How Pat Got a Free Business Class Ticket (and You Can Get One Too!)

business class in British AirwaysLast month, my friend Pat came to me with a problem – he wanted to fly Cathay Pacific business class round-trip from the U.S. 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 dollar 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:

business class on A380

Since Cathay is part of the Oneworld Alliance, their U.S. 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 met 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 (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.

business class on A380

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 $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

business class on A380
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 4 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 250-1000 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!

Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by American Express. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of American Express, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by American Express. This site may be compensated through American Express Affiliate Program via the links on this page.

  1. United Airlines’ mileage program only upgrades people with “flown miles”, meaning that you have to fly a certain amount of miles to be upgrade to a silver, gold or platinum status.

    Also, does Amazon Payments not have a fee when using a credit card?

    • Caleb

      No fee on Amazon payments if you send the payment as “Goods/Services”. DONT SEND IT AS A CASH ADVANCE.

      My girlfriend and I both used this strategy to meet the last 2K of our SPG min spend.

      My advice would be don’t just send 1,000 every month. I sprinkle in smaller payments throughout the month and use it for legitimate items as well.

      • Valerie

        Curious: Why is that your advice? Particularly, what are you trying to avoid by sending smaller payments? Unless what you’re doing through Amazon Payments is somehow illegal, I don’t think anyone is monitoring your account – or am I being naive?

        Matt, maybe you could weigh in here?

        • NomadicMatt

          Some people worry that Amazon will catch on if you do it repeatedly to the same person and flag your account. I personally am not that concerned but I do break up who I pay to so it’s not always the same person. I switch it up every so often just to be safe.

  2. Lindsay

    Hi Matt! I have a 15 hour flight coming up to Melbourne, and I was wondering if there’s a way I can upgrade to business class for free once you’re already purchased the flight. Any thoughts?

  3. apt2roam

    I was told by someone on FlyerTalk that you can no longer load a Vanilla Reload with a credit card. Last time I tried it a couple weeks ago at a 7-11 it was rejected by the machine.

    • NomadicMatt

      Reload cards can still be bought with a credit card. I buy them with a card all the time. You can’t load your Bluebird with a card though.

      • Rich

        I just tried to buy Vanilla reload cards from CVS. Wal mart, Rite Aid and Fred’s and they all required cash or a debit card. Which retailer do you buy them from with a CC? Maybe it varies by state?

  4. Emma

    Hey Matt I’m a new avid reader! I live in New Zealand though and wish we got some great mileage deals like that here! We don’t though :(

  5. The last time I checked (early 2013a), I was not allowed to purchase a Vanilla Reload with a credit card, only with cash, so I would not count on that as an option.

    • James

      > Its hard to go out and get a credit card in Australia without it messing up your credit file

      The bigger problem here is that the bonuses are much smaller than in the US:
      * There are almost no cards which give you a sign-on bonus and no annual fee (Amex discovery is 5k QF points).
      * There are some cards with a few points and not too large fees. For example the Woolworths one regularly has 16k QF points for $89/year
      * Bigger bonuses have bigger fees. 40k points for $395 on the Westpac Black, 60k for $700 on the Citibank Select, 80k Amex MR for $1200.

      So you could get 121k QF points for $1284 if you spread it over a few months. If you wanted economy flights, you’d be better off paying that much money. It’s only worth it for business awards.

      It’s 120k plus $810 for 2 business SYD-HKG return on QF (140k on CX as a partner), so you’d have spend just under $2200 for two to go to HKG and back in business. That’s pretty good when they go for around $4000+ normally.

      If you earned over the $120k a year required for the Citi Select, you could space them a month or two apart and it would be fine.

      Compared to the US though it’s crap, they get similar level of sign on bonuses with no feed, and you can’t churn more than one or two cards a year without having credit problems, unless you earn a *lot*.

  6. Kathleen

    Hello! Love this and I’m finally starting to hack a bit. Just curious – how do the credit cards affect your credit score?

    • Lisa

      Hi Kathleen…I’ve opened five credit cards since mid-September and my credit score (per Credit Sesame) my credit score increased by 29 points.

    • NomadicMatt

      There’s a small temporary ding whenever someone pulls your credit but it goes away after a few months and what is more important is having a good debt to credit ratio. My credit score is 791 and I am never denied a card or loan or anything.

