How do you keep maximizing your miles and points earnings once you meet the minimum spend on your travel rewards credit card and earn the sign-up bonus?
Many travel rewards credit cards come with bonus spending categories. You’ll earn more than 1x point per dollar when you use the credit card for purchases in that specific category. In order to leverage the full potential of credit card bonus categories, you have to keep track of which card to use when and where.
Let’s back up just for a quick second, though. Before you delve into utilizing bonus categories effectively, the first step is to be in the habit of paying your monthly bills and all your regular expenses with your travel rewards credit card(s) and then paying your balances off in full at the end of each month. Without doing this, you’ll miss out on valuable opportunities to maximize your miles and points earnings.
The Ultimate Guide to Travel Hacking: Credit Card Bonus Categories and Beyond!
There’s a running joke in my house where my husband often looks helplessly into his wallet not sure what credit card to use for which purchases. He knows many of the cards have bonus categories and is lucky he has a travel-rewards obsessed wife who knows. Oh, he absolutely loves when I’m shouting “Use Sapphire Reserve!” as he runs in to pick up our Friday night pizza.
Step One- Know Your Credit Card Bonus Categories.
1. As a travel hacking beginner, you likely have just a few travel rewards credit cards. Knowing which card to use for specific types of spending should be clear and straightforward. The key is remembering when you’re out there spending! Typical credit card bonus categories include spending on:
- office supplies
- and telecommunications (cable, the internet, phone, etc.).
The more you maximize your credit card bonus categories, the more miles and points you’ll earn in a shorter period of time. The credit card bonus categories were probably part of the reason you applied for the card in the first place. It may also be what makes paying the annual fee on a credit card not only worth it but also a no-brainer.
One consideration should be knowing your spending patterns. Someone who drives long distances for work should absolutely have a travel rewards credit card with a gas bonus category like one of the Hilton cards offered by Amex or Citibank or the InkPlus by Chase.
Keep your travel goal in mind, though. Having 100k Hilton points won’t necessarily be immediately valuable if your upcoming destinations don’t have Hilton properties nearby. Do your research to know which type of miles and points you need for your travel goal.
The bottom line is you absolutely need to know and keep track of which credit card to use for which type of spending. Scroll to the bottom to download a free copy of my bonus categories checklist.
2. Some cards, like the Chase Freedom and the Discover It, have rotating bonus categories that change each quarter. With these cards, you’ll earn 5x the points or cash back on whatever the bonus categories are for that quarter up to $1,500 in spending. Before the new quarter begins, you need to activate the bonus category in order to qualify for the 5x the points or cash back. Both cards have no annual fee.
Chase Freedom, in particular, partners perfectly with other Ultimate Rewards earning credit cards like the Sapphire Reserve, Sapphire Preferred, and InkPlus allowing all points earned with Freedom to be transferred to one of the other cards. Afterward, the total points can be transferred to Chase’s travel partners.
3. One last option to consider is the new Chase Freedom Unlimited. This is a new card that partners with Chase Sapphire as above, but instead of rotating bonus categories, you’ll earn 1.5X the points on all purchases all the time.
What credit cards do you have? What bonus categories do they offer? Make a note for yourself and stick it in your wallet or save it on your phone.
Step Two- Thinking Outside the Box
Knowing which card to use to maximize bonus categories is just the first step. The more creatively you think, the more likely it is you’ll find ways to double and triple dip on points.
Consider a few examples.
Chase Freedom typically includes one quarter per year with a grocery spending category. All money spent up to $1,500 in grocery stores would earn 5x the points. If you were to max out the bonus categories each quarter that would be an extra 7.5k points multiplied by 4 quarters for a total of 30k points annually. Not bad for a no annual fee card!
But, what if you don’t spend $1,500 on groceries in a quarter? This is often my dilemma.
1. Instead, make use of the gift card kiosks often found in grocery stores. These sell gift cards from Visa to Starbucks to Home Depot. Think about upcoming purchases, gifts you plan to give, even grocery gift cards for yourself to use in the future, to make the most of the bonus category. If you buy the gift cards with your Freedom card, it will register as just another grocery purchase and you’ll earn 5x the points.
