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Setting Your Travel Rewards Strategy and Goals for the Year Ahead: Flights

January 9, 2024
Sam Helmy
Putting together a travel rewards strategy for your next selection of airline loyalty programs can be tricky and requires some research and planning. That said, if done accurately, you can leverage your points and miles for thousands of dollars worth of airfare.

When it comes to the Travel Rewards Strategy, organizing your flight plan for the coming year can be very tricky due to the large number of variables involved, not to mention the often limited choice and meager award availability in some cases.

That being said, with some experience and planning, you can pull off some stunning awards and get yourself thousands of dollars of airfare for next to nothing.

Realistic Expectations Are Key

The key to a successful travel rewards strategy is realistic expectations across the board. Ask yourself if you are over or underestimating the number of flights you will take. Also, are you realistic with the cost of both cash and points to achieve your travel goals? For instance, if your points balances are zero, having a plan that will require you to accrue 500,000 miles in 6 months is going to backfire unless there is some serious spending and traveling involved to amass that many miles.

My JAL business class flight was an excellent use of miles in 2024
My JAL business class flight was an excellent use of miles in 2024

Be aware that while it is great to keep taking premium long-haul travel around the world. They are not cheap, either in cash or points. Accruing the points takes time and a plan, so you need to be realistic about the rate and time frame you can accumulate points in.

Travel Rewards Strategy Tip: It’s Not Just About Miles

When booking awards, we often tend to slip into the habit of only thinking about miles. However, this is a big mistake that can end up costing you in terms of objectives, money, and points.  Realize that a travel rewards strategy involves purchases made using cash, points, miles, and other perks and benefits. The key is maximizing your resources and leveraging them for the most value and travel.

My Experience aboard Delta One to Haneda was exceptional in 2023
My Experience aboard Delta One to Tokyo Haneda was exceptional in 2023

Take, for instance, last year’s Oscape flight with Delta from Minneapolis St Paul to Tokyo Haneda. If you opt to pay cash for the flight, the price would be substantial; for instance, some flights for later this year are priced near the $4,500 mark.

However, at Oscape, we paid $1,871 for the fare, which is a saving of over 50%, which is excellent value for any points and miles fan. The planning for the award involved paying cash for a lower fare bucket fare, then using a Delta Global Upgrade Certificate that you receive through status to travel in a premium cabin.

When in comet to planning, you need to consider and budget for fares like these in terms of cash and what you will do to earn status to achieve them.

Make A Rough Travel Plan

As we mentioned in the article covering accommodation, every yearly travel plan starts with a rough list of your confirmed and possible trips during the year. Without this, it is very hard to take the first step in developing a strategy for the year.

Due to your travel patterns, you may find that almost every trip can be done by car, and you will only take one or two flights this year. In that case, your travel plans will be radically different than if you were going to head over to Asia from the US six times. Or whether you are going to fly on a very short hop once or twice a week.

If you can get your travel plan to look like this at the beginning of the year you are on to a winner!
If you can get your travel plan to look like this at the beginning of the year you are on to a winner!

Determining the type of travel is crucial to developing a successful plan. For instance, if you take lots of short hops for work, Global Upgrade Certificates are of little value. However, if you take a few long-haul trips, a Global Upgrade Certificate or similar could save you thousands of dollars.

Decide On Your Elite Status & Travel Requirements

Once you have an idea about your travel patterns and plans, you need to look at your loyalty programs and decide on a few of things; first, are you going to pursue elite status with any program, and if so, to what level and how?

Again, your desired status level depends on your patterns and the perks it delivers. For instance, if you regularly fly in a premium cabin, either paid or awarded, status has little to offer on the individual trip. You will board early, have decent checked baggage, and, crucially, fly in a premium cabin, which guarantees you lounge access. All of these tend to be things status gives you when you fly a regular fare, but if you don’t, then they are somewhat useless.

Lounge access is one of the main factors when deciding on a travel rewards strategy
Lounge access is one of the main factors when deciding on a travel rewards strategy

On the other hand, if you regularly take short hops in the main cabin, then elite status could be worth its weight in gold; not only will you fast-track security and relax in the lounge, but you can board quickly and receive complimentary checked bags which saves you a ton over the course of the year.

Decide On a Program

Next, once you have an idea about the types of perks and benefits you want, it’s time to find a loyalty program that delivers these for you. This is where you must find a balance between programs and how easy it is to achieve and maintain status. For instance, if you regularly take short hops within The US on United, accessing United Clubs can be tricky. However, if you have Star Alliance Gold status with another carrier, then accessing United Clubs when flying domestically is a breeze.

Some programs have great perks like complimentary Helicopter transfers.
Some programs have great perks like complimentary Helicopter transfers.

Taking the above situation with United Historically, many US-based Travelers used to have Star Alliance Gold status through Aegean Airways. Qualifying was easy, and you did not even have to set foot on an Aegean aircraft. This way, they had better lounge access than some United elites flying main cabin domestic.

This has changed recently since Aegean changed its qualification policy in 2023, and you are now required to take four flights with Aegean to reach Star Alliance Gold. That said, there are multiple data points of individuals who spend time in Europe doing a mileage run to hit those 4 flights and retain their status since it is so valuable to them back home. 

Factor In Location and Credit Cards

While choosing non-US-based loyalty programs can be rewarding, you do have to factor in a few items.

Will you be able to achieve status?

Most airlines require that you take a minimum number of flights on their own metal. Therefore, taking the above example of Aegean into account, if you live in Oregon and hardly visit Europe, going for status will not be the way forward for your travel rewards strategy. You must look for an alternative program or airline that best meets your needs.

Sometimes elite status does not matter as long as you have a premium cabin ticket
Sometimes elite status does not matter as long as you have a premium cabin ticket

What Is the Program Situation with Credit Cards & Transfer Partners

Any high-level travel rewards strategy involves the use of Co-branded credit cards and flexible transferable points. How well-developed the airline network of co-brand credit cards can be a big factor in choosing a loyalty program. This is primarily because leveraging your everyday spending for miles is a sure fast way to boost your mileage balance rapidly. For instance, compare Air Canada Aeroplan, which only has one card in the US, to United, Delta, and American Airlines, which each have several consumer and small business cards, so no dollar spent goes unrewarded. Alongside the rewards cards, con offers other perks such as shortcuts to status, not to mention free checked bags and, in some cases, lounge access. Finding a program with the right blend of cards that works for you can be a game-changer for your travel rewards strategy.

Air Canada Aeroplan is one of the few programs that is a transfer partner with virtually every major points currency out there.
Air Canada Aeroplan is one of the few programs that is a transfer partner with virtually every major points currency out there.

Another important item to consider is how many different flexible credit card points you can transfer to your desired loyalty program. The more, the better, as a general rule, since this gives you more flexibility. But it also allows you to consolidate multiple small balances into one large one that you can redeem for premium travel.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to choosing airline loyalty programs as part of a travel rewards strategy, things can get complicated. However the first year is the hardest, but it gets easier every year. This is not only because you are learning more but also because your travel data set is growing. The more accurate a picture you have of your travel patterns, the easier it is to plan for them. After a few years, you will be able to have an almost perfect picture of your upcoming year; however, like all journeys, the hardest step is the first one!