Oh, the places you could go with frequent flyer miles!
September 11, 2015
Circa 2013: My entire crew of friends got bitten by the travel bug. At first, it seemed like a manageable bite. We made travels up and down the east coast- visiting cities, mountains and beaches. Eventually we ventured out west, enjoying everything this coast had to offer us. Before you know it, we expanded our horizons beyond the borders of the United States. First it was Jamaica, which was a tangible destination on my meager salary (with the help of a Living Social Escapes voucher!). Then it was Greece, which was easily three- four times the price of Jamaica, and involved way more expensive lodging.
I began to realize this was no ordinary travel bug bite. Caught between my desires to explore the world further with my besties and my underfed bank account (remember, I'm a full-time graduate student), I knew it wouldn't be long before I could no longer keep up. I shared my woes with my friend Deanna. And in return, Deanna gifted me with the most magical thing ever: The Miles Game. No, not a literal game, but she gifted me with insight into this complex and tedious but wonderful process of earning frequent flyer miles.
Now I had always understood the concept of having a membership with various airlines, but I was completely naive to the fact that there were a number of other ways to earn miles:
Four months before we secured our lodging for Greece, I buckled down and got serious with The Miles Game. I had a membership with US Airways but I made sure to become a member with American Airlines too. Afterwards, I made sure that I flied with these airlines on all of my travels (flying to see friends and family, going to conferences, traveling for leisure). I paid off credit cards that gave me no rewards for my spending and opted for cards that did. One of these was a no-interest [for a year] credit card with my bank Wells Fargo. With this card, I was able to earn 1 point for most purchases, but 3 points on groceries and gas purchases. The other was a US Airways credit card that came with a 50,000 mile bonus after paying the annual fee. Most credit cards that offer air mile bonuses require you to spend at least $3000 within the first three months, so this was a MAJOR win for me. I think I lucked up because they were just about to merge with American Airlines and thus discontinue the card.
I enrolled in American and US Airways' dining programs (you get a signing bonus of about 250-500 miles), where you earn 3-5 miles per dollar spent out dining (http://aa.rewardsnetwork.com/). Also, I took advantage of these airline's shopping portals. I prefer online shopping, so I would always check to see if a store was on the American or US Airway's shopping portal before making a purchase. I got 500 miles one time for buying groceries online from a local grocery store! Be sure to use your debit or credit card that you earn rewards with! This is the occassion when double dipping is worth your while!
My favorite way of earning miles is through hotel lodging. I am a Hilton member and I initially linked my account with American Airlines. I did this for several months, but eventually I became hip to Rocketmiles and Pointshound: Two awesome sites that allow you to book lodging with well-known hotels (or even smaller boutique hotels) and earn miles for your stay! JACKPOT. I earned 14,000 miles with American between March and July of this year! FOURTEEN THOUSAND MILES! This came from two hotel stays, and a bonus I got for booking during a promotional period :) The major caveat with these sites is that you have to pay for the lodging in advance. This is unlike a traditional hotel reservation where you are not charged until you check out. In my opinion this is totally worth it. And like most large purchases you might make, put it on your credit card- the one you earn points with remember?
Between all of these efforts I accumulated over 100K miles with American Airlines (after they merged with US Airways). With this in tow, I expanded my trip from the States to Greece and back, to include Italy and Egypt too!
American Airlines is wonderful in letting you select one way trips. This let me be flexible planning when I departed for all of my destinations and allowed me to travel with my friends when feasible. This is the breakdown from my recent mileage funded trip:
One way to Italy (miles+fees)
One way to Greece ($40 fare)
One way to Cairo ($165 fare)
One way back to Athens (Wells Fargo Points+ fees)*
One way back to the States (miles)
*I had more options for getting back to the States via Athens than Cairo so I chose this extended route instead of something direct*
Getting into the miles game definitely was transformative for me! I seriously don't know how else I would have been able to make it across the Atlantic Ocean without them! And, I have a good amount left that I can use to touch down my 5th continent next year (South America I am so ready for you!).
I hope that you feel encouraged by this post and motivated to try a few mile earning strategies yourself! If anything, know that there are options out there for you to travel even if your pocket is in a pinch. Oh, the places you can go!