Getting free or nearly free air tickets is something that's much desired by everyone, but how do you get your hands on those? You can win a raffle, grab a "free" ticket in a rare gimmicky sale by a budget airline, use your frequent flyer miles earned from flying, or use your credit card points and miles. Out of these possibilities, the most likely option for someone who doesn't fly once every few days is to use your credit card points and miles to redeem for free flights. And redeeming for free flights on premium cabins like Business or First Class will bring a wide grin to those who love a bit of luxury but would prefer not to fork out huge amounts of money for it.
Back in 2007-2008, Grace and I traveled around the world for a year on a Round-the-World (RTW) ticket, without missing a day of work. As 2017 has come (marking 10 years since our last RTW), we thought we should do another RTW trip again - but this time with our two toddlers in tow.
Traveling as a family of four isn't cheap, especially if we want to travel in premium cabins. In my 20s, I could endure squeezing my tall frame into an Economy seat on the plane. When I hit 30, I began to appreciate and enjoy Business Class seats, especially for long-haul flights. Lie-flat beds are a bliss and life-saver for my legs.
Business Class tickets aren't cheap, and if we want a special Round-the-World ticket for each of us, the costs would be eye-watering. We checked on the Star Alliance website and it costs a whopping US$54,000 for 4 RTW tickets on Business, excluding taxes and surcharges.
There must be a way to hack the system.
Over the years, I've used travel hacking as a way to enjoy luxury travel, without spending a lot of money on it. Travel hacking is all about collecting air miles and rewards points from credit cards and loyalty programs so that you can later redeem these points and miles for free or cheaper travel. It has been very popular among frequent flyers and avid travelers in recent years, especially in the US.
So in 2016, I made it my goal to earn One Million Miles through travel hacking so that we could redeem all these air miles for 4 RTW tickets on Business worth US$54,000 for our RTW trip in 2017. In short, we wanted to get these tickets for free.
Credit cards are indispensable to travel hacking; they come hand in hand. I used GET.com to compare the best credit cards and then applied for several to kick-start my points and miles accumulation at the start of the year.
Through careful and strategic planning and spending, we reached our goal of One Million Miles in September 2016 and redeemed 960,000 miles for our prized RTW Business Class tickets worth US$54,000 in October 2016. We'll be using these tickets to fly us and our two toddlers Ramses and Ranefer around the world to five continents over a six-month period starting January 2017.
Our biggest ally in getting these miles was the clever use of credit cards. By combining credit card signing bonuses and earnings multipliers on spending, we chalked up hundreds of thousands of credit card rewards points. We never carried a balance on any of the cards and always paid in full each month.
Those who are extreme travel hackers or super frequent flyers may think earning one million miles in a year is not much, but at the same time, it's also worth mentioning that it's not that easy to earn a million miles in a year.
This post is meant to be inspirational, so even if you do not need to reach a goal of a million miles, you can still aim for that dream premium-class upgrade or fly to a bucket-list destination for free or for much less money, just by earning credit card rewards points.
Once you have earned the desired quantity of rewards points or miles on your credit cards, you can transfer them to a frequent flyer program of your liking, such as United MileagePlus program, Delta SkyMiles program, Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards program, or American Airlines AAdvantage program, and so on. We booked our RTW ticket through Singapore Airlines as it has consistently been ranked as the top airline in the world.
Here I'll share with you the travel hacks I used to accumulate a million miles.
How To Get Free Business Class Flights Worth $54,000
1. Apply for credit cards with attractive signing bonuses
Many credit cards in the US offer signing bonuses for new sign-ups. While there are some credit cards which give you free bonus points or miles when using your card for the first time, most require you to spend a certain amount within a certain period of time after you get your card. Because of this, it's important to time your card application carefully so that you can make sure you will be able to meet that minimum spend and get the signing bonus.
The credit cards below offer some of the best signing bonuses right now. You need very good to excellent credit in order to qualify for them.
- The Business Platinum® Card from American Express OPEN, a GET.com advertiser, has a welcome offer of 75,000 bonus points: Earn 50,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $10,000 and an extra 25,000 points after you spend an additional $10,000 within the first 3 months of card membership. This is the best offer in the market right now. Terms apply.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card gives 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
- The Platinum Card® from American Express gives 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you use your new Card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first 3 months.
- Citi Prestige® Card gives 40,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening.
If your goal is airline miles, it's important to choose a card that allows you to transfer points to the airline mile program you are looking at. All of the above cards allow 1:1 transfer of points to many airline programs including Singapore Airline's KrisFlyer program which we used. Other cards like the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card call their rewards points 'miles', but they are not transferable to frequent flyer programs.
