Beginner’s Guide and FAQ

What is this blog about and what can I learn here?

I have always been good at finding good travel deals, but in the past few years I’ve become the frequent flyer miles expert. I want to share my knowledge with family, friends and their friends and their friends so that everyone can do what I do.

I am going to discuss methods for traveling for free or very very cheaply by efficiently earning miles in frequent flyer programs and then redeeming them for trips around the world. I am going to share my stories and super optimal ways to redeem miles.

I like keeping up with news of offers and deals around the frequent flyer community and will be sharing the best bonuses and best uses of your miles to make sure no one leaves any miles on the table!

What kind of trips have you taken by strategizing well?

First Class on Qatar Airways

First Class on Qatar Airways to Kenya

In the last year, I’ve redeemed miles for a Business class trip to Denmark and Kenya for 120k United Airlines miles, trips to the Cayman Islands and Rio de Janeiro and just booked a trip to Singapore, Phuket and Tokyo for December. I’ll be spending New Year’s 2014 in Tokyo and then taking a direct flight to New York back in Business class! And I did all this without paying for any tickets.

Svetlana, a complete miles beginner as of a year ago and just redeemed miles for three seprate trips to Grand Cayman, Rio de Janeiro and Cancun. She is going with me to Asia in December too. You can read about her awesome journey to free travel.

My parents are also taking an $8000+ vacation to London and the French Riviera that is only costing them $862!

How much time and effort do I need to invest to earn all these frequent flyer miles?

I like to keep my strategies as simple as possible. I only focus on a few mileage programs and a few hotel programs and come up with long term strategies.

I don’t get distracted by small rewards. I don’t check different shopping portals for every bonus before buying something online. I just go to the Ultimate Rewards Mall. Sure, I may miss out on the occasional 1,000 point opportunity, but I don’t consider something worth my time unless it will get me at least 5,000 points with little to no effort. I want strategies that I can integrate into my lifestyle easily with big return.

I am willing to sign up for a few cards, take a few trips to CVS to buy Bluebird gift cards and go through the Ultimate Rewards Mall when I shop online. But that’s it. No trip is worth more than two credit card signups per person.

How would one get started?

For any trip, you need frequent flyer miles to get a flight and then hotel points for the hotel.

For miles, the easiest programs for miles collecting and redeeming are: United Airlines Mileage Plus (my personal favorite program), American Airlines AAdvantage, British Airways Avios and US Airways Dividend Miles.

For hotels, the best programs to collect points are: Hilton HHonors, Starwood Preferred Guest, Club Carlson, Hyatt Gold Passport.

There are four ways to earn miles and points:

1. Flying and hotel stays:

This strategy is best to use if you travel for work. If you are traveling for work, you want to choose the right airline and hotel program to maximize rewards. If you concentrate on a single airline or hotel, you will become a VIP or elite member, leading to better miles/points earning rates, upgrades and elite perks.

I am 1k on United Mileage Plus (the highest elite level) this year and I earn double miles every paid ticket (I almost never pay for tickets, but there are rewards programs that get you paid tickets – more on this later).

2. Credit card signup bonuses:

You can get a stash of miles quickly by signing up for credit card and meeting the spending requirement. Then you’re free to use them on any trip. I will be discussing the best bonuses, but here are a few examples my friends and I got in 2012:

  • 100,000 for Chase British Airways card with no spending requirement
  • 100,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles for signing up for two Citi American Airlines cards with the two-browser trick and spending $2500 on each in 3 months
  • 55,000 United Airlines Mileage Plus miles after spending $1000 within 3 months
  • 75,000 Amex Membership Rewards points after spending $5000 in 3 months

Some of these have annual fees and some don’t. Typically, cards will waive the annual fee in the first year as part of the offer. After a year, you can either cancel the card or decide whether the card benefits are sufficient to keep it.

For example, the Barclays US Airways card has an annual fee of $79, but it gives 10,000 miles as an anniversary bonus and that’s well worth $79 in my book! If I want to cancel a card, I generally apply for another card with the same bank and ask the credit line from the old card to be transferred over to the new card before I close so I don’t lose the credit line.

