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6 Frequent Flyer Tactics to See the World for Free (Part I)

A few years ago, I had my first experience with credit card rewards and frequent flyer miles via a comical debacle with a $15,000 pile of coins from the U.S. Mint. Since then, I’ve been hooked.

Frequent flyer miles have made a whole world of experiences possible for me that wouldn’t have been available otherwise. They’ve added a whole new layer to my personal quest for adventure. And not just in using them, but in acquiring them, too!

In the last two years, I’ve come up with all kinds of harebrained ideas to get more miles and go more places from signing up for multiple credit cards to buying nearly $100,000 in coins from the U.S. Mint to… “other” slightly riskier exercises.

And the results have been rewarding (pun intended)—somewhere in the realm of 1 million miles and dozens of flights around the world.

A few years ago, if you’d have asked me if these crazy schemes were worth the trouble, I’d have laughed and said you were wasting your time. But not now. I’m sold!

New opportunities to boost your frequent flyer mile accounts come and go all the time, but there are almost always a few quick and easy strategies you can use to keep the miles coming in.

This is part one of a four-part series on earning frequent flyer miles to fund worldwide adventure. Join my newsletter if you don’t want to miss the finale.

Today, I’ll go over some of my favorite—and more important: easy—strategies that I’m using to boost my milage accounts. Next week, we’ll explore some of the more advanced ones.

As usual, feel free to pick which strategies work for you and leave the ones you’re not interested in.

Completing surveys in exchange for miles

Big companies are always spending money to figure out how to do a better job of selling stuff to you, and today there’s a market for your honest opinion. To get started, you can pick a few survey sites that offer miles for rewards, fill out a quick questionnaire, and start taking surveys and earning miles.

The two sites I use on a regular basis are e-rewards (for Delta) and e-miles(for U.S. Airways, but you can choose other airlines). These two are the most established and easiest to earn points with, but there are others as well.

  • Opinion Place – Earn 75-150 American Airlines miles for each survey. The site is often down, but when it’s working properly, these can add up quickly.
  • My Points – Earn points towards many awards, but transferring to United Miles is usually the best option.
  • Swagbucks – I’m less familiar with this program, but others speak highly of it, so I’m including it here.

Right now, e-rewards is my favorite program because its surveys are the easiest to qualify for. (Yes, you have to qualify for surveys. Later this month, I’ll show you how to qualify for almost any survey to earn high value rewards.) Also, e-rewards “dollars” add up quickly.

You’re never going to get a free first class ticket around the world by taking surveys, but they might keep you from losing one. What survey sites like these are great for are keeping your many mileage accounts active.

Most programs require you to earn or redeem miles at least once every 12-18 months. If you don’t, you might forfeit any miles you have in the account. Making small deposits through these survey sites will help you keep any dormant accounts active.

Signing up for credit cards with mileage bonuses

I get boos and hisses every time I mention the incredible opportunities that come with airline and hotel credit cards, but I will not be deterred! If you’re a responsible credit user (never carry a balance), then credit cards represent your best opportunity to earn lots of miles quickly.

The credit market is a competitive one, and most banks are betting that if they can get you to sign up with them, they can get you to stay with them for a long time and make money from your account. In order to entice you, they compete with each other to offer bigger and bigger frequent flyer mile bonuses.

I’ve signed up for about a dozen cards in the last 18 months—far fewer than some hardcore flyers—and they’ve accounted for the bulk of the nearly 1 million miles I’ve earned.

Lots of people worry about how this will affect their credit score. It’s hard to say for sure, but my experience and that of others who’ve done the same seem to be the opposite of conventional wisdom—they were already high and then went up further!

This is probably because more credit means that you’re using less of the credit available to you each month. That tends to raise your score. Also, some card issuers don’t do a “hard pull” on your credit if you meet some minimum requirements, which is what most people worry about when it comes to new cards and their credit score (more on this in Part II next week).

If you see a card with a great sign up bonus, and you can put the miles to use, get it!

My friend, Chris—a very well versed traveler—created a small site dedicated to credit cards for travel. You can look there every so often for the best available frequent flyer mile cards.

Beware: Some cards offer reward “points” instead of real miles. Read the fine print. If you can’t transfer points to airline miles at a 1:1 ratio or better, the points will be of very limited value for earning free flights. I tend to ignore these programs.

Signing up for airline newsletters

This is another tactic that takes about ten minutes to do, and can add up to a healthy stream of new miles over time.

Most airlines offer a small bonus—usually 500 to 3,000 miles—just for signing up to their newsletter. They offer this because it gives them an opportunity to send you marketing messages and, over time, you’re more likely to fly with them.

Most airlines are reputable, so there’s little need to worry about SPAM, and by getting their newsletter you’ll get updates about any special promotions they’re running. Most of the time you’ll want to ignore these—they aren’t very valuable—but once in a while there’ll be something worth your attention that can bring you a small windfall of new miles.

This is another one of those “slowly but surely strategies. “Get rich slowly,” you might say.

Keep in mind that airlines tend to send A LOT of email. Don’t be surprised when your inbox gets clogged with useless message from all the newsletters you’ve signed up for. There’s an easy fix for this.

What you’ll want to do is create a filter in your email program that automatically detects when a message is coming from an airline newsletter and sends it to a special folder that you only check when you want to.

I use Gmail and check my frequent flyer mile folder about once a week. If there’s something enticing, I’ll check it out. Otherwise, I just trash everything in the folder.

