Shop Around for Miles and Cash Back Too

With so many online portals offering miles or cash back if you shop through their website, it pays to look around for the best rewards out there.  So after you’ve done your research for the item you are going to buy and have found the perfect coupon code, you should look for bonus deals on online portals before hitting the purchase button.  You may need some patience to look through them but you will be duly rewarded for that, as the bonuses differ a lot from website to website and from store to store.  Here are four examples:

The Apple Store:

  • Discover’s ShopDiscover: 5% cash back
  • Bank of America’s Add It Up: 2% cash back
  • Upromise: 1% cash back
  • United’s Mileage Plus Mall: 3 miles per $2
  • American Airlines’ AAdvantage eShopping: 1 mile per $1
  • Delta’s SkyMiles Shopping: 1 mile per $1
  • Amtrak’s Points for Shopping: 2 points per $1

Expedia.com:

  • Upromise: 1% cash back
  • Bank of America’s Add It Up: 1% cash back

Macy’s:

  • Upromise: 6% cash back through August 7, usually 3%
  • Discover’s ShopDiscover: 5% cash back
  • Bank of America’s Add It Up: 4% cash back
  • American Airlines’ AAdvantage eShopping: 4 miles per $1 through September 6, usually 3 miles per $1
  • United’s Mileage Plus Mall: 7 miles per $2
  • Delta’s SkyMiles Shopping: 2 miles per $1
  • Amtrak’s Points for Shopping: 3 points per $1

Snapfish:

  • Bank of America’s Add It Up: 15% cash back
  • Discover’s ShopDiscover: 15% cash back
  • Upromise: 9% cash back
  • American Airlines’ AAdvantage eShopping: 6 mile per $1
  • Delta’s SkyMiles Shopping: 6 miles per $1
  • United’s Mileage Plus Mall: 9 miles per $2
  • Amtrak’s Points for Shopping: 5 points per $1

As you can see from the list above, bonuses vary significantly, and some stores even have limited time deals.  So if you have the time, don’t just stick to one portal.  In deciding through which one to shop , consider the size of the bonus as well as in which program you already have some miles or are close to reaching some sort of cash back threshold for redemption.  Either way, you will be turning your good deal purchase into an even better deal.

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A Note of Encouragement

I am a firm believer in loyalty programs, but I know that with some of them it almost feels pointless to give your number/card since it looks like it could take years to reach a reward level.  But these past two weeks were great for me on that front, and I want to offer you a note of encouragement.

Two weekends ago, I received $2.50 Extra Bucks back (a free ½ gallon of milk or cereal?) from CVS for purchases I made during the spring.  A few days later, I redeemed $20 in cash back I had accumulated on Discover for a $25 gift card on Banana Republic, which I used over the weekend to get a top for free!  I use my Discover card mostly for purchases that give me a 5% cash back bonus, which means it takes me a little longer to accumulate cash back than if I used it as my primary card, but I still usually accumulate $20 every 3 or 4 months.

A $5 certificate on Best Buy also came through my Inbox last week.  Their Reward Zone program gives $5 for every $250 spent, and the netbook I bought for my mom last month was $250 and some change.  In the mail, I also got a $10 certificate from DSW just to welcome me to their rewards program (I have only ever made one purchase there before) – and there, $10 goes quite a long way.  And, a year since we first started using OpenTable, we finally reached the points for a $20 gift certificate, which can be redeemed at any member restaurant.  Admittedly, $20 is not much compared to how much we spent dining out over this past year, but being rewarded for using a service that makes life more convenient (no calling restaurants for reservations) is always great.

And in terms of future rewards, thanks in part to my AAdvantage/Citibank credit card, I recently reached enough miles on American Airlines for a free flight to Europe.  While I haven’t booked my ticket yet, I am planning on going to England in a month, and if my recent experiences with reward programs are any indication, I expect redeeming my miles for a flight will be a breeze, too.

Some rewards programs are obviously more generous than others, and I think that the instances in which it may make sense to spend money just to get a reward are few and far apart.  Nonetheless, if you diligently use your loyalty number/card whenever you do make a purchase, there just might be a reward coming your way sooner or later.

