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Are you absolutely tired of hearing about your friends getting flights for little to no money using frequent flyer miles?
I was. Which is why I figured out a way to game the system and earn over 1.1 million frequent flyer miles and hotel points in the last 12 months. Much of which is going towards my upcoming RTW trip for flights and hotel stays around the world!
Let me get straight to the point. The name of the game is Credit Card Sign-Up bonuses.
Let’s start with this simple test:
– Do you currently live in the United States?
– Do you have a good credit score of more than 730? (Use Credit Karma to find out your score for free!)
– Do you have expenses of more than US$1,000 per month? (This includes rent, car payments, food, entertainment etc.)
If you’ve answered NO to ANY of the questions above, this is where your journey with this guide ends, my friend. Please continue browsing the rest of my site for other fun posts! Did you see my latest post on the best things I ate in 2015?
NOTE: While this guide is largely geared towards the US audience, I strongly encourage you to explore travel reward credit cards in your own country! The principles mentioned here could also very easily apply.
If you’ve made this far, this is where the fun begins. Let’s get some free flights!
STEP ONE: Establish Your Travel Goal
This is very important! It can be as simple as visiting home more regularly, wherever that may be, or to go to the country you’ve always dreamt of visiting. Here was my travel goal when I first started: to visit my parents back in the Philippines by flying in Business Class. Clear, concise and most definitely attainable. Free Flights != Free Lunch. You’re going to have to work a little if you want it.
STEP TWO: Identifying The Right Frequent Flyer Program For You
After you’ve successfully identified your travel goal, you will need to find the airline(s) that has(ve) the flight(s) you are looking for, and more importantly what alliance they belong to. Most of the world’s major airlines belong to one of three alliances: OneWorld, Star Alliance and Skyteam. The beauty of alliances is that you can use frequent flyer miles of one alliance member to book flights on partner airlines belonging to the same alliance.
To figure out what flights are available to your destination, I recommend using Kayak or Google Flights. Enter where you are flying from and to and then use the Airlines filter to toggle through your options. In general, hub airports in bigger cities will provide the most options for flights across the three alliances.
Take note of the alliance that has the flights you want to take because you will then need to join the frequent flyer program of the alliance’s US based partner. In the United States, OneWorld is represented by American Airlines, Skyteam is represented by Delta Airlines, and Star Alliance by United Airlines.
NOTE: Prominent US based airlines Southwest Airlines, JetBlue and Alaska Airlines do not belong to any of three major worldwide alliances. However, Alaska Airlines does have a marvelous advantage of being able to book flights on airlines belonging to different alliances.
RELATED: Full list of Alaska Airlines Partner Airlines
STEP THREE: Joining The Frequent Flyer Program
So far, you’ve identified the flights you want to take and what alliance the airline(s) belongs to. Now, it is time to figure out how many miles you will need in order to get that flight for free. Before we can find out how many miles it’ll take, you must first be a member of an airline’s frequent flyer program. Joining is free and doesn’t require you to have ever flown them previously.
STEP FOUR: Find Out How Many Miles You Will Need For The Flight You Want
Now that you are a member of one of the frequent flyer programs listed above, it is time to determine how many miles you will need to get the flights you have identified in STEP TWO. For simplicity’s sake, always search for flights one-way, either inbound or outbound if you are seeking a roundtrip.
Log in to the airline’s website using your newly minted credentials and perform an award search. An award search can be done using the regular flight search but make sure to enable the Redeem Miles or Search For Award Travel option.
Another way to get to get this information is to use an award chart, which is a table of how many miles it will cost to get from Country A belonging to Zone A to Country B belonging to Zone B and so on. Out of the six airlines listed in STEP THREE, only three subscribe to award charts.
American Airlines AAdvantage: AA Flights / OneWorld Partner Flights (NOTE: These charts are going to be inaccurate on March 22, 2016)
United Airlines MileagePlus: Interactive Travel Destinations Awards Chart
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan: Continental US and Canada & International Awards
STEP FIVE: Credit Card Shopping
You’re almost there! With most of the homework done, it is time to apply for the right credit card. All major US based airlines have co-branded credit cards. The trick is to apply for the right one offering the most miles as a sign up bonus. A single airline can even have multiple flavors of credit cards with differing premium benefits.
With that said, the sign up bonus is not a given. It usually is a spend challenge, such as spend a minimum of US$X (typically US$3,000) thousand on the card in Y months (usually 3 months) to earn the sign up bonus.
Things to consider when picking a credit card:
Annual Fee: Airline credit cards are considered a premium product and often carry an annual fee between US$95 – US$450. Do not balk at this fee! You are potentially getting hundreds of dollars in free flights from the sign up bonus alone. Think of the annual fee as a small free flight tax. Depending on the card, the annual fee may even be waived for the first year, making it a no-brainer to apply for, especially if it has a high sign up bonus!
Sign Up Bonus: For airline cards, I look for a sign up bonus of at least 50,000 miles. I’ve seen bonuses go all the way up to 100,000 miles! In addition, I also look to see if the bonus has been temporarily increased. If I’m not in a hurry to obtain the miles, waiting a few months to apply for the card may yield 10,000 – 50,000 more miles in sign up bonuses. Patience can pay off!
Minimum Spend Requirement: Make sure you are very clear on how much you will need to spend on the card, as well as the length of time in which do it in order to get the sign up bonus. For example, spending US$3,000 within 3 months of card opening.
Ancillary Benefits: Airline Credit Cards can also come with benefits such as free bags, priority boarding, trip delay insurance and even lounge access. While your main concern should be the sign up bonus, additional benefits are nice to have and can make your travel experience even more painless. For me, free bags are the best when flying domestically in the United States. That’s $25 per bag in savings one way!
Order of Operations:
1. Apply for card and get approved
2. Receive card in the mail
3. Achieve minimum spend on card
4. Pay off credit card in FULL each month
5. Receive bonus 1 – 2 months after completing minimum spend
6. Book reward flight identified in STEP FOUR!!
NOTE: Please, please, please pay off your credit card IN FULL every month. I do not condone getting into debt and paying interest charges in the pursuit of travel rewards. It is absolutely not worth it. If you cannot pay to play, please reconsider not doing this to begin with.
Credit Card Picks
NOTE: Information in this section is accurate as of December 22, 2015 and is subject to change.
American Airlines AAdvantage
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard®: $95 Annual Fee / Limited Time 50K Bonus, US$3,000 in 3 mos
The United MileagePlus Explorer Card: $95 Annual Fee, Waived 1st Year / 30K Bonus, US$1,000 in 3 mos (Wait for 50K)
Chase Sapphire Preferred®: $95 Annual Fee / Limited Time 50K Bonus, US$4,000 in 3 mos / United Transfer Partner
Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card: $95 Annual Fee / 30K Bonus, US$1,000 in 3 mos (Wait for 50K)
Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards® Plus: $69 Annual Fee, Waived 1st Year / 25K Bonus, US$1,000 in 3 mos (Wait for 50K)
Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards® Premier: $99 Annual Fee / 25K Bonus, US$1,000 in 3 mos (Wait for 50K)
New card to be issued by Barclays some time next year.
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature®: $75 Annual Fee / 25K Bonus On Approval
RELATED: Frequently Asked Questions
There you have it! I hope that was as concise as possible.