¨When you got your three millionth frequent flyer mile, I think something snaps in your brain.¨
Over the past nine years, Frequent Flyer miles have paid for 40% of all my flights.
Most of these benefits came from 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.
That said, I would have gotten even more benefits if I put more time and energy into travel hacking. But, I was lazy and was happy with getting so many free flights with so little effort.
In the past, when I tried to learn travel hacking, I was quickly discouraged. The rules and programs are complicated, hard to follow, and time-consuming.
However, now I need to become a more active travel hacker. Airlines are making Frequent Flyer programs less accessible to Fifty-Plus Nomads. I suspect that Frequent-Flyer programs eventually will become almost useless for all but ardent business travelers or travel hackers.
Yet, I am lazy and easily confused by travel hacking. Therefore, I recently decided to pay for professional help through the Mile Method. Trevor Wright runs Mile Method. I met Trevor at the Digital Nomad Conference in Cancun and was impressed by his knowledge of travel hacking. I will report on my success with Mile Method in future blog posts.
What is Travel Hacking?
Travel hacking is the process of:
- Acquiring loyalty points from many different travel companies and
- Using these points to secure free or severely discounted travel.
There is nothing wrong with travel hacking. Loyalty programs are an easy way for companies to attract new customers (especially the coveted businesspeople) and keep them coming back repeatedly. Airlines weathered 9/11 and the 2008 recession primarily by selling points to credit card and other businesses. These businesses, in turn, used these points to encourage otherwise reluctant consumers to spend money on their products.
In addition, because of the economics of the travel industry, many consumers find the travel industry’s differential pricing unfair. The travel industry uses frequent flyer and other loyalty programs to address consumers’ negative perceptions. Frequent flyer and other loyalty programs enable participants to travel more often and access high-end luxury travel services at a lower price,
The most lucrative source of points is sign-up bonuses for airline and hotel-branded credit cards. Hackers often sign up for multiple credit cards and use these bonuses to gain hundreds of thousands of points without ever traveling.
My course What are Some of the Common Travel Hacks? lists the most common travel hacking strategies employed by experts. Also, buy Nomadic Matt’s book How to Travel Hack and Get Free Flights and Hotels for even more valuable tips.
It is not easy to be a travel hacker. As more and more people learn the hacks, the travel industry develops rules to close these loopholes. A never-ending battle between hackers and the travel industry has evolved.
My Lazy Man’s Experience with Frequent Flyer Miles
I did very little work to get these flights. I:
- signed up for the cards
- charged between $25-40,000 per year on my card,
- took advantage of several bonus offers from the two credit card companies; and
- learned how to redeem my points effectively.
My American and United Airline Branded Credit Cards
Until last year, 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 (Note: I still have their standard airline-branded credit cards):
- I seldom used the airlines’ clubs;
- United has diminished the value of Frequent Flyer miles;
- I fly less often than in the past;
- I did not want to pay the $450 annual fees. (My current Citibank and Chase cards cost me $95 a year); and
- American Airlines charges a baggage fee on all leisure-oriented flights, even if you have the club card.
Using these two cards, I also:
- have not paid baggage fees on most flights. (As long as I pay for the ticket using the appropriate airline-branded card).
- 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
Why United Used to Be Better than American and Delta
Until this year, 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).
Why I am No Longer a Big United Fan
While these same advantages exist today, 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 trip I have tried to book on United Airlines has required more mileage than previously. The differences seem so disadvantageous 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
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.
Recent Changes in How Airline Credit Flights
I get fewer miles from actual flights than in the past because airlines have changed how they award frequent flyer miles. Until three years ago, American and United gave a point for every mile flown. Today they give points based on money spent on buying tickets from the airline (generally five points per dollar spent after taxes and fees).
I sometimes used to book flights from American and United and their partners, even if they were slightly more expensive, to get points on American and United airlines. Nowadays, I think twice about doing this because:
- Sometimes, flights on some partner airlines(a partner of United Airlines), are not eligible to earn points if you use their low-cost tickets and
- I only get between 500-1500 points for most flights on American and United. (I used to get 2-3 times often this much before the airlines determined mileage based on the dollars spent on the ticket).
Earning Bonus Points
Here are some of the ways that I have earned bonus points. (Note: I found 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 canceled cruises).
- Signing up for a Citibank banking account. Unfortunately, this same offer is not available today.
A final note
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).
Want to Learn More About Frequent Flyer Miles and Travel Hacking?
In addition to the above discussion, I have a course on Travel Hacking which addresses the following questions:
- What are Frequent Flyer Miles?
- How to Redeem Frequent Flyer Miles? and
- What are Some Common Travel Hacks?