If you are interested in flying on United Airlines, Air Canada, Avianca, Lufthansa, ANA, SWISS, Singapore Airlines, etc, you may want to transfer your points to United's MileagePlus program which lets you use your award miles for any partner airline on the Star Alliance network.
You can check out the following posts on points redemption for miles on frequent flyer programs in the US:
You can see more credit cards with bonus offers here.
There are also airline-specific cards with signing bonuses and miles that can only be used toward that airline. Like the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express which gives you a limited time offer (which ends 7/5/2017) of 60,000 bonus miles after you make $3,000 in purchases on your new Card within your first 4 months (Terms apply) and the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card which gives a limited time bonus offer of 60,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.
You can see more airline credit cards here.
If you own a small business, or are even a sole proprietor, you can consider getting a couple of business credit cards with large signing bonuses. You can compare the most popular business travel credit cards here.
A portion of our miles earned came from signing bonuses when we signed up for new credit cards. The total signing bonuses you can get if you choose the right cards will vary from 100,000 to 300,000 bonus points, depending on your creditworthiness and whether you qualify for business credit cards, in addition to personal cards.
2. Use the right credit card to earn more than 1 mile per $1 spent
If you're getting 1 mile for every dollar you spend, you will need to spend the massive amount of $1 million to get a million miles purely through spending, excluding signing bonuses. If you're earning 2 miles per dollar, that goes down by half to $500,000 of spending, and if you can get 3 miles per dollar, that goes down to $333,000 worth of spending. Of course, when you factor in signing bonuses, the amount you need to spend to earn the rest of the points and miles will go down. You get the gist.
The trick to earning more than 1 mile per $1 spent is to use the card that rewards you the most miles per dollar for each type of spend. While this sounds like perfect common sense, not everyone takes the time and effort to get acquainted with the different earnings rate of their cards. And when you don't do that, you can't maximise the earning of your credit card points.
Below I've listed the most common categories of spending and the card you could consider using:
Shopping: The Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express gives 2 points per $1 spent on US supermarket purchases (on up to $6,000). Additionally, if you make 20 or more purchases with your Card in 1 billing period, you can earn 20% extra points on those purchases. Terms apply. See more supermarket credit cards here.
This list is far from comprehensive. For a larger selection and more detailed analysis, look at our comparison of the best rewards credit cards.
3. Shop through sites that give points or miles
There are quite a few shopping and travel booking sites that reward you with miles or points transferable to your preferred loyalty program.
Doing so will allow you to earn additional miles to what you will be earning through your credit card for the purchase. That means you will earn twice - once through your credit card and once through these sites.
One of our favorite sites to book hotels is Kaligo, which allows you to earn miles on every hotel booking you make. We've found some hotel bookings that earn tens of thousands of miles and those can really move you forward toward your miles goal. Just be aware that they are not always the cheapest, and it's good to compare with other hotel booking sites to see if it is worth booking through them for the miles. Kaligo works with United MileagePlus, American Airlines AAdvantage, Virgin America elevate, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, and many other miles programs.
Such sites typically give you the most miles for the most expensive rooms, but cheaper rooms also give you a decent amount of miles as well. If you don't chase elite status on hotel loyalty programs, or if you are booking a hotel that's not part of your preferred chain, earning extra miles through these booking sites can give your mileage goal a good boost.
Many airlines also have dedicated shopping sites where you can log in, shop on merchants they are affiliates of, and earn miles on every purchase you make. Just note that if you use coupons not found on these sites, you may not get any miles.
- Air Canada: eStore Aeroplan
- Alaska Airlines: Mileage Plan Shopping
- American Airlines: AAdvantage Eshopping
- British Airways: Avios Estore
- Hawaiian Airlines: HawaiianMiles Online Mall
- Singapore Airlines: KrisFlyer Spree
- Southwest: Rapid Rewards Shopping
- United: MileagePlus Shopping
- Virgin Atlantic: Shops Away
Some credit card issuers also have shopping sites that give you additional points for shopping through them. One of our favourite ones is Chase's 'Shop through Chase®' online shopping portal which lists over 200 retailers and where you can get 1%-15% extra cash back.
4. Pay for everything using a credit card
When you use cash, you lose cash. It's the same for a debit card. Cash and debit cards don't give you any additional savings or rewards when you pay using them.
I try to use a credit card to pay for everything, ranging from everyday spending to big-ticket purchases. As I pay my credit card bills in full and on time each month, I don't incur any interest charges and I get to earn points and save more.
