The fastest way, by far, to earn miles for free flights is to sign up for the best credit card offers. The next best option is often to earn miles through online shopping portals. The most dependable method, though, is to earn miles through credit card spend. Of course, you could earn miles by flying, but that is, ironically, the slowest and least efficient approach.
To earn miles through spend, you should start with a credit card that offers the best category bonuses in strategically useful locations such as grocery stores, drug stores, gas stations, and office supply stores. For details about finding the best card, see: How to find the best credit card for groceries, gas, restaurants, and more”.
A common approach to manufacturing spend at places like these is as follows:
- Buy Visa or MasterCard gift cards with a credit card that earns a category bonus
- Use the gift cards as debit cards to transfer their value onto prepaid products such as Serve, Bluebird, or REDbird
- Use the prepaid products to pay bills such as mortgage, rent, or even credit card bills.
- With REDbird its possible to do even better. If you can find a Target that codes as a grocery store, you may be able to use your credit card to reload your REDbird card and earn a grocery store category bonus at the same time (see “REDcard changes everything”).
If your goal is to earn miles for free flights (especially international flights), then you’ll also want a card with transferable points: points that can be transferred to airline miles. Transferable points programs include: Amex Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou, Diner’s Club, and Starwood Preferred Guest. If you have your eye on particular airline programs, you can find a complete list of transfer partners for each program here: Transfer Partner Master List.
Airline partnerships and alliances
I’ll mention this just briefly here, but it probably deserves an entire blog series of its own… The airline you want to fly is not necessarily the airline you should collect miles in. Each airline program has its own award rules and each has many partners with which you can use miles to fly.
If you have a specific destination in mind, try out the Mighty Travels Trip Planner to see which miles can get you there the cheapest. Keep in mind that the planner results assume that you’ll find low-level awards. In many real-life situations, awards are either not available or they are available at higher award prices. Also note that the results do not show expected fuel surcharges. In real life, the program that requires the fewest miles is often not the “cheapest” once taxes and fees are accounted for. To get an idea of which programs charge more (or less) in taxes and fees, please see this Travel is Free post: Master Charts to Avoiding Fuel Surcharges (YQ).
Once you have an idea of which type of miles would be best for your trip, you can pop back once again to the Transfer Partner Master List to see which type of points you can use to transfer to that airline program.
5X office supply
Chase Ink cards offer 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar at office supply stores. Even better, Ink cards are now issued as Visa cards, and the Visa Savings Edge program gives cardholders an automatic 1% rebate for all Staples purchases of $200 or more. This rebate program is currently set to end on December 31, 2014 but I’m hoping that it will be extended next year. Staples sells $200 Visa gift cards both online and in-store. Unfortunately, these gift cards come with a $6.95 fee. Still, the value of 5X points combined with the 1% rebate far exceeds the fee.
Ink cards earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points which can be transferred one to one to the following airline programs: British Airways Executive Club, Korean Air, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, Southwest Rapid Rewards, United MileagePlus, and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club.
3X to 4.5X every day
The Amex EveryDay Preferred card offers 2X Membership Rewards points at gas stations and 3X at grocery stores; plus if you make 30 or more purchases each billing cycle, you’ll earn a 50% bonus. That means that this card effectively earns 3X at gas stations and 4.5X at grocery stores. The grocery store bonus is outstanding, but it does have a significant limitation: the bonus is limited to your first $6K per year of spend within that category. Plus, as an Amex card, it is unlikely that it will earn a grocery bonus at Target (see: “How to find the best credit card for groceries, gas, restaurants, and more”). Still, with this card it is possible to earn up to 27,000 points per year at 4.5X and then an unlimited number of points at 3X if you can find gift card friendly gas stations.
