Fly Free: Frequent-Flier Miles Secrets
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Earn miles: Commit to an airline
Although airlines have tightened up in recent years (US Airways and United recently stopped awarding the standard 500-mile minimum for their shortest flights), there’s no reason to stop earning points the traditional way. The more committed you are to one carrier, the better you’ll be treated: American gives its Platinum Elite members a 100 percent mileage bonus on all flights; Gold members are awarded a 25 percent mileage bonus.
Earn miles: Use that credit card
These days, fliers accrue more miles from non-travel-related purchases than from flying. Using a standard credit card to charge expenses is a good way to do it, because once you earn enough points for a ticket, you can buy one without restrictions on award-seat availability or blackout dates. The downside is you can’t combine these miles with the ones you receive from flights.
Co-branded credit cards also yield impressive returns if you’re loyal. And you can merge the miles that you earn with those that you rack up flying. Bear in mind, however, that these cards often come with higher fees (from $85 to $135 per year). Many airlines that offer no-fee mileage cards, such as United, will allow you to accumulate miles at only half the rate of those that do charge.
Earn miles: Eat and drive
Lately, rental-car companies are providing more-tempting deals. Midwest Miles and Northwest WorldPerks members double their miles with Hertz; Continental OnePass users triple their mileage with Alamo. Dining, too, is paying out more than ever: United gives you up to 10 miles for every dollar you spend at participating restaurants (find a list on mpdining.rewardsnetwork.com); Delta’s SkyMiles Dining program offers up to five per dollar (and was recently awarding 1,000 bonus miles for the first $50 spent).
Earn miles: Double-dip with third parties
Many other types of businesses can now add to your stockpile.
• Fidelity account holders who open non-retirement brokerage accounts with a minimum of $2,500 get 5,000 Delta miles.
• New T-Mobile customers receive 7,000 AAdvantage miles.
The list goes on. But the real key is double-dipping. For example, if you use the new Virgin Atlantic American Express Black Card (which gives you 1.5 miles for every dollar you spend) to buy $500 of groceries at Safeway, and you also belong to the Safeway Club (which offers 125 miles for every $250), you’ll actually earn 1,000 miles. Starwood Preferred guests who stay in a Sheraton get two miles for every dollar they fork over, and if they pay with a credit card that earns at the same rate, they receive four for every dollar spent. (Travel + Leisure is owned by American Express.)
Spend miles: Pick up the phone
It’s difficult to secure a trip using points, even if you plan ahead. A limited number of seats on any given flight are released 331 days in advance, and others are added somewhat randomly thereafter, making it a chore to discern what will be available. “The supply of seats is constantly changing,” says Randy Petersen of the website FlyerTalk. “The new rule is to start searching six months from the flight date.”