INSIDER SECRET: Before you book your award ticket, research partner airline routing rules and pricing to save tons of miles and points.
If you are new to traveling with miles and points, odds are that you are overwhelmed by the various programs, redemption options and rules associated with award travel. Trying to navigate ways to plan a trip can be exhausting.
Or, maybe you have used miles and points in the past but still aren’t sure how to accumulate enough rewards to make your dream vacation a reality. Take the time to set your travel goals and then work to make it happen.
We’ll take you step by step through the planning process to get you on the way to that dream vacation.
5-Step Guide to Setting Travel Goals
1. Take Some Time and Dream
It starts with a dream. The idea here is more than a quick thought about your next vacation. We want you to be as specific as possible about your travel goals.
When you’re dreaming about your bucket-list travel experiences, consider these details:
- Where do you want to go?
- What time of year do you want to travel?
- Who do you want to go with?
- How long do you want to be there?
- What type of accommodations do you want?
Although the details may seem unnecessary, they are helpful in setting goals. Here’s why:
- Detailed goals are motivating. When you define where you want to go and what you want to experience, you’ll be more motivated to create a plan and execute the steps necessary to make it happen.
- Clearly defined goals making planning easier. For example, if you complete Step 1 and write down “go to France,” and leave it at that, you’re leaving your goal too vague because there are many places to visit in France. But if your dream trip is to spend a week in an over-water bungalow in Bora Bora, you’ll have a much easier time planning because there are only so many flights and hotels that actually work for such a trip. The more specific you are, the easier it is to plan.
2. Establish a General Timeline
Figure out when you want to travel. Would you like to do this trip later this year? Or are you planning a few years out? Although you want to be specific about what you want to do, it’s best to leave flexibility in your timeline, if possible. For example, deciding to travel sometime next August will leave you with many more options than locking in a specific travel day for next year.
3. Determine How to Get There
Planning how to get to your dream destination is crucial in the goal-setting process, particularly if you are hoping to redeem miles and points for your travels. Here is a simple framework to use in this process:
You can search Google Flights for airlines with routes to your destination. If you plan to pay for your flights in cash, Step 3 will be straightforward. But if you’re interested in using miles and points to save thousands of dollars on your travels, you’ll have additional work.
Most airlines have a frequent-flyer program, so log in to their websites to get more information. Once you’ve found the program, determine how many miles or points are required for your flight. One easy way is to see if the airline has an award chart, which should be available on the airline’s website. Alternatively, you can search flights for your proposed travel dates on the airline’s website to see how many points are needed to book your flight. Here are some resources on airline award charts:
- Navigating the United Airlines Award Chart Like a Pro
- The Southwest Award Chart: A Two-Edged Sword of Simplicity and Uncertainty
- How to Use and Find Hidden Value With the Delta Award Chart … When There Isn’t One
- How to Read the American Airlines Award Chart to Get Big Travel
Most airlines are part of an alliance, such as the Star Alliance, Oneworld or SkyTeam, or they have individual partnerships with other airlines. Alliances and partnerships allow you to use miles or points earned with one airline to book travel on a partner or alliance member airline. For example, United Airlines and Lufthansa are both members of Star Alliance, so you can use miles earned with one airline to book with the other. This is important because you can often find better deals. A great example is using ANA miles to book flights on another Star Alliance airline. For a round-trip, business-class ticket, you’ll only pay 88,000 miles. If you were to book the same itinerary on United Airlines, it would cost at least 120,000 miles. Here are some resources for booking partner award flights:
- How to Book Flights to Europe on Star Alliance Partner Airlines Using Chase Points
- You Can Use United Airlines Miles for Award Flights on 35+ Partner Airlines: Here’s How!
- When Can You Book Award Flights Using Partner Airline Miles?
Similar to your airline search, you should research hotel availability at your destination. If you’re traveling to a popular destination such as Hawaii, every major hotel chain is an option. If your destination is remote spot in Greece (Santorini), you’ll have fewer choices. You’ll want to determine what points hotels are available so you can start collecting points for that chain. Here are some resources for finding the best value in hotel points:
Determine how many total points you will need. For the flights, this will depend not only on the airline, but also on the number of passengers and the time of year (for airlines that have seasonal or dynamic award-flight prices). For the hotel, this will depend on the brand, type/size of room, time of year and, potentially, the total number of guests.
4. Develop a Strategy For Earning Points
Once you have decided on an airline to get you to your destination, the next step is to develop a strategy for earning points with that airline. There are many ways to earn airline miles, but you should focus your efforts on three main areas:
Sign-up bonuses are the easiest way to quickly earn a large number of points. Many airlines have sign-up bonuses of 50,000 or more miles after meeting the initial minimum spending requirements on their branded credit card. Similarly, the sign-up bonus from many hotel credit cards can be redeemed for multiple free nights.
You also should look at credit cards that earn transferable points. For example, Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards can be transferred to numerous airline partners. Here is a great step-by-step video guide to transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards points:
Everyday spending on your credit card is another way to earn points toward your trip. Although everyday spending won’t earn you the huge chunk of points that you get from a sign-up bonus, the points really add up over time. Once you establish the type of points you want to save, spend as much as possible on cards that earn those points or can be transferred.
Most miles and points can be earned through multiple credit cards. For example, United Miles can be earned using a United credit card like the United Explorer Card, or they can be earned by transferring points from a card that earns Chase Ultimate Rewards, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. You’ll want to take advantage of the bonus categories. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred earns 2x points at restaurants, so you would always use that card when dining out.
Take advantage of online shopping portals to earn extra points. Many airlines and credit card companies have shopping portals with links to retailer websites. When you click through the link, you’ll earn extra miles or points. Cashback Monitor is a good resource to quickly find the best available deals at a number of online shopping portals.
5. Evaluate and Adjust as Necessary
At this point, you should have your travel goals, a time frame and plans for getting to your destination on miles and points.
This is a great time to evaluate your plans and make adjustments. If you want to travel in first class next summer, you probably know that it will require a large number of miles and points. Are you able to save up enough points through sign-up bonuses or everyday spending by next summer? If not, adjust your plans. That could mean traveling in economy instead of first class, or it could mean postponing your trip until you have saved enough points.
Finally, remember that it can take time to complete this process. For some people, it may take a few years to plan and save enough for their dream vacation. If you get discouraged or feel that reaching your goal is impossible, return to Step 1 for renewed motivation and perspective. Though it can be hard to wait, your persistence will pay off on the trip of your dreams.
The world of miles and points allows you to travel and experience things that may have been impossible otherwise. If you have a dream vacation, make it happen by following this simple planning process to turn your dream trip into a reality.
This story was originally written on Million Mile Secrets. For the latest tips and tricks on traveling big without spending a fortune, subscribe to the Million Mile Secrets daily email newsletter.