Friday, May 9, 2014

The Average Person's Guide to Airline Miles

Andes Mountains
Let me start out by saying that I don't have any sort of elite status with any network of airlines. I don't have a fancy gold card that gets me into airport clubs. I don't have a company who flies me business class to rack up a ton of miles along the way. I always fly coach with strong aspirations to some day be able to fly with the big boys. I am an average person with a less than average income who just so happens to travel more than the average person.

There are tons of blogs out there that tell you the best ways to "hack" airline miles for free trips and hotel stays. But I can't help but read them and think about how most people just wouldn't take a trip with 3 layovers over a weekend just to amass miles because of an airline deal. I love to travel, but I don't think I would do it. As with anything if it takes up too much time or is too complicated, it's just not worth doing for most people.

Here's how I have managed to go on a couple of free trips and get a few nice benefits due to miles accumulation.

How do I earn miles?

I am a member of any frequent flyer program I can get my hands on. Most of them never pan out, and the miles go by the wayside. I think that's true for a lot of people. Maybe you take a flight with American one time, Delta another and you may find a deal with Jet Blue at some point. The miles or points will never add up, never. But I still keep the accounts active because sometimes the miles don't expire, and I can accrue them over time.
The way they really do add up, however, is if you get yourself a credit card that will help you accumulate miles without changing your spending habits at all.

What credit card should I get?

There are credit cards that are affiliated directly with airlines, and there are credit cards that will help you earn points or miles that can be transferred to any airline or hotel chain for travel use. There are a couple of things to consider when thinking about the credit card to choose. If you always fly United or a Star Alliance partner and very rarely take a flight on another airline, then perhaps the United Miles Plus card is for you. All of your miles earned from purchases will go directly to your United account, and you will get a miles bonus every time you book flights through United. All of the airlines have their own cards, so if you are loyal, you can get some big benefits. If you seem to fly with a different airline every time you go on a trip, then perhaps it's best to look into a card that will allow miles to transfer to any airline of your choosing. There are a lot out there so compare all of the features like annual fees, foreign transaction fees, how long it would take you to build up enough miles to travel, airline partners, bonus miles when you sign up* and if there are any black out dates. An easy way to do this all in one shot is through Credit Cards.com.

*The bonus miles feature at sign up is huge, and it can usually mean a round trip domestic flight.

Which program should I choose?

Sign up for all of them, but also look at the airlines that operate out of your nearest airport. Signing up is free, and many of the programs have a long shelf life before miles expire. This comes in handy when there are mergers. For example, US Airways and American are merging and so are the miles programs. I have accounts with both, so the accounts will combine making me one step closer to a free flight. My advice, sign up for the major U.S. airlines that represent the different global partnerships and claim the partner miles upon return from your trip. Click on the partner link to find out which airlines are in each network.

United- Star Alliance
Delta- Sky Team
American- One World

And if you fly often on airlines like JetBlue (they are partners with a lot of international airlines too) or Southwest, join them too.

How do I earn a free flight?

There are lots of ways to earn a free flight. Your regular credit card spending and flying are the most common ways. There are, however, a couple others that have helped me boost my totals. Mileage Plus Shopping is a site that you can sign up for which will give you miles for purchases. For example, if I want to send flowers to someone for a special occasion, I can go into this site and see if there are any offers. This Mother's Day, FTD was offering 30 miles per dollar spent. So spending $50 will yield 1,500 miles for something that you were going to order anyway. There are tons of vendors, and deals change all the time. It's worth looking into. There is also a new site called Rocketmiles where you can earn up to 5,000 miles per night for hotel stays all over the world.

Each airline is different when it comes to how many miles you will need to a trip. Take a look at the three major U.S. airlines to compare with the links below. Also note, the way you earn miles in each program is different, so even though American may post 12,000 for a round trip flight, it may take longer to earn those miles. Delta has recently changed their miles structure as well, so read the fine print.

United
Delta
American

What are the drawbacks?

Let's face it, miles programs are difficult to keep track of. There are passwords and pin numbers to remember and partner miles that you have to remember to claim (I have forgotten to do this many times). It can also take a really long time to build up enough miles to go where you want. On top of that, airlines may not have the flights available that you want, and miles expire sometimes without you knowing about it. There are drawbacks, but if you are willing to jump through the hoops and stick with some of the hassles, the rewards are definitely worth it. I have created a spreadsheet detailing my accounts, so with just a click I have all of my miles information at my fingertips.

What are the perks?

Travel of course! Airline miles have gotten me a round trip to Hawaii, a first class ticket to New Jersey (that's where my family lives) and a one way ticket from France to the U.S. I also have over 100,000 miles burning a hole in my United account waiting for me to book my next trip to anywhere I want to go. I have been able to earn them from using my United card for all of my day to day spending and flying with United and Star Alliance partners. Because of this card I also get two airport club passes each year, my first checked bag free and priority boarding on all United flights.


Like I said, I don't have an unlimited travel budget, and I don't travel for a living (though I would like to). I am an average person who has just learned a couple of tricks. The better I get, the greater the benefits!


If you have any other tips or lessons learned, please feel free to comment.