April 30, 2009

1,670,000 Frequent Flyer Miles

maple-leaf-lounge

**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.

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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.)

Reader Feedback

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!

-John

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.

-Coco

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.

-Amy

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 airlinesall 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.

Wrap-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

The 5 Million Frequent Flyer Mile Challenge (Original Post)
Update #1 (Live from Hong Kong)
Update #2 (Live from Bangkok)
Update #3 (Live from Namibia)

Related Articles

Travel Hacking
Developing Your Own Philosophy of Travel
Travel FAQ

Travel Products

Discount Airfare Guide (Basic-to-Intermediate)
Travel Ninja (Intermediate-to-Advanced)

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Maple Leaf Lounge Image by Golden Toque

Comment on this article

11 Responses to “1,670,000 Frequent Flyer Miles”

  1. What a great break down! You figured out how to massage the system. I would love to travel more, but I’m a little afraid of opening that many credit cards.

    Maybe I’ll start small and open 1 at a time over a long period and see how they accumulate.

  2. It should be possible in Canada. There are several credit cards with Aeroplan miles (AirCanada’s plan; Air Canada is a member of Star Alliance) including CIBC and American Express. And then others that have their own plans that can be redeemed for flights.

    I have one of the latter and the issue people should be aware of is that you can only use the points for the cost of the flight and have to pay taxes and other surcharges yourself. That sometimes affects your choice of airline as it did for me last year when Air Canada added fuel and baggage surcharges instead of just raising the price of their flights. I just chose a different airline. I also have to book by telephone for those. BUT they would also allow me to pay for a flight partly in points and partly in cash. Sometimes that is helpful, too.

  3. It’s important for people to realize before doing this that all the new lines of credit will hurt your credit score, as well. Of course, it still may be worth it to you, however it’s essential to have all the drawbacks up front before going for it.

    In addition, 13 more open credit cards will certainly increase your risk of identity theft and also make it more complicated to check your credit report for errors.

    A lower credit score can obviously end up costing you way more than the price of a ticket in the long run on a mortgage. If your ultimate goal is a location independent lifestyle (like myself) this is much less of a drawback. I, however, am one of those people Chris mentioned that “do not like credit cards.” Frankly, I’m disgusted by the industry and want nothing to do with them.

    Keep up the great work, Chris! Your journey is inspiring to those of us that are trying to follow in your footsteps!

  4. @Baker,

    Good points, thank you. In the original article I explained how I closely monitored my credit and was surprised at how little it was affected over time with the new accounts.

    Also, I don’t expect that most people will want to open 13 accounts like I did. My point is that even a couple of accounts will boost your available travel options by quite a bit.

    But yes, if you (or anyone) doesn’t like to use credit cards, you’re right – this is not a good strategy in that case.

  5. I just got credited 25,000 bonus miles from AA Advantage thanks to this. I started out with just the one card. I charged my groceries to it for a couple months, which I normally just pay cash for anyway. Then I paid off the card as soon as the bill came. Now, I have enough miles for 1 domestic AA reward ticket, plus an extra 1000 or so miles, without any extra money coming out of my pocket. Thinking about cancelling that card and rolling another. Thanks Chris for the motivation!

  6. Chris-
    This is a great idea and I applaud your success. One thing to be aware of is that every time you apply for a credit card or credit of any kind, it obviously registers against your history which in Canada, isn’t looked too kindly by the banks. The more cards you have, the greater exposure you have and the less banks can be interested in giving you credit when you need a mortgage or LOC. Food for thought-

  7. I am Canadian and that many credit cards are not for me but the way you suggest talking to the agents at whatever call center you land is a great tip. As someone who’s worked at more than my fair share of call centers, if I got someone who knew exactly what they needed and how to help me help then, it’s a total win-win. If I have to figure out stuff for you, and do the legwork, and I don’t even know what you’re trying to accomplish (face it, this is non-conformity) than it’s definitely helpful when you know what you’re doing and how to do it. Yay!

  8. Chris,

    I wonder whether one can combine miles from 2 carriers in one alliance? For example, if you have 25K miles from the US Airways credit card, can you transfer those miles to your United FF account? If one flies US Airways, it can elect to get United miles, so I think there may be a slight chance that is possible.

    I never thought about getting multiple cards from the same carrier and mostly that’s why I stayed away from getting these airmiles cards …. because a free domestic ticket was not worth it to me. But if they have more than one card, and I can get 50K miles or more from them, that changes everything.

    One thing that I don’t think you mentioned is that if you have a credit card with United for example, then if and when you book a ticket with United, a paid ticket, DO make sure you book it with the United Visa card. This way you will get triple miles bonus. I don’t know if it works for all credit cards, but for Chase United Visa, it does. I was an IDIOT for a long time and did not do that … when I flew business class full price for work, I should have paid with my own credit card instead of booking with our travel agent. I would have had at least one around the world ticket by now. Now, those good days are gone … oh well, live and learn!

    And by the way, welcome home!

  9. Just wanted to stop by and say congrats to you and @Reese for having your design featured in Smashing Mag!

  10. Signed up for the starwood amex card. 10K sign up bonus and 15K bonus once i reach 15K spending within the first 6 months. I’m pretty much getting all the 15K spending done through the US Mint deal $1 coins for face value + free shipping. deposit them back into my bank account and pay off the bill..it’s working out so far. ( i found out about that from you chris!) So in essence 40K miles for free. saving up for a trip to Europe, Middle East, and India using a Asia MIles/oneworld award. Nearly there. 40K from *wood account + 10K transfer bonus to Asia Miles, 30K already in my account. grand total nearly 80K. So need an extra 10K which is easy to get

    Thanks Chris!

  11. First time I post a comment on the web, but I felt compelled after reading this.

    I, too, have been actively collecting frequent flyer miles for the last 6 years, basically using the same method. I have always like to travel in my BC (before children) years. Thought I would not be able to do any more until I retired. It gets expensive for a family. Maybe do 1 faraway trip every 3 or 4 years. That was before I discovered these amazing miles. So far, I have taken the family to these amazing places, balancing the mix of culture and nature, and our diverse interest:

    Yellowstone National Park
    Williamsburg/Washington DC/Philadelphia
    Hong Kong/Beijing/Xian
    Alaska – sent husband fishing there 2 years ago
    Yucatan – saw the beautiful mayan ruins and stayed in a hacienda!!
    Kyoto, Japan – 2 months ago during cherry blossom week!
    Going to Seward, Alaska next week to see glacier
    Next year I plan on taking the kids to hike the Black Forest in Germany and the Alps in Switzerland, and spend a week in Paris just wandering around.
    In the plans are also trips to see for Manchu Picchu in Peru, Iguzu Falls in Argentina,
    rain forests in Costa Rica……..believe me, I have a long list of places I want to experience.

    With the miles, it really cut down the cost of traveling for the whole family. We use hotel points too sometimes, but usually in urban setting. Elsewhere we like to stay in accommodations that reflect the history or culture of the place, which incidentally is always cheaper than a big-box hotel room, and add to the travel experience. My colleagues think I am indepently wealthy to be able to travel so much with the kids. Those who know my hobby of collecting miles are amazed how little we spend for these travels.

    I don’t worry about FICO score as we have our house paid off and we have no debts. Besides, it really does not affect the score that much.

    Well, to sum it up – I am GRATEFUL for the miles that allows my family to continue to explore this amazing world, for all its diversity!!

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