The Free Flight Primer is a series of posts which will show, step by step, how to earn and then redeem frequent flyer miles. We’ll start at the very beginning of the process and work our way through every step, from picking a destination all the way up to booking the ticket. In between we’ll talk about tips for figuring out how many miles are needed for a certain flight, how to earn those miles, how to find seat availability, and much more. I’ll be providing links to tools and websites that are helpful, tons of screenshots or video tutorials of various steps that may prove confusing, and of course, my own thoughts and opinions on the process. It will be broken in to multiple sections and multiple posts, which will make it easier to read and easier to use as a reference at a later date. I’ll also be providing a real-life case study using an actual client to better illustrate the process.
Getting Your Miles
Parts 1-5 have focused on picking a destination and finding availability to that destination. Now, it’s time to shift our focus and actually begin getting you the miles you need to fly for free. If you’ve been following the Free Flight Primer and already have a stockpile of miles, great! But for most newbies, building up your miles balance is a crucial step. Let’s jump right in.
Step 1: Determine How Many Miles You Need
You did this back in Part 1, so I’ll just recap it quickly. If you want to re-read the full version, go here and scroll down to Step 3. The best place to start is milez.biz, which will give you the amount of points needed to fly to your destination across almost all airlines. Consider the following:
What airlines did you find availability on in Parts 3-5?
How many people are flying?
What cabin class do you want to fly?
Case Study: Remember Rob, our case study? He’s looking to fly from New York to Rome in late September. We found good award availability with OneWorld for the dates he wants, he is flying with his wife, and they are looking to fly economy. By looking at milez.biz or at the AA award chart we know that it will cost him 60k roundtrip per person, so he needs 120k AA miles.
Step 2: Determine What Credit Cards Will Get You Your Miles
Credit card signups are far and away the best way to earn miles quickly. There are other ways to pad your balance (which we will discuss later) but to get your free flights, you’ll need to apply for a credit card or two (or three, or four…). So now the question becomes which one?
If you are completely new to the game, I’d recommend you read my Tips For Picking the Right Card page, which gives you a simplified, general overview of what to look for in a credit card. On top of those considerations, we now must also look at our specific scenario and what airlines we are looking to fly.
Two basic recommendations:
1. If you are looking to fly OneWorld, by far the best sign up bonus available is the two Citi/AAdvantage cards (1 Visa, 1 Amex) which will give you 100k AA miles total if you sign up for both at the same time. They are currently highlighted as my #1 pick on the Top Deals page, so read all about the goodness that is Citi/AA there.
2. If you are looking to fly Star Alliance, there are a few Chase cards that make sense for you. Since Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer to United, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great option. This gives you 50k UR points (and therefore 50k United miles after the transfer) and is the card I use as my daily spender. Chase also has a business card, the Chase Ink Bold, which also gives you a 50k sign up bonus. These cards are currently my #2 and #3 Top Deals, so head there to read more in-depth about them.
In addition, the Chase United Explorer card is another good option. Just be careful with this because it is targeted, meaning that al ot of people are getting offers for 60k (50k after your first spend, 10k after $25,000, essentially making this a 50k offer for most people) while others are getting a 40k offer (30k first spend, 10k more after $25,000). It seems that anyone who has any miles in their United accounts (no matter how small an amount) are getting the higher offer, so if you are considering this card, it would make sense to try to get some United miles in your account first and try to get the bigger offer.
Case Study: Rob is flying OneWorld, so he needs 120k AA miles. He already has 38k in his AA account, meaning that an extra 100k would put him over the 120k mark we need for him to fly to Europe and back. Since Rob already has the Citi/AA Visa (which excludes him from getting that card and also the Citi/AA Amex, since you have to sign up for both at the same time), his wife is signing up for both the cards and the easy 100k.
Step 3: Apply for the card(s) and start making the minimum spend.
After getting approved for the card, every card has some requirement to meet before you get the miles in your account. For some cards, this is simply “after first purchase” meaning that you can buy one thing, no matter what, and you’ll get the miles. For other cards, you must spend a certain amount in a certain time frame (i.e. $2,500 in 3 months). IF YOU DON’T HIT THE MINIMUM SPEND, YOU WON’T GET THE MILES. Always, always make sure you can hit the minimum spend.
