Tight Corridor on Airplane

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The Ultimate Beginners Guide To Points/Miles and Free Travel

Hi, my name is Tim, and I’m a miles junkie. I have spent years working my miles accounts. Over the years, I have accumulated several million miles, which I have used for great travel. I have no shame when earning miles, and neither should you.

Now you will find guides with tons of hacks and tips to get you millions of miles. But some hacks can be costly to your credit score and your wallet. In this guide, I will list all the tips and hacks I have found to help you maximize your miles and rewards. This guide is for the beginner or novice to help them gain a free trip or two. And once you’re hooked, you will only crave more miles and find ways that work for you.

I have traveled to some great destinations with a companion absolutely FREE (except tax, which you can’t avoid). London, Switzerland (several times), Hawaii (several times), Key West (many times), San Fransisco, Mexico, Spain, and the list goes on and on. All of these flights were FREE except for a few fees and taxes.

How Hard is it to Earn a Free Flight?

For a novice, it may seem impossible. So here is an example of a FREE flight to Paris on Delta starting with a 0 miles balance:

STEP 1- Open

Open a new Delta SkyMiles Platinum Card (this card does have a $250 annual fee)

Total Earned 90,000 miles

STEP 2- Spend

During the first six months, you must spend at least $4,000. Most people can do that on everyday expenses.

  • Dining out at restaurants you already eat at $2400
  • Grocery shopping $4800
  • Essential online shopping $1500 (earning bonus points at various SkyMiles Shopping options such as CVS, Macy’s, Gap, and many more)
  • Misc. spending 10,000 (charge everything you can and use one card)

Total Earned 26,000 to 30,000 miles (this depends on how well you work the double and triple miles offers on specific spending).

STEP 3- Refer

Refer a friend to get the card (and in turn, they refer me to open an America Advantage Card, and we are off to another free trip). Earn 20,000 points (currently a special offer for referrals)

Total Earned 20,000 miles

Total Earned 136,000 miles (OPEN +SPEND+REFER)

With the 15% Delta savings on SkyMiles offer, I can book two main cabin tickets from Pittsburgh to Paris for 136,000 miles and $182.10 in taxes and fees. See, it’s easy. Well, sort of easy. You need to do a little work. So let me explain some methods to get this FREE ticket.

But first, let’s lay some ground rules. I don’t think all methods are wise, and I believe that you should never be spending for the sake of points is smart; in the end, if you are paying $1,000 in interest and fees over a year and you end up with an airline ticket or room for free, you were probably better off paying for the ticket or room out-of-pocket.

This guide will cover mainly credit card miles and specific airline benefits. It will also cover some methods that don’t lead to specific airline miles but will offer you redemption as gift cards or vouchers. It doesn’t go into detail on hotel points. You get the most bang for your buck with airline points/miles, so let’s focus our attention there. You can find a niffy points valuation chart regularly updated on ThePointsGuy.com; this site is an excellent resource for all things points/miles. Another great resource for points information is NomdicMatt.com; he will provide you with an excellent resource for points and other great travel offers.

Close-up of a Person Holding a Bunch of Credit Cards
Where Do You Begin

Starting by identifying your goals. Would you like free airfare, prefer free hotel stays, or is an upgrade your primary focus? Especially when you are starting out, stick to one main goal. That helps you avoid spreading your points too thin and not ending up with any meaningful rewards. Also, look at your current travel habits and identify which companies you currently use since this is an easy way to boost your points. My work required me to travel to Atlanta (at least 4-6 times a year), so Delta was the most obvious choice for accumulating airline points. I also often stayed at Marriott properties when I was there; thus, earning Marriott points made the most sense.

YES Points Are Usable

I always hear and read that the points are worthless. And that just isn’t true. Yes, your miles are not best used if you have particular needs, i.e., I must fly Saturday to Saturday to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the week of Christmas. That is never a good point usage. Flexibility is the key to using your points to their best potential. I suggest you decide you want to travel to a destination and then use a points calendar on the airline site to see what dates offer the best deals. Or decide upon a time to travel and then select a destination. Flexibility will get you where you want to go with your points.