If you have the InkPlus, the same applies as above, except at office supply stores. I even purchase Amazon gift cards at office supply stores and load them into my Amazon account to always earn 5x the points when I shop there.
2. Double dip on your miles and points earning by using shopping portals. (Review shopping portals, if you need.) The miles and points earned from a shopping portal are in addition to your credit card’s bonus categories. If you buy an item through a shopping portal that also happens to be a bonus category for one of your credit cards, you’ll earn miles and points from your credit card and through the shopping portal.
Office Supply stores sell visa gift cards, sometimes at a discount. Staples even allows you to buy gift cards online. Purchase the highest value gift card with a points-earning credit card, preferably one that has an office supply bonus category. Then, use the visa gift card(s) to buy through a shopping portal to earn, even more, miles and points.
In particular with Visa gift cards, start slowly. Even if your intention is to use them for your bills and expenses, they sometimes attract the wrong kind of attention from banks.
3. American Express Offers is another way to think more creatively about your spending and earning. If you have an American Express account, go to the bottom of your home page and look for “Amex Offers & Benefits.” Click the “Load More” option to see all available offers. Look for deals at places you would normally shop, like your local grocery store.
Also, though, look for discounted gift cards or purchases for stores like Lowes, Home Depot, or Staples that have gift card kiosks. An offer might look like this, “Get $15 off when you spend $100 at Home Depot.”
If you find an Amex offer that works for you, simply click “add to card” and then use that credit card to make the purchase at that merchant before the offer expires.
But, how can this be lucrative for miles and points earning?! Consider the Home Depot offer from above. If you go to Home Depot and buy a Visa gift card from their gift card kiosk and pay with the American Express card you added the offer to, you’ll get a $100 gift card for $85.
- You’ll earn American Express points from the purchase.
- You’ll have made a profit because the activation fee for a visa gift card is usually $6.95 and you saved $15.
- Now, use that visa gift card to shop through a shopping portal. You’ll earn whatever the earn rate is for the store you choose.
One note about Amex Offers…occasionally there are offers to increase the earn rate when you use your card at particular stores. For example, earn 2x the points when you shop at Target or Amazon. This allows for a double dip if you use your American Express to shop at Target through a shopping portal. It’s also a good way to earn extra at Amazon if you don’t have another way to increase your earn rate.
4. Last but not least, be on the lookout for time-sensitive promotions sent via email or snail mail. For example, my Citi American Airlines Platinum Select credit card upped its earn rate for specific bonus categories for a limited time. It makes sense to use that card for these purchases during this time. If I hadn’t checked my mail, I would’ve missed it!
Give it a try. Which credit card can you use to buy a gift card to do some portal shopping? Check out the Amex Offers for your card to see what’s currently offered.
Step Three- Every Little Bit Helps!
I’m always looking for ways to maximize my spending and you should, too. In fact, I have no loyalty to any stores. I follow the best deals to earn as many miles and points and other rewards as possible.
Here are a few ideas to consider in addition to the ideas above.
- Take a look at rewards websites and apps like Ibotta and Dosh. They allow you to earn cashback rewards that stack with your credit card bonus categories and shopping portals.
- Remember shopping portals for travel bookings, too! Hotels like Marriott and IHG can earn extra airline miles and because you still book through the hotel itself, you’re able to earn hotel points and accrue nights to earn status.
- Speaking of booking travel, use shopping portals to earn when booking on sites like Expedia and Travelocity. Not only will you earn rewards from the portal, log in to your account, for example, with Expedia to also earn Expedia points.
- Lastly, look for shopping portal promotions. Back-to-school and the holiday season often come with miles and points earning bonuses for meeting spending tiers. This is in addition to any rewards earned from your credit card, an Amex offer, Ibotta, etc.
- Know which category bonuses come with the cards you have and for the ones you’d like to apply. Download the checklist from the resources below.
- Look for ways to earn miles and points with gift cards. If you have an American Express card, check out the currently available offers.
- How can you stack additional rewards to enhance your bonus category earnings?
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