A travel rewards program is a major way that airlines, hotel chains, rental car companies, and other travel companies create and maintain loyalty within their consumer bases. These programs offer free or discounted rates and fares, status, upgrades and other perks. Some travel rewards programs also allow the redemption of points or miles for benefits that are not travel related, such as gift cards, concerts, sporting events and merchandise. You can even donate your points or miles to charity!

Every travel brand offers its own frequent traveler and loyalty incentive program. Many, if not all, travel rewards programs are free to join. Even if you do not travel often, you can sign up for these programs and earn points or miles through some of your daily shopping and spending habits. One of the most common ways to earn is through certain credit cards, such as the Chase Sapphire card or the Capital One Venture card. Most major hotel chains and airlines also have branded credit cards as well, which allow you to earn points or miles specifically with that brand. Credit cards are one way to earn rewards, but certainly not the only way! Sign up for airline rewards programs for free and collect miles that way. If you shop, dine at restaurants, use Lyft or even Airbnb, you can earn points or miles.

There is a lot to learn in the world of travel rewards, whether you travel frequently or just a few times a year, here are tips to help you redeem points and miles while traveling.

Airlines

1. Register with airlines to create your frequent flyer number and remember to use it when booking flights.

If you live in the US, you should have a frequent flyer number with American, Delta, Southwest, United and JetBlue airlines.  Even if you have a favorite airline, odds are there will be times you fly with a different airline to certain cities due to either price or availability. It’s best to have a frequent flyer number for each airline, so that you are already signed up when it is time to book your flight.

Are you an international traveler?  If so, then for the most part you are covered if you sign up for American, Delta and United airlines’ frequent flyer rewards programs.  Each of these airlines are members of larger airline alliances, meaning you can earn miles on a partner airline using their frequent flyer number.  Here are the top three major airline alliances:• American is a member of Oneworld.  Oneworld has 13 airlines, including British Airways, Iberia, Japan Airlines and Qatar Airways.  For the full list, visit oneworld.com.• Delta is a member of SkyTeam.  SkyTeam has 20 airlines, including Aeroméxico, Air France, KLM, China Southern and China Eastern. For the full list, visit skyteam.com• United is a member of Star.  Star has 27 airlines, including Air Canada, Lufthansa, Air China, South African Airways, and Turkish Airlines.  For the full list, visit staralliance.com.

What about budget airlines like Frontier and Spirit?  These airlines do have loyalty programs, which may be worth exploring if you frequently use them. .

Once you obtain your frequent flyer number, don’t forget to input it when you book your flight!  Some airlines allow you to retroactively enter miles within 9-12 months of travel if you are already a member.  If you create a frequent flyer number after you fly, you may still be able to claim miles within 30 days depending on the airline.

2. Begin using online shopping portals.

Online shopping portals are links to major retailers and other shopping websites that allow you to earn miles after you make a purchase.  Bookmark one of these sites onto your bookmarks toolbar so that you remember to click them when you are shopping online:• American: aadvantageeshopping.com• Delta: skymilesshopping.com• United: shopping.mileageplus.como You can also earn miles for United in-store.  After you sign up at shopping.mileageplus.com, click “My Account” and link your card numbers.  For debit cards, you need to run your transactions as credits to earn miles.• Southwest: rapidrewardsshopping.southwest.com• JetBlue: shoptrue.jetblue.com

There is no need to create an account with each rewards program.  The goal is to accumulate enough miles to earn a free trip, o the best strategy is to select one airline and concentrate your efforts there.  Select your airline based on locations you frequently travel, preference or simplicity of use.  Although I fly frequently on United, Delta is my preferred airline.  I also like earning miles on Southwest because I find that miles are easiest to redeem with them.  Although I frequent three airlines, I am currently choosing to earn miles on United to save for an international trip.

In addition to the airline online shopping portals, somerewards credit cards also have their own portal, such asChase’s “Shop Through Chase” program. If you have one of these credit cards, it is best to stick to their portal to maximize your point earnings.

3. Sign up for dining rewards programs.

Dining rewards programs are one of the easiest ways to earn miles.  You simply create your account, link your credit cards, and watch your points accumulate.  Yes, there are a lot of accounts being created, but for the dining program, you only need to create one.  The reason is because all of the systems are connected, so once you link your credit card to United’s MileagePlus Dining site, it will be removed from American’s AAdvantage Dining site. The only exception is if you use a different credit card for different sites, but the optimal way to earn miles is by focusing on one rewards program at a time.

Here are the dining website links:• American: aa.rewardsnetwork.com• Delta: skymilesdining.com• United: dining.mileageplus.com• Southwest: rapidrewardsdining.com• JetBlue: truebluedining.com

Sometimes there are special promotions, such as Delta’s current special where new members can earn up to 3,000 bonus miles within their first 30 days.

4. Sign up for partner promotions.

There are other partnerships that are less popular, such as Delta’s partnership with both Lyft and Airbnb.  You can earn miles on Delta by using Lyft after signing up on deltalyft.com.  JetBlue also offers miles for using Lyft – visit lyft.com/jetblue/first.  You can earn miles from Airbnb rentals by booking through deltaairbnb.com.  Partnerships are not always permanent so keep in mind that they may change or be discontinued over time.

5. Research travel credit cards.

Finally, research travel credit cards.  Most travel credit cards require good to excellent credit.  Word of advice – do not allow your balance to get too high on these credit cardssince the interest rates tend to be high.  Paying high fees on interest is not worth the points or miles you will earn.  It is best practice to pay off the balance in full every month.  Travel rewards credit card recommendations can be found on websites like NerdWallet.com, WalletHub.com, and ThePointsGuy.com.

I hope you found this overview of travel rewards helpful!  In future segments, we will go more in depth into the benefits and redemption of miles and points.  We will also cover hotel chains, rental car companies and Amtrak rewards.