Why Frequent Flyer Miles Are All About Credit Cards & Five Sources for Our Miles

Years ago we flew to accrue frequent flier mile but now it's all about credit cards. As airlines have decimated their programs they've destroyed the last of my loyalty - yes I'm talking to you United! In  the last few years we've cashed in our miles as fast as we've earned them.  With airlines changing the costs of redemptions overnight there doesn't seem to be any reason to hold onto the miles, after all where else would you  make a longterm investment in a currency that could be so rapidly and repetitively devalued.

I'm not a blogger who makes money on their blog (I refuse to use the ghastly word "monetize") so you won't see me pushing any referral links here. But the reason these links have taken over the travel blogosphere is that credit cards are the new travel currency and selling them provides real cash for the pushers, ahhem  travel bloggers I mean.

I've dabbled in this a but bit I'm by no means someone who "churns" card, those who make repeat applications for cards to claim opening bonuses. However, we are starting to pay a little more attention. Recently I bought a cross-country ticket on United. Last year this would have earned me over 5,000 miles without any loyalty bonuses. Today, it earns less than half that which means I'll have to get those miles elsewhere. Plus the more you redeem your miles the less you're earning from flying too.

In a world where status is harder to get and overall less rewarding, we've turned to credit cards to give us the perks we used to get because we were frequent fliers. We are still flying frequently but you can't earn status when you are redeeming your miles! Plus, the more your redeem your miles the less you're earning from flying too. So, in order to use the lounges, check in in the Business Class line and check our bags for free, we've taken out a United credit card that provides the perks. It costs $450 annually but the  convenience plus the savings on bags  adds up when you fly a lot.

So, where do our miles come from?

1) We earn AA miles  every month from an account we opened at Bank Direct. Month in and month out the miles accrue instead of interest and even better they are not taxable!

2) We opened a United Lounge card as mentioned above. This gives you all the perks plus you get 1.5 miles for each dollar spent, 50% more than many other cards.

3) I've had an American Express card for more than 20 years. The advantage of their program (Membership Rewards) is that you can transfer into a wide number of airline and hotel programs. For example, we've used it to top up  our British Airways accounts and I've received up to a 50% bonuses on transfers into British Airways over the years.

4) We have an AA card that we use relatively infrequently but it gives us a 10% reduction on all awards redemptions, free bags and reduced fees - which have been extremely  valuable over the last few years.I t's well worth the $95 fee which they often waive if we suggest canceling it.

5) Last year, just before the US/AA merger, we both opened US Airways credit cards and on consolidation the miles (50,000 x 2) rolled right into our American Airlines accounts. I also opened a BA Visa (50,000) to top up our British Airways household account, I used a lot of it for flights within Europe, including flights from London to Dublin and Helsinki to Berlin.

So, you can see we play the game but we could be much more aggressive. Right now we are getting 1.5 miles for ever dollar spent. But we could get more. Certain cards offer  bonuses based on the category of spending. You can maximize your earning by directing certain spending onto specific cards, for example always paying for restaurants with one card, gas with another and hotels with a third. These bonuses add up quickly and can be as much as 3 to 5 times the miles. It takes time and effort to do all this, but given the decline in our mileage earning through flying I'm beginning to think it may be worth pursuing, but I need to do some more research over at Boarding Area. I'm no expert but the options I'm considering include  Chase Sapphire Preferred with double miles on travel and dining and the American Express Premium Rewards Gold Card with 3x points for flights, 2x points at supermarkets and gas stations and 2 x points at restaurants. 

After I wrote this American Express briefly offered 100,000 miles for their Platinum Card. Yes, there's a heft annual fee but I think it's well worth it as you can get their $200 airline credit twice in the first year. I signed up but I'll still be taking a second look at their Rewards Gold Card longterm.

Update: As if to confirm that our mileage strategy is no longer linked to "butt in seat miles, I've just checked my United statement for the mileage earned on a recent flight. It just seems to be getting worse! On our trip from Cancun to San Francisco (CUN- SFO) a distance of 2,408 flight miles, United credited my account with only 585 miles! It's laughable, why would I make any decision on what airline to fly based on such a ridiculously meagre "reward".


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