Credit Card Advice For A Freshman Road Warrior

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A friend of mine just got a new job where he will be traveling for the first time in his career.   He asked me what advice I have for how to maximize his rewards gained during his travel.

Where To Start

While being on the road can be a downer to someone with a family back home, one silver lining is that a savvy business traveler can derive many perks from their travel.   The key is to essentially look at your travel as a side business.   While your primary mission is to represent your company, your secondary goal is to derive the maximum personal benefit from every travel experience.    Every airline ticket, hotel, rental car and meal should have a reward component that you can derive from the transaction.

Starting with you credit card, you should be earning the most valuable reward points that you can every time you use it.    The consensus is that the Starwood American Express Card is, by far, the most valuable and flexible card you can get.   Surprisingly, this advice holds true regardless of whether or not you ever plan to stay in a Starwood hotel, which includes budget brands like Sheraton, Four Points, and Aloft, all the way up to higher end places like Westins.    By earning Starwood points, you accumulating a very flexible currency that can be transferred at great exchange rates to any one of many airlines. In fact,  because you get a bonus of 5,000 Starpoints when you transfer 20,000, you end up with an exchange rate of 1:1.25 to most programs, so you are essentially getting more airline miles per dollar spent than if youhad made the purchase with an airline credit card.   If you use your starpoints for a hotel stay, you are still  getting plenty of value without having to worry about blackouts or capacity controls.

Airline Cards Are Still Valuable

This particular traveler is based in Atlanta, which means his choices for non-stop airline travel are largely restricted to Delta, and to a lesser extent, Airtran.   Sadly, Delta Skymiles are often referred to as SkyPesos as they have less value than most other airline miles due their horrendous award structure and lack of availability of reasonably priced awards.  Nevertheless, his goal should be to attain the highest status in Delta’s frequent flier program in order to score free upgrades to first class, and to get the highest standby priority.

Standby priority is great to have.   As a former road warrior myself, I always had to commit to stay at the client site until the end of the day, purchasing a return ticket in advance for late in the afternoon or even early evening.    Yet nine times out of ten, I would complete my work early enough to get to the airport in time for an earlier flight.    Every other business traveler would do the same, and the last remaining seat would go to the one with highest status.

Fortunately, your credit card can actually help you with that.   Delta’s Amex cards in particular offers both Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs) as well as granting standyby priority to cardholders within Medallion levels.   That means if there is one seat left, and two Gold Medallions on standby, the one with the Delta Amex gets the seat.    If that means getting home at 7 pm and saying goodnight to your kids, versus arriving home at 10 pm when your wife is asleep, the card has already paid for itself.   I would recommend starting with the basic Gold card that does not offer MQMs as it is too late in this calendar year to hope to really get high status, as status is only accumulated during the calendar year.   Next year, you could upgrade to the Platinum or perhaps even the Reserve card that offer 5,000 and 30,000 MQMs respectively.   Finally, if he has the opportunity to charge his airfare to his personal card, that would be the one time that he should keep his Starwood Amex in his wallet and use the Delta card as it earns two miles per dollar spent with Delta.

Other Strategies

If he can use your Starwood Amex at an actual Starwood hotel, you can get some amazing value. Even if you can’t stay in a Starwood, make sure to get airline and/or hotel points at every hotel you stay at.  He will also want to sign up for the Skymiles Dining program, and visit restaurants that qualify.   Make sure to give out your Skymiles number to rental car companies as well.   In fact, take a few minutes to read through the offers from every mileage partner they have.

Take Advantage of Promotions

The real windfall in the frequent flier game is to get hooked on promotions.   Delta and most other airlines regularly offer promotions that you have to register for.     A couple years ago, Delta briefly offered a huge promo where you got a 150% bonus on top of any partner activity.    A week after they offered it, they withdrew it but still honored it for all who registered.    Last year, US Airways had a promotion where they gave a 250% bonus on partner miles.   Ultimately, I spent $3,000 to get about a half of a million points that I will redeem for tickets worth well over $10,000 in premium class international travel.    Since registration is free, he should visit the Skymiles promotions page regularly and sign up for everything.

The really big promotions come by only every year or two, but there are plenty of great sign up bonuses out there.    At the moment, Starwood is offering 30,000 points as a sign up bonus for each of their business and personal Amex cards, an unprecedented offer.   In the past I have seen sign up offers from Frontier for 2 coach tickets and from British Airways for 100,000 miles and a free companion.

How To Find Information On Great Deals

First, bookmark some key blogs, such as this one.   Others I recommend include One Mile At A Time, View From The Wing, The Wandering Aramean, Upgrade Travel Better, and The Frugal Travel Guy.  Finally, no information on award travel would be complete without a discussion of FlyerTalk.   Flyertalk is a forum that is used by the world’s most experienced travelers to trade tips and tricks.   It can be a little intimidating at first as they have developed their own culture and lingo.   Read plenty before posting, but there is some great information.    Drill down into the forum for your favorite airline, hotel, and rental car, as well as browse the MilesBuzz discussion.     There is a fountain of valuable information for anyone with the time and patience to digest it.

Why Bother?

Since my days as a road warrior, I don’t get to travel more than a few times a year.  My travel was once limited by my ability to afford airlines, hotels, and rental cars.   Now, it is only limited by my vacation time.  I estimate I am receiving over $10,000 a year in travel awards such as business class airline tickets and luxury hotels, while hardly spending anything other than an occasional annual fee on a credit card.    As an actual business traveler, you have the ability to earn far more rewards.   There is no reason why your next vacation shouldn’t be flying in  first class and staying in luxury hotels for free.

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2 Responses to “Credit Card Advice For A Freshman Road Warrior”

  1. Jordan Says:

    Great article! Nice to have a primer all in one place. Will be subscribing.

  2. Joe G Says:

    Check out this product and website. It is great for any person that travels. Consolidates all your travel reward program numbers to one card. It compliments all programs to make sure you are earning points at your favorite airline, hotel and car company.

    If you travel all the time or a few times a year. It is simple and easy to use. It makes you be organized so you always have all your numbers, carry one card and helps when travel plans change unexpectly.

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