The Art of Double and Triple Dipping

Most stores do not allow the use of multiple coupons for the same item (an exception is Harris Teeter – I have never shopped there, but apparently the grocery chain allows up to 20 double coupons, and, on some days, triple coupons), but there are other ways to get more than just the coupon discount.  If you have a credit card that gives you cash back, for example, you can easily double dip by using a coupon and getting some cash back by charging on your card.  Or even better, you can redeem your accumulated cash back for a gift card (a better rate for cash) and use a coupon when paying with that gift card – gift cards are not coupons and are thus perfectly compatible with them.

Triple dipping might require a little more effort, but is certainly worth the benefits.  Here are two examples of how I’ve gotten three times the bang for my buck:

Coupon + Cash Back + Miles: I subscribe to J.Crew emails, and a while back I got a coupon code for 20% off one item (Incidentally, there’s a sale going on at jcrew.com right now, and the coupon code EXTRA20 will give you an extra 20% off sale items until this Saturday, July 10th), which I chose to use on an item that I had been meaning to buy.  I made sure to use my Discover card on that purchase, since it was giving me a 5% cash back bonus for purchases at clothing stores during that quarter.  Finally, I also checked my frequent flier options.  Instead of visiting  jcrew.com directly, I accessed it and placed my order through the AAdvantage eShopping program, which gave me 3 American Airlines miles per dollar I spent on that purchase (minus taxes)!

The triple dipping results: An item on sale for $100, bought for $80, giving me another $4 in cash back and 240 miles.

Store Card + Miles + Upromise cash: Two weeks ago I bought a $260 netbook for my mother at Best Buy.  I already had the Best Buy Reward Zone card, which gives $5 in store credit for every $250 spent (a 2% rate), but I made my purchase through Upromise rather than by going directly to bestbuy.com, earning another 2% plus a $10 incentive (Upromise sends emails with extra offers if you don’t use it for a while).  And of course, I used my Citi/American Airlines card so I would get miles as well (a better deal than Discover when outside the bonus period).

The triple dipping results: A $260 purchase, for which I got $5 in store credit at Best Buy and $15 on Upromise as well as 260 miles.

Admittedly, the extras I got for triple dipping were relatively small compared to the price of the purchases, but they made it a much better deal than spending $100 at J.Crew or $260 at Best Buy and not getting any breaks for that.  And all I needed was a little creativity to consider my options among the available offers.

Have you had a great double/ triple (/quadruple?) dipping experience? Please share it in the comments section!

Guard Your Miles

A while back, I received a piece of mail from US Airways regarding my Dividend Miles.  It looked official enough, complete with a message from the Director of Marketing Programs, and warned that my Dividend Miles will expire in a month, lest I redeem them for some magazine subscriptions!  It immediately aroused my suspicions – I have to redeem my miles but my only options are magazine subscriptions?  I called US Airways, where the representative on the phone assured me that my miles are in no danger of expiring for another 17 months and that the letter must be a mistake.

Mistake or a scam?  Know the truth and the truth shall set you free.  Both oneworld and Star Alliance only require activity (i.e., earning or redeeming your miles) every 18 months in order for your miles to remain active; SkyTeam 12 months.  In any event, remember that you are an educated college grad, not some average Joe,  and I would hate to know that you could be fooled by something like this.

Miles Away from Your Next Vacation?

Frequent flier (hereinafter FF) programs may seem like a scam – how can you possibly accumulate 25,000 miles for a domestic flight, let alone 40,000+ for an international flight, if you only get 600 miles on a DC-NY round-trip flight?! – but you will learn to love them once you pay for your first flight with miles.  Over the last 6 years I have flown to South America twice and once to Europe using just accumulated miles plus $150 or so in taxes and fees (these cannot be paid with miles) each time.  How quickly you accumulate enough miles for a ticket will obviously depend on how frequently you travel, but how careful you are to make sure you get those miles also makes a huge difference in the long run.  Here are some general tips to get you on your way to a FF mileage-funded vacation:

