Sure, frequent flyer points are great in theory -- but it takes ages to accumulate enough to go anywhere decent -- and when you finally can it's next to impossible to use them on the flight you want.
We hear you, and so does Keith Mason. He's been running a site called Point Hacks for five years -- and in that time he has travelled with his family on several big trips to London, New York, Paris, Hong Kong, Fiji and within Australia, all using points -- and they've not set foot in Economy.
“I hear a lot of people say that they can’t get any value out of their frequent flyer points -- it’s a common complaint -- and there’s a lot of truth in that argument - but I tell them that they need to look harder,” Mason told The Huffington Post Australia.
“The problem with airlines and frequent flyer programs is that the world of points is really complex -- but if you do just a little homework, you’ll be ahead of many others when it comes to knowing how to earn more points, and use them better.”
Here’s Mason’s basic ideas for earning more points, and importantly, more of the right points.
Get yourself set up with the right credit card
"There’s no one “best” credit card out there to earn the most frequent flyer points -- but there are few really good ones which, if you choose a card to match your circumstances wisely, can really pay back in terms of points earn ability.
Family shopper? Find one that offers bonus points at supermarkets. Travel overseas, or pay a lot of online transactions outside of Australia? There are cards that offer more points for this too.
If you’re a small business owner, consider also putting all your business expenses through a rewards points earning card - the points rack up pretty quickly.
The bonus categories available on a range of different cards are travel (such as airfares, hotels and cruises), restaurants and business expenses (as well as the supermarkets and overseas examples above).
Sit down and analyse where you spend most on your card, and try to match that to credit card that will earn you more points. A quick online search for cards that offer you bonus points for the retailers you spend more at -- and tailoring who you bank with accordingly -- should pay back.
A word of warning -- remember not to pay high credit card surcharges or spend money just to earn points -- you’ll end up out of pocket."
Aim for flexibility in the points you collect
"Some frequent flyer programs -- I’m looking at you, Qantas -- lock you into only earning their points with your credit card, and penalise you with more expensive flights if you use their points on their airline partners.
For people starting from scratch, I often advise savvy consumers to aim for “flexible points programs”.This is where one points program (say, a bank rewards program) lets you transfer your points to a range of other programs (frequent flyer or hotel loyalty programs).
American Express, Westpac, Citibank and ANZ (amongst others) all offer their own points programs which are flexible in this way. Incidentally, Virgin Australia’s Velocity program also has some flexibility -- you can transfer your Velocity points over to their partner, Singapore Airlines’ KrisFlyer program -- allowing you to take advantage of their network of routes and airline partners.
By comparison Qantas decided to mostly lock these “flexible points programs” out of their own frequent flyer program a few years ago -- once you’re with a Qantas-earning card, there’s no room to use those points outside of Qantas and their partners.
By choosing a flexible points program, you’ll be able to transfer the points earned from your credit card to any one of a number of programs around world, opening up many more potential uses, and often at cheaper redemption rates.
Don’t get me wrong -- if you’re working on building a Qantas Point balance, don’t throw those points away! Qantas Points still have value, especially when it comes to redeeming them for tickets on Qantas, Emirates and Jetstar, and for upgrades on Qantas flights. They are also not too hard to earn given their wide range of partners in Australia."
Use your credit card cleverly with any points bonuses on offer
"Say you picked up a credit card that offers bonus points for spending at supermarkets -- it’s then worth thinking about what else supermarkets sell that you could buy from them to rack up bigger bonuses from your everyday spend.
One example of this is gift cards -- Coles, Woolworths and other supermarkets all sell them, for retailers as diverse as the iTunes Store, Bunnings and Myer.
Instead of purchasing your home reno supplies directly at Bunnings, you could earn bonus points with a supermarket bonus card by buying a Bunnings gift voucher at the supermarket, and then using it yourself at the Bunnings checkout."
Use a points earning “online mall” for any online purchases
"Qantas, Velocity and many other frequent flyer programs run “online malls” -- where you are rewarded for clicking through to an online retailer from the airline’s own shopping portal.
You usually won’t pay any more than if you’d just bought online directly, but you can several additional frequent flyer points per dollar spent by using them."
Make sure you redeem your points wisely - Business or First Class flights offer most value
"To get most value from your points, you’re going to want to try and earn enough to get you into Business or First Class, rather than Economy.
Many people might use their points for physical rewards such as computers, luggage, or for gift cards. It’s a simple way to get rid of them, and the airlines encourage you to use them like this.
So why use your points for travel nearer the front of the plane?
For a couple of reasons -- firstly, usually the taxes and fees that come with most points redemption tickets these days wipe out a good chunk of the value of using points for an Economy ticket.
Then there’s the simple fact that the price of most Business Class fares are often 3 or 4 times the cost of an Economy fare. But compare that to frequent flyer points pricing -- Business Class is usually only twice that of Economy.
When comparing like this, your points go further and offer you greater value when used at the front of the plane. I find it worth saving my points for experiences I otherwise couldn’t justify paying cash for."
Set a goal, and do your research to help achieve it
"The cost of using your points to different destinations can vary widely -- as can the availability of frequent flyer points seats that the airlines make available to use them for.
This makes it important to have some idea of your dream trip or another goal for using your points, and then ensuring you are earning points in the right credit card and frequent flyer programs so that you aren’t short-changed when it comes time to use them.
This is another reason why the bank’s credit card rewards programs are handy -- these “flexible points programs” allow you to earn points now and choose how you want to use them later."
Need more points, faster? Consider buying frequent flyer points to use for Business Class travel
"The other trick of the savvy points-collector is to understand which frequent flyer program both offer good value redemptions, and will sell you enough miles at a good price for you to redeem immediately into tickets.
The programs you can do this with are all overseas, but that doesn’t prevent you from signing up and buying miles -- American Airlines, United and a handful of others are all worth researching for this.
You can then redeem those points on their airline partners, which include Qantas (for American) or Singapore Airlines (for United).
It’s more work than just paying for a flight, but with some effort you can save 50% or more on the cost of Business and First Class flights, globally."
Point Hacks offers a free guide to learn more about earning and using points.