By Brian Kelly
It used to be that the best way to earn frequent flyer miles was to pick an airline and fly it everywhere. But these days, savvy travelers know how to diversify their sources for miles, ensuring points are earned in-flight and beyond. Hoping to be on a plane to Tahiti before the year is out? We’ve got a plan to put you on the fast track to getting that ticket.
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By all means, board as many planes as you can to rack up miles. But it’s essential to devise a strategy based on your needs and goals. The first step is to consider the airlines that service your home airport, where you travel to most, and which destinations are in the cards for upcoming vacations.
Choose Your Alliance
There are three major airline alliances—Oneworld, Star Alliance, and SkyTeam—and the trick is to find the one your carrier and its partners belong to. For instance, if you fly Air France, those miles can go into your Delta SkyMiles account, since both airlines are members of the SkyTeam alliance. Or, if you take a trip on Cathay Pacific or Qantas, you can accrue American AAdvantage miles, as they’re all part of Oneworld.
Some airlines aren’t members of an alliance, but still have relationships with individual carriers—which means you’re entitled to points for flying with them, as long as you do some extra legwork. Virgin Australia is partners with Delta, for example, but not part of SkyTeam. So, if you booked a ticket online with Virgin, you’d need to enter your Delta frequent flyer number to have the miles land in your account.
Get Elite Status
Travel enough to earn elite status on your airline of choice? If the answer is yes, mileage bonuses of up to 50% on purchased fares—in addition to other perks, like free checked bags and club lounge access—are yours for the taking. The one downside is that these bonus miles don’t count toward re-qualifying for elite status. For more on how to maximize elite status, and the various perks of low-, mid-, and high-tier status on the major U.S. airlines, check out this comparison.
Rack Up Credit Card Bonuses
Credit card companies are offering lucrative sign-up bonuses at an unprecedented rate—so you can earn several hundred thousand miles per year by applying strategically for specific cards. We’ve seen Chase Sapphire Preferred and Continental MasterCard offer 50,000 points; American Express Premier Rewards Gold and Citi AAdvantage Visa give away 75,000 points; and British Airways Visa award 100,000 points just for being approved for a new credit card.
There are also different kinds of credit card points out there. Transferrable points—like American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards—can be used for airline and hotel partners.There are fixed-rate points, such as Capital One Venture, that translate to a certain value (usually 1 to 1.25 cents), and can be used for purchasing regular airfare (and therefore count toward earning elite status). These work well for those who fly coach and don’t want to deal with blackout dates. Finally, there are co-branded credit cards, linked to a single airline or hotel chain, such as the Delta SkyMiles American Express. If you’re loyal to one airline and are looking for perks like free checked bags, lounge access, and priority boarding, this kind of card is your best bet.
Keep Tabs on Everyday Spending
If it’s miles you’re after, paying for things in cash is like throwing away points. If your credit is good, charge everyday expenses, such as phone and utility bills, gas, groceries, and dining out, on a points-earning credit card.
In addition, airlines have online shopping portals that link to hundreds of retailers, like Target, Bloomingdale’s, BestBuy, Staples, J.Crew, and others. Make purchases through these portals, and get huge bonuses of up to five points per dollar (and sometimes even 10!). Plus, pay attention to emails from your airline’s frequent flyer program. They’re often time-sensitive promotions for online shopping portal merchants, and can get you free miles just for signing up for travel or trip news. Several airlines also have dining rewards networks that earn you two or three points per dollar when used at a participating restaurants.
The verdict? There are more ways than ever to earn frequent flyer miles, whether you’re flying, shopping, or simply reading your email.
Fodors.com contributor Brian Kelly is The Points Guy. A former road warrior, he spent years working in recruitment for a major investment bank, traveling over 125,000 miles annually, and spending well over fifty nights a year in hotels. For Brian, getting there is often more than half the fun. His passion for travel and knowledge of the frequent flyer miles and points system has allowed him to fund a luxury travel lifestyle while spending less cash than he would to fly coach and stay in hostels.
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