Start Off With A Big Bonus

The first step to boosting your points is taking advantage of the best sign-up bonus offers. A great way to do this without spending hours exploring is to visit nerdwallet.com and thepointsguy.com; they post monthly rundowns of the best offers from various cards. I have seen offers of 75,000 to 90,000 bonus miles when you sign up for certain credit cards and spend approximately $3,000 – $4,000 in the first 3-6 months.

You may have already received a bonus in the past from your current credit cards; not a problem. After a grace period, usually 18-24 months, most card companies will allow you to sign-up for a new card and get another bonus. Also, some companies offer you an upgraded card, which usually provides a much higher bonus. You can close your old card, but make sure your previously accumulated points transfer or remain. You don’t want to close an account and lose all your points. One note of caution, opening and closing accounts will temporarily impact your credit score, so if you are planning a big purchase such as a mortgage or large loan, don’t do this right before you apply, it may impact the rates you receive from the bank.

Remember, you don’t get rewards until you meet the minimum spending requirements. So make sure you have some large purchases coming up if you sign up for several cards at the same time.

Work Your Cards

Once you have the credit cards, you need to work the system. Almost all cards will offer you bonuses for certain types of spending. For example, AMEX Delta Skymiles Platinum provides a bonus on Delta purchases. Still, you also can earn additional points on grocery and dining purchases. Instead of 1 mile per dollar, you can earn up to 5 miles per dollar spent. The best way to determine this is to log into your card and review the offers.

Another excellent option for earning more miles is to shop online through your airline account. An example is Skymiles Shopping through Delta. Once you sign-up for Skymiles Shopping, you can receive bonus miles when you shop at many online vendors. Macy’s currently allows you to earn up to 4 additional miles for each dollar you spend. So when you spend $200 at Macy’s through Skymiles Shopping, you will earn 1000 miles added to your Delta account. You can add an extension to your browser through the SkyMiles Shopping site that will alert you to offers when you visit a website, even if you are not shopping through the SkyMiles Shopping portal.

Look for any opportunity to pay for large items with your credit card. This can help in two ways: the initial miles will add up and help you achieve airline status. Most cards offer a bonus at a certain point, usually around $25,000 in annual spending. Sometimes this bonus is additional miles, and sometimes it’s additional credit toward airline status.

Work on the referral program. Almost all cards offer a bonus (sometimes up to 100,000 miles) when you refer a friend or family member to open a card. You can work out a system with a like-minded mileage junkie and refer each other when opening cards, thus double dipping in some cases with a sign-up bonus and a referral.

Now, what about those pesky annual fees? Sometimes it can be as high as $550 for some high-end cards. Well, the first thing is using all the benefits, such as companion tickets (which can easily earn back the fee in one trip, and you also earn miles on the one ticket that is purchased), free Global Entry (worth $100 every 4 years), free checked bags (which if you travel only 4 times a year can save you $140)

Suitcase with straw hat in corridor
Other Ways To Earn Points

Convert Partner Points. You can convert points from other reward programs into Delta miles on Delta. An example is covert 9,000 Marriott Bonvoy Points into 3,000 Delta Miles. This is only a good idea if you have a small balance in an account that you can’t use for any reward. Why let them sit there when you can move them to an account you can use.

Partner points are always a great way to add to your balance. Every airline reward program offers points on rental cars, hotels, and airline dining programs. Both American and United offer Audience Reward programs giving you points for booking Broadway show tickets. And if you book with the airline vacation packages, you can earn even more bonus points. I even recently read about a way to pay your rent (since many landlords don’t accept credit cards or charge a fee) with the Bilt Rewards card, and read about that on NomadicMatt.com.