If you have a big-ticket expense coming up, such as renovating your house, buying electronic equipment such as a computer or signing up for a gym or spa package, consider timing it with the signing up of a new credit card, or using a card that gives the most miles per dollar for that type of expense. It's very important that if you do this, you either pay your credit card bill in full by the due date, or put it on a 0% intro APR card to avoid hefty interest fees. When used wisely, credit cards are just a mode of payment which rewards you on your spending.
If you know you won't be able to pay an expense in full at the end of the month, there are cards that offer 0% introductory APR on purchases for a certain period of time, and still give you miles on your spending. Just make sure to pay it off in full before the 0% intro period is over.
You can also pay for things like taxes and mortgage repayments on a credit card, although there will be an additional fee you will have to pay when using a credit card for payment.
Paying taxes using a credit card will incur a processing fee ranging from 1.87% to 2.25%, depending on which payment processor you use. If you use a tax software that comes with an e-file or e-pay option, the fee will range from 2.35% to 3.93%. For example, TurboTax charges a convenience fee of 2.49%.
Paying your taxes with your credit card could be beneficial to you if you need to reach that minimum spend in order to get those signing bonuses, just remember to either pay off your card bill in full by the due date, or use a card that has a 0% intro APR on purchases. To fully maximise your miles or points earned from this transaction, save them for a long-haul flight on either Business or First Class.
5. Putting business expenses on high earning cards
Whether you are a sole proprietor or small business owner, you can try applying for business credit cards, in addition to consumer credit cards. Some business credit cards in the US have pretty attractive signing bonus offers which you can take advantage of. You can check out the best small business credit cards here.
As we have high business expenses, it's quite easy to reach the minimum spend requirements in order to get the signing bonuses. We also try to get rewarded as much as possible for as much of the spending as we can.
To do this, we typically use different business credit cards depending on which has the highest rewards for the different types of expenses we have. Sometimes we also use a personal credit card for business expenses if the rewards are higher than those offered on our business credit cards,; and then we just reimburse ourselves using the invoices for those expenses.
Here are some business credit cards which currently have lucrative signing bonuses:
- Capital One® Spark® Miles for Business currently gives a one-time bonus of 50,000 miles after you spend $4,500 on purchases within 3 months from account opening.
- The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPEN gives you 50,000 points after you spend $5,000 in purchases on the Card within your first 3 months of Card Membership. What I particularly like about this card is that you get 3X points on one selected category of your choice (out of 5 categories): Airfare, Advertising, Gas Stations, Shipping and Computer Hardware and Software. Terms apply.
Getting Free Business Class Flights: You Can Do It Too!
To earn 1,000,000 air miles purely from flying, it would take 14 RTWs (average distance of 35k miles each) on Business at 200% mileage earn rate or 28 RTWs on Economy with 100% mileage earn rate, for example. This would have been very expensive, not to mention extremely tiring and time-consuming to take 28 RTWs flights just to get 1 free.
All the strategies which I've shared above can be easily used by anyone to earn miles faster in order to save towards a travel goal. Even if you aren't in the US, you can also use the same strategies in many other countries like the UK, Australia, or Singapore, just to name a few.
The key thing is to sign up for credit cards which offer huge signing bonuses, and then meet the minimum spending requirements to earn those bonus miles or points. Many premium credit cards require you to have very good to excellent credit and may also require a minimum annual income, so do your research before you apply for any card. GET.com's guide to the best credit cards in America will come in handy for those of you looking for the best cards to get.
You don't need to aim for a million miles. It really all depends on what your travel goal is, and your individual spending habits. You can aim for a short or long haul award flight, or a free upgrade to premium cabins - that's up to you. Different airlines have different amount of miles need for award redemption.
For example, on United, you need 50,000 miles to redeem for a Saver round-trip award flight from the US to Europe on Business (or 70,000 miles on First). On American Airlines, you need 115,000 AAdvantage miles to redeem for a MileSAAver round-trip award flight from the US to Europe on Business (or 170,000 miles on First). Fancy flying on Singapore Airlines from San Francisco to Singapore? You'll need 160,000 KrisFlyer miles to redeem for a round-trip Business Saver award ticket (240,000 miles for a Business Standard).
While there's no such thing as 100% free air tickets (as you'll still need to fork out for taxes and surcharges), you can certainly travel almost for free, like we do!
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Pedro Pla is co-founder of GET.com. He has been around the globe several times and considers collecting air miles and points from credit cards to be a hobby, if not, an obsession. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.Editorial Disclosure: Any personal views and opinions expressed by the author in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of GET.com. The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of the companies mentioned, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.
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