Last month, my friend Pat came to me with a problem: he wanted to fly Cathay Pacific business class round-trip from the US to a conference in the Philippines. He had only a few frequent flyer miles and was all like “travel hacking, what?”
He needed help.
In the words of Barney Stinson: “Challenge accepted!”
I had two months to get Pat the 110,000 miles he needed.
I’ve written about traveling business class for free before, but as with everything in travel, methods and tricks that worked in the past might not work now, especially when it comes to airlines. They change their rules all the time.
As you know, I am an avid travel hacker because I hate flying coach. To me, there is nothing worse than being in coach on a 10-hour flight — and if I can avoid it, I will. When you are up in the air as much as I am, you want comfort.
So I collect points in order to upgrade or redeem for business- and first-class tickets, have a lie-flat bed, and enjoy some luxury before staying in my $10 a night dorm room. (Yes, I’m a bundle of contradictions. I’m a Gemini.)
Pat was an easy test subject, since he spends a boatload of money on his business each month and has great credit. I used all this to his advantage:
Since Cathay is part of the Oneworld Alliance, their US partner is American Airlines, and so we worked on getting him American AAdvantage miles.
First, he signed up for an American Airlines Citi card, which offered a 30,000-point sign-up bonus when he spent $1,000 USD in 90 days.
Second, he signed up for the business version of the same card with the same deal. (Note: you don’t need to be a business owner to get a business card. I used to sign up for these cards as a sole proprietor. The credit card companies never seemed to care.)
Third, I made him open a Starwood American Express card, which offers 25,000 Starwood points when you spend $5,000 USD in 90 days. He then transferred those points to American Airlines. Since Starwood gives you a 20% transfer bonus on 20,000 points, in the end 35,000 points (30,000 from the bonus, 5,000 from the spending) were transferred to his AAdvantage account.
Pat met all the minimum spending requirements with his regular spending. It was money he was going to spend anyway. (Never spend extra just to meet one of these spending requirements!)
After it was all said and done, Pat had 97,000 frequent flier miles.
But how to get those last 13,000 miles? There were a couple of ways to do this:
Pat could have “faked” his spending (which he also could have done to meet the spending requirements). He could have sent $1,000 every month via Amazon Payments to his wife without any fees and then she could have cashed the money back into their bank account.
Or he could have walked into a CVS and bought Vanilla Reload cards with his credit cards, then loaded the balance onto his American Express Bluebird account (maximum of $5,000 per month), and then used that money to pay off his credit card balance.
He also could have used online shopping portals to earn 3-4 miles per dollar spent (Christmas is coming!), meaning instead of spending $13,000 USD, he would have had to spend only $3,200-4,300 USD.
In the end, Pat used his business expenses as well as online shopping to get those final miles (he told me he found faking the minimum spending too time consuming).
Within a month, Pat had 110,000 miles he needed and I converted someone else to travel hacking (score!!!). He’s already set out to earn miles for a family trip to Hawaii!
“That sounds great, Matt, but I don’t want to open three credit cards nor can I spend that much money! Is there another way?”
Good question! What if you don’t want to open three credit cards? What can you do that doesn’t rely so heavily on credit cards?
I’ll tell you.
But first this point: you should open at least one rewards credit card because credit cards are the best way to jump-start your balance, and if you’re going to put money a card, you might as well get points for it. I mean, I bet you already have at least one card, right? Why not get free trips from it? Use your everyday spending to gain points for travel, even if you aren’t traveling until next year!
Moreover, you get a big sign-up bonus. My American AAdvantage card gave me 40,000 miles just for joining. That’s a free round-trip domestic ticket or miles I can use for an upgrade. United Airlines gives you 30,000 miles for signing up. Lufthansa is offering a 50,000 miles sign-up bonus right now!
I charge everything because of the miles it gets me. I am like Ryan Bingham from Up in the Air — I don’t spend any money without earning miles from it.
Non–Credit Card Ways to Earn Miles
But what else can you do to get miles that doesn’t require a credit card? Here are a couple of ways:
Shop with an airline’s preferred partners — All major airlines have a preferred shopping partner where you can get 3-20 points per dollar spent. If I am going to go shopping anyway, I might as well do it online and get four points per dollar spent than just the one I would have earned if I walked into the store. Do your shopping online, avoid crowds, get more points, fly quicker.
A good site to find which shopping portal is offering the best deals is Evreward.
Use your family — My parents might fly once a year. My sister might fly twice. They don’t really need or use their miles, so they give them to me. My parents use my credit card to purchase all their tickets, and when they fly, they transfer their miles over to my account. There is a small fee for the transfer, but it’s worth the extra miles. After they visited Israel last year, the miles they both earned ended up in my American Airlines account.
Sign up for newsletters — I sign up for all the airline newsletters as well as those for their credit cards so I can stay up-to-date on special fares, deals, and offers. Many of the best deals in the world are only sent via a newsletter, and if you don’t sign up, you’ll never know. Recently, I got triple miles on purchases on my Citi American AAdvantage card through an alert sent via e-mail.
Take surveys — Every little bit counts. And for signing up for surveys, liking Facebook pages, and more, many companies offer 250-1,000 points. I always participate in these stupid online contests because they add up over time. Airlines usually send this via their newsletters, but I also follow companies on Twitter and Facebook just to make sure I don’t miss anything.
Stay up-to-date on bonus offers — Be sure to constantly check for bonus offers on airline websites. Many brands, especially airlines, offer bonus offers on selected flight routes, fare classes, and dates. By flying during these times, you can maximize your miles for future redemptions. You can stay up-to-date via newsletters or following some of the sites listed in the resources section of this blog.
Airlines love when people actually fly to earn their miles, and they treat those who do with extra special care. However, they make it so easy to earn the frequent flier miles that it’s silly to not take advantage of the situation while it lasts. Business class is no longer out of reach for even the most infrequent flier.
Even if you only fly once or twice a year, why not put in a couple of extra hours a month to ensure that when you do fly, you fly in style, like Pat!