“You know the best part about this vacation?” my friend Brian asked me the other day, calling from Bermuda.
“The beach?” I guessed. “The beer? The beautiful women?”
“No!” he said, “The bargain! I didn’t pay a dime!”
It wasn’t the first time he’s flown overseas without buying a ticket. Brian, you see, is in The Hobby—what those in-the-know call their maximization of airline miles. There’s an art to it. Consider this piece from Best Life your new paintbrush—and your ticket out.
The math is easy, if you know what to do: Most credit cards today offer airline miles in exchange for dollars spent on certain items, and by following our advice, you can earn these miles at a faster rate. Once you’ve got the miles in your account, it opens up a whole world—literally.
Whether you’re itching to hit the slopes in Aspen or desperately need to soak up the sun in Madrid, read on for 15 genius ways to maximize your airline miles and book your dream, perk-filled vacation ASAP. And then finish off your bucket list with this definitive list of the essential 50 Things You Must Do Before You Die!
Converting money spent into airline miles is nothing new, but certain credit cards offer a better deal than others. Stay away from the airlines’ own branded credit cards and instead consider something like the Chase Sapphire Reserve card. Though the $450 annual fee is steep, the card offers a $300 annual travel credit, triple points on worldwide dining and travel, and no restrictions or blackout dates.
The Starwood Preferred Guest American Express is another great option. You earn one Starwood point per dollar spent, but the real value is in redeeming points. For every 20,000 Starwood points you convert to an airline program, you get 5,000 extra miles, which is essentially 1.25 American or Delta miles per dollar spent.
When planning a trip, flights and hotels go hand-in-hand, which is why some companies now offer packages that include both. For instance, Starwood’s “Nights & Flights” option offers five nights at a category four hotel and 50,000 airline miles for 70,000 points. Five nights at that category would normally cost 40,000 points. So for an extra 30,000 points, you get 50,000 miles. Not bad! You can also use miles to rent a car if you plan on doing some sightseeing. For more stories to tell your grandkids, click here for the awe-inspiring 25 Adventures Every Man Should Have Before They Die.
Credit cards typically offer double or even triple points when you buy certain items, so it’s important to keep track of what you’re spending your money on. Wells Fargo Propel American Express Credit Card holders, for example, earn triple points at U.S. gas stations, double points at U.S. restaurants, one point per dollar on all other net purchases every day. If you’re a savvy spender, it’s easy to rack up miles pretty quickly.
The Points Guy is a great resource for frequent travelers, and the site frequently shares what stores to spend money in if you’re looking to maximize your miles. TPG reports that throughout the month of October, United has been offering MileagePlus members the opportunity to earn substantial bonuses when purchasing products at select retailers with United MileagePlus Shopping. While members would normally get three miles per dollar at Sephora, Brookstone, and Lord & Taylor, on October 27 they will earn 15 miles per dollar spent at those stores.
With certain credit cards, like the Hyatt card, you’re rewarded for adding authorized users to your account. Hyatt, for example, gives you 5,000 bonus points after you add user to your account and make a purchase with your card during within three months of opening said account. The points can then be used to redeem rewards at Hyatt hotels, or transfered to recieve airline-specific perks.
Many airlines require some form of account activity once every 18 months to keep the miles in play, so be careful not to let them expire. Buying just one item (no matter the cost) will ensure your miles stay active for another 18 months even if you still aren’t ready to redeem them. Speaking of staying active, make your life last longer with this science-backed list of 100 Ways to Live to Be 100!
Although loyalty to one credit card and/or points program means you can rake in rewards rapidly, there’s also value in diversifying how you accrue points and miles, especially if you travel regularly. For starters, points are often transferable (especially amongst airlines and credit cards) so the more of them you have, the easier it will be to redeem rewards. Companies like Citi even offer transfer bonuses, and if flights are cheap but hotels are expensive (or vice-versa) it can still be easy to plan a trip without breaking the bank if you have both airline miles and hotel points.
Most airlines have online shopping portals where you can earn miles or points for your regular shopping. Simply log in through these portals and then click through to the merchant of your choice. Participants include Bloomingdale’s, J. Crew, Pottery Barn, Target, and others. Oftentimes you can use points you already have to buy goods from these retailers as well, though it’s best to use those miles on upgrades or other perks.
British Airways is unique in that it offers a distance-based rewards program. While many airlines require at least 25,000 miles to redeem a free, round-trip flight in coach, BA allows you to pay based on distance traversed. A flight from New York to Florida, for example, costs only 15,000 British Airways miles, with some caveats.
Purchasing elite status could cost you a pretty penny upfront, but with your status comes thousands of free miles, often making it worth it in the long haul. For example, the Citi American Airlines AAdvantage Card costs $450 annually, but that fee buys you 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage bonus miles after you spend $5,000 within the first three months of opening the account.
Once you’ve acquired a nice little nest egg of miles, upgrades are yours for the taking. A common thing to do is use miles for international business or first-class tickets, and if you take the time to study up on airline alliances, it can really pay off. Kyle Zuvella, who edits the “Points & Miles” section of The Faraway Guide, recommends using American Airlines miles to fly Etihad’s in-air suites. “This is the best redemption out there,” he told USA Today, “The Etihad A380 first-class apartments have 80-inch beds, 24-inch TV screens and chilled Dom Perignon.” Pair it up with one of these 10 Most Jaw-Dropping Luxury Hotels in the World!
Some airlines will permit you to add a stopover in a different country at no added cost. For instance, Alaska Airlines allows a stopover even on a one-way redemption, while United allows a free stopover on international round-trips. Translation: You can fly to Barcelona, stay there a few days, then fly to Rome and stay there a few days, all for the same 60,000 miles as a round-trip to Barcelona.
If you’ve got more miles than you know what to do with, why not share the wealth and give them as a gift to someone special in your life? Most airlines allow you to give miles to others, so long as the recipient has an rewards account with the airline. However, there are often per mile fees associated with transferring miles from one account to another, so be sure to read the fine print before making any grand gestures.
If there’s a charity you’d like to support and have miles to spare, consider donating them. Charities like The Make-A-Wish Foundation, which makes use of air travel by helping sick kids get to a destination of their choice, allows you to donate directly via their website. Fisher House, a charity which benefits wounded vets and their families, does the same.
If you have a mountain of miles but are lacking when it comes to liquid assets, it might make sense to exchange some of your miles for cash. The exchange rates are often sub-optimal, but if you’re looking for a quick way to get money in your wallet and don’t mind parting with some of your miles, they can be redeemed for cash to use on your next getaway. And to keep the getaways coming, don’t miss these incredibly rewarding 40 Things You Should Do in Your 40s!