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.
PAY YOUR BILLS
Everyday expenses, from buying your weekly groceries to paying monthly utility bills, can earn you some serious miles.
• Continental: 3,000 miles for signing up with Energy Plus, an energy service in New York, plus two miles for every $1 spent on your electric bill.
• Continental: One mile per $2 spent at ShopRite. But in order to collect, you have to spend at least $1,000 every three months. And you can't roll your dollars over from quarter to quarter.
• Alaska Airlines and United: 125 miles for spending $250 at Safeway supermarkets with a Safeway Club Card.
• American: 2,000 miles at sign-up with Gexa Energy, a Texas-based electricity provider, plus two miles for every $1 of your monthly bill.
BANK ON IT
It's not like you're going to open a bank account or hire a financial planner because you'll get a couple thousand miles, but many of these financial services are worthwhile in their own right, with competitive rates and online trading fees. The miles are but a bonus.
• American: 1,000 miles for opening a new account with BankDirect, 5,000 miles for signing up for direct deposit, 2,000 miles for using electronic bill pay 12 months in a row, and 100 miles per month for every $1,000 you keep in your checking account.
• Continental: 2,000 miles for opening an account with online investment service ShareBuilder, plus 175 miles per month if you subscribe to one of the site's investment programs.
• Delta: 5,000 miles for depositing $2,500 in a new Fidelity Investments account, with incremental increases of up to 25,000 miles for a $50,000 deposit.
SPEND TIME, NOT MONEY
Earning miles usually involves buying something, but not in these cases. Answering surveys through e-miles.com and other online polling outfits, for example, can earn you 10 to 1,000 miles apiece with either AirTran, Continental, Delta, or Frontier Airlines.
• Delta: 3,000 miles for attending a consultation with Ameriprise Financial.
• United: 1,500 miles for receiving a no-obligation quote on auto or home-owner's insurance from Sentry Insurance.
Some of the oldest airline partners are other travel companies, including cruise, hotel, and car-rental players. Word to the wise To get airline miles from a cruise line, you have to book through the airline's reservations system—meaning you may pay more. Confirm that you're getting a good price at cruisecompete.com, where you pick a cruise and then agents e-mail you their best offers.
• Continental: 1,500 miles for cruises lasting one to five days; up to 10,000 miles for cruises of 13 days or more. Valid with 16 different lines, including Carnival, Disney, and Royal Caribbean.
• Continental: 50 miles per day with car-rental agencies Avis, Hertz, National, and Thrifty.
• Delta: 250 miles for staying at a Best Western or Choice Hotels property; one mile per $1 spent at Doubletree and Hilton hotels; two miles at Element properties.
• Southwest: Half a credit per car rental at Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Hertz, and Thrifty. (But to get Southwest credits with Avis or Budget, you have to fly within 24 hours of your rental; local rentals don't count.)
Be a Joiner
Airlines always offer new promotions—extra miles for certain dates or routes. But remember: Each offer requires you to sign up separately, or no deal.
For a fee (from $50), most airlines let you pool miles with friends. Or try trading points through points.com's Global Points Exchange.
Airlines let you pay out of pocket for miles, but don't bother unless you need only a small amount (5,000 miles or less) to reach a reward flight.
NOW, MAKE THOSE MILES COUNT
1. Monitor the deals.
Subscribe to airline e-newsletters so you'll know when the mileage needed for certain flights is lowered; a trip that normally requires 60,000 miles may suddenly be available for 40,000 miles.
2. Book in advance.
Many airlines charge you extra if you reserve a reward ticket at the last minute. Continental, for example, charges $75 if you're booking within 21 days of departure. You're more likely to find better availability ahead of time too.
3. Use Yapta's award-seat tracker.
The website alerts you when a reward seat opens up on flights you've selected.
4. Trade miles for other stuff.
Miles can be exchanged for magazine subscriptions, golf clubs, electronics, and more, so take what you can get before yours expire.