3. Credit card spending bonuses:

You don’t need to sign up for many credit cards or spend a lot to collect many frequent flyer miles and hotel points if you know the tricks for building spending. This is generally how I do it!

The right spending strategy and spending tricks with just a few cards can easily lead to 2-3 international trips a year.

Some examples of good spending strategies:

  • Chase Freedom Card has rotating bonus categories every quarter for which you earn 5 points per dollar up to $1500. Maximize these and you get 30,000 Ultimate Rewards points.
  • Chase Ink Bold and Chase Ink Plus Cards give 5 points per dollar spend at Office Supply stores. These can be used to buy gift Amex/Visa/MasterCard gift cards and then use them for *all* other spending. $26,000 of this kind of spending a year and you’ve got 130,000 points, enough for  two round-trip tickets to Europe or Asia or the Maldives.
  • Amex Hilton HHonors Surpass card gives 6 points per dollar for spend at drugstores: You can buy gift Amex/Visa/MasterCard gift cards at drugstores or, better yet, Vanilla reload cards that you can use to pay off your credit card bill! Buy $40,000 worth of these a year and you’ve got Hilton HHonors Diamond status and a 6 night vacation at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island or Conrad Tokyo.  (Note: At time of this writing, the 6 points per dollar at drugstore is only available to current cardholders of the card. Newly issued Hilton HHonors Surpass cards will receive 6 points per dollar at supermarkets and gas stations).

4. Online shopping bonuses

Most airlines, hotels and rewards programs have an online shopping portal. Before placing your order with an online merchant, you go the portal and you earn  miles or points for every dollar you spend.

This is highly lucrative for someone like me who orders everything online. I go through the Ultimate Rewards Mall before buying anything. This earns me around 60k Ultimate Rewards points a year with no extra effort on my part, which is enough for a free roundtrip ticket to Europe.

What kind of credit do I need to get into the game? Won’t having more credit cards have a bad effect on my credit?

You need a good credit score to get into the miles and points game. Banks won’t extend their good rewards cards to someone they view as a credit risk. You typically need a score in the 700′s. You also need to be paying off your balances every month. The good rewards cards have a high interest rate, which will easily negate the value of miles or points you may earn.

Every time you apply for a credit card, you are making a recent application for credit and your score will drop 2-5 points. However, after a few months, this inquiry becomes less recent and you get the 2-5 points back.

FICO credit score breakdown (from creditcards.com)

FICO credit score breakdown (from creditcards.com)

New credit, which is what recent credit histories fall into, is only 10% of your credit score. Another big component is how much you owe, measure by your credit usage ratio. For example, if you spend $2,000 a month and have a $4.000 credit line, you are using 50% of your credit. If you spend $3,000 a month and have $30,000 in credit, you are using 10% of your available credit. Credit agencies like to see a low credit usage ratio as that makes you look responsible with your credit. Look at all that credit you have that you don’t even use! My credit score actually went up by having more credit and having more cards and my credit usage ratio is close to 5%.

How do I keep track of all these points and miles and credit cards?

Miles and points in different programs are much easier to keep track of with AwardWallet or usingmiles.com. You can enter all your frequent flyer miles and hotel rewards points accounts and check them as often as you like.

You can also keep track of all your credit cards with Mint.com to check your spending progress and make sure you don’t miss any bills.

It’s important to stay organized!

Any recommendations for my next trip?

You can go anywhere with the right miles! In 2012, I went to Denmark, Kenya, Rio and Cayman Islands all with miles with every transcontinental flight in Business Class except one! All those tickets cost me under $500 in total paying mostly taxes. In 2013, I am already booked for going to Greece and Asia, also in Business class.

The Caribbean is my favorite destination. White sand beaches, clear blue water, sunsets, bikinis, pina coladas… doesn’t get any better than that!

If you love the Caribbean as much as I do, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve already put together a searchable database of every Caribbean hotel with miles. You can use points to stay at the Radisson Blu in St. Martin, Westin St. John, Hyatt Aruba, Marriott St. Kitts, Hilton Barbados… all for free if you have the right points!

Check out my Caribbean miles travel guide to get started on planning your next trip to the Caribbean.