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“I don’t spend a nickel, if I can help it, unless it somehow profits my mileage account.” – Ryan Bingham, character in the movie Up in the Air.

There’s a scene in the movie where Ryan Bingham, the character played by George Clooney, dumps a wallet full of reward cards out on the bed and there’s a lot of banter back and forth between the two main characters about the virtues of one hotel or airline rewards program over another.

The funny thing is, most people don’t take full advantage of travel rewards programs, and that means a lot of money gets left on the tray table when it’s put back in its full, upright, and locked position.

Mileage runs

Mileage runs are flights you take simply to bolster your miles fast and at as low a cost as possible with a particular airline to upgrade or maintain your premium status.

Serious mileage runners know which flights are best. The most famous is a “run” to Singapore, because at more than 9,000 miles from New York, it’s a down-and-dirty way to rack up some sweet round-trips for as low as $1,200, if you watch the fares. It means hopping on the plane and flying there and back without actually staying overnight in the locale, at most napping for a few hours in one of the on-site sleeping pods at the airport, and then returning on the next flight back. 

Most mileage runners have specific amounts of money per mile that they are unwilling to breach – some won’t go above 5 cents, some cap it at 24 cents – and it’s interesting to visit www.flyertalk.com for tips and deals.

Mattress runs

Like mileage runs, “mattress runs” are a way of compiling points quickly for as little money as possible to get favored status in a hotel’s rewards program. 

Smart travelers don’t just use these to get a free night’s stay – they also turn them into cash back on credit cards (it’s worthwhile to check out hotel-connected credit cards, too, to “double back” your rewards, getting points or cash as well as the hotel stay to increase the reward value).

One of my favorite hotel rewards programs is Kimpton’s, not just because of the points, but because I like the hotels and some of their perks, such as the fact that you get $15 worth of items from the honor bar every time you stay and invitations to special get-togethers at some of the properties, like extra wine-and-cheese events that can go a long way toward filling in for meals to cut down on travel costs.

Several times a year, I also stay at another favorite rewards program, Starwood, which has many properties in Denver. This way I keep my status with that group, and the Westins and Sheratons downtown are a great way to spend a night in my own city, get the needed points and see a show at one of the theaters or connect with friends and not worry about driving home. 

What’s important is picking times of year and nights (in Denver, that’s weekends, rather than the pricier business-oriented weeknights), when the rates will be cheapest so the whole venture is as cost-effective as possible, watching for package deals where I get something in exchange, like free breakfast or tickets to the art museum.

That way, I might spend $75 a night, get a free breakfast, and turn the whole thing around into a free night at a $250-a-night spot in New York or Las Vegas at a later date. 

Cash back and no foreign fees

Another must-have in a savvy traveler’s rewards arsenal is a credit card that offers flight or hotel rewards, and it’s a bonus if you get other perks. 

There are a couple of caveats, though: If you don’t pay off your credit cards every month, be careful with interest rates on some of the cards. Also, some are only worth it if you travel extensively. For instance, I have multiple cards, but I’d never get rid of my Capital One, because it’s one of the few cards that waives the fees on purchases in foreign countries. But it does charge an annual fee – which it will lower if you complain, but still, the lowest I’ve been able to get them down to is $35 a year. So that cost needs to make sense for you.

Credit cards such as Starwood’s Preferred Guest American Express give you extra points when you pay for hotel stays at their properties. And some cards, such as the Barclay Arrival World Mastercard, hand out upwards of 40,000 airline miles after you spend a pre-set amount of money, with incentives for spending on travel expenses.

The thing with credit cards is to research them carefully and weigh the pros and cons of their rewards against your needs and spending habits. If you can make them work for you rather than owing them, you can cut your travel bills down significantly.

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[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.  Sign up today here and we’ll send you a report, Get Paid to Travel as a Travel Writer, completely FREE.]  

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