Meet George Papadopoulos. By day he's a certified public accountant and financial planner. At night he uses the same analytical skills for his hobby: cashing in big-time on travel rewards.
Recently he took his family of four on an Amtrak trip from Ann Arbor, Mich., through Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle in a luxe sleeper car, using Amtrak points. His out-of-pocket costs? Meals and tips. Before that, he went on a Carnival cruise with his wife to the western Caribbean -- paid for entirely with rewards points from his Capital One Venture Card.
There is a cadre of people who make points their serious avocation. I asked George and a few other key players for their best advice. Here it is.
Go big, or go home. Sign up for multiple programs and keep track of all of them via a Web-based service like Points.com or AwardWallet.com. Be willing to spend a significant amount of time looking for deals, comparing bonuses and managing your rewards.
Otherwise, you will just be a dabbler like me.
Follow the bloggers and the chatters. "These are very generous communities, everyone is willing to help," says Angelina Aucello, another hobbyist who recently traveled, along with her fiance, from her East Rutherford, N.J., home to Hong Kong (nonstop), Macau, Bangkok, Phuket, Singapore and back to New York for a total cost of $194.35 per ticket, plus points, on Cathay Pacific Airways. Popular online points communities -- where users share promotions and tips -- include BoardingArea.com, Flyertalk.com, and MilePoint.com.
Follow specific airlines and hotels on Twitter and "like" them on Facebook. You will see deals early.
Get a "workhorse" credit card, but do not limit yourself to one. Summer Hull, who blogs under Mommypoints.com, currently prefers Chase Ink Bold, which is giving five points per dollar spent on telecommunications like cellphone and cable bills. But she uses different cards for different purchases, to get the most points per card. Charge (and pay off every month) everything.
Match up credit card points with the program that will make the most of them. Hull says that Chase will give her one cent per point in cash back, but she can get 2 cents per point if she uses those points at United Airlines or Hyatt Hotels.
Don't assume the obvious. The best values can often be found by flying on partner airlines in places where your points airline does not fly, says Papadopoulos. Using British Airways miles on American Airlines for domestic U.S. flights will get you far more for the money.
Every trip does not have to be a big one. You can either accumulate points or spend them wisely on weekend hops to domestic destinations, says Hull. "I like the fancy first-class international trip as much as the next person, but way more often we are using miles and points to see places like Yosemite and Disney World."