Here’s a quick video tutorial on how to set up a filter in Gmail for your airline newsletters:

Signing up for Airline Dining Programs

Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you have to eat airplane food every day. That would be… awful.

Most of the major airlines partner with big and small restaurants across the U.S. and even other places around the world. The result is that you can earn miles for eating at any participating restaurant.

Here’s a link to a few of the biggest ones. Pick your favorite:

The way these work is by registering your credit card with the program. Whenever you pay for your meal at a participating restaurant with that card, you’ll earn points.

All of the programs above are run through the same company—Rewards Network—and you’re limited to participating in one at a time, so sign up for the one that you’re most likely to fly with. Even better if you have that airline’s credit card as well, since you’ll earn miles that way also.

I tend to eat out a lot, so this strategy has been particularly fruitful for me.

There are a few other ways to really take advantage of this program.

  • Strategy #1: Start with many low dollar purchases. Most programs have a “VIP tier” that allows you to earn more miles per dollar spent after a number of transactions—usually 12-15. After making 12-15 low dollar purchases, you can start using the dining program for more expensive meals and earning more miles.
  • Strategy #2: Use different email addresses to create multiple accounts. One way to get around the one account restriction is to create multiple email addresses and then create multiple Rewards Network accounts that are tied to them. Then, register a different credit card for each account, and use whichever one has the best promotion going at the time or whichever airline you need to earn more miles with. If that sounds like a hassle, it is. But you can manage it relatively easily using a tool like 1password.

Shopping at your airline’s mileage mall

This is a fairly simple and straightforward strategy that works basically the same way the dining programs work—spend money at a partner store and earn miles. Most major airlines around the world partner with shopping networks that sell basically anything you could think of, and if you buy through them, you’ll earn miles for your airline of choice.

Here are some of the more popular ones for specific airlines:

Any time you need to make a major purchase—or even a minor one—check these mileage malls to see if you can earn miles.

Pay close attention to these because once in a while there will be an incredible promotion where you can earn an inordinate amount miles for buying something very cheap.

It’s not typically a good idea to buy something you don’t need, but if you can get a lot of miles for little money (I’ve seen deals as good as 200,000 miles for buying $1,000 worth of stationary), then it’s probably worth it. Of course, you’ll have to figure out something creative to do with the boxes of nice paper…

  • Bonus tip: Many mileage malls offer the same items, but not the same bonuses. Use a search tool like evreward or this WebFlyer tool to make sure you’re getting the best reward possible.

Buying miles when they’re on sale

Most travelers don’t think about it, but frequent flyer miles have a real cash value. The problem is the cash value is different for every person. If you can figure out how much a mile is worth to you, you can make smart decisions about how much to spend whenever a mile earning promotion is available.

For instance, someone who flies to remote parts of the world in first class on a regular basis might be willing to spend up to $0.04 cents a mile because she can get a lot more value from those miles than someone who just goes from North America to Europe once or twice a year. For the casual international traveler, each mile may only be worth  $0.03.

And if you only ever fly between big cities on the same continent, then you probably wouldn’t want to spend more than about $0.01 or $0.02 per mile, otherwise it may be cheaper to just buy tickets.

When you know what this number is for you, then you can actually purchase miles and get an okay deal.

All of the major airlines allow you to buy up to a amount of miles every year. And several times each year, they offer bonuses up to 100%. Wait for these bonuses to come around—you’ll always get an email about them if you’re subscribed to the newsletters—and then decide if they’re a good deal for you.

For instance, at the time of this writing, Delta is offering a 75% bonus on purchased miles. If you buy 10,000 miles, you’ll pay $350 ($0.035/mile), but you’ll also get an extra 7,500 miles. In this case, you’d only pay $0.02 per mile. A much better deal!

Of course, you have to also consider how valuable the miles are compared to other airlines. Delta usually charges many more miles for the same reward as other airlines, so that makes them less valuable (in the frequent flyer community, they’re called Sky Pesos).

Buying miles is rarely the cheapest way to acquire them, but it’s definitely the easiest and the fastest. A good time to consider buying miles is when you need to travel soon but your mileage account is just short of the amount you’d need to book the trip.

When I booked my first major award travel a few years ago, the agent quoted me 60,000 miles for the trip—less than I expected to pay—and I didn’t ask her to put it in writing or make a note in her booking system.

I put the ticket on a courtesy hold and transferred the miles into my airline account from one of my reward cards. When I called back to book the ticket, the new agent told me I’d been quoted wrong and it was actually 70,000 miles! I had no way to prove I’d been quoted 60k, and it was too late to transfer more miles, so I had to buy them.

In the end, it cost an extra $100 to buy those 10,000 missing miles, but it was well worth the cost to save an itinerary that would have been around $7,000 to purchase and wouldn’t be available again if I had to start over.

The Bottom Line: If it’s easy, do it.

The basic philosophy I keep when it comes to frequent flyer miles is:

If I’m going to spend a dollar, I might as well get a mile for doing it. And if I don’t get at least 3 miles, I’m probably not trying hard enough.

For someone like me who only spends around $1,000 per month, going for the low hanging fruit—the strategies described above—I can still add a lot of miles to my accounts without putting in much effort. About 25,000 miles per year, or enough for one free round trip anywhere within the U.S. or most other continents.

If you’re willing to put in a little effort, you can probably do better.

Have a question about frequent flyer miles? Ask it in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer every one we get.

Next week, look for an article about the more advanced strategies that bring in the more impressive bonuses. You can sign up to the newsletter if you don’t want to miss it.