**January 2012 Update**
This post is from way back in 2009. Much of the info is still fairly accurate, but see other entries for updates.
I also have a new credit card offer page where you can learn about current cards that offer big mileage bonuses.
Late last fall, I was in need of a new source of Frequent Flyer Miles. I used to earn at least 200,000 miles a year from small business spending, but as I transitioned to full-time writing, the regular addition of miles fell to a couple of thousand a month.
A couple thousand miles a month adds up to a free domestic ticket every year, but most of the Awards tickets I use require redemptions of 90,000 miles or more, so that doesn’t help much.
I did what I always do in these situations – I broke down the problem into logical reasoning:
The Problem: No longer earn hundreds of thousands of free miles each year
The Stipulation: Want to avoid flying long-haul Economy class whenever possible
The Concern: Can’t pay $4,000 for Business Class tickets, unless it’s a Round-the-World flight where I’ll get excellent long-term value
The Solution: Therefore, I need to replenish my mileage account some other way
(This is how I usually process problems I run into, on the assumption that there is almost always an alternative way to accomplish something.)
That’s when I decided to conduct a personal experiment with credit cards and mileage bonuses. Over the course of a few weeks, I applied, was approved for, and received 13 new credit cards. I applied for the cards only to get the miles, but I made sure to fulfill all the requirements to ensure my eligibility.
Somewhat to my own surprise, it worked – I earned just under 300,000 Frequent Flyer Miles in a few short weeks. To be fair to all of you, I decided not to keep the news to myself. I published the full story of each credit card I applied for, how I tracked the cards through a spreadsheet, and set a goal of helping at least 100 readers earn at least 50,000 Frequent Flyer Miles of their own.
Recently, a few people have been asking… what’s happened? How many miles are we up to?
We didn’t get to 5 Million Miles in 30 days, my original goal. But that’s OK – we’re well beyond 1 million now, and new miles keep posting every couple of days.
As of last week when I took off for my trip, the current reported total was 1,670,000. This does not include my own miles (300,000), or miles from anyone who didn’t complete the form. Numerous other people have reported big mileage accruals by email or general internet chatter, but to keep the reporting to a conservative estimate, I’m only including those who have filled out the form.
(That said, if this helps you – fill out the form! You can be anonymous if you want.)
Here are a few stories from readers who have made this unconventional project work for them:
Through the frequent flyer challenge, I have already earned 70,000 miles through three different personal American Airlines cards. Last week, I booked a trip to Nairobi, Kenya using those miles in August 2009 where my girlfriend and I will attempt to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro (aka the trip of a lifetime)! We are so excited, to say the least!
I expect to receive 125,000 miles split between only two airlines (thanks to the NW-Delta merger). I am already using 30k, since I am travelling in Peru right now using the first batch that arrived. I like having them so I can take advantage of last minute opportunities. I am planning on doing some house-sitting and language immersion over the next couple years, and also taking a year to travel on my first round the world trip so the possibilities are endless.
I have received 70,000 miles already (50,000 from AA and 20,000 from NWA). I expect to churn more AA credit cards this year for at least another 100,000 miles. I am doing this for my husband as well.
We will use them to go to Costa Rica this summer. We are also saving for First/Business Class to Kenya.
My husband and I are going to take a CareerBreak / Gap Year and travel the world! We already purchased our first flights – using miles earned from the credit cards, plus miles we already had. Our gap year will start this summer, ~July 2009. Our first stop (which we bought flights for) is to Europe from August to November. After that it’s unknown, but on our list is Australia/NewZealand, South America, and possibly Asia and possibly Africa. Also we will probably spend a decent amount of time in the US visiting family and also exploring.
Anyway, back to the miles – I’m sure that we will continue to use the credit card method to fund other parts of this adventure. I’m so glad I stumbled upon AONC… I found it through the article “Why you should quit your job and travel around the world” last November when my husband and I made the decision to do this. The ideas on non-conformity have really struck a cord with me and helped to inspire us to take this trip.
-Anonymous (by request)
Update on Available Cards
When I began my own process of credit card applications last fall, the credit market had already tightened. I worried it would continue to tighten even further, negating the value of some of the information. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case. Some cards have now closed – the Northwest Visa from U.S. Bank, for example, is no longer available – but most of the others are still plugging away and giving out the miles.
A couple of people were worried that my publicizing this story would also cause the card issuers to close down the deal. I wasn’t really worried, but whatever concern I had was vanquished when one of the card companies contacted me about advertising on the site! (The site is ad-free, so naturally I turned them down – but I enjoyed the irony.)
Interestingly, instead of cutting back, my favorite cards (the American Airlines cards issued by Citibank) have actually seen a mileage bonus increase from 25,000 to 30,000. How about that? If you apply for two at a time, like I do, that’s 60,000 miles, and the cards have no annual fee for the first year. (Hat tip to One Mile at a Time for first breaking the news on this.)
How to Redeem Frequent Flyer Miles
Of course, miles are only good when they can actually be redeemed. Here are a few tips to help towards that.
1) If you can book online, do so. You’ll probably save a phone booking fee, and the airlines are getting better at providing detailed info on awards availability online.
2) Much of the time, however, you’ll need to book by phone whether you want to or not. When this happens, be prepared that it’s probably not a quick call. Use Skype if you’re paying for the call, because it could take an hour or more for complicated itineraries.
3) If you don’t get the answer you want, try calling back, because some agents are more knowledgeable (or just generally helpful) than others. You can usually tell right away if someone knows what they are doing or not. No offense to India, but I usually prefer to deal with U.S. call centers.
4) Be prepared when you call in. This means: get flight numbers and times for the specific flights you want. Have a backup. When the agent says, “I don’t see availability,” ask him or her, “How does LH flight 640 look? I’d like to connect to LX 1100 three hours later,” or whatever your situation is.
5) Ask the agent to check partner airlines – all of them. Again, be specific – let the agent know that you’ve done your research.
6) Don’t give up right away – I’ve been able to book more than 75% of the trips I wanted without too much difficulty. (I’m not sure how many awards trips I’ve taken, but it’s in the dozens by now.) Keep checking back, and many times the date and flights you want will open up.
The Frequent Flyer Challenge isn’t for everyone. It’s possible in Canada and overseas on a limited basis, but most credit cards with mileage bonuses (especially no-fee cards) are for U.S. residents only.
Also, if you missed this before, please note the careful disclaimer I made when I first introduced the challenge: if you have a problem with debt or just don’t like credit cards, this isn’t for you. I pay my balance every month and have never defaulted, so it’s not a problem for me.
For me, the best news is the fact that so many people will be able to travel for free through the knowledge gained in the experiment. As I said then, you don’t have to apply for 13 credit cards – if you just apply for one or two, you’ll be well on the way to some serious miles in the bank.
The current AONC total of 1,670,000 miles represents the equivalent of 67 round-trip domestic tickets. Of course, some readers are using their miles for higher-priced awards, which is exactly what I do.
Using a conservative monetary valuation of the conservative total of reported miles earned, these awards represent at least $33,400 in free travel obtained by readers. I’ll keep the total updated throughout the year as more people post about the miles they’ve earned.
Previous Frequent Flyer Challenge Updates
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