EveryDay cards earn Amex Membership Rewards points which can be transferred to airline miles as follows (transfers are 1 to 1 unless noted otherwise): AeroMexico, Aeroplan/Air Canada, Air France KLM Flying Blue, Alitalia MilleMiglia, All Nippon Airways (ANA) Mileage Club, Asia Miles, British Airways Executive Club, Delta Air Lines SkyMiles*, EL AL Israel Airlines (1 to .02), Emirates Skywards, Frontier Airlines*, Hawaiian Airlines*, Iberia, JetBlue (1 to .8)*, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, Virgin America (1 to .5)*, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club.
* American Express charges an Airline Excise Tax Offset Fee when transferring points to US airlines
Diner’s Club and the SPG pass through: 2.25 to 3X
Among the transferable points programs, SPG (Starwood Preferred Guest) has the most transfer partners. And, they offer a 25% bonus when points are transferred to airlines in 20,000 point increments (e.g. 20,000 SPG points becomes 25,000 miles with most transfers). The problem is that there is no direct way to earn more than one SPG point per dollar in spend (except at SPG properties).
A creative alternative approach is to start with the new Diner’s Club Elite card. This card earns 3 points per dollar at gas stations (at the pump), drug stores, and grocery stores, with no cap. And, its points can be transferred one to one to many airline programs. Transfers to SPG are worse than 1 to 1, but by earning Diners Club points at gas stations, drug stores, and grocery stores you can effectively earn 1.8 SPG points per dollar (see “How to earn 1.8 SPG points per dollar, or 5.76 Choice points per dollar”). Then, when you transfer 20,000 points at a time from SPG to airline miles, your effective earn rate becomes 2.25 miles per dollar.
Think about that… for spend at grocery stores and drug stores and pay at the pump gas, the Diner’s Club card can be used to earn 3 miles per dollar with many airline programs or 2.25 miles per dollar with many others. Here are the details:
Diner’s Club 3X: Aeroplan/Air Canada, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, British Airways Executive Club, Delta Air Lines SkyMiles, EVA Air Infinity MileageLands, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Iceland Air, Korean Air, SAS EuroBonus, South African Airways Voyager, Thai Airways International Royal Orchid Plus, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club.
Diner’s Club 2.25X (via SPG): Air Berlin, Air China Companion, Air France KLM Flying Blue, Alitalia MilleMiglia, All Nippon Airways (ANA) Mileage Club, American Airlines AAdvantage, Asia Miles, Asiana Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines’ Sky Pearl Club, Emirates Skywards, Etihad Airways, Gol Smiles, Hainan Airlines, Japan Airlines (JAL) Mileage Bank, Miles and More, Qatar Airways, Saudi Arabian Airlines Alfursan, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, US Airways Dividend Miles, Virgin Australia.
Other transfer ratios: Southwest Rapid Rewards 15 to 12 (2.4X); EL AL Israel Airlines, 1 to .02 (.06X); Air New Zealand & Air Points via SPG 65 to 1 (.03X), LAN Airlines LANPASS Kms via SPG 1 to 1.5 (3.4X); United MileagePlus via SPG 2 to 1 (.9X)
Not available through Diner’s Club (but available through other programs): Garuda Indonesia Frequent Flyer, Iberia, JetBlue Airways®, Virgin America.
The downside of the Diner’s Club Elite card? It has a $300 annual fee and no signup bonus. The combination of category bonuses and transfer ratios is outstanding, but it is only worth it if you often get outsized value from your miles.
By using the right credit cards in the right locations, it is possible to manufacture miles at rates ranging from 2.25 to 5 miles per dollar. The question that still needs to be asked is whether 2.25X to 5X is better than earning cash back. It is still possible to earn up to 5% cash back at certain locations (see “Playing 5X everywhere Whack a Mole”), so which is better? The answer almost certainly depends on how you would use the earned miles. With international premium cabin awards it is common to exceed 2 cents per mile in value (same with short hop economy flights using British Airways Avios). In those cases, earning and using miles is the way to go. If you don’t expect to fly such routes often, cash back might be a better bet for you.