Airline rewards programs

Flying for Free: Summing up a Year of Miles Earning

airplaneI don’t earn much money these days, but I do travel a lot. I’m doing home exchanges so my lodging is free, but people often ask how I manage the cost of the flights. The answer is airline miles. But not miles that I accrue by paying for flights. Instead it’s miles I earn by signing up for credit card offers and participating in other airline loyalty program activities. I’ve already written about why this is a great deal for travelers.

Here are a few examples of ways I’ve earned miles and hotel points in the past year:

  • Signed up for 19 credit cards (between 30k and 100k miles/points per card)
  • Deposited money into a Fidelity brokerage account for six months (50k miles)
  • Opened a new Citibank checking account (30k miles)
  • Did a Cadillac test drive (7500 miles)
  • Took a few online surveys (not many miles, lost interest in this approach)
  • Moved money around via Amazon transfers (1000 miles/month)
  • Put every purchase on a miles or points earning credit card

airline-cardsCredit Card Promotions

Every month there are new credit card promotions for airline miles, hotel points, or other travel reward points. For instance, citibank is currently offering a card with American Airlines that gives you 50,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in 3 months. The annual fee is waved in the first year, and you also get a few admiral club passes in the deal. You can sign up, spend the $3000 and just cancel the card after a year if you don’t want it and you’ll never pay a fee.

I don’t spend much money. That’s how I can survive on a low income, and it’s the trade off for having time to travel. So I have to be creative about meeting minimum spending requirements. There are some good tricks, like the Amazon fund transfer (that is no longer offered), but in general if you put everything on one card, even someone with low expenses can meet most minimum spend requirements on these cards if you do it one at a time. And it’s twice as easy if you’re married and spending for two people.

If you’re new to this game I recommend taking the approach of meeting the minimum spend by charging everything to one card at a time. But as you get more comfortable you can branch out to more sophisticated techniques such as pre-paid cards like the new Target Redcard. (That’s a topic for another post.)

Credit Card Spending in General

Even when you’re not working on a new card promotion you can be earning lots of miles on your cards if you pay attention to the category and store bonuses. This can be a little tricky to keep track of, for instance I know my Chase Ink card gives me 5x points per dollar on office supplies. And if you want to make a purchase at a large store (like Macys) you can look at the shopping portals and you might find that American Air is offering 10x points per dollar as long as you shop online by clicking through their portal (you don’t have to use their credit card). There are some good websites that list all the promotions available so you can usually just search for these in one place. I recommend reading Frequent Miler’s summary of the best portal finders.

Other Promotions

Airlines randomly offer promotions like the Citibank new account signup, or the Cadillac test drive. They cost nothing, and usually don’t require a lot of work. You should figure out how much your time is worth and then decide whether or not to participate in a promotion. If it takes me an hour to do the test drive (including time to get to the dealership), and I earn 7500 points, I consider that a pretty good value. Miles are worth less than 2 cents each, so you can decide where you draw the line. Here’s a good estimate of point values.

First Class vs. Economy

A lot of people who work hard at earning points and miles want to enjoy luxury travel. They fly in first class, stay in fancy hotels, and generally enjoy luxury vacations. Many of them also travel a lot for business, so they are able to earn status with airlines and turn that into expanded miles earning on their flights. These folks are raking in the miles and points at a rate I can’t do since I almost never pay for flights. But I don’t mind flying coach. For me this is a trade off. I want to travel a lot, and I don’t want to pay for flights, so I am very frugal about spending my points.

Get into the Miles Game

Interested in getting started earning miles? Below are some blogs to read from the experts:

The Points Guy
Frequent Flyer University
Million Mile Secrets
One Mile at a Time
View From The Wing
Well Traveled Mile