College students aren’t known for wildly lavished lifestyles and steady incomes. It’s a fact of life that, for most college students, their budget will remain extremely tight for at least four years if not more. Thanks to high tuition costs, new living expenses, and difficulty finding a job that works with class schedules, students often view travel as an unattainable luxury. In many cases, travel is fairly expensive and incompatible with the budget of most college students.
However, this is not always the case as it is entirely possible for college students to travel without dipping into their savings or taking out another student loan. It’s also possible for college students to earn airline miles and rewards points. In many cases, you may be able to earn frequent flyer miles or points without having to catch a flight, book a hotel, or apply for a credit card. Here is how college students can earn and maximize points and miles without breaking the bank.
In This Post:
- Sign-Up For All Practical Loyalty Programs
- Travel More and Travel Smarter
- Consider a Credit (or Debit) Card That Earns Points or Miles
- Pick-Up The Tab and Take Advantage of Venmo, CashApp, etc.
- Use Shopping and Dining Portals
- Purchase Points and Miles Using Any Spare Cash
- Mileage Runs
- The Bottom Line
How College Students Can Get Started With Points & Miles
First and foremost, it’s important to consider the fact that there’s no one way to earn points or miles. You can invest as much or as little time and money into earning and redeeming points and miles as you’d like. Getting started with points and miles could be as simple as signing up for an airline’s rewards program. However, you’ll want to ask yourself, “Why do I want to get started earning points or miles?” This question should lead you to consider the question of whether or not getting started with loyalty and travel programs is even worth it. Of course, I’d argue that the answer to this question should always be yes.
So, let’s assume that you arrive at the answer of yes. You’ve determined that earning points and miles is worth your time and maybe you’ve set a goal for why you’ve decided to get started with loyalty programs during college. Now, how do you earn travel rewards points and miles? Here are a few ways to maximize the number of miles or points you can earn in your every day college student life.
Sign-up For All (Practical) Loyalty Programs
First and foremost, sign-up for airline and hotel loyalty programs. They’re free to join and are the first step to earning points and miles. The only downside to joining frequent flyer and loyalty programs is spammy emails. Luckily, you can opt-out of these emails during the sign-up process.
Before signing up for every loyalty program you come across, I recommend creating a list of practical airlines and hotel chains. If it’s even remotely possible that you’ll be traveling on an airline or staying at a hotel chain in the next 2 years, I recommend at those airlines and hotel chains to your list. Once you’ve come up with your list of practical loyalty programs, head to each program’s website and begin the process of signing up. You won’t need much to sign-up. You’ll need to provide your full legal name, date of birth, email address, phone number, physical mailing address, and gender. Some airlines that are based outside of the United States may also require you to provide an identification number such as a passport number or driver’s license number.
As you enroll in loyalty programs, make sure to keep track of your usernames, passwords, and of course your frequent flyer or loyalty program number. Once you’ve signed up for your preferred frequent flyer and hotel loyalty programs, you’re ready to start earning points and miles.
Travel More and Travel Smarter
The easiest and most straightforward way to earn airline miles or travel points is to travel. Though traveling is the easiest way to earn, it’s not always going to yield the most miles or points. Nevertheless, taking a flight or staying at a hotel is by far the most straightforward way to earn points and miles. However, to book flights or hotel rooms, you’ll need money. Rarely will college students have extra cash laying around to take flights or vacations. The key for college students looking to get into points and miles is to not only travel but travel smarter.
Traveling smarter takes many forms. First, you’ll want to increase the amount of time you spend planning a trip. Far too often, I will see my friends and family book the easiest itinerary as opposed to the cheapest or most sensible itinerary. If you want to travel more frequently, you’ll need to become a pro when it comes to finding and booking flights and accommodations. Here are some tips on how college students can travel smarter.
Skip The Airline’s Website
Though you’re more than welcome to book using an airline’s official website, I don’t recommend starting off checking an airline’s website when planning your trip. Instead, I recommend using online tools that aggregate fares and rates from across the web. Here are my favorite tools for searching for cheap flights:
Using the sites and tools listed above will allow you to find the cheapest flights across numerous airlines and multiple dates. Additionally, tools like Google Flights will indicate whether or not you’re paying too much for a ticket. Google Flights can also predict when a ticket will change in price allowing travelers to score the best possible price on an itinerary.
Familiarize Yourself With an Airline or Hotels Loyalty Program
Far too often, travelers that are new to the points and miles hobby will pick an airline or hotel with little knowledge as to how the program works. In recent years, airline frequent flyer programs and hotel loyalty programs have become more complex and difficult to navigate. This is by design. Airlines and hotels have stopped rewarding frequent travelers and have instead begun rewarding big spenders. There are still ways that even college students and those on a college student budget can earn airline miles or hotel points even though the odds are stacked against them.
