08/19/2011 11:07 am ET | Updated Oct 19, 2011

The Points Guy: Four Pillars Of Frequent Flier Strategy

Long gone are the days when the primary way to earn frequent flier miles was by flying. In fact, though I fly over 150,000 miles a year, the majority of my miles and points come from non-flying sources.

I encourage everyone to start putting together a cohesive strategy to accrue miles and points starting with the four basic pillars I describe below. Once you realize all the different opportunities, you'll be on your way to earning the miles you need for that trip you've always wanted to take, but never thought you could afford.

Choose The Right Program(s): You should enroll in as many frequent flier programs as possible, but you should concentrate on a few specific programs that meet your goals. These two directions might seem to be at odds, but they're really part of the same strategy. Here's why.

You want to join as many programs as possible because you want to be able to get in on a good deal (especially free miles and points) even if it's not your primary program. While it's a pain to go through and sign up for all of them, they are easy to track nowadays with online mileage managers like

Next you need to choose a primary program. To do that, you should figure out what your goals are--for instance, do you want to travel domestically or internationally? Do you care about getting upgrades and flying in business or first, or is coach fine by you? Will your dates be flexible or fixed? Do you need the ability to book one-way awards? Are you going to be traveling a lot, or are you scrimping and saving to get those miles into your account? For example, Southwest, Virgin America and JetBlue are great airlines...just not if you want first class or international awards.

Second, look at a few factors that will determine where you'll be able to put the most miles based on things like which airports you tend to fly out of most frequently and which airlines service them the most, as well as which destinations you are most interested in using your miles to get to and what airlines fly there.

Get The Right Credit Card(s): I earn millions of miles and points a year, and the biggest source is credit cards, so it's crucial you pick the right card(s) for you. There are three main types of reward cards:

Transferrable rewards: Two of my favorites cards are the American Express Premier Rewards Card and the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. They allow members the most flexibility since they accrue points to a central account and then you can transfer them to several different airlines or hotels of choice whenever you like, often with big bonuses. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred allows you to transfer points to your Continental and British Airways as well as Hyatt, Marriott and even Amtrak accounts. The American Express Premier Rewards lets you transfer points to Delta, Virgin Atlantic, Singapore and Air Canada among others.

Fixed-rate: With these cards, points are assigned an exact value to each point earn (usually around 1-2 cents) and are great for travelers who don't have as much flexibility with their plans because they need to book multiple tickets, take only nonstops or fly only on certain dates. Example: The Capital One Venture card, which allows cardholders to earn 2 points for every dollar spent and every point is worth 1 cent towards future travel, essentially making it a 2% return on your spending. The pluses of this card are that the first year's annual fee is waived and there are no foreign transaction fees.

Co-branded: These credit cards will bank the points directly to an airline or hotel loyalty program. These cards generally come with great perks like free checked bags and priority boarding, so what you lose in flexibility of transferring to other airlines, you gain in money- and time-saving perks. However, the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express is great hotel co-branded card that gives qualification towards elite status in the SPG program, as well as valuable bonuses when you transfer to most of their airline partners.

Harness Your Finances: We all spend money, and whenever possible, every single dollar you spend should go towards earning points. Paying in cash is basically like leaving points (and money) on the table. You should only use your debit card to pull out the minimum amount of cash you need for miscellaneous expenses. Be sure to pay off your balance each month on your points-earning credit cards because high interest payments on balances negate the value and perks of your miles earned. Take your shopping online and do as much as possible through your airline's online shopping portal, which you can find a link to on your frequent flier program page. There you'll find many of your favorite retailers including Target, BestBuy, Barnes & Noble, Crate & Barrel, Banana Republic and iTunes among hundreds of others, and when you buy through these portals, you often get double or triple points! As you do when you register your credit card on your airline's Dining Rewards Network and eat out at any of the restaurants that participate.

Pay Attention To Daily Deals And Promotions: There are always a ton of specials and promotions in the travel world that reward savvy loyal customers with mileage and point bonuses and perks for things as simple as "liking" a hotel on Facebook. American AAdvantage members can currently earn up to 3,000 AA miles by signing up for the airline's various email newsletters, and Delta SkyMiles members who download the airline's app and use it to check in for their flight can earn a free 1,000 miles.

For more tips and tricks, check out my site The Points Guy or follow me on Twitter @ThePointsGuy

Got a question? Click here to tweet me:

@thepointsguy Just realized I have 17,000 AA points expiring 12/31. Never fly AA anymore...any suggestions?less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply