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Taxis driving through times square in New York city (Stockbyte/Getty Images)
Taxis driving through times square in New York city (Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Pay with credit and score much more than a free ride Add to ...

When David Ciccarelli books flights for business, he checks whether he has earned enough points to score a free ride. The president and chief executive officer of Voices.com, a voiceover company based in London, Ont., travels for work at least once a month and says that racking up points using his travel credit card is a must.

“Every dollar I save on airfare, I can invest in the company,” he says.

Unlike corporate employees who consider their business credit-card travel points a company perk, entrepreneurs are less likely to use travel reward programs to spring for a Disneyland vacation with the kids or a last-minute Paris splurge. Instead, they’re putting their points to work, says Patrick Sojka, the Calgary-based founder of Rewards Canada, a company that provides information on travel rewards programs.

“When you’re a one-person company and watching the bottom line, it makes sense to use those points and miles for business trips,” says Mr. Sojka.

So what exactly should an entrepreneur carry around in his or her wallet to score flights, hotel rooms, rental cars and even airport parking for free or on the cheap? Although there are dozens of travel credit cards in Canada today, Mr. Sojka says they’re not all created equal. In fact, a good choice for one person isn’t always the most appropriate for another.

Still, there are some cards that tend to stand out from the pack. Take the American Express Gold Rewards card. For the first year, users avoid the annual $150 fee, they earn double points on eligible purchases from cruises to groceries and they earn 15,000 bonus points just for signing up. On the points-o-meter, that’s enough for a free short-haul flight.

“A lot of people get the card even though they don’t need it, and then cancel after the first year,” says Mr. Sojka.

The CIBC Aerogold Visa Infinite card also doles out 15,000 bonus points to new clients when they use it the first time, in addition to 1.5 points for every dollar spent on gas, groceries and even stays at Fairmont hotels. The spending limit is high, too – $80,000. Build up enough points, and you’ll get access to any available Air Canada seat, including those in executive class.

Small business travellers who prefer to fly WestJet should choose the RBC WestJet MasterCard. You can earn up to $350 in bonus dollars for signing up for the card by Nov. 14, 2011.

Mr. Ciccarelli uses his RBC Visa Platinum Avion card to score free hotel rooms in Toronto and New York when travelling for meetings and conferences, but he’s also a fan of his RBC U.S. Dollar Visa Gold card. Although he originally wanted the card to avoid high exchange rates and fees when travelling to the U.S., he soon discovered another use for it: paying for American Google ads in U.S. dollars.

There’s more to some cards than just free flights and hotel rooms. “If you travel a lot, are tired and don’t want to deal with the crowds at airports, you want a card that gets you access to business-class lounges,” Mr. Sojka advises.

That could mean signing up for one of his favourite cards, the Diners Club Rewards MasterCard. Flash the card at hundreds of airport executive class lounges around the world and get beverages, newspapers, magazines, Wi-Fi and a quiet place to put your feet up. While not always complimentary – cardholders pay $27 (U.S.) at some locations – it’s a worthwhile perk during long layovers.

The only caveat: The card is not open to new members right now, but that’s reportedly set to change in 2012.

Can’t wait? The BMO World Elite MasterCard gives you access to more than 600 VIP airport lounges – and even kicks in three complimentary visits every year.

As for credit card strategy, sole proprietors and entrepreneurs who are just starting out can get away with using a personal card rather than a corporate one, says Mr. Ciccarelli. He’s convinced it’s a solid business move if someone wants to take advantage of a benefits program. When everything from milk to office supplies goes on one card, the payoff – and pay out – can be huge.

Matt Reider, CEO of CanuckAbroad.com, a travel site based in Victoria, agrees that buying the whole lot on credit is the way to go.

“Collect miles on everything. This is a very easy way to rack up points very quickly, especially if you’ve got employees who are also using the card and accumulating miles for the business,” he says.

Of course, as a company grows, a personal credit card won’t cut it any more and personal spending must be separated from business buying. A business card account also lets owners track spending on the numerous copies flying around with employees.

No matter what card is in hand, however, it’s always a good idea to target one or two rewards programs and forget about the rest. Spreading points too thin results in a wallet full of cards and not enough points to access the cheap seats.

Above all, pay off the card in full each month – or those perks will no longer be worth their weight in interest. And don’t forget to redeem any points hanging around. Travel reward programs can change, and some airlines put expiration dates on miles. Even if you don’t have enough points for that business-class ticket to Singapore, you can often use points to upgrade a coach ticket.

Credit cards shouldn’t be the only travel must-have in an entrepreneur’s wallet or purse. Mr. Sojka never leaves home without his hotel rewards cards because not only are these programs free and easy to sign up for, they’re his ticket to a world of upgraded rooms, lounge access and free nights.

This week, he’s flying to Toronto on the red-eye from Calgary and will hit the tarmac at 6 a.m.

“With my Hyatt platinum status, I can check into my hotel room at 8 a.m. rather than waiting until 3 p.m.,” he says. “These little perks can really make things a lot more tolerable and less stressful.”

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