DENVER, Colo., Nov. 7, 2012 /PRNewswire/ -- Tapping your loyalty accounts for holiday purchases is like finding extra money under the sofa cushions at Christmastime -- but consumers need to know the hidden tricks and have an intelligent game plan to get the most benefit out of their points and miles.
"Everyone wants to stretch their shopping holiday budget. And redeeming loyalty program points is one of the best and most underused ways to do that," said Krista Paul, founder of UsingMiles.com, which enables users to track and manage their rewards programs all in one place.
"People stay up all night waiting for Black Friday retail specials, and then they max out their credit cards and stand in line to put gifts on layaway," Paul said. "But if they just take advantage of the reward points they worked hard at earning all year long, they might not need to borrow money to buy the things they need over the holidays."
U.S. consumers have an aggregate total of $48 billion in points and miles in their loyalty program accounts, studies show. "People don't think of their reward points as money. But they really are like a second currency or a hidden bank account that can be used for 'buying' travel, merchandise, gas, groceries and even grande skim lattes," Paul said.
Paul offered five tips to help consumers save money by "burning" their loyalty rewards over the holidays and also earning more rewards to use in the New Year:
- Get organized. The average consumer has three credit cards, belongs to 18 rewards programs, and gets 25 emails a week from Groupon, LivingSocial and other daily deals websites. They're unable to keep up with the mounting pile of loyalty e-mails and flyers. Loyalty websites such as UsingMiles were designed to eliminate the clutter. UsingMiles.com allows consumers to manage more than 210 loyalty programs all in one place, while tracking their balances, bonus offers and even their daily deal vouchers from a single, easy-to-use dashboard.
- Think of all your points and miles as a "second bank account." The holidays are a great time to use up those rewards. Frequent flyer miles, for example, can be used for free travel as well as for purchasing a wide variety of merchandise and services, including jewelry, housewares, electronics, toys, sporting goods and more. You can use them to send flowers or download music and movies – or give miles to friends or family members as a gift. Check airline websites for details.
- Don't let miles and points expire. An estimated $16 billion worth of points and miles lapse every year as a variety of expiration dates and deadlines come and go - often without disclosure to consumers. On UsingMiles.com, consumers can sign up for e-mail alerts warning them in advance when points will expire. Then instead of losing points, consumers can redeem them for items that can be stashed away for holiday gift-giving later in the year.
- Book holiday award travel early. Getting an award flight during the holidays isn't easy, but your chances of scoring a free ticket will increase if you plan ahead. Generally, airlines release award tickets between 330-345 days before departure. Start searching at this time and you may get lucky. To make the process fast and efficient, UsingMiles allows consumers to simultaneously search multiple reward programs for available award seats.
- Pay for holiday purchases with a credit card that provides rewards points. Virtually all airlines and major hotels offer credit cards that can be used to earn miles or points. Banks and major card companies also offer cards that give points that can be redeemed for travel on multiple airlines. Many of these also give generous sign-up bonuses that can earn you a free trip once you start using them for purchases. While using a loyalty card for gift buying can be a good strategy to accumulate more points and miles, be sure to compare APRs, annual fees and mileage expiration policies, and consider whether you can afford to pay off balances each month.
- Use your points and miles to help others. What better time than the holidays to donate miles to a charity to help a person in need? Airline loyalty programs partner with a long list of organizations, such as Make-a-Wish, American Cancer Society, American Red Cross and Feeding America, and enable donations from their websites.
"There's so much value that consumers don't take advantage of in loyalty programs," Paul said. "At UsingMiles.com, we're dedicated to helping people get the most benefit out of their rewards points with a minimum amount of time and effort. And, over the holidays, when people are making purchases almost every day it seems, saving money by earning and using awards can be a real lifesaver!"
To simplify people's hectic lives and improve redemption, UsingMiles.com aggregates all of a family's membership and loyalty programs – programs like United MileagePlus, Marriott Rewards, Kroger, Starbucks and Groupon – into a single dashboard, and protects them against expiration. Points, miles and credits are organized to use like cash, as second currencies available to spend. UsingMiles provides tools, such as an advanced travel search engine, to help members earn more points and finds efficient ways for families to spend their second currencies.