“Travel for free!” scream the airlines and the Web sites and the credit card ads. They don’t really say very much about the annual fees and the difficulty of actually using the miles and points they’re urging you to buy (usually by signing up for a credit card through a commission-paying affiliate link).
There is no such thing as free. The good news is that you can earn miles and points for very little cost, and it really is possible to use them to travel without paying very much. You’ll always pay at least taxes when you use miles (although there is one exception: when using hotel points outside of the US, your room is sometimes completely free). Depending on the program you are using, the airline you are flying and where you are originating, you may also have to pay surcharges. These can be very expensive; with British Airways, for example, “fuel surcharges” on award tickets can be more than the cost of a paid ticket! You also need to be flexible. Ignore the blogs about flying on premium airlines like Lufthansa and Singapore in first class. Premium seats always seem to be mysteriously available for widely read travel bloggers, and mysteriously unavailable for the rest of us. If you actually want to go somewhere, it’s probably going to be in economy class and you’re probably going to be flying non-premium carriers like Air China. Flying through China? You might need a visa, and don’t forget to factor this cost (the seat is probably available because other people don’t want the hassle). Still, if you have creativity, flexibility, and are willing to push your boundaries a bit, you can go! I have used miles and points to travel to six continents. I had to take a boat to Antarctica, but my flight to catch the boat was paid for with miles.
I personally earn miles and points when I can do so for free, or for a very minimal investment. For example, between January and March of 2014, I earned the following miles and points:
- 50,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan points, total cost $75.
- 60,000 US Airways points, total cost $30.
- 100,000 Delta SkyMiles points, total cost $0.
- 40,000 Avianca LifeMiles points, total cost $0.
- 50,000 American Airlines Aadvantage miles, total cost $0.
- 70,000 Marriott points plus a 1 night stay certificate, total cost $0.
I did all of this in the space of 3 months. How? I used my good credit and took advantage of credit card promotions offered by numerous banks to get a very substantial benefit from spending I would have done anyway. I just had to switch credit cards a few times in order to earn these bonuses. In all but one case (Alaska Airlines), the annual fees were waived for the first year. When the annual fees are due next year, I’ll cancel all these cards and start again.
If your credit isn’t perfect, you can still earn miles and points, just not quite as many. If you’re not willing to sign up for credit cards but you have money to save or invest, you can earn thousands of miles and points by changing your bank and brokerage while incurring no extra fees. For whatever reason, the financial industry is exceptionally generous when it comes to giving away miles and points and provides you with a lot of options. Most opportunities to earn miles and points are connected to terrible financial products, but this is not universally true; there are some genuinely good values as well.
Having large points balances is nothing to brag about, though. It’s best to think of miles and points as a rapidly depreciating rebate currency. Miles can and do lose value, and they do so rapidly. As with rebates, it’s usually best to claim them on things that you would buy anyway where the points are a bonus, rather than going out of your way to earn them. Some travel bloggers brag about having millions of miles and points. This is like bragging about having millions of Zimbabwe dollars. Following my recommended strategy, you won’t build the enormous balances touted by many travel bloggers, but you won’t spend real money to earn hard-to-use points either. As with rebates, try to cash the check right away!
If you’d like an overview of the different kinds of miles and points, see my Credit Cards page where I have a pretty good description of the different kinds of points you can earn. Points in bank-administered travel programs can generally be earned only through using a particular credit card, but you can earn miles and points in airline and hotel programs through a variety of activity. Are you earning extra miles and points for the following activities?
- Shopping at a grocery store
- Buying gas
- Using your mobile phone provider
- Paying your bills online
- Staying in a hotel
- Taking a flight
- Renting a car
- Paying for a prescription
- Shopping online
- Paying your taxes
- Saving money in a retirement account
- Switching your checking account
- Refinancing your mortgage
- Buying a house
Believe it or not, you can earn miles for all of the above. You may need to change your bank, renew your contract with a different cellular provider, or use a particular credit card for certain types of spending activities, but you can earn miles for all of the above and more. You won’t pay any more for the service you’re receiving; the miles are simply a rebate. You just have to ask for it.
Points aren’t valuable sitting in the account of a marginally solvent airline depreciating at a rate of 20% per year. They are only valuable if you can actually use them to go somewhere. Don’t believe for a minute that this is easy. Possible, yes; easy, no. On this and other sites, you can find articles on how to earn miles and points for things you’re probably already doing, and if you read a lot and experiment over a period of years, you can learn all of this stuff on your own. Or, if you’d rather save time and get personal help from an expert, contact me to arrange a gold certified MileageAdvisor™ consultation. If you’re flexible and willing to try doing a few things differently, the world is waiting for you!