The key to maximizing the earning and redemption potential of a frequent flyer program or hotel loyalty program is to familiarize yourself with your preferred loyalty programs. This entails visiting an airline or hotel’s website and taking time to meticulously read every detail about the airline or hotel’s loyalty program. You’ll also need to read the fine print found in a program’s terms and conditions.
Familiarizing yourself with a frequent flyer or hotel loyalty program will allow you to have a better understanding of how points or miles are awarded. You’ll know which fares or rates earn the most points or miles and which fares or rates to avoid.
While time-consuming, there are a number of veteran frequent flyers who continuously monitor a program to keep up with the latest terms and conditions. The College Points is one of the many blogs that do this and will have additional content on top loyalty programs in the coming weeks. Some of our favorite blogs and bloggers that provide resources for frequent flyers include God Save The Points, CBoardingGroup, YourMileageMayVary, OneMileAtATime, and Points Miles & Martinis.
Student Discounts and Perks
One perk of being a college student is access to exclusive discounts. Using your student ID or college email address, you’ll have access to a number of exclusive deals that allow you to save on travel. Unfortunately, these deals can be somewhat difficult to find as airlines, hotels, and other travel companies don’t typically promote their student discounts and deals on the front of their websites.
If you’re interested in saving money on travel with student discounts and deals, here’s a short list of popular airlines, hotels, and travel companies that offer discounts to students:
Keep Up With The Latest Promotions
Finally, one of the easiest ways to maximize your points and miles is to keep up with the latest promotions. Airlines and hotels frequently run promotions that target members of their loyalty programs. These promotions can be quite lucrative and allow travelers to save a great deal. Promotions are a great way for cash-strapped college students to save on travel.
To keep up with the latest promotions, you’ll want to opt-in to an airline or hotel’s emails and follow travel blogs like The College Points. Your inbox will fill up quickly but at least you’ll have access to the latest promotions.
Consider a Credit Card (or Debit Card) That Earns Points or Miles
With college students typically having a leaner income and limited credit history, getting approved for credit cards that earn points and miles can be quite difficult. Additionally, I’m always somewhat hesitant to recommend travel rewards credit cards to some of my friends. This is because most high schools and even colleges fail to educate students on responsible credit use. However, should you feel comfortable applying for and using a credit card, travel rewards credit cards can be a great way to earn points and miles.
When it comes to choosing the right credit card for your lifestyle and spending habits, there are two basic categories of credit cards that apply to college students. The first is student credit cards. Student credit cards are credit cards that are marketed directly to college students and recent graduates. Getting approved for student credit cards is typically much more likely than getting approved for travel rewards cards. However, student credit cards aren’t as lucrative when it comes to earning points and miles. Additionally, fees and rates associated with student credit cards are often higher than other types of credit cards. Nevertheless, student credit cards are a great way for college students to get started with credit and earn cashback or travel rewards. Here are some of my favorite student credit cards that earn cashback or rewards:
- Discover it® Credit Card
- Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students
- Petal Visa® Credit Card
- U.S. Bank Cash+ Visa Signature® Card
The second category of credit cards includes credit cards that earn travel rewards. This category includes co-branded airline and hotel credit cards, credit cards that earn credit card travel rewards points, and all other credit cards that earn points or miles as opposed to cashback. Travel rewards credit cards can be quite lucrative however, they are often quite difficult to get approved for as a college student. Additionally, applicants will want to take note of all rates and fees associated with their preferred credit cards. While rates are often lower than student credit cards, fees, particularly annual fees, are often much more expensive. Here are my top travel rewards credits cards for college students:
- American Express® Green Card
- Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card
- Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit Card
- American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ Credit Card
Finally, there are a few debit cards out there that will allow you to earn travel rewards points or miles. These travel rewards debit cards can be extremely hard to find and can be difficult to get. Additionally, while debit cards won’t typically have annual fees, debit cards that earn travel rewards do. The annual fees associated with travel rewards debit cards can be relatively pricey given the limited benefits that come with the card. Finally, compared to travel rewards credit cards, travel rewards debit cards earn only a fraction of the points and miles. Here are the few travel rewards debit cards that The College Points could find:
- Delta Air Lines SunTrust SkyMiles Debit Card
- United MileagePlus Visa GO Prepaid Card
Pick-Up The Tab and Take Advantage of Venmo, CashApp, etc.
Once you have a credit card that earns points or miles, you’ll need to spend money to earn travel reward points and airline miles. However, I’m going to assume that, as a college student, you probably don’t have spare cash lying around to hit spending bonuses or to rack up thousands of miles each billing cycle. Luckily, peer-to-peer payment applications like Venmo and CashApp can make earning points and miles with a credit card quite easy and stress-free.
Let’s start with an example. Let’s say you’re out at the local water hole with the bros or the gals. You and three of your friends just polished off 12 beers and now you’re ready to head to the next bar. For this example, let’s say each beer costs $4. After taxes (8%) and a tip (20%), the final bill is right around $63. Split three ways, that’s $15.75 per person. Normally, each friend would just contribute to the bill or ask for split checks. However, this isn’t a great way to earn points and miles with a rewards credit card.