  7. “… 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 were transferred …”

    Hmmmm… 25,000 + 20% — shouldn’t that be 30,000?

  8. Paul

    Nice job, Matt. Here’s my question. We are “Delta people” because of where we live–we only have two carriers and Delta has always worked best for us. Anyway, I’ve got a ton of Delta miles, but to use them to upgrade internationally, you have to purchase an “M” class ticket at minimum. Problem is that an M class is often quite expensive and not much less than the business class fare. Checking fares BGR-MNL coach = 1959, M-class = 4815, Biz = 7675. Any ideas how to get round the “M” class problem??? Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving!

    • George

      Opening a bunch of credit cards at the same time can slightly lower your credit score because each time you open an account the credit card company does a hard inquiry of your credit and that shows up on your credit report for a certain period (I think like six months).

      But it only lowers you score slightly, like 10-20 points. Having an increased credit limit through more cards can actually increase your credit score.

      So not signing up for CC’s causes of credit score concerns is not a real worry.

  9. Jay

    One problem with this whole idea is that once you have obtained every single airline CC you often cannot take advantage of the bonus again. It is not always true— I have three United CC’s and got the bonus each time. But it seems many CC’s are cracking down on repeat appliers and don’t give the bonus to anyone who has had an account for the same card in the past. I’ve almost run out of CC’s to apply to.

  10. R Stickler

    When I got an e-mail offering 30K miles on a new AmExp card, I convinced hubby it was a good idea. Not sure I could do that again, even for loads of points; however, we’d finally accumulated more than enough points on his card to pay for one ticket TUL-LHR. Most of the ‘leftover’ points were transferred toward my ticket (Annoying transfer fees ate up some of the savings).

    In the year since, we’ve used both AmExp cards to pay for all sorts of things – groceries, gas, car payments, to name a few. It’s amazing how fast points can add up; it’s downright ‘scary’ to see how much money we spend in a year – more so than watching the bank balance fluctuate – but we figure it’s for a good cause & hope we’ll be able to take another UK trip

  11. R Stickler

    (continued from above – hate this laptop keyboard!)
    another UK trip in the next year of so. We’re almost halfway there!

    The thought of earning 30-50,000 points just for opening a new account & spending, often, not that much is something I may have to reconsider…. The Capitol One TV ad in the background just adds fuel to the fire! lol

  12. Great post matt! I’m a student so I don’t have that high spending (just missed the 25k sign up bonus for SPG >_<) I'm a bit confused as to how you can fake spending with the 1k to your wife (or significant other). Couldn't you just do that with paypal, or is it with Amazon that there are no fees for sending money? Could you explain it a bit more? Thanks!

  13. hawaiidan

    As to Canada and Australia…. sad to say your screwed pretty much . While air Canada is in the UAL system they don’t have a reward system. However I have had friends who live in London, but owned a property in Colorado, apply using that address and get the UAL points
    Not to mention Australia Qantas charges more miles for their trans-pac or euro coach ticket ( in miles) than United does for business or first class.
    How to get a free upgrade from Australia to Business…. easy just fly 100,000 miles per year and they give it to you. other wise after they finish laughing they will tell you to pack-sand.
    I have been flying this way and have a cool annual balance of 700,000 miles after spending 150,000- 200,000 every year. Been doing this way since 1990.
    Don’t over look Marriott.. they give 50,000 points + 2 nights annually and can be UAL transferred.

    Finaly do not waste your miles. on coach or over priced miles deals like to Hawaii.
    Example I figure a mile is between 2.5 and 3.5 cents of value to you. It does not matter who or how you got them they have $$$ real value. If they want more miles than the ticket costs.. buy it Coach to Hawaii from NY is $850-1000. They want 45,000 miles x3.5 that’s $1575 you would spend .$.600 to$800 more. Picture UAL gives you a cupon good for the purchase of 1 watch up to $3000. You can spend that 1 purchase on a $50 timex or a $3000 Rolex. What would you do…take the timex and UAL saves$ 2950!
    Spending $4000 to get more miles for a $3600 ticket makes no sense.. Know your price and know your value… don’t over spend with what you think is free….it is not

    • James

      > Not to mention Australia Qantas charges more miles for their trans-pac
      > or euro coach ticket ( in miles) than United does for business or first class.

      If you’re just going purely on the redeem/burn numbers that’s wrong. SYD-LAX return in Y is 96k QF points, or 80k United miles (saver) or 160k (normal) in Y.

