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 hoped to seduce visitors into forsaking Hawaii for Potsdamer Platz.
Erik Larson

3 Simple Tips to Score 20 Frequent Flyer Flights

Frequent flyer and hotel loyalty program design and rules vary between countries greatly. This post addresses frequent flyer and hotel loyalty programs in the US only. I welcome comments about how these programs work outside the US.

This blog was written before the COVID Pandemic. The COVID epidemics played havoc on the travel business. In 2022, Fifty Plus Nomad decided to focus on traveling and living in Mexico and language learning posts. We will only update these long-term travel-related posts on a time-permitting basis. We would appreciate your comments and updates on these posts.

Why I Didn’t Actively Hack for Frequent Flyer Points in the Past

Frequent Flyer points have been one of the essential tools I have used to fund my airline travels worldwide. Over the past nine years, Frequent Flyer points have paid for 40% of all the flights I have taken.

Yet, I didn’t work hard to get these trips, I just used these 3 simple tips to score 20 frequent flyer flights.

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 long-term 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 Points

I have been able to get many benefits by using two airline-branded credit cards: Citibank AAdvantage card and the Mileage-Plus United Chase Card.

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 signup bonus without renewing the card annually.
  • Did not want to pay the $450 annual fees. (My current Citibank and Chase cards cost me $95 annually).
  • Do not like that American Airlines charges a baggage fee on all leisure-oriented flights, even if you have a club card.

One of the most significant benefits of airline-branded credit cards is that I do not pay baggage fees on most flights. (As long as I pay for the ticket using the appropriate airline-branded card). I can also board the airplane earlier than most other customers. Boarding early means I seldom search for a cabin to stow my carry-on bags. 

United Versus American and Delta Frequent Flyer Points

Until recently, if I had to choose between American and United 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.
  • You must pay the baggage fee for flights to leisure destinations like Cancun. The United Chase cards waive baggage fees on all flights. The American Airlines-Citibank card only waives the baggage fee on business-oriented trips. (Note: Neither card waives baggage fees on partner airlines). 
  • 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 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, the miles required for a Frequent Flyer flight now depend 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 requires more mileage than before.

Delta Airlines made a similar change about four years ago, making their Frequent Flyer program not very useful for most Fifty-Plus Nomads. I do not have many 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 American Express’s Platinum Card benefits. 

My Simple Tips to Score 20 Frequent Flyer Flights also earned me a flight from Prague (pictured here) to Montreal. (pxfuel)
My Simple Tips to Score 20 Frequent Flyer Flights also earned me a flight from Prague (pictured here) to Montreal. (pxfuel)

Redeeming Frequent Flyer Points

Credit card spending and bonuses have enabled me to use Frequent Flyer points for 40% of 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 points 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 of credit card purchases has increased markedly over the past three years. I would guess that over 95% of my frequent flyer points nowadays come from credit card purchases and bonuses. 

Earning Bonus Frequent Flyer Points

Here is how I have earned bonus frequent flyer points. (Note: I found out about most of these bonuses through emails sent to me from the credit card companies):

  • Credit card signup bonuses. These bonuses are the most common way I earned frequent flyer points, other than credit card spending. I would estimate I received around 150,000 miles from these bonuses.
  • Signing up for credit cards includes 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. While this offer is unavailable today, you may want to check out sites like Johnny Jet, Nomadic Matt, and One Mile at a Time to find current offers for bank account signups. 

Keep in mind that Frequent Flyer tickets are not free. I paid between $5 (some domestic US flights) and $225 (connecting in London) for award flights. (Note: Even airline employees usually pay these fees).

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Some Additional Long-Term Travel Posts from Fifty Plus Nomad

Paul Heller has been a lifelong avid traveler and language learner and teacher, Even as a child, he told Santa Claus that he wanted to visit all the children worldwide. At seven years old, Paul wanted to retire to Mexico. At eight, he memorized the name, capital, location, and some facts about every country worldwide. At twelve, he found a book "Lonely Planet: Southeast Asia on a Shoestring" and started developing his own itinerary for a future round-the-world trip. He remained obsessed with travel; after getting a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Southern California and working as an administrator, He spent his vacations going to different countries around the globe studying language, touring, and volunteering. In 1994, he quit his job and lived in Russia as a volunteer English instructor. He discovered that he loved teaching languages. In 2004, he decided to make a living out of his travels and founded a community of people who love to travel just like him. He developed 5 three-hour classes about living and traveling long-term worldwide which he taught in over 50 adult education programs throughout the US. After his parents passed, he realized his dream of traveling around the world; cruising and touring some of the most remote places like the North Atlantic, Patagonia, and Oceania; and learning new languages (he knows Spanish, Italian, French, and Russian). Paul encourages everyone to learn foreign languages. He knows that it can be frustrating and slow but that anyone can learn a language if they put in the work and, most importantly, learning a language is well worth the time and effort because it opens up a whole new set of people, ideas, and cultures. He is currently spending the next chapter of his life in Mérida, México. He is excited about using this blog and his classes and workshops to inspire and equip fellow Fifty Plus Nomads with the language, cultural, and psychological skills necessary to be successful and happy long-term travelers and expats over 50.

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