6 ways to get the best travel rewards

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Are you trying to earn free travel with frequent flier miles? There have never been more ways to earn miles. But getting the best deal can sometimes be confusing. Here are six ways to make sure you earn the most miles for your money.

1. Switch to the right miles

If you don't travel much, you probably shouldn't mess with airline miles and it might be time to switch. 2% cash back or travel rewards points you can use on any airline could be a better bet. Stick with airline miles if you want a big international trip, big sign up bonuses, or want to fly in first class. And if you do, consider a card that earns points you can transfer to several airline mile programs. For example, some cards let you transfer points into real miles with both United and Southwest Airlines. That will give you more options when you're ready to book your travel.

2. Get the most from your spending

Many travel rewards cards offer special bonuses for spending in certain categories like gas or dining. It can get confusing, but this tool at MileCards.com will rank travel rewards credit cards based on how many points they can earn from your monthly spending. Switching to a card with good bonuses in categories you use a lot could double your rewards.

3. Maximize your online shopping

It's easy to earn extra points shopping online. All of the big mileage programs have sites that let you earn points for shopping at online stores you were already planning on using. You could earn 2, 3, even 5x points per dollar with no additional charge to you. The online stores want your business, and in exchange for that they're willing to offer points on top of what your credit card offers while still giving you the same prices you'd pay without the miles. EVReward has a good directory of stores that offer extra points and miles.

4. Stick to using your points for travel

Using travel rewards points for things that aren't travel related, like gift cards, merchandise, and even food at the airport, usually gets you a lot less value than using them for actual travel. A good rule of thumb is to get at least $100 in value out of 10,000 points. If what you're using points for doesn't pass that test, it's not a great deal, and you should switch your focus to earning real cash rewards instead of travel rewards. One exception: magazine and newspaper subscriptions. Those can offer great value for 5,000 points or less.

5. Don't pay the transfer fee

Giving the gift of travel is great, but don't think you have to pay to transfer miles to do it. Most airlines let you use your miles to book a ticket in anyone's name, including relatives and friends. And most will let you book one way tickets for half the price of a round trip, so it's easy to help a friend who doesn't have quite enough miles for a full round trip. You can book one way, and they can book the other.

6. Search creatively

If you're not finding the flights you want with your miles, try breaking up the search into individual flights, one piece at a time. Also, make sure your search includes nearby airports, so for example if you live in Washington, D.C., double check that all 3 area airports are in your search.

If you're headed to Europe, remember flights within Europe are often very cheap, so consider flying into a different city that has more award seats and buying a cheap ticket to your final destination. And remember to call and check flights too, since some airlines might not show up in an online search. Or, if you have a big balance of miles, consider using an award booking service that will do the searching and booking legwork for a fee.

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