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Best ways to earn final points that get you a free flight

Short a few points for that holiday trip home? Here's how to get them

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Cashing In
Cashing In columnist Cathleen McCarthy
Cathleen McCarthy is a journalist whose articles on travel, commerce and consumer topics have appeared in dozens of publications. She writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for CreditCards.com

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert Dear Cashing In,
I'm trying to top off my miles in time to get a free ticket to visit my family for the holidays. Any tips for multiplying miles via credit card? I have an Explorer and a Chase Sapphire. -- Jason

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert Dear Jason,
The fastest way to pile up points is to apply for a new credit card and take advantage of the sign-up bonus but for this discussion, let's stick with the cards you have. One way to multiply points and miles is to take advantage of the shopping you'll be doing to get ready for that holiday visit. If you're comfortable shopping online, you have a distinct advantage.

Before you start shopping, however, it might be wise to price out your flight in terms of points versus miles. If your airfare turns out to be a relatively cheap domestic round-trip, it may make more sense to pay for it with the Ultimate Reward points earned on your Chase Sapphire. The program's primary U.S.-based partner airlines are United and Southwest. I'm assuming, given your choice of cards, you're a MileagePlus member.

Generally speaking, the cheaper the flight, the less value you get for frequent flier miles and the more you get with generic miles or travel rewards (such as the ones Sapphire offers). If you have the Sapphire Preferred card, you can get 20 percent off if you redeem your Ultimate Reward points for airfare or other travel, meaning a $350 fare will cost 28,000 points (350 x 100 = 35,000 less 20 percent). Assuming the holiday rush cuts down on available award seats on United, you're likely to get pushed to a higher tier with your United miles, which could mean spending 40,000 miles or more on a domestic fare instead of 25,000.

Whether you decide to aim for covering airfare with points or miles, the first thing you should do is get into the habit of logging into that loyalty program's website before making purchases.

Let's say you want to buy your mom a cashmere sweater and your dad a power drill for Christmas. Instead of ordering them directly from a retail website, go over to the MileagePlus shopping portal first. Right now, you can get two United miles per dollar spent at Sears and Nordstroms, which means that clicking over to their sites via MileagePlus earns you the double miles you usually get by using your Explorer on United purchases.

But wait. Just to make sure that's the best deal available for the rewards as well as the spend, plug the retail sites you've been looking at into evreward.com. If you search there for Sears, you'll discover you can also get five Ultimate Reward points per dollar spent at Sears. If you buy that drill at Home Depot, you'll get two miles per dollar on United or three Ultimate Rewards points per dollar. As for Mom's sweater, it looks like you can get either two United miles per dollar or five Ultimate Rewards points per dollar if you buy it at Macy's. As an added bonus, evreward shows discount coupons for all these purchases along with the reward deals -- codes for $10 off a $100 purchase at Home Depot, $15 off $100 purchases at Sears, 10 percent off and free shipping at Macy's.

If you had all your eggs in the United basket, I'd advise you to save time and just download its shopping toolbar. Like many loyalty programs, MileagePlus offers a toolbar you can install to automatically track any purchases you make that qualify for miles. Once you install it, United miles accrue automatically, so you don't have to remember to log into the MileagePlus shopping portal first. By installing a toolbar, however, you're limited to earning points through that program -- which means you can't take advantage of the (often superior) Ultimate Rewards deals.

At the very least, you should download the United toolbar just to claim a 1,000-mile bonus it is offering if you use it on a search by Oct. 31, 2012. (You can always uninstall the toolbar after that.)

And best of luck, to you and everyone else, on getting home for the holidays -- while spending as little on travel as possible.

See related: Cheap ways to keep flier miles active

Meet CreditCards.com's reader Q&A experts
Vexed by a personal finance problem? CreditCards.com's Q&A experts answer questions from readers every weekday. Ask a question, or click on any expert to see their previous answers.
Gary Foreman, New Frugal You columnist Gary Foreman,
"New Frugal You"
Sally Herigstad, To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad,
"To Her Credit"
Cathleen McCarthy, Cashing In columnist Cathleen McCarthy,
"Cashing In"
Jane McNamara, Let's Talk Credit columnist Jane McNamara,
"Let's Talk Credit"
Elaine Pofeldt, Your Business Credit columnist Elaine Pofeldt,
"Your Business Credit"
Erica Sandberg, Opening Credits columnist Erica Sandberg,
"Opening Credits"

Published: October 30, 2012



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