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There was once a time when the best way to earn airline miles was to fly as much as possible, as far as possible and in business or first class if you could afford it. That time is no more.
In today’s loyalty-program landscape, there are far better ways to earn lots of airline miles than actually flying with the airlines. It has become significantly more profitable for airlines to partner with banks, businesses and other travel providers by selling them miles. In turn, it is now easier for consumers to earn miles through those partnerships.
In fact, we’ve reached a point where the airlines aren’t even pretending that their loyalty programs are all about flying. As an example, it is now possible to earn not only miles, but also elite status with a program like the new Loyalty Points from American Airlines, without ever stepping foot on an AA operated airplane.
If you want to earn the most airline miles possible, as quickly as you can, these are currently the best ways to do it.
If you want to earn a large amount of airline miles all at once, the easiest way to do that is with credit card welcome offers. In fact, the opportunity to earn huge welcome bonuses by signing up for credit cards is an important part of any miles and points strategy.
Welcome offers usually require a certain amount of spending on a new card within a set timeframe. Once you meet that spending goal, you are rewarded with a large bonus of miles. The spending required to meet a welcome offer can range from as little as a single purchase up to $10,000 or higher for some business cards.
A new cardholder usually has between three and six months to complete the spending requirement, although other time frames are also possible. Before applying for a new credit card, you should have a plan for the required spending and be confident that you will be able to complete it within the time frame.
It seems that every year welcome bonuses for new credit cards increase. If you go back five or ten years, it was exciting to find an offer to earn 30,000 or 40,000 miles when you applied for a new credit card. Today, welcome offers of 100,000 miles or more for a single card are regularly seen.
Miles vs. Points
Of course, if you want to earn airline miles with credit cards, the first thing that comes to mind is getting a co-branded credit card specific to the airline you want to earn miles with. All of the major U.S.-based airlines have co-branded credit cards available, with some even having multiple card choices, including both personal and business card options. Many foreign carriers that serve the U.S. market have credit cards available as well, so you are not even limited to earning miles with U.S.-based airlines.
There are a wide range of welcome offers available and they are regularly changing based on the marketing decisions of both the airline and the bank for any specific card. If you want to earn airline miles in big batches, the co-branded cards are a great place to start.
Another option for earning miles for many airlines is to get the welcome bonus on credit cards that offer transferable currencies. Welcome bonuses can be as high, or in some cases, even higher than those for the co-branded airline credit cards. Earning transferable points can be a useful complement to earning miles directly with the airlines.
Major transferable currencies include American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Points, Capital One Rewards, Brex, Marriott Bonvoy and Bilt Rewards. With each of these programs, the points that you earn can be transferred directly to airline programs.
Transfer partners are different for each of the above points programs, so before you start signing up for cards and earning with a particular transferable currency, be sure that it partners with your desired airlines.
Credit Card Spend
While welcome offers are the best way to earn airline miles in bulk, credit card category multipliers can help you to keep earning miles at a faster rate on all of your daily spending.
Many credit cards offer bonus category multipliers. Some of the most commonly bonused spending categories are travel, dining, grocery, gas and office supplies. Depending on the card you have, you can earn 3, 4 or even 5 miles or points per dollar for every eligible charge in a bonus category.
By diversifying your credit card portfolio with cards that have spending multipliers on your most commonly used categories, you will position yourself to earn as many miles and points as possible as you go about your normal daily life.
Things to Know
Before dipping your toe into earning airline miles through credit cards, there are a couple of things you need to know. First and foremost, you need to pay off your credit card bills in full every month. If you don’t, any interest charges you pay will offset the value of the miles you are earning. In almost every case, you will end up paying more than the miles are worth and as a result, it will actually cost you more to travel.
Second, your personal credit is one of your most important assets. In addition to getting approved for credit cards, your credit score will be a major factor in determining if you will be able to get a lease, a mortgage or any type of loan. The rate you get for your mortgage or loan will also be dependent on your credit score.
It is important that you make sure you understand how opening and closing credit cards will affect your personal credit score and keep that in mind every time you decide to go for a new welcome offer. You don’t want to put your eligibility at getting a house or a new car at risk because you earned a few too many credit card bonuses.
Most major airlines have shopping portals and if you are serious about earning miles, you shouldn’t be making any online purchases without checking to see if you can earn some extra miles with the program of your choice.
Shopping portals all work in pretty much the same way and can be accessed through the earning miles section of your airline’s frequent flyer site. Once you are logged in, you will click the link to the store you want to shop at—your purchase will then be tracked and eventually, your miles awarded. If you are earning miles regularly with one airline, you can bookmark the shopping portal page to make it easier to find each time.
