Getting rewards out of academic travel?
September 8, 2011 9:20 AM   Subscribe

I am a grad student in the early years of my PhD program. I am just starting to travel for conferences this year, and I anticipate no fewer than 4-5 trips a year in the future, and even more once I hit the job market. I want to start accruing rewards points/frequent flyer miles, whatever. What credit card or rewards program do I want?

I have excellent credit, but not super long credit history or major loans so I will be eligible for most, but not the most exclusive rewards credit cards. Current card is low interest and no annual fee, but no rewards.

I could go with one airline's rewards program, but that might not always work out to be the cheapest and I'm not a super frequent flyer yet. Depending on destination, days I depart and return and how far in advance I'm booking, a different airline might be cheaper for different trips, and I've never heard of airlines matching competitors cheaper fares for their frequent flyers. For example, I like Southwest alot but their cheapest fare for an upcoming trip from Austin to DC was $100 more than Delta, so I doubt I would make up the price difference in points. So it probably doesn't make sense to stick with one airline's credit card/rewards program, right? The caps on travel reimbursement that I have mean I usually have to price shop, so it's not like I can stick my university with the price difference. We also do not have negotiated institutional rates with any airline that I am eligible for, as far as I know.

Then there is the option of a general credit card rewards program that gives extra points for flights and dining; those are probably some of my biggest credit card charges so that makes sense. How do I compare and pick?

Any other tips for getting the max possible free flights/rewards out of my upcoming travel? I want bang for my buck, whether that is in points, cash back or free miles.
posted by slow graffiti to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You to Be Rich recommends the Starwood American Express Card. His writeup from June 2011. (Hope you're eligible!) His general post about credit card perks may help, too.
posted by dywypi at 9:30 AM on September 8, 2011

If you'll be going abroad at all, it might be a good idea to pick up a Capital One Venture card, since it has no foreign transaction fees.
posted by kickingtheground at 9:31 AM on September 8, 2011

You might also be able to write off these expenses due to business!! I am definitely not an accountant, but it would be worth looking into.
posted by shortyJBot at 9:31 AM on September 8, 2011

Join hotel rewards programs too. You probably won't get to pick your hotels, but if you do, then generally stick with one chain. I do Marriott and Kimpton whenever possible and have been very happy.
posted by n'muakolo at 9:50 AM on September 8, 2011

Try to stick with the airline that flights the most out of your home airport. You'll probably be flying that the most anyway.
posted by k8t at 10:17 AM on September 8, 2011

I'm going to take the contrarian view and tell you not to do this. Frequent flyer programs are all stacked in the airlines favor, and only "work" if you are able to consistently stick to one airline (or fly a heck a lot). In your case, since you're not in a hub city and the university forces you to pick the cheapest flight, you may very well end up being on multiple airlines over the course of the year, and 4-5 trips is probably not enough to reach elite with a single airline let alone a multiple of them.

You'll be much better off picking a rewards card that has the best features for you and then charging everything to it (and paying it off every month!). Use those points as you see fit.

If your 4-5 flights are international it does change the equation a little, since then you could hit the minimum elite levels with just 3 flights. But then when you're elite on one airline and the university forces you to fly another you will be really unhappy with them.
posted by Runes at 10:22 AM on September 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

The best info on this can be found at FlyerTalk. Be prepared to spend a lot of time reading though as there is no definite answer on whats the best card.
posted by epiphinite at 10:26 AM on September 8, 2011

I agree with Runes -
you do not want an airline constructed rewards program -
better to get a credit card run rewards program.

There are lots of different ones out there, but Capitol One has always been good for me.
posted by Flood at 11:57 AM on September 8, 2011

There is essentially no downside to signing up with airline's frequent flyer programs. You may not gain from it, but it certainly can't hurt you in any way beyond the 10 minutes it takes to sign up the first time. If you end up not flying on the airline you had signed up with before, oh well, you can sign up with another one. If it ends up being convenient for you to fly with the same airline multiple times, then great, it might end up being useful to you, even if you don't fly with the frequency needed for any of the status programs.
posted by kiltedtaco at 3:45 PM on September 8, 2011

I read this as, you are paying for the trips upfront and then getting reimbursed for them later. I did this fairly often in school, but with conferences always in different places, never all served by the same airline or hotel, I gave up on ever fulfilling frequent flyer miles or hotel points, etc, but I know that many frequent flyer and hotel clubs let you translate the points to something else, and this secondary something else was often common to many different frequent flyer programs, etc, so that you could get up to the required minimum despite using different brands.

In addition, I always paid with my cash back credit card. I know you are asking specifically which one is the best, but I just used the best I could get at the time (gooogling...) Whatever you get back is still absolutely free money.

Unless. Your school takes forever to reimburse you. Mine was fairly prompt. What was helpful in encouraging this promptness was carefully following allllll directions in filling out the reimbursement forms and having alllll necessary documentation. And doing it right away upon returning home. [We always had to have that silly little certificate that says you were an attendee at the conference (which before being reimbursed, I never understood the point of), and we needed actual boarding passes, not just our airline receipts.... Those are the two things people seemed to slip up on...] The other thing was always being super polite and on good terms with the reimbursement person. He/she may have a very boring job and very little motivation to rush on it. It doesn't hurt if they like you. If it takes forever for you to get reimbursed, you'll lose the benefit of this free money...
posted by Tandem Affinity at 9:18 PM on September 8, 2011

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