The latest on maximizing loyalty programs

Event professionals dominate the ranks of road warriors. That time in the sky, at the hotel and charging expenses can lead to deep reserves of loyalty points, but not all benefits are the same. Loyalty programs come with lots of requirements, and terms can change as fast as the weather. Making sure you are not missing out can be a job all by itself. We turned to experts for dos and don’ts for making the most of those hard-earned rewards.

Do a Travel Audit

The answer to the question, “What is the best reward program?” is usually, “It depends.” Where you travel will determine what services are most valuable to you. If you mainly fly on the East Coast, but participate in a rewards program for a carrier based in Seattle, you may not find enough convenient times to book flights, even if the program looks good on paper. The same thing goes for mapping the properties you stay in most frequently.

J.D. Power’s yearly Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index Study shows that, historically, Starwood Preferred (along with The Ritz-Carlton) tops that list for luxury properties. Post-merger, Marriott Rewards could fill that role—good news for those who travel widely, as the brand can be found in almost every major city, and can make it easier to reach elite status.

The first step, according to Chris Lopinto, president and co-founder of travel-tip website ExpertFlyer, is to sit down and consider where you will be going this year, and what properties you will be checking into. Then, sign up. Bask in those automatic perks you often get just for being a member, even before you earn your first point. Many include sign-up bonus points. Some offer Wi-Fi and access to airport lounges and free upgrades when available. It is always worth asking.

Use Points Appropriately

Although many hotel and airline programs allow transfers, Lopinto advises using them for the platform where they were earned. “Never use points to buy magazine subscriptions,” he says. “That is not a good deal.”

Transferring credit-card points can pay off, however. Ben Schlappic, founder of points-review site One Mile at a Time, explains, “You can truly earn more miles and points from everyday spending than you can from flying.” That way everything you buy will add up to future travel dollars. This is particularly true if you shop using airline or hotel portals that ring up points or miles with every cent you spend.

Travel reviewer Brian Kelly, founder of The Points Guy, sees hotel credit cards as a good way to earn free stays and enjoy nice perks. Pair that with a hotel dining program, and you could easily double rewards when taking a client to brunch.

He suggests signing up with an online mileage manager to stay on top of all the different programs. Many are free. They keep everything on one screen for easy monitoring and decision-making.

Read the Fine Print

Lopinto suggests doing the math when considering how to use points. Divide the cash price by the number of points, and the closer it comes to exceeding 2 cents, the better the value. Sometimes it even pays to buy points to reach reward thresholds. “They will never let you not give them money,” he says.

The good news, according to Lopinto, is that, unlike years past, fewer programs today include gaping blackout periods for when points can be used. Inventory is still controlled, but hotels tend to be more flexible about finding availability.