Still Don’t Have Enough Miles?

Don’t have enough miles for a ticket. Let’s say you are planning a trip to Hawaii, and the points required for two round-trip tickets is 140,000 on Delta. Your balance is 130,000, but that shouldn’t stop you from booking the trip. You can take advantage of the Miles Headstart program on your AMEX Delta SkyMiles Platinum card, and they will advance you the 10,000 miles. You then need to make $5,000 to $10,000 in purchases over the next six months on that card, or you will be charged 2.5 cents per mile outstanding.

Ways to Earn Travel Without Relying on Miles?

Want to earn travel without opening credit cards? One way is through MyPoints.com. This website allows you to accrue points to cash in for travel gift cards from various travel companies, including American Airlines, Delta, and United. It does take some time, but the savings can be worth it if you enjoy completing surveys or shopping online.

Here are some of the ways you can earn points:

  • Shopping – earn points per dollar spent across participating merchants. There are featured deals offering additional points.
  • Deals – featured offers (organizations, apps)
  • Surveys – offers survey opportunities with various point values for completion
  • Magic Receipts – collect and submit recent receipts for available merchants. You earn 3 points per submitted receipt but can earn additional points if you purchase specific products from that merchant.
  • Games – earn points by playing various games
  • Travel – earn points by planning your next getaway (Hotels.com, Expedia, VRBO, Priceline, IHG). This can lead to some double dipping by paying with your rewards credit card and booking airlines or hotels where you are a rewards member.
  • Other
    • Refer & Earn – by referring a friend to Mypoints, you earn 3 ways:
      • You and your referral get a 480-point bonus when your referral earns 300 points in their first 30 days.
      • Get a 750-point bonus when your referral spends $20 or more in a single transaction.
      • Get 10% of your referral’s earnings for the life of their account.
    • Point Perks – Earn additional points through Point Perks by redeeming codes found throughout MyPoints and MyPoints Social Media. Follow MyPoints on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, so you don’t miss a Point Perk Alert!
    • Daily goal – dashboard showing daily earning (and bonus earning) progress for the month.
    • To-Do List – daily checklist for earning opportunities

Once you earn enough points, you can redeem them for gift cards. If you earn as little as 15,880 points, you can get a $100 Delta gift card. No blackout dates and no restrictions.

More Ways to Earn Free Travel

Another way to earn travel but not use an airline-specific card, is to look for cards such as Capital One or Merrill Visa Signature Card. These cards let you earn points for many rewards, including travel. This allows you to pick your airline when booking or use it for hotels or car rentals. They also offer upgrade options at select hotels and other venues. Plus, if you book travel with these miles/points, the purchased ticket will earn you frequent flyer miles on the airline. So I often use these points for specific flights and save airline-specific miles for big-ticket flights. And one other tip is don’t be afraid to pay for flights. Don’t use your points on relatively inexpensive regional flights. Pay out of pocket, rack up miles, and save the miles for more expensive flights.

I primarily used the Delta SkyMiles program in this guide, but almost every other airline offers similar options. They all want you to become a customer and always want to provide you with all the possibilities to rack up miles. Now, go out there and start racking up the miles and take an incredible trip, and when the flight is FREE, it will be even sweeter.

Below are links and resources to help you plan The perfect trip

Travel Resources

    Booking.com and Expedia.com are great resources for accommodations around the world. Book almost any hotel directly from these links.
    The best places to book tours and activities are Viator or Get Your Guide . From great food tours to guided hiking adventures to local walking tours, you will find great experiences to add to your travels here.
    EatWith is a great resource for authentic culinary experiences with passionate locals worldwide. Connecting travelers with hosts in over 130 countries, providing unique, intimate, and immersive experiences in private homes and exclusive venues.
    Trainline is Europe’s leading train and coach app. They work with over 210 rail and coach companies to help their customers travel to thousands of destinations across 45 countries. 

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