In less than a month, I’m going to be winging my way from SFO to Frankfurt and on to Oslo in United BusinessFirst. For this I paid $39.40. I doubt this would have been possible without everything that I learned on The Points Guy’s blog.
When I first started traveling, I never racked up many miles. When you’re flying on the absolutely-cheapest-most-restricted-airfare ever, one of the things you often sacrifice is the collection of frequent flyer miles. Either the fare is so cheap that the flight racks up no miles at all, or the earn rate on that partner airline you’re flying is only 25%-50% of the actual miles flown.
A few years ago however, I stumbled on this site and really started taking this idea seriously. There is a LOT of work involved in racking up miles via credit cards and shopping portals, etc., and I am by no means as into it as a lot of others (some people are really nuts about this stuff), but with a little planning and some focused card-shopping you can really reap some amazing benefits. There are two main caveats to this:
- You need to have good credit to do this, but having multiple cards open does not affect your overall credit score as much as you’d think. There is a lot of explanation of how this works on The Points Guy, so I won’t go into it here.
- You have to have your shit together enough to make sure you pay stuff on time. You don’t necessarily have to pay everything off every month, but you need to make sure that you pay the minimum at least so you don’t start racking up late fees and losing the miles you just earned and damaging your credit. So proceed with caution.
Pretty much everything you need to know about how to get started you can learn on The Points Guy’s site, but I wanted to highlight some things that were not obvious to me when I started doing this:
- On lots of programs, buying a one-way award does not carry a penalty the way it often does when you’re buying an airfare. A one way fare is 1/2 the miles of a round trip. So you can fly to Europe on American, let’s say, and then fly back on United. Therefore you don’t need a kajillion miles on American, you can rack up 50K on each American and United, and hey you’re going to Europe.
- Do not try to use miles for two things: going to Europe in Summer and Hawaii ever. Just don’t. Don’t even try. Everyone who says that they “can never use their miles” are trying to use them for these two things. Or they’re trying to use them on Delta. Hawaii is actually a great fare to purchase (especially if you can go off season), as you will rack up a lot of “butt in seat” miles that count towards elite status because it’s so far away. For Europe, it’s better to book awards off season, or into less popular European destinations (think Stockholm, not London).
- Earning miles on credit cards almost never counts as “elite qualifying miles” – no matter how much you spend, you’re not going to buy your way to Premier Platinum*. Therefore if you want those perks, you’re gonna have to pay for some flights sometimes.
- Don’t hoard miles. This is crucial. Hoard miles, and your life will be a litany of woe and regret. The airlines, especially in the last few years, have devalued their programs quite a bit, and all of a sudden with little to no warning those 100K miles you were saving up for a round the world trip… well you’re gonna need twice that now so you’d better figure out plan B.
- Pick one main plan to earn on. It’s best to base this on whatever hub airport is near you. If you’re lucky enough to live near a big airport that serves as hub for more than one airline, then you have more flexibility. United is credited with having the plan where it’s easiest to use your miles, and in my experience this is true. They have a lot of partners and therefore can get you almost anywhere on the globe, sometimes for just 40K miles one way.
- You can use miles for tickets for family. Therefore, you can use miles to get Mom to visit you, not just for you to go visit her. I’ve flown my brother out to San Francisco several times this way over the years.
Most people who really try to earn a lot of miles use them only for big-ticket items like First or Business class fares. But if you have family and friends across the country, don’t discount using your miles for visits home. Smaller, less trafficked airports often have award seats available, and it’s nice to be able to plan trips last minute for little to no money out of pocket.
*There are some cards with very large annual fees that do accrue elite qualifying miles, but the fees are way too rich for my blood.