Live Well, Get Miles
Frequent-flier rewards are more elusive than ever. Brad Tuttle helps you score.
The average leisure traveler no longer has a prayer of compiling enough miles for a free trip simply by flying a few times a year. Most airlines now demand more miles before you qualify, and they expire quicker than ever—in 18 months, typically. Today you must pile up points by every means available, and do so in a hurry. That means taking advantage of the airlines' partner programs and being smart about how to use them. Here, with help from insideflyer.com's Randy Petersen, are ways to turn everyday activities into miles. Go ahead and get crafty.
There's a good chance you already have an airline-affiliated credit card. Get another one: It's hands down the quickest way to earn a free trip. Most of these cards deliver enough bonus points for a domestic round trip after you make your first purchase. Word to the wise The fees can be high, so after you've gotten your free flight, reevaluate whether you want to keep the account.
• Continental: 20,000 miles with first purchase, plus 5,000 miles for signing up a second card user; $85 annual fee.
• Delta: 20,000 miles with first Gold SkyMiles purchase, 2,500 miles apiece for registering up to two more users; $95 annual fee waived for the first year.
• JetBlue: 50 TrueBlue points with first purchase (that's halfway to a free flight), plus a $50 credit with a JetBlue ticket purchase; $40 annual fee.
• Southwest: Eight credits with first purchase, eight more with a balance transfer (16 will get you a free flight), and a $20 account credit when you buy a flight; $59 annual fee.
• United: 30,000 miles with first Mileage Plus purchase of at least $250; $60 annual fee.
Register your credit or debit card with an airline's dining program and you'll earn up to five miles for every $1 spent at partner restaurants. Alaska Airlines, American, Delta, Southwest, and United have very similar programs—and nearly identical websites. The restaurant options are better than you might imagine: around 600 in New York City alone, for example—most of them independently owned. Word to the wise To get the full five miles per $1, you have to use your card for a meal at least 12 times a year, and let the restaurants send you promotional e-mails. If you block the e-mails, you could get only one mile per $1 spent—or worse, maybe even nothing.
• American and Delta: 1,000-mile bonus for spending $25 or more within 30 days of joining, and up to five miles per $1 spent at partner restaurants thereafter.
• United: Similar to American and Delta—but minus the 1,000-mile bonus.
• Southwest: One-quarter credit bonus for the first $25 spent, and then one-quarter credit for every additional $100.
SELL YOUR HOUSE
Picking a mortgage lender, real-estate agent, or moving service that works with a frequent-flier program is a quick way to pile up tens of thousands of miles. Word to the wise With financial transactions this huge, keep your eye on what's really important; a few free flights won't help that much if you end up paying thousands extra on your mortgage.
• American: 1,000 miles for every $10,000 financed with Wells Fargo Home Mortgage.
• Continental: 3,000 miles per $10,000 of any home sale or purchase with a Realtor found through LendingTree (which adds up quickly—if you're buying a $300,000 house and selling one of the same value, you'll net 180,000 miles).
Every airline has a bunch of retailers it partners with, and they'll thank you for your business with 1 to 25 miles for every $1 you spend. Signing up is easy; enter the shopping section of your miles program's website to browse stuff from Omaha Steaks, Staples, Target, iTunes, Mrs. Fields, Macy's, REI, and more. Word to the wise It's always good to comparison shop and root around for better deals. Even with the bonus miles factored in, you might be better off making the purchase elsewhere.
• Alaska Airlines: Four miles per $1 spent at Macy's.
• American: 14,000 miles for activating a new FamilyTime plan from T-Mobile with a two-year service plan (though there's a $200 penalty for dropping T-Mobile's service before your term expires).
• Continental: 10 miles per $1 spent with luggage vendor ebags.com, plus double miles if you pay with a Continental Chase card.
• United: 2,000 miles for signing up with Netflix; a bonus of 2,000 miles if you pay with a United Visa card.