Should You Earn Miles in a Single Program, or Diversity With Lots of Programs?

Michelle asked about…

strategy for choosing credit cards for sign up bonuses. Should I stick with one or two programs at first or diversify widely?

In general I think it’s a great idea to be strategic about where you acquire points.

  • What award(s) are you most likely to want? Pick programs that will help you get those awards.
  • Make sure you have enough points in the right accounts to get those awards.
  • Then once you have enough points for the award you want in one program, move onto another program and start building points there.
  • That way you wind up with enough points in more than one program for the awards you want — increasing your chances of getting the availability you need when it comes time to travel.

Here’s where one-way awards really come into play. It’s easier to build up points from credit card signup bonuses for a one-way award than it is for a roundtrip. Two people traveling together, earn enough United miles one-way for an award and then you can use American miles (for instance) for your return.

The other key ingredient here is transferable points, like Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints are especially useful. You can put the points into a variety of airline mileage programs, and you can choose where they go later based on the award you want to book or the account you need to top off.

It’s also useful that several transferable points programs even let you transfer points into the same places. For instance, Starwood, Chase, and American Express all let you transfer points to British Airways and they all let you transfer points to Singapore Airlines. That makes it really easy to earn those currencies.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I remember a time when the only transfer partners were Starwood and Diners Club. We’ve come a long way since the early ’90’s.

    There was a time, all I collected was United miles. I liked having enough miles for a international business seats. About ten years ago, I had orphan AA miles. At a local NY dinner, someone mentioned that AA lets you book a stopover on a domestic award ticket. I flew LGA/DFW DFW/PDX SFO/LGA. Saved some money. Thought I died and went to heaven. That’s when I started to diversify my flying. Of course, this ‘deal’ is long gone.

    From there, it was onto credit card sign up bonus’. I had 100,000 Southwest points. 100,000 BA Avios points. 50,000 Alaska, and 50,000 LH. Let’s add AA and USAir + the Strawood Amex, the Amex Platinum card, plus an assorted list of hotel and bank cards.

    Diversity = options.
    Options = good things and a variety of choices.

    As an example, we flew LGA/FLL on Southwest, using the Companion Pass, and cashed in 12,000 points R/T for 2 people. Don’t even get me started about the 9000 Avios points from BA for an expensive roundtrip in South America. That ticket would have set me back $400 x’s 2.

    Good question Michelle.

  2. I’m trying to build up Starpoints but finding it slow going… only 2 cards (I have the OPEN one, had personal one recently) with small signup bonuses.

    Am I missing something, or is the key to racking up Starpoints just a lot of MS?

  3. Well, I would using transferable points as, ipso facto, being a method of diversifying.

    But outside of such points, I would discourage diversifying if one does not have about a million points overall. Its a crude rule of thumb, but spreading a lower number of points across numerous programs leaves one in the position where they may not be able to capitalize on the various sweet spots and opportunities available.

  4. A great outline of an answer, but how does a newbie pick the first program that will get them the first award they want?

    1 Domestic Economy
    2 Domestic First/Business Class
    3 Hawaii Economy
    4 Hawaii First/Business Class
    5 Europe Economy
    6 Europe First/Business Class
    7 Asia Economy
    8 Asia First/Business Class

    So what airline program would each of these eight dreams suggest as a good first choice?

    Perhaps another blog post would be more appropriate, but picking the first program is a killer for a newbie who knows nothing about availability. They might be able to stumble through the tables and figure out miles and surcharges, but it would help to tell them the currency you’re hoping they bring you when they’re ready to redeem.

    If the 8 broad possibilities are too vague, then make it Orlando, Honolulu, Paris, Tokyo. It should be possible to offer some guidance on the first program this way.

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