Since you have already found the flights you want, the sooner you make the minimum spend, the sooner the miles post to your account. The sooner the miles post to your account, the sooner you can use them to book your flight. See the pattern? The sooner, the better. Every day you wait is another day that the flights you wanted could be snatched up, so while I don’t advocate going out and spending just to spend, if your travel is coming up fairly soon, then I’d suggest making the spend as quickly as you feasibly, and responsibly, can.
It is important to note that your miles will not post immediately after you hit the minimum spend, but can take up to 4-6 weeks after your statement closes. If this sounds confusing, let me provide an example: You get your Chase Sapphire card today and decide to make the minimum spend right away, running out to Best Buy and spending $3,000 on a new tv and laptop. Don’t come home, sign in to your Chase account, pay the balance off, and expect for your points to magically appear. Even if you pay the balance on the card right away online, you’ll usually have to wait for the statement to close, which depending on when your closing date is, could be a month. Companies will say it could take “up to 4-6 weeks” after your statement closes to cover themselves. More realistically, you should expect a week.
Morals of the story:
1. Plan ahead if possible. It is going to be very difficult to go from 0 miles in March to booking a 100k worth of flights for travel in May. Not impossible, but difficult. Even if you do make the minimum spend and your miles post quickly, the award space that close to the travel date will most likely be gone.
2. If you do find yourself in the above situation and are under the gun to get miles, be flexible with your dates. Something may not be open on the Saturday that you want to leave, but it might be available on Tuesday. Make sure to check all options.
Case study: Rob’s wife I applied for both the Citi/AA Visa and Citi/AA Amex using the two browser trick. She was instantly approved for both. She has met the minimum spend on the Visa and is now working on the minimum spend on the AmEx.
Step 4 (if necessary): Transfer the Points
For some cards, the miles you earn will go directly to your account with that airline (for example, the Citi/AAdvantage card earns you American Airlines miles). For other cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred. you’ll need to transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to the airline of your choosing (such as United). This can be done online and if you are transferring Chase or American Express points, the transfers are instant (the only exception to this is if you are transferring AmEx to ANA, in which case it usually takes 48 hours). If you a transferring Starwoods points, be aware that they can take anywhere from a few days to two weeks.
Case study: Rob and his wife will not need to transfer points, since they are earning AA miles using the Citi/AAdvantage cards and will also be redeeming AA miles for their tickets.
Step 5: Earn Miles Through Ways Other Than Sign Up Bonuses
While signup bonuses will give you the bulk of your points, you can also pad your mileage balances in a variety of other methods. This is especially helpful when a signup bonus leaves you a few thousand points shy of the amount you need for an award ticket. For example, let’s say you sign up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the 50k signup bonus but you need 60k for your roundtrip ticket to Europe. If you are smart, you could end up with these 10k just by meeting your minimum spend.
The easiest way is to use shopping portals. I document why you should use them in this post and then show you how to use my personal favorite, the Chase Ultimate Rewards Mall, here. To highlight our above example, if you went through the Chase UR Mall and spent $350 at Groupon, which was running a 30 points/$1 promotion, you’d already have your extra 10k.
I’ve harped on it continuously in other posts, but if you aren’t using shopping portals than you should start considering it, at least for the online purchases you already make.
Each card, in addition to a sign up bonus, will offer some sort of mileage earning for using it. For most cards, it is 1 point/$1 spent, although some offer special bonus categories where they’ll give you 2 points/$1 or even 5 points/$1 spent. For the Chase Sapphire, you’ll get 2x points on travel and dining, meaning that if you used it only these two categories to make your minimum spend of $3,000, you’d end up with an additional 6k points above your sign up bonus.
If you only have one card, it makes sense to use it in lieu of cash as much as possible. You’ll be earning miles and not paying anything extra. If you have more than one card, start being cognizant of which cards give bonuses in what categories and tailor your usage accordingly.
Case study: After the sign up bonus, Rob will have enough AA miles to make his trip. The AA cards only offer 1/$1 for all categories, so after meeting the minimum spend, he’ll have an extra 5k AA miles in his arsenal.
Step 6: Sign up for Award Wallet to Track Your Points
The more involved you get in this game, the more confusing it can get to remember what points you have with what airlines. Why not use a free product that does all hard work for you? Award Wallet will store your account balances for all types of airlines and hotels (except AA, which has blocked Award Wallet) and will update automatically once you set it up. I can’t think of a single good reason not to use it, and recommend it to everyone I know.
Next up, Part 7: Booking Your Award Ticket