I have made it no secret, my love for frequent flyer miles. Some people have their fantasy football, others their rock collections. Well, my hobby is miles.
It wasn’t until after a trip to Hawaii, where Lance and I both racked up nearly 10,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles in one trip, that we began paying attention to miles (I mean, a one-way domestic ticket on AA is only 12.5K miles! We were SOOO close!). Then I started getting e-mails about signing up for Netflix (3K bonus miles on AA), or downloading the AAdvantage add-on toolbar (another 1K bonus). Pretty soon (and another trip to Hawaii later), Lance and I had accumulated enough miles for two round-trip tickets for our impending trip to Tokyo.
I mean, nearly free* tickets to Tokyo! The retail price for one of the same RT tix as of today is $1700.
(*In most cases, you’ll still get charged applicable taxes and 9/11 security fees and all that. Our trip was $110 in taxes between the two of us.)
A lot of people ask how to play the FF game (read: it breaks my cold, stone heart when I hear of people throwing away miles because they didn’t join that airline’s loyalty program, so I usually sit them down and lecture them on how to set right their negligent ways). So, let me give you a primer:
- Join the loyalty clubs…for everything. This is your first step, usually doesn’t cost you anything and new memberships are usually incentivized with bonus miles. Even if you don’t use the program, it’s good to have in your back pocket (and, honestly, you join every new Pinterest and Gilt; why not add something else?)
- But…pick a few airlines and focus on them. While you’ll inevitably fly pretty much everything in your search for the cheapest fare, you’re likely to fly a few more often than not depending on who services your airport. (It’s essentially pointless for me to try and earn a bunch of JetBlue miles, for example, since that airline doesn’t fly to/from PHL). I like to play a three-tiered system, with a legacy airline like AA, a PHL-hub airline like US Airways, and a low-cost carrier like Southwest. I’m most likely to fly these guys, given my home airport; also, between the destinations of AA and US and their partner airlines, I can get to pretty much anywhere in the world.
- Don’t spend any more money…and still earn miles. Nearly every e-retailer has an FF incentive, if you take an extra step. If you go to your airline’s “shopping portal,” you can then get a specialized link to your retailer of choice, most offering anywhere from 3-5 miles per dollar spent. For example, we bought our new furniture from CB2 through the AAdvantage eShopping portal, and earned enough miles for a one-way domestic ticket that we wouldn’t have received otherwise. Granted, when awards tickets cost 12.5K, it’s gonna take you awhile to get there, but this is good way to build your miles balance over time.
- Earning FF miles with other partners. Most hotel chains will offer FF miles with your stay (for example, you can get 600 Southwest points per Best Western stay); same with rental car companies. This is another reason to sign up for loyalty programs, and if you travel for work, all the better!
- Stay up-to-date: Some of the best ways to get miles is through contests or promotions run by the airlines, though you probably won’t find out about these unless you follow those in the know on Facebook or Twitter. I recommend @GlobeTrotScott, @OneMileAtATime, or @ThePointsGuy for staying in-the-know.
- Be patient. By choosing to play the miles game, you’re requiring of yourself a Monopoly-like time commitment. There are really only a handful of ways that you’re going to earn miles quickly without going broke: traveling a lot for work, having a good credit card rewards program like Chase’s Ultimate Rewards (which allows you to transfer your UR points to FF or hotel points on a 1:1 ratio), and signing up for a bunch of airline credit cards. Otherwise, be prepared to see those miles build up slowly.
Now, I don’t play the credit card “churning” game (which is where you apply for a new miles-bonus credit card every 3-6 months), since it’s not only a lot to keep track of (when to open, when to close, annual fees, etc.), but I’m suspicious of its effect on my credit. Churning is a beloved method amongst your most die-hard of miles collectors, though, so if you’re curious, I recommend you check out this article on FlyerTalk on the rationale and strategy behind it.
I’m in envy and awe of those who have the resources and the time to amass huge amounts of miles and who can essentially travel anywhere at the world on a whim. My ideal job would be to travelogue on free miles, bouncing from one country to the next like some exotic game of hopscotch.
Lance can stay home and watch Kitty.