In Part 1 of this series on how to fly for free, I discussed the basics of earning frequent flier miles without actually doing a lot of travelling, and in Part 2 I outlined the specifics steps we took to earn two free vacations - 10 round-trip plane tickets. In this third and final post, I'll discuss a few advanced tips and tricks, talk about earning points for free hotel stays, and provide some links to web sites that know way more about this game than I ever will.
So you already know that when you buy something on a points-earning credit card, you usually earn 1 mile for every dollar spent. If you go through the frequent flier program's shopping portal, you'll usually get a bonus of 3-5 miles per dollar spent. But there are ways of doubling (or more) that amount, commonly known as "double dipping".
Here's an example... we're wanting to buy a small storage shed for the backyard. It's $250 at Lowe's; if I just go to the store and buy it, I'll earn 1 mile per dollar, or 250 miles. Not bad, but we can do better. Lowe's usually offers free shipping to the store, so I'll go through the shopping portal and earn 3 miles per dollar, plus the normal 1 per dollar by using the credit card, for a total of 1000 miles. That's better, but it's still not the best!
I have a Chase Ink Bold Business credit card that gives me 5 miles for every dollar spent at an office supply store. I certainly can't buy a garden shed at Office Depot, but I can go in and buy Lowe's gift cards! They don't have a fee, so a $25 gift card costs me exactly $25. So, I buy $250 in gift cards and earn 1250 miles, then go through the shopping portal and spend that $250 on the shed, earning the 3 mile per dollar bonus, for a total of 750 miles. Add those two together and we're up to 2000 miles. But we can still do better!
I can go through the shopping portal to Office Depot and buy gift cards online. If they mail you a physical card there is a fee, but if they just e-mail you a gift card code there's no fee. So let's say there's a 3 mile bonus through the portal - I buy the $250 worth of gift cards and get 8 miles per dollar (or 2000 miles), then go back through the portal and make my Lowe's purchase for 750 miles, for a total of 2750 miles. That's a big difference from our original 250 miles!
You can see that this can add up quickly. Some people have discovered combinations that will earn as much as 36 miles per dollar spent--that means if you spend $700, you get a free round-trip ticket. Now, you obviously don't want to go buying stuff you don't actually need, but if you need to make an online purchase anyway, it's worth taking the time to research what will give you the most points.
Another option for big mileage earnings via a shopping portal is buying items to resell. Now, I wouldn't tackle this unless you're already experienced in selling stuff on either Amazon or eBay--you need to have a good idea of what will sell quickly, how much you can sell it for, and what your fees will be.
You'll also need to figure out how much those miles you're earning are worth. For example, let's say that I can pay $250 for a round-trip ticket, or use 25,000 miles and get it free. This means that each of those miles is worth one penny. So say I find a way to earn 10 miles per dollar spent, and I buy $2500 worth of stuff to resell. I don't mind taking a small loss on the sales, but I want to make sure that the amount of the loss plus the amount of the fees is less than $250 - hopefully much less, to make it worth my time.
In the previous post (part 2) I talked about paying your bills with a mile-earning credit card. Unfortunately, not every bill you have can be paid this way - odds are if you have a mortgage, car payment or student loan they don't accept credit cards. You can use a service like ChargeSmart to pay bills that you normally couldn't, but they do charge you a fee. For example, to pay a $1500 mortgage, they'll charge you about $38. Under most circumstances this is a bad deal--with my example above of a mile being worth a penny, you're paying $38 to get $15 worth of miles. However, if you need to hit a certain amount of spending to get a credit card sign-up bonus (like 50,000 miles if you spend $3000 in 3 months), this would be well worth it.
Another good mileage earner is Amazon Payments. This is a service similar to PayPal that lets you transfer money to friends--you can transfer up to $1000 per month with no fee on either end. You send the money to your friend from your credit card, they transfer the money to their bank account, withdraw it and give it back to you.UPDATE: Amazon has unfortunately discontinued this service.
One final option is buying Visa debit cards and cashing them out. If you buy the type that have a PIN number, you can then withdraw the money from them at an ATM. You'll pay a fee to buy the card, and another to withdraw cash, so this is probably something you should only use when you need to hit that big sign-up bonus.
I mentioned above the Chase Ink business credit card-- it's very easy to apply for business cards, even if you don't have what you would normally think of as a business. Ever sell something on eBay? You've got a business! The key to this is when you apply, you use your social security number where the application asks you for a tax ID. As long as you have good credit, you should be approved!
Airlines aren't the only things with frequent traveler programs - hotels have them as well. In most cases you're better off putting your everyday spending on a card that earns airline miles, but if you find a hotel credit card with a nice sign-up bonus it may be worthwhile. It pays to research how many points your getting versus how many points per night the hotel costs - the very first card I got was a Hilton Visa that gave 10,000 points after the first purchase. Well, around here at least, I've never found a Hilton room that can be booked for less than 30,000 points per night!
Once you've started earning miles in several different programs, you may want to look into transferring miles between programs. Now, you're not going to be able to transfer American miles to United obviously, but you can do things like transfer Alaska Airlines miles (which typically has nice 50,000 mile sign-up bonuses) to American, or Ultimate Rewards to United, or even airline miles to hotel programs. I wouldn't transfer the points unless you have something specific you want to spend them on - sometimes you'll be able to find promotions that give you bonuses for transferring (transfer 20,000 points and we'll add another 5,000 free!), so it's best to wait until the last possible minute.
Another tip is to enroll in every frequent traveler program you can find, even if you don't think you'd ever stay at that hotel or fly on that airline. You never know when a program will offer a big bonus that can then be transferred to some other program.
I mentioned that there are web sites that know WAY more about this than I do - these are people that are able to fly first class multiple times a year to various exotic locations. Here are some of my favorites:
Million Mile Secrets
Frequent Miler-- the Boarding Area site above has many blogs by different authors, this is a particularly good one.
First 2 Board
FlyerTalk--the forums on this site are great sources of tips.
So if you decide you want to pursue this "hobby" of accumulating miles to fly for free, my two biggest pieces of advice to you would be to do your research and find out how to get the most points for your dollar, and stay on top of your spending so it doesn't get away from you. If you do this right, the world is yours!