Beating the System, But just Barely.
It really bothers me that I still haven’t quite gotten the Credit Card/Loyalty Program semi-scam figured out, and I’ve been playing the game for a long time, chasing after all that “free” travel.
In my case, living 2500 miles out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I figured when it came to a loyalty program, I’d better start with an airline. So 30 years ago next May, I picked American Airlines’ Aadvantage program because they had a major presence here in Hawaii and because they could take me pretty much anywhere I wanted to go.
Over those same 30 years, I’ve had a Visa card that credits me with one Aadvantage mile for every dollar I spend on the card. I use it for everything: groceries, restaurant meals, gas, dental appointments, stamps from the post office, pest control service, and of course all my travel. In fact, I’m my own cashless society. I’ve had the same three singles and a fiver in my wallet for weeks. There’s only one caveat: the entire Visa bill gets paid in full every month.
Of course, I’m also a member of Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program and if I lived on the mainland, you can bet I would be charging everything on their Mastercard.
If I want to buy something on line, I first try going through the Amtrak Guest Rewards web site to one of their partner/retailers, because anything I buy there will earn AGR points. But here’s the thing: if I use my Visa card, I’ll earn Aadvantage miles, too!
One more thing: My original Visa card charges a foreign currency transaction fee every time I buy something outside the U.S., and over the years that has cost me big bucks. For instance, if a three-night stay at a hotel in Paris cost €980 and I paid for it with my regular Visa card — ka-ching! — there’s another $33 tacked onto my Visa bill.
Before I took off for France last Fall, I got a second Visa card, one that doesn’t charge for purchases made in pounds or euros or rubles. Furthermore, as an incentive, CapitalOne offered to give me 40,000 miles if I put $3,000 on the card in the first 90 days. Are they kidding? I spent almost three weeks in France, so the 3,000 bucks was un morceau de gâteau!
Finally, all the real experts are now giving the same advice: don’t hoard your miles. The fact is, they’re worth less and less every day. For example, one-way flights from Maui to Los Angeles used to cost 17,500 miles. Nowadays, most flights between here and L.A. are 22,500 miles, but they route you through Seattle or some other west coast city. Want to go non-stop? That’ll cost you 50,000 miles.
Bottom line: as soon as you accumulate enough miles to take that trip you’ve been planning, book it!