Unlike most Platinum Club members, I gained my miles and status from the ground. For example, several years ago, I took my wife on a once in a lifetime trip to New Zealand and Australia. We flew first class to Australia, stayed in an upgraded luxury hotel suite overlooking the Sydney Opera House. We used points and miles collected on the ground to pay for the whole thing. Out of pocket, that trip would have cost us about $40,000, but thanks to a Hyatt loyalty program we were able to collect all of the points and miles we needed for roughly $2,000.
Everyone wants to know how I did it, and I talk about it at length in Do More, Spend Less, but the deal that enabled that trip is long gone.
On the other hand, loyalty programs and reward bonuses are still alive and well if you know where to look for them, and there are still plenty of ways to earn miles while going about your daily life on the ground. Here are a few tips on how the pro travel hackers and I collect air miles quickly and painlessly with the same money we would be spending anyway.
One of the worst mistakes you can make is to sign up for a bunch of different air miles programs and try to earn miles on all of them at once. It will take forever to accumulate anything that you can actually use. Instead, focus on a single program. If Southwest has a route that you fly constantly, enroll in the Southwest Rapid Rewards program. If you’re looking for access to a large international network, consider American’s AAdvantage or British Airways Executive Club.
AAdvantage credit cards generally pay out rewards at 1 miles per dollar spent (I’ll reference this rate throughout this article). That means that a daily $6 Starbucks habit is worth 6 miles per day, or more than 1,500 miles over the course of a year. You can also put common household expenses on credit cards. Here are a few examples of what you might be able to collect in a year:
That’s 15,116 air miles earned on the ground over the course of a year doing nothing but paying a few ordinary bills while enjoying an iced latte. That doesn’t include other purchases, and I’m sure there are plenty more common household bills that I’m not even thinking of. If you’re renting your home, you may even be able to pay your landlord with a credit card. Consider, too, that I’m using some very conservative numbers for these examples. Many families have multiple phones on their plans, higher electric bills, long gas-guzzling commutes or high grocery budgets. Your mileage will vary (literally!) but the point is that those miles can add up to quite a lot.
Also, did you know you can pay your income taxes with a credit card? There are processing fees attached to doing so, but even TurboTax suggests putting your tax bill on a rewards card. A $1,000 tax bill at the 1 for $1 rate will net a quick 1,000 miles, just for paying a bill you have to pay anyway.
It’s important to note here that this only works if you are very disciplined about your rewards-bearing credit cards. Never use this card for anything that you wouldn’t pay cash for, and always pay off the entire balance.
Thinking of buying a new 56” Smart TV? You’ll want to put it on a credit card for the automatic insurance that some cards offer, so why not get the air miles for it, too? I’ve even seen a rumor about someone who bought a $2 million dollar painting at an art auction, put it on a rewards card, and got 5 million miles for it. While a $2 million dollar credit limit obviously is not available to the vast majority of us, and the story might not even be true, I like it as an extreme example of how a big ticket item can help you rack up miles very quickly.
Credit card companies often will offer miles as an incentive to sign up. British Airways does a promotion every so often that gives new members 50,000 Avios. Sometimes the rewards are triggered by a single qualifying purchase, sometimes there’s a minimum spend condition to fill. Minimum spends are usually easy enough to hit when you’re using the card for your daily expenses as discussed above.
One of the best offers out there right now is the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express. Once you have the card, go buy yourself some lunch - a single purchase unlocks a reward of 20,000 Starpoints. Although Starwood is technically a hotel rewards program, you can easily transfer these points to most major airlines at a 1.25:1 ratio, which translates to 25,000 air miles.
First, I’ll add a caveat that this is really just a variation on using a card for your daily expenses. What you’re really doing is prepaying for things you already know you’ll need. There are two main advantages to this tactic. First, you can get the miles very quickly instead of letting them trickle in slowly over time, handy for planning trips you’re taking sooner rather than later. Second, discounted gift cards are available that offer additional savings. For example, a $100 Home Depot gift card goes for $93 right now at Raise.com. Toss in our coupon code BRADS75 to take an additional $5 off and your out-of-pocket cost drops to $88. You don’t need to use the gift cards right away, but you’ll get those 88 air miles immediately.
You can also just load up a bunch of gas or grocery gift cards. You know you’ll use them, so spending the money ahead of time just gets you to the miles that much faster. This is also a handy trick if there's a limited-time incentive promotion that you want to take advantage of.
Some survey websites will give survey participants air miles as a thank you. OpinionPlace.com offers AAdvantage miles as a compensation option, and participants can get anywhere from 100-300 miles for their time. You can also earn 250 AAdvantage miles for enrolling with opinion site E-Rewards.com.
A lot of public radio and TV stations rely on donations from viewers and listeners, and offer donor incentives during fundraising drives to help sweeten the deal. I’ve seen at least one radio station offering miles as part of a premium donor package, so this may be a good place to look. Get even more miles by putting the donation on your rewards card. The best part is that the donation is a tax write off.
You can earn bonus miles for dining and shopping at select locations when you register your credit cards at RewardsNetwork.com. This website is partnered with a whole slew of rewards programs, including Alaska Airlines, American, Southwest, United and US Airways. (They also have non-airline programs for Best Buy, Hilton and several others.) The cards themselves don’t need to belong to a program, so register all of yours with your program of choice. My favorite is the AAdvantage Dining program, which offers bonus miles for eating at select restaurants, including some delivery and takeout.
Through August 1, American is offering free AA Miles when you buy a minimum number of miles. The biggest bonus available is an extra 15,000 when you buy 50,000 or more. At the low end, you can spend $412.50 on 15,000 miles to get an extra 2,000, which works out to around 41 miles per $1. These kinds of incentives are common and can be handy if you’re just that close to a reward ticket that you want to book sooner rather than later. The processing fee on mileage purchases can be steep, so be sure to read the fine print.
Although this article is mostly about how to earn miles on the ground, I’d be remiss not to mention flying as one of the best ways to earn miles cheaply and quickly. Hardcore travel hackers call these “mileage runs” and they’ll often skip the sights, turning right around to board a flight home, just to get the miles. You may be collecting miles for a trip to Paris, but if you spot an ultra low fare to Vegas on your preferred airline, why not take a long weekend? Find the cheapest ticket to anywhere and go. You can apply the miles you earn from your Vegas weekend to your Paris vacation.
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