Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Travel hacking, it's all about the points

This is part 2 of my foray into the mysterious world of finding the loopholes to save money on travel. In part 1 I talked a little about the best cards to use to pay little or no foreign transaction fee or overseas ATM fee. In this one we'll talk about points. Frequent flyer points, or miles as the yanks call them.

The vast majority of information out there on the web relates to the North American, more specifically USA, market where it has been possible for many years to apply for new credit cards with healthy signup points bonuses, then discard them after the points have been awarded. This is known as credit card churning, and can be quite lucrative. Apparently it doesn't actually affect your credit rating too disastrously either, especially if you are paying off your debt on time.

Because of the huge US market, there's a lot more competition, especially as their banking sector isn't quite as regulated as ours is. Umm hello, GFC??

Recently, however, Australian banks and financial institutions have been offering some of these deals too. However, they are nowhere near as generous, and often the points offered are awards points, not frequent flyer points. Transferring awards points to flyer points is often not lucrative here, with poor conversion rates from 2 to 1 or even less. My Visa card, for instance, can earn me 1 FF point for every $4 spent. That's just plain ridiculous, and why I don't bother doing the transfers.

But it's worth keeping an eye out for these deals, and working out whether a year of fees is worth the points bonus. No, they aren't likely to be fee free...

Amex cards seem to offer the best points deals, and as more places accept the card, the more points one can earn. I currently have a gold Amex affiliated with the professional College I belong to, although I believe that that affiliation has ceased. At present I am paying no fees on the card, and every dollar spent is credited as one Qantas frequent flyer point. Needless to say, I use this card to pay for as much as possible. That's fuel, the local grocery store, Bunnings, strata contributions on my investment property, airfares, car hire, season passes to ski mountains, indemnity insurance, and other sundry bills that will accept it. Even adding in the extra cost I might be slogged for paying with Amex, it's a better points per dollar spend than Visa or MasterCard offer.

So far I've got just shy of 130,000 points which will get me a return flight to Europe but it's peanuts compared to what's out there for the taking.

Recently I started reading the Australian Frequent Flyer website, which is a pretty good resource for anyone starting out this journey. There I learnt about dynamic currency conversions and how they are usually a big ripoff. Lesson learnt, always pay in the local currency of the country you are in and let your bank do the conversion.

I also learnt that it's possible to pay your tax bill using a credit card that earns points. I have had to pay a few thousand dollars extra tax this year and now realise I could have converted them into points. For those with businesses doing quarterly BASs, this is a pretty awesome way to earn a lot of points. I'm going to work out how to pay my capital gains tax this way, which potentially could earn me more than 100,000 points. Yeah, it's going to be a big tax bill...

Current things I'm doing to increase my points balance is purchasing myself a Qantas gift voucher every Christmas. Each December Qantas offers a 10 points per dollar spent gift voucher offer, so if I use my Amex to purchase a $500 voucher, I earn 5500 points, plus the points I earn when I actually fly using the redeemed voucher. It is also a tricky way to avoid paying credit card charges: there's no credit card charge on purchasing the voucher and the voucher is redeemable dollar for dollar. The voucher needs to be redeemed within 12 months, so you have to plan to use it before purchasing it. I should probably look at spending $1000 given my latest propensity for skiing in Japan as well as New Zealand.

Another way to get points is to use Qantas cash. This is the travel card that Qantas offers, where you can load various currencies onto the card for use overseas. I'm not a fan of travel cards in general as I think there's too much gouging on foreign exchange and ATM fees, plus they don't do that many currencies. I prefer the ease of the Citibank Visa debit card, which stays loaded in your home country currency and only does the foreign exchange when you go to the ATM. My previous practice has been to use my Amex for purchases, which also offers 1 point per dollar, but it too gouges large commission fees. Qantas cash have just announced a bonus points offer on loading of money into the card until June 30, so it might be worth giving it a trial on my upcoming NZ trip. If I just use it for purchasing and keep the Citibank debit for cash withdrawals, I might do a comparison between it and the Amex. Of course the cheapest option for purchases will be the 28 degrees card, but no points earned with it. Will report back on this one.

I do a reasonable amount of online shopping, to the despair of my retail shop owning friends, who get very angry with me for pointing out that some retail shops don't exactly provide a good enough service to stop me hitting the websites instead. I only recently discovered the Qantas Online Mall, which is essentially an entry portal which then tracks your cookies as you go online shopping, be that eBay, David Jones or a few other places. So instead of going to eBay directly, I go through the Online Mall portal, log in, then go on to eBay. My purchases then all earn points, anything from 2 points to 8 points per dollar spent. Sure someone's using those cookies to sell to some marketing people, but I don't really care. I'm always signing up for various deals and then unsubscribing when the email spam gets too annoying. There's no such thing as a free lunch..

The AFF website talks a lot about status credits. I've never really hankered to travel in the pointy end of the plane, but if it's possible to gain silver or gold status fairly easily then I think I'd enjoy the extra luggage allowance for ski trips, and lounge access for layovers. Other frequent flyer programs offer faster tracks to higher status than Qantas, and if affiliated via One World, you can use the benefits on Qantas as well as any other One World carrier. The standout here is American Airlines Advantage program, which could see me gaining higher status from flying across the Pacific and back. I've been contemplating a North American trip in the near future anyway.

Another advantage (ha ha) of the American Airlines program is you can purchase flyer points with cash, and they often run special deals as well. The real clincher is that American Airlines treat Australia and New Zealand as the same country, so I can fly to New Zealand from Perth for 10,000 redeemed points, which I can purchase for $300. Qantas offers award flights for 25,000 points, plus fuel surcharge, which American doesn't charge, or I can get a cheap economy flight for $500-600. So yeah, I just signed up to AA.

I recently took advantage of the option on Jetstar flights to purchase miles and status. A flight from Sydney to Perth in October cost me $118 (before luggage), plus an extra $20 to purchase miles and status credits. That's not a bad deal at all.

I do hope I haven't bamboozled you all with all of this. It's a bit of a learning curve for me too, but it shows that you don't really have to go around changing your spending patterns, you just need to know what to use and how, to get those points rolling in.

In summary:
1. Citibank visa debit card and 28 degrees credit card don't charge foreign transaction fees, so are the cheapest way to purchase products and withdraw cash from ATMs overseas. But neither earns frequent flyer points.
2. Amex cards offer 1 frequent flyer point per $1 spent overseas, but have quite high conversion fees.
3. Qantas cash also offers 1 frequent flyer point per $1 spent overseas, I am yet to compare its conversion fees against Amex. Special bonus points offers come out regularly and these are times when loading the card for an upcoming trip is most advantageous. However, this is a prepaid card, not a credit card, which has both advantages and disadvantages.
4. American Airlines frequent flyer program, which is a One World Alliance member, has a fast track program to higher status levels, and offers members the opportunity to purchase flyer points with cash. For people flying between the west coast of Australia and New Zealand there is the opportunity to purchase award seats for $300 rather than the usual $500 - $600 for a discount economy fare.
5. Cheap Jetstar tickets offer the option to purchase miles and status for not a lot of money. Enough status credits and you're swanning it in the Lounges and getting larger baggage allowances. Worth purchasing.

Again, you're welcome.


  1. I use my velocity card at BP and my points have really grown!! Il have to check out my jetstar options.

    1. Hi Aimee, I have a Velocity card too but don't fly Virgin much so don't have a need to top up points on it. Jetstar are linked with Qantas not Virgin unfortunately, and they are n different alliance programs so not transferable