How to Play the Airline Miles Game

by Annie Nilsson

I am a 30-year-old woman with an arts degree and some geographic commitment issues, so for much of my adult life, I’ve been in situations where I’ve earned unimpressive amounts of money, but have needed (or wanted) to fly to places semi-regularly. As a result, I’ve become a sort of unabashed, salivating fangirl for airline miles, and something of an expert when it comes to accumulating them. I offer here a primer on how you might join me in this rewarding hobby.

Not to be a scold right off the bat, but this method involves credit cards, so it may not be for everyone. You’ll need to have good credit, and pretty high levels of self-discipline for it to work right. If you’re the type who sees access to credit as an invitation to spend recklessly, I’m sorry, but this is not for you. You know that show on TLC about “Extreme Couponing” that is both inspiring and repulsive and you don’t know whether to pity the couponers or to cheer them on? This advice is going to be kind of like that, but for airline miles, so if you’re squeamish, don’t read any further.

The first thing you have to do — if you haven’t already done so years ago — is to sign up for a miles account with all the major airlines. Fast, free, easy-peasy. If you have never bothered to sign up before (I won’t judge you), but have flown recently, most airlines will credit your new account with the miles from those recent trips. But only if you ask them to! Go to their website and find the “request missing miles” tab. You may have to dig around a bit but it’s there and it’s worth it. Every mile is precious.

Now, here’s where it gets more fun (well, I find it fun, but you know).

You are to acquire an airline credit card, and then you are to use it to make all the daily purchases you would normally make. Buying groceries? Use the card. Paying your gas bill? Use the card. Splitting a complicated check at someone’s birthday dinner? Put it all on your card, and then have everyone else pay you in cash. (Haha, just kidding: Never do that, your friends are flakes.)

The thing is, you must think of your card as debit, not credit, and you must pay it off in full at the end of each month. You are never to spend what you don’t have and carry a balance here. Airline cards have very high APRs, and once you start racking up finance charges, you lose the game altogether. If this happens, you’ll have cut up your card and find a new hobby.

Most cards will award you one mile per dollar you spend (some give you more). This means that if during the course of living your normal life you spend $1,000 a month eating, drinking and shopping, filling your car with gas and going to conceptual “happenings,” you will be awarded 1,000 airline miles at the end of each month. Add these to the miles you are getting for any flying you may be doing and you are chugging along. This is easy!

Now, the credit card you choose for this project will depend on several factors: A) whether you actually tend to fly that airline, B) what sort of fancy bonus they offer when signing up, and C) whether or not they offer the first year free.

C is important, as airline cards have annual fees, often between $80 and $95, which is high, but the vast majority of these cards try to hook you by waiving that fee for the first year. This is great, especially since they usually also come with a big sign-on bonus — usually at least the cost of a domestic ticket (25,000 miles), or sometimes a bunch more. So, if you keep the card for two years you will end up paying that $80 dollars, but you’ll be getting at least one round-trip ticket. You’ll probably get more like two round-trip flights (depending on how much you spend that year). That’s a pretty great deal.

But! Here’s a fancy secret that I will share only with you: As your first year with the credit card comes to an end, call them up and tell them you would like to cancel. They will ask you why, and you will say: “The yearly fee is too high!” Every time I have done this, the polite man on the other end has said to me: “Well, how about we waive the fee for another year, would that convince you to stay?” That’s when you say: “Why yes, yes it would.”

I would actually cancel for real after about three years though. At this point, you’ll have had to pay that $80, and though that’s not so bad spread out over three years, it gets tedious once it becomes a regular thing. Plus, there are other cards to explore. And listen, Mike Dang may disagree with me here, but I’ve learned that so long as you keep your oldest credit card open, shutting one down every few years leaves only the faintest ding in your score, a ding that smoothes over quickly since you are a goody-two-shoes about credit, and are never late with your payments.

Now, let’s get into some advanced techniques.

In addition to doing all your spending on your airline credit card, you are to, whenever possible, do all of your online shopping through the “shopping portal” of the airline you are accumulating miles for. What’s a shopping portal, you ask? Well it’s page you click through from your airline’s miles program, and through some sort of affiliate magic, you get special bonus miles for your shopping.

Let’s use a made-up airline called Schmunited as an example. Their miles program is called SchmileagePlus, and their portal is called, SchMileagePlus Shopping. Click through to this portal from their homepage, find the store you are looking for, and it will show you the special miles offer associated with that store. Often it will be something like three miles per dollar spent, which sounds paltry, but adds up, and most importantly, costs you nothing extra. It’s just a matter of getting into the habit of asking, “Is there a portal for this?” when you are about to buy something online. Soon it will become second nature. (Note: You don’t need an airline credit card to use these shopping portals, but if you have one, and use it, you get those 3 miles per dollar, plus your usual credit cards miles on top of that. Cha-ching!)

The most lucrative way to use these shopping portals is for things like flowers and gift baskets. There are huge amounts of miles per dollar offered on these. For example, that one famous flower delivery company that you know is offering 30 miles per dollar. Feel like buying Mom a $40 basket of flowers for Mother’s Day? Why you’ve just netted yourself 1,200 miles! And your mom is so happy right now!

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that you should never buy something solely to get a chunk of miles. The miles you earn must be an incidental bonus. Otherwise you might as well just be buying plane tickets.

OK! So in addition to your portal shopping, your final step is to snoop around in the mileage program of your particular airline. Most of them offer bonus miles for rental cars (usually around 500 miles a pop), or staying at chain hotels. Some even offer big chunks of miles for signing up for your cell phone through their link. I actually did this when my contract with my carrier expired, I renewed through Continental (back when they were an airline), and got 5,000 bonus miles. Everything else was the same — same price, same carrier, but they gave me those beautiful miles, and I felt like a goddamn champion.

Basically, the moral of the story is: If you can buy something, there is probably a way to earn miles for it. And you can go as deep down into the rabbit hole as you like.

Then, as you zip around the country for free, your suspicious friends might whisper “trust fund,” but you won’t be able to hear them over the roar of that jet engine and the tinkling sound of ice in your $12 plastic cup of vodka and tomato juice.

You’ll just hear the sound of the flight attendant swiping that plastic, adding another twelve delicious miles to your account. Bon Voyage, friends.

Annie Nilsson is a Los Angeles writer who blogs and tweets. She’s writing a book. (It’s not about airline miles.) Photo: Flickr/Vox Efx

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