Instead of splitting the check four ways, use your credit card that earns points or miles to pay for the entire tab. Then request $15.75 from each of your three friends using Venmo, CashApp, or a similar app. You’ll earn rewards for the entire $63 tab while only having to pay for your drinks. Now, do this anytime you’re out with friends and you’ll be on your way to award travel in no time!
Use Shopping and Dining Portals
If you don’t have the budget to travel or you’re not ready to get a credit card that earns points or miles, there are still ways to earn travel rewards. One such way is using an airline’s shopping and dining portals. These portals allow you to earn an airline’s frequent flyer miles without taking a flight and while using virtually any debit or credit card. With airlines featuring hundreds if not thousands of retailers and restaurants, using shopping and dining portals is an easy way to earn a lot of frequent flyer miles.
Shopping portals allow you to earn frequent flyer miles or points at a number of retailers. Airline shopping portals allow you to select a retailer and then earn miles or points for purchases made online with that retailer. The following airlines offer shopping portals:
- Aeromexico shopping portal
- Air Canada shopping portal
- Alaska Airlines shopping portal
- American Airlines shopping portal
- British Airways shopping portal
- Delta Air Lines shopping portal
- JetBlue shopping portal
- United Airlines shopping portal
- Southwest Airlines shopping portal
Airline shopping portals are the perfect place to go back to school shopping as many portals run promotions that allow students to earn additional miles or points at popular back to school retailers.
Similar to shopping portals, airlines allow members to earn miles or points at restaurants. Typically, these restaurants are locally owned and operated and range from budget options to Michelin Star restaurants. In most cases, you’ll need to link the debit or credit card that you plan on using at restaurants to earn miles. Once you’ve linked your preferred payment method, use your preferred airline dining portal to find restaurants that allow you to earn miles or points with that airline. Once you’ve found that perfect restaurant, simply dine out, use your linked payment method, and you’ll start earning miles or points at restaurants.
The following airlines offer dining out portals and programs:
- Alaska Airlines dining program
- American Airlines dining program
- Delta Air Lines dining program
- JetBlue dining program
- United Airlines dining program
- Southwest Airlines dining program
Purchase Points and Miles Using Any Spare Cash
If you’re looking to build up points and miles over time, purchasing frequent flyer miles or points is a great way to do so. Airlines and hotels allow members to purchase frequent flyer miles or loyalty program points. Each airline and hotel has a different policy as to how many miles or points can be purchased in a calendar year however, these limits aren’t all that restrictive.
The College Points offers a guide to purchasing points and miles. This guide includes a list of airlines that allow members to purchase miles or points and how members should go about purchasing frequent flyer currencies. That guide can be accessed here.
Often times, I will use any extra cash that I have leftover after I pay bills or that I receive during the holidays to purchase frequent flyer miles with my preferred airline. This is a quick, easy, and relatively affordable way to start racking up airline rewards while in college or on a college student’s budget.
I listed this method of earning travel rewards last for a reason. Mileage runs are not for the faint of heart. They can be time-consuming and in many cases, go south real quick.
The basic concept of a mileage run is to find cheap fares that allow you to earn a lot of miles or points. Mileage runs often involve purchasing a ticket with an airline but ultimately traveling on a partner airline for much of the journey. Other popular mileage runs involve finding an unusually cheap fare for an itinerary that covers a great distance. Finally, while not all that cost-effective, seasoned points and miles enthusiasts will purchase pricier tickets even full-fare tickets that allow them to earn an insane number of frequent flyer miles for a single flight.
One key aspect of a mileage run is keeping travel expenses low. Usually, this means keeping layovers short and rarely leaving the airport. If you’re an aviation geek like me that also enjoys airports, mileage runs can be fun and exciting. However, if you’re not a big fan of long flights and airports, mileage runs can be pure hell. Ultimately, they can be a great way to earn points and miles quickly and cheaply.
The Bottom Line
Travel reward programs aren’t just for wealthy business travelers. Anyone can enroll in an airline or hotel’s loyalty program and start earning points and miles. Additionally, members of popular frequent flyer and loyalty programs don’t even need to step foot on an airplane or in a hotel room to earn points or miles. Members also don’t need to set aside piles of cash to earn miles or points. Even college students, recent graduates, and young professionals just starting out on their own can take advantage of frequent flyer and travel loyalty programs. However, there are two important things to note when getting started with points and miles, especially as a college student or younger traveler.
First, you’ll need to be patient. It takes time to earn miles and points. Second, you’ll want to have reasonable expectations. If you’re a college student on a budget, it’s possible to earn enough points or miles for a first class flight featuring a lie-flat bed and caviar service. However, this is not the norm. It’s important to get past the idea that all award flights and free nights at hotels will be in first class or presidential suites. Rather, as a college student, points and miles should be viewed as a way to make travel less expensive and more rewarding.