  1. This is basic, but make sure your FF number is recorded when you check into a flight and do not throw away the boarding passes and reservation until you see the miles posted to your account.  And if you don’t see those miles in your account 3 weeks after you’ve flown, make sure to chase after them.  While some airline companies allow you to request missing mileage credit online, others require that you send them a copy of your boarding pass and reservation.  American Airlines, for example, generally allows you to request the credit online, but if the mileage is for a Japan Airlines flight that you want to add to your AA account, for instance, you must send a fax instead.  To request mileage from a US Airways flight to a United account, on the other hand, you will need to provide them with your seat number.
  2. If you travel for work, number 1 still applies.  The FF miles are an added benefit to your job, and you should not hesitate to earn them.  You are entitled to them, and since frequent flier miles can only be awarded to the person who actually took that flight, you are not taking away any potential opportunities for earning miles from your company or your boss.
  3. Some car rental and large hotel chains also give you miles.  Check your FF website before booking either of these to find out.  For car rentals, you usually need to give a booking code (found in the FF website) and your FF number to accumulate miles.  There are often deals for double or triple miles depending on the length of your rental, and these frequently come with extra discount codes.
  4. Use the FF website for online shopping.  Whenever you are about to purchase something online, besides searching for discount coupons, make sure to check your FF website to see whether you can get miles for that purchase too.  Most FF programs have a site with links to various retailers that award you miles as long as you purchase from them after clicking on their link (rather than visiting the retailer directly), similar to UPromise and ShopDiscover.  This site is usually listed in the “earn miles” > “gifts and retail” (or similar name) section of your FF website and does not bar you from using coupons as well.  Last week, I purchased an item on sale at J.Crew using a 20% off coupon AND got 300 miles (3 miles per $ spent) from American Airlines!  That’s the same amount of miles I would have gotten for flying from DC to New York.

Obviously, if you don’t travel a lot for work or pleasure or shop online, accumulating enough miles for a trip to the Pacific Islands will take years.  But my reasoning is simple: FF programs should not encourage you to purchase a more expensive ticket just because it will give you miles (having accounts with airlines in the three main groups mostly covers that) nor should you make superfluous online purchases just for the miles.  However, if you were going to take that flight or make that purchase anyway, why not get something for it, even if small?  As I see it, slow but steady wins the trip.

Discouraged by student loan payments? Rent’s too high? How about taking a trip to the Caribbean?

There is no reason for not having a frequent flier account and accumulating miles for practically every trip you take.  Frequent flier accounts cost absolutely nothing and may eventually earn you a free trip, even if it takes you a few years.

Airlines offer frequent flier programs with the idea that they can keep you loyal – if you have an American Airlines account, when you have to travel you will choose to fly with AA or one of its partners to accumulate miles, regardless of whether there are cheaper options out there (or at least if the difference in price between the cheapest alternative and your AA flight isn’t that big).  I challenge that concept.  Rather, loyalty programs should not factor into your decision of flight which to take, because you should have frequent flier accounts with more than one airline, making sure every flight you take will be covered by at least one of your accounts.

To set this up, here are some facts you should know:

  1. You can accumulate miles by flying with the airlines with which you have a frequent flier account, with their airline partners, as well as with their other partners including hotels, car rentals, and online retail sites.
  2. You can redeem miles for flights with the airlines with which you have a frequent flier account and with their partners, as well as for other things such as magazine subscriptions.  Redeeming for international flights tends to the best deal. 
  3. There are three main airline groups that share mileage accumulation benefits and redemption options (US-based airlines in group): oneworld (American Airlines), SkyTeam (Continental, Delta, and Northwest), and Star Alliance (United and US Airways).  [A full list of the member airlines can be found in the respective group websites.]

You only need to open a frequent flier account with one airline in each of the three groups, since having an account with any airline in a group lets you earn and redeem flights within the entire group.  In fact, having more than one account within each group would only spread your miles thin, since miles from different programs within the group cannot be easily combined.

For SkyTeam and Star Alliance, you should generally choose to be a frequent flier with the airline that you fly the most, because several of them offer bonuses for online check-in and other activities to their members only (not partners’ members). 

If you fly internationally enough, you may want to consider having a frequent flier account with a non-US-based airline from one of those groups.  The main problem I have found with some of those programs, however, is that the miles tend to expire more easily, so be careful and read the fine print before you decide to go that route.  For example, I used to have an account with Japan Airlines, but the miles expired 2-3 years after they were accumulated, regardless of activity.  In contrast to most US-based airline programs, where miles do not expire as long as there has been any activity (accumulation or redemption) in the account in the last 18 months.

Regardless of your home airport and the frequency of your travel, this post should have given you a basic understanding of how frequent flier programs work.  Next week I will post some tips for accumulating miles and getting that trip to Aruba faster – and a week should be enough time for you to sign up for your frequent flier accounts.