuses like TSA PreCheck or Global Entry.

Even if you’re not traveling a lot, this card is going to help you really rack up the points and most importantly with these points you can transfer them to a huge range of hotels and airlines. You can book in their travel portal with these points. With a hotel card, for example, you’re only allowed to use those miles on that hotel brand, but with Chase points you could use them on a much larger number of airlines, hotels, and rental cars in the Chase portal. 

A Great Higher Level Card: Capital One Venture X

If you’ve been in the points and miles game for a while or if you know that you’re going to be traveling a lot, you may want to upgrade to the next tier of cards. I just got the Capital One Venture X card, and it comes with enough bonuses that it makes the whopping $395 annual fee worth it.  Besides Global Entry and TSA PreCheck, you also get a 10% or 10,000-mile bonus every year which is worth over $100. You also get a $300 hotel credit on hotels that you book through their portal.  

The thing that got me really excited about this card is that it offers Priority Pass access. Priority Pass has 1300+ airline lounges all over the world.  If you’re someone flying long distances or if you’re flying during crowded times, it’s so nice to be able to relax or work in the airline lounge.  You’ll usually find free food and drinks, including alcoholic drinks, which beats having to pay airport prices for a meal!  See the TikTok tour I did of the new United Lounge in Newark to get an idea of what a top lounge can be like.

If you’re only going to fly once or twice a year, having lounge access is probably not a big deal.  But if you’re flying 5-10 times a year and going through multiple airports, this can really be a game changer.

Airline Credit Cards

Okay, so let’s say you have a basic general card like Chase Sapphire Preferred or the Capital One Venture One Card.  When does it pay to get an airline card?  Well, it depends on how much you fly and what some of the bonuses are.  

At one point I had the Delta Skymiles Gold AmEx card because it had a really big signup bonus, but I didn’t end up flying Delta enough to make the annual fee pay. 

However, because United is the airline I fly with most often, having the United Explorer Card is worth it. There are two other important bonuses that this card gives me and one is a free checked bag, which is worth $35-50 when I fly domestically.  By having this card I also get Saver Awards, so I can buy award tickets for lower miles and that means I’ve been able to fly lots of places for free.  

Additionally, I get two free United lounge passes every year, which is a fun bonus. Especially when I was flying to Singapore, being able to go into the airline lounge in Japan and shower after a 13-hour flight and before my next seven-hour flight was really, really nice.

So for me these features make it worth the $95 annual fee.  United has a whole range of cards, including one with no annual fee and one with United Club Lounge access, so there are options or all types of travelers.

Hotel Credit Cards

I got my Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card when I knew I was going to be spending six nights in Chile at one hotel because there was a great signup bonus that included a $250 hotel certificate.  I really don’t stay at the same hotel very often so of all my cards, this is probably the card that really pays off the least. But, one feature they do have that’s really nice is their free night certificate. The annual fee is $95 but with the free night I can spend 35,000 points at a hotel that’s that price or lower and I get a free night there. This offsets the annual fee, plus I earn 6x miles on groceries, making it my highest-earning card for the grocery category. 

Another very popular series of hotel cards is the Hilton Am Ex cards, one of which has no annual fee.  

General Tips

Here are a few general tips to keep in mind as you dive into travel rewards. 

  • Track your rewards programs, their available deals and what benefits you get with a spreadsheet. 
  • Look at what categories (gas, groceries, flights etc.) you’re getting more miles for and use the correct card for those categories. You can even just put a piece of tape on the back of your card and mark which categories you should use the card for.  
  • Make use of apps like the Card Pointers app that will tell you which of your cards is the best to use in which category or location or Travel Freely which helps you track your award miles and save for a trip.
  • Keep track of how much you’re earning from these cards annually. If you’re not getting enough benefits from it to justify the annual fee, then get rid of it. 
  • You can add a family member to your card and earn even more points.  Or, recommend the card to a friend and you’ll both get miles.

Travel rewards for teachers do take some time to learn, but the payoff is well worth the effort!

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