If you know you want to earn miles for each of your online purchases, but you are more concerned with earning the most miles possible rather than sticking to just one airline program, first check a site like Cashback Monitor. It will comparet the earning rates for all the various airline miles, points and cash-back shopping portals.
In addition to the main shopping portals, some airlines have select companies that they partner with to earn miles by linking directly. American Airlines, for example, uses the Simply Miles program, which allows members with a Mastercard to link offers and then earn miles both online and in store for eligible purchases.
As it always has been, actually flying with an airline is one way to earn miles. But not only can you earn miles in an airline’s frequent-flyer program when flying with that airline, you can also earn miles when taking a flight with any of that airline’s partners.
Unfortunately, many U.S. carriers and others around the world have drastically changed how many miles you will earn. Instead of earning 1 mile for each mile that you fly, many programs are now basing your earnings on how much you spend on the ticket. Even when flying with partners, you may earn fewer miles if you booked a cheaper ticket in a lower fare class.
As a result, unless you are spending a lot of money on your tickets, flying isn’t as good of a way to earn miles as it used to be. It is included here as more of a reminder that if at all possible, you should be earning some type of miles for every flight you take. You may not earn tons of miles like you can with credit cards or online portals, but if you fly enough, the miles you earn can eventually add up to a valued redemption.
In addition to their credit card, shopping and airline partners, many frequent-flyer programs also partner with other travel and lifestyle brands so that you have even more ways to earn miles. Partnerships can come in many forms and can include everything from hotels and car rentals to mortgages and business loans.
Although it is possible to earn miles through these types of partnerships, always make sure that you are getting the best deal on whatever you are buying or signing up for. For example, sometimes you will not receive the best pricing when using a partner offer. Additionally, you don’t want to pay extra for your rental car or end up losing hundreds or even thousands of dollars over the course of your mortgage loan by agreeing to a higher rate than you could have found elsewhere.
You can find all of the partners for each airline’s frequent-flyer program on its website. There is normally a page that will include the wording, “Earn Miles” or “Our Partners” and proceeds to list the different ways that you can earn miles.
Earn More by Stacking
Everything we’ve discussed above will help you to build up your mileage balances as you spend and travel. But we can still take this a step further and increase your mileage earnings by implementing something known as “stacking.” Stacking happens whenever you can take advantage of more than one way of earning miles or points at a time.
One example of stacking is to use your rewards-earning credit card through an online shopping portal to make a purchase at a store that is in one of that card’s bonus categories, while working on a welcome bonus.
Here’s a real example of this stack could look:
First, grab your brand new Ink Business Cash® Credit Card to help knock out the spending requirement and receive the welcome offer. You’ll earn $750 bonus cash back after spending $7,500 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. Use your card to make a purchase at Office Depot via MileagePlus Shopping. The Ink Business Cash® Credit Card earns 5% cash back on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at office supply stores and on internet, cable and phone services each account anniversary year and 2% cash back on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at gas stations and restaurants each account anniversary year. Earn 1% cash back on all other purchases so you’ll get 5% back when shopping online at Office Depot.
There are several other ways to stack using combinations of shopping portals, partner companies, credit cards and more. This is just one example. Use your creativity to come up with your own stacks to grow your mileage balances.
Dining Rewards Programs
Several of the U.S.-based airlines have associated dining rewards programs. By connecting your credit card to an airline’s dining rewards program, you will automatically earn miles every time you use your linked card to pay at a participating restaurant. This is automatically a double stack because you will be earning rewards on your credit card. Make sure to link a credit card that offers 3 to 5 points per dollar on dining to make it even easier to quickly rack up your stash of miles and points.
One last example of a different type of stacking would be pairing together your airline miles and your transferable currencies when it comes time to book. Although, for the most part you can’t transfer miles directly from one airline program to another without paying unreasonable fees, you can stack your balances from multiple transferable currencies as long as they all partner with the same airline program.
If you want to earn miles with Flying Blue, the program for Air France / KLM, for example, you have lots of options. Along with being able to earn miles with their co-branded credit card, you can also transfer in miles from all of the major transferable-currency programs that we discussed above. So even if you have a smaller balance in each account that wouldn’t be enough on its own, you may be able to put them all together and book that flight that you want.
The days of only being able to earn airline miles by flying on planes are long gone. Today, frequent-flyer programs are big businesses that want you to think about them in everything that you do. From dining to shopping to everyday spending on your credit cards, they want you choosing to earn their miles every step of the way.
As a result, airlines are giving you more ways than ever to earn their miles and it’s up to you to take advantage of what they’re offering. Stack as many offers as possible whenever you can. Earn a few welcome bonuses. Do your online shopping through portals that will multiply your earnings.
Be intentional about your spending with a goal of earning more miles, and before you know it, you’ll be booking the flights for your next vacation with miles instead of your hard-earned cash.