      However it’s much easier to get those the united miles than the QF points, since you can easily buy them on sale or use the fact US credit cards give them away in piles. So in terms of the money you need to spend to get an aware flight you’re correct. That said, economy award tickets with QF points is never good value (0.9 Aus cents per point or so).

      However for 140k QF points (plus taxes), you can get a one-world explorer award – a 5 stopover 35000 mile around the world ticket on OW airlines, and it’s only 280k/420k for the business or first ones. If you want to make the most of your QF points, you use them for that :)

  14. Terry

    Hi Matt,

    Could you give an example or two on how to get miles with Amazon Payments? Thanks!

    Also… have you heard of this company, They offered me this deal just a couple of days ago, “SIN-LAX round trip first class suites on Singapore Airlines for $5,980.00 total”! Regular fare is about $12k!

    By the way, if you have to fly from LAX to PDX in business/first cabin, which airline would you most likely use – assuming you have limes for all airlines?

    • NomadicMatt

      I haven’t heard of that company and I’d fly Virgin America. They rock.

      For Amazon Payments, you can send $1,000 fee free to anyone so you send the money to a friend who withdraws it, then gives to you to pay off your bill. You basically move money in a circle.

  15. Great tips Matt. I’ve yet to convert to a travel hacker, although it does delight me somewhat when Kayak tells me the fare I’m purchasing is a travel hacker fare!

    Although we’re nomadic we travel at a much more sedate pace than most. We spend 12 months in each country we visit so flying is not such a common occurrence.

    We have taken your advice and got ourselves on a points program. Our US credit card gives us the option to transfer points into miles so we’ve been relying on the fact that we’re traveling in ‘high cost of living’ countries to drum up enough spending to accrue points!

    I am getting into my cash back schemes so frequent flyer is next on my list! I’ll be sure to check out your resources when the time comes!

  16. Wow, I envy u guys in the US of A! Here in Malaysia miles hacking is still possible, but not up to that extent! Am fairly new to this, used to refrain from charging the card if I have cash at hand but now EVERYTHING goes there if possible haha.


    I read this article and your 2010 article about flying first/business class with great interest.

    I live in Scotland and have flown to the US around 50 times in my life. In 2010 I had 300,000+ miles with Continental and got a round trip Business Class to Hawai’i for $225 in taxes! I was Silver Elite and got a few free upgrades US to UK but only once the other way. I’m semi retired now so only cross the Atlantic once or twice a year and have lost that status.

    I’m not sure about signing up for all the credit cards and doubt I would spend enough to accumulate enough miles for an upgrade.

    Basically, I follow all your steps like going to Kayak first then re-checking the airlines own sites etc and noted with interest your comment about trying to buy a ticket in another currency. However, it seems the airlines are on to this.

    Here’s what I’m trying to do right now.

    I want a business first round trip from Glasgow to Honolulu on 6 October 2014 and preferably coming back from Hilo or alternatively Kona on 23 October 2014. This is about price not miles, so if there’s a better thread please transfer this post.

    Your favourite airline United, are the only ones who fly out of Hilo internationally. Also they are the only ones who fly direct to and from Glasgow crossing the Atlantic which I much prefer to going to and from Amsterdam for KLM or London for BA and can get me there same day. (US Airways can do it but not in one day.) Currently Unitred are quoting about £3600/700 on their own site. However, when I used my Kayak app on my mobile (cell) phone at the weekend I got a fare of around £3063 (Note that I tried the online Kayak from a pc at the same time and it had the higher price, weird.) That’s a difference of around US$1000!

    So I tried to buy the cheaper fare. Kayak, then said that although it had priced in GBP, United would price in USD, no problem. The USD price came up as $4949, which is just about £3090 at today’s exchange rate; so far so good. But to cut a long story short as soon as I put in my Continental (sorry United) FF number the system told me that because I was a UK person, I would need to start again on the UK version of the site and of course I knew that that would cost me £3700.

    So I thought, that I could maybe defeat the system by not telling it I had a FF number and adding that in later. But again to cut a long story short, after allowing me to reserve seats all the way, when it came to paying with my UK based AMEX card, it through me out and actually repriced the whole thing for me at £3700+

    Apart from being indignant at United charging a UK based customer $1000 more than a US customer for the same flights, any thoughts on how I could book the fare at the USD price.

