¨I figured, correctly, that Berlin in February was not a destination coveted by tourists. I found good airfares on Lufthansa, an airline I quite like, and got a great rate at a brand new Ritz-Carlton, which clearly hoped to seduce visitors into forsaking Hawaii for Potsdammer Platz.¨
Why I Wasn’t an Active Travel Hacker in the Past
Frequent Flyer miles have been one of the essential tools that I have used to fund my airline travels around the world. Over the past nine years, Frequent Flyer miles have paid for 40% of all the flights I have taken.
I have received a lot of benefits easily just by having three airline-branded credit cards. It has not taken me that much effort or time to master the skills necessary to take advantage of each of these cards’ benefits. Nor should it take you much time.
Sadly, as you will see in the following discussion, airlines are making Frequent Flyer programs less accessible for leisure travelers, such as Fifty-Plus Nomads.
Don’t be surprised if Frequent-Flyer programs eventually become almost useless for all but ardent business travelers.
My Experience with Frequent Flyer Miles
Until recently, my United Chase card came with a $450 annual fee that allowed me to use United’s airport clubs and gave me 1-1/2 points per dollar spent. I used to have a similar card with American Airlines. However, I canceled both my American and United Club cards because I (Note: I still have their standard airline-branded credit cards):
- seldom used the airlines’ clubs;
- have noticed that United has diminished the value of Frequent Flyer miles;
- fly less often than in the past;
- was able to benefit from the sign-up bonus without renewing the card annually;
- did not want to pay the $450 annual fees. (My current Citibank and Chase cards cost me $95 a year); and
- do not like that American Airlines charges a baggage fee on all leisure-oriented flights, even if you have the club card.
One of the most significant benefits of the airline-branded credit cards is that I do not have to pay baggage fees on most flights. (As long as I pay for the ticket using the appropriate airline-branded card). I am also usually able to board the airplane earlier than most other customers. Boarding early means that I seldom have to search for a cabin to stow my carry-on bags.
United versus American and Delta
Until recently, if I had to choose between American and United’s cards, I would have selected United for a couple of reasons including:
- I frequently fly to and from Montreal and Air Canada is a partner airline for United;
- The United Chase cards waive baggage fees on all flights. The American Airlines-Citibank card only waives the baggage fee on business-oriented trips. You have to pay the baggage fee for flights to leisure destinations, such as Cancun. (Note: Neither card waives baggage fees on partner airlines); and
- The United website allows you to book Frequent Flyer tickets on all its partners. American only lists flights for Frequent Flyer awards from some of its partners. (Ñote: I have booked flights using Frequent Flyer awards on British Airways, Finnish Airways, and SAS on the American Airline’s website. I was not able to do the same with LAN-Chile).
While these same policies exist, I no longer am as a big fan of United as in the past. In April 2019, United Airlines stopped basing the number of miles necessary to get a Frequent Flyer Ticket on the region where you want to fly. (Until April 2019, you needed 30,000-40,000 miles, for example, for most economy flights between North America and Europe). Instead, miles required for a Frequent Flyer flight now depends on the demand for the given trip. (For more information about this change, read this article from Business Insider Magazine)
United Airlines claims that many flights require fewer miles than in the past. However, every flight I have tried to book on United Airlines has required more mileage than previously. The differences seem so disadvantageous to me that I plan to use my American Airlines card more in the future. I, however, suspect that American Airlines will adopt the same policy soon.
Delta Airlines made a similar change about four years ago that has made their Frequent Flyer program not very useful for most Fifty-Plus Nomads. I also do not have a lot of reasons to fly Delta because I do not live or often travel to and from their hub cities (particularly Atlanta). I know people who love these cards and would encourage you to read the following article to learn more about the benefits of American Express’s Platinum Card.
Redeeming Frequent Flyer Miles
Points from credit card spending, combined with bonuses, have enabled me to use Frequent Flyer miles for 40% of all my flights over the past eight years. (I usually charge between $25-40,000 a year on these two credit cards).
I have used Frequent Flyer miles for the following trips:
Quito- Miami; Montreal-Rio de Janeiro; Buenos Aires-Montreal; Merida, Mexico-Sofia, Bulgaria; Montreal-Vienna; Los Angeles-Panama City; Vienna-Milan; Cartagena-Quito; San Francisco-Anchorage; Panama City-Buenos Aires; Montreal-Lima; Miami-San Francisco; Montreal-Copenhagen; Montreal-Paris; Prague-Montreal; Montreal-Philadelphia; Montreal-Detroit; Montreal-Cancun (four times); Montreal-Calgary (four times); Buffalo-San Francisco; San Juan-Cancun; Cancun-Billings, MT.
I estimate that I earned around 80% of my points through credit card purchases and bonuses and approximately 20% from miles flown on airlines over the last eight years. The percentage from credit card purchases has increased markedly over the past three years. I would guess that nowadays, over 95% of my points come from credit card purchases and bonuses.
Earning Bonus Points
Here are some of the ways that I have earned bonus points. (Note: I found out about most of these bonuses through emails sent to me from the credit card companies):
- Credit card sign-up bonuses.These bonuses are the most common way that I earned points, other than credit card spending. I would estimate I received around 150,000 miles from these bonuses.
- Signing up for credit cards, which include access to the airlines’ club (approximately 50,000 miles).
- Using United Cruises for making cruise reservations. (Note: I had to pay $100 to United Cruises when I have canceled cruises).
- Signing up for a Citibank banking account. While this same offer is not available today, you may want to check out So-Fi Money to see if their offer may work for you.
Keep in mind that Frequent Flyer tickets are not free. I have paid between $5 (for some domestic flights in the US) and up to $225 (primarily for connecting in London) for award flights. (Note: Even airline employees usually pay these fees).