    I did think about using my US bank account but it has a UK mailing address and also I need to pay with AMEX Platinum for the insurance.

    I’m going to call AMEX themselves and then my last stop will be United agents in the US if I can find one.

  18. Paula Duvall

    Fascinating stuff, but I was offered Business-class on Lufthansa for one simple reason:

    There was a “gentleman” who having developed an affinity for my left ear saw-fit to stand as close to it as he could without falling-in…and WHISPERING “sweet nothings” in a language I couldn’t recognize! If I stepped-forward, so did he, and the whispers became even more insistent. As I approached the agent who was collecting boarding-passes, I reported the man to him. He, in turn, referred me to aVERY stern-faced woman behind the counter. She said that I could sit in the TAIL of the plane…from Frankfurt to JFK…or, and here another woman was typing furiously on her computer…thereafter generating what looked like a supermarket purchase receipt. Stern-face took the receipt, showed it to me, and said: “Will Business-Class do?” My EYES POPPED! I snatched the pass and hot-footed it down Lufthansa’s jetway!!!

    What makes this tale ESPECIALLY fun is that I was a relatively fit 65 yr-old!!! A stranger whispering in MY ear??? I guess I’ve “still got It”!

    Cheers and Happy Holidays!!

  19. Robert Corty

    I love the article! Im 24 years old and currently planning my first long trip. I will soon do as you are talking but for now, ill be traveling to see the lands of the U.S as minimalist as my heart can handle. I plan to travel at least sixth months. I am saving for six more months first. I will be diesel truck for a newer one. Trading both my large and small camper, getting a small light camper, and heading out. I plan to hit most major State parks and act as one of the people who are considered care takers. They get to stay there for free to help take care of the place, including water, electricity and sewage. There are so many beautiful places here to see first! but i love your post! So as a young single guy with no obligations.. Im saving and hopefully finding a strong hearted female travel buddy :-) Love the Article
    In search of a Blog/Forum of people who do/want to do what i am wanting to do. Cheers! Also im on Facebook if you have any Tips for me! Robert Alan Corty

  20. REALLY wish I would have seen this before my 14 flight from LA to Shanghai, followed by 4 hours to Kungming then 4 hours to Kathmandu – all in coach! Ugh! When you splurge on business class are you also getting a direct flight?

  21. Yi Zee

    Traveled over 150 countries, multiple times to several, rather extended periods to some (~2,000 travel days since 2004), corporate-travel and leisure-travel (mostly).

    Availability and attainment of such points for deals is limited mostly to USA programs.

    Any solutions for travelers in
    (a) (today’s) “developed countries” other than USA?
    (b) lesser-developed / emerging countries but nevertheless with many many many travelers (perhaps outnumbering the number of travelers of the developed world and eventually outnumbering the dollar spend of today’s “developed countries”, and for those re-locating in this globalized, yet regulated, world?

    Many thanks

  22. Terry

    Hi Matt,

    I have over 150k Alaska miles, and I plan to travel from SIN-MCO-SIN in a couple of months’ time, could you suggest which is my best available airline option?

    Based on my research, British Airways seems the most direct, SIN-LON-MCO but I read that it is next to impossible to get any first class seats with BA, and even for business cabin, I would need to be super lucky to get 2 seats several months out!

    Do you think flying Cathay Pacific is my best option, I read it is not that hard to snag 1 seat in their first class cabin from SIN-LAX but that would still leave me from LAX to MCO, help, Matt, I’m stuck. Thanks! :)

    • NomadicMatt

      I’m not sure of the entire list of Alaska partners so I’d check with them but I know they partner with Emirates so that might work.

  23. David

    I have a American Express Delta SkyMiles card with almost 60,000 miles. This isn’t one of the cards you’ve recommended, but I don’t want to waste the points. Is there anyway to transfer them? Would you advise that I get a different card? I’m interested in international travel all over the world, especially Asia.

    Thanks Matt!


  24. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for the great tips. I’m a university student and have always been interested earning better rewards on credit card purchases, especially air miles. This is the first article though that I’ve come across geared towards hacking on a lower/student budget. I certainly don’t have the spending requirements for extra air miles.


  25. CX business class rocks. Too bad the 100,000 miles sign up offers from Citi are gone now. It’s still very doable with AA miles though.

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