How to Play the Airline Miles Game

I am a 30-year-old woman with an arts degree and some geographic commitment issues, so for much of my adult life, I’ve been in situations where I’ve earned unimpressive amounts of money, but have needed (or wanted) to fly to places semi-regularly. As a result, I’ve become a sort of unabashed, salivating fangirl for airline miles, and something of an expert when it comes to accumulating them. I offer here a primer on how you might join me in this rewarding hobby.

Not to be a scold right off the bat, but this method involves credit cards, so it may not be for everyone. You’ll need to have good credit, and pretty high levels of self-discipline for it to work right. If you’re the type who sees access to credit as an invitation to spend recklessly, I’m sorry, but this is not for you. You know that show on TLC about “Extreme Couponing” that is both inspiring and repulsive and you don’t know whether to pity the couponers or to cheer them on? This advice is going to be kind of like that, but for airline miles, so if you’re squeamish, don’t read any further. 

The first thing you have to do—if you haven’t already done so years ago—is to sign up for a miles account with all the major airlines. Fast, free, easy-peasy. If you have never bothered to sign up before (I won’t judge you), but have flown recently, most airlines will credit your new account with the miles from those recent trips. But only if you ask them to! Go to their website and find the “request missing miles” tab. You may have to dig around a bit but it’s there and it’s worth it. Every mile is precious.

Now, here’s where it gets more fun (well, I find it fun, but you know).

You are to acquire an airline credit card, and then you are to use it to make all the daily purchases you would normally make. Buying groceries? Use the card. Paying your gas bill? Use the card. Splitting a complicated check at someone’s birthday dinner? Put it all on your card, and then have everyone else pay you in cash. (Haha, just kidding: Never do that, your friends are flakes.)

The thing is, you must think of your card as debit, not credit, and you must pay it off in full at the end of each month. You are never to spend what you don’t have and carry a balance here. Airline cards have very high APRs, and once you start racking up finance charges, you lose the game altogether. If this happens, you’ll have cut up your card and find a new hobby.

Most cards will award you one mile per dollar you spend (some give you more). This means that if during the course of living your normal life you spend $1,000 a month eating, drinking and shopping, filling your car with gas and going to conceptual “happenings,” you will be awarded 1,000 airline miles at the end of each month. Add these to the miles you are getting for any flying you may be doing and you are chugging along. This is easy!

Now, the credit card you choose for this project will depend on several factors: A) whether you actually tend to fly that airline, B) what sort of fancy bonus they offer when signing up, and C) whether or not they offer the first year free.

C is important, as airline cards have annual fees, often between $80 and $95, which is high, but the vast majority of these cards try to hook you by waiving that fee for the first year. This is great, especially since they usually also come with a big sign-on bonus—usually at least the cost of a domestic ticket (25,000 miles), or sometimes a bunch more. So, if you keep the card for two years you will end up paying that $80 dollars, but you’ll be getting at least one round-trip ticket. You’ll probably get more like two round-trip flights (depending on how much you spend that year). That’s a pretty great deal.

But! Here’s a fancy secret that I will share only with you: As your first year with the credit card comes to an end, call them up and tell them you would like to cancel. They will ask you why, and you will say: “The yearly fee is too high!” Every time I have done this, the polite man on the other end has said to me: “Well, how about we waive the fee for another year, would that convince you to stay?” That’s when you say: “Why yes, yes it would.”

I would actually cancel for real after about three years though. At this point, you’ll have had to pay that $80, and though that’s not so bad spread out over three years, it gets tedious once it becomes a regular thing. Plus, there are other cards to explore. And listen, Mike Dang may disagree with me here, but I’ve learned that so long as you keep your oldest credit card open, shutting one down every few years leaves only the faintest ding in your score, a ding that smoothes over quickly since you are a goody-two-shoes about credit, and are never late with your payments.

Now, let’s get into some advanced techniques.

In addition to doing all your spending on your airline credit card, you are to, whenever possible, do all of your online shopping through the “shopping portal” of the airline you are accumulating miles for. What’s a shopping portal, you ask? Well it’s page you click through from your airline’s miles program, and through some sort of affiliate magic, you get special bonus miles for your shopping.

Let’s use a made-up airline called Schmunited as an example. Their miles program is called SchmileagePlus, and their portal is called, SchMileagePlus Shopping. Click through to this portal from their homepage, find the store you are looking for, and it will show you the special miles offer associated with that store. Often it will be something like three miles per dollar spent, which sounds paltry, but adds up, and most importantly, costs you nothing extra. It’s just a matter of getting into the habit of asking, “Is there a portal for this?” when you are about to buy something online. Soon it will become second nature. (Note: You don’t need an airline credit card to use these shopping portals, but if you have one, and use it, you get those 3 miles per dollar, plus your usual credit cards miles on top of that. Cha-ching!)

The most lucrative way to use these shopping portals is for things like flowers and gift baskets. There are huge amounts of miles per dollar offered on these. For example, that one famous flower delivery company that you know is offering 30 miles per dollar. Feel like buying Mom a $40 basket of flowers for Mother’s Day? Why you’ve just netted yourself 1,200 miles! And your mom is so happy right now!

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that you should never buy something solely to get a chunk of miles. The miles you earn must be an incidental bonus. Otherwise you might as well just be buying plane tickets.

OK! So in addition to your portal shopping, your final step is to snoop around in the mileage program of your particular airline. Most of them offer bonus miles for rental cars (usually around 500 miles a pop), or staying at chain hotels. Some even offer big chunks of miles for signing up for your cell phone through their link. I actually did this when my contract with my carrier expired, I renewed through Continental (back when they were an airline), and got 5,000 bonus miles. Everything else was the same—same price, same carrier, but they gave me those beautiful miles, and I felt like a goddamn champion.

Basically, the moral of the story is: If you can buy something, there is probably a way to earn miles for it. And you can go as deep down into the rabbit hole as you like.

Then, as you zip around the country for free, your suspicious friends might whisper “trust fund,” but you won’t be able to hear them over the roar of that jet engine and the tinkling sound of ice in your $12 plastic cup of vodka and tomato juice.

You’ll just hear the sound of the flight attendant swiping that plastic, adding another twelve delicious miles to your account. Bon Voyage, friends.


Annie Nilsson is a Los Angeles writer who blogs and tweets. She’s writing a book. (It’s not about airline miles.) Photo: Flickr/Vox Efx


47 Comments / Post A Comment

YESSSSSS. Also there is a whole related scam (well it feels like a scam! But it’s not!) where you have to review restaurants to get the miles for eating, for instance with the AAdvantage Dining Program. So you register any card (debit cards count) and then go use them at these restaurants and then they will harass you to go all Yelp on these restaurants (but not on Yelp) but that doesn’t matter because you get the points anyway. (Though it should be noted that it’s much easier to accumulate miles than points, but you can still convert points to goodness.)

BUT BE WARNED, so much fine print, as in all these things:

“Q. What happens to my benefit levels if I opt-out of emails?
A. Once you opt-out of promotional emails, your benefit levels will immediately drop to our lowest level and you will be ineligible for most dining bonuses”

AnnieNilsson (#406)

@Choire Sicha@facebook Damn Choire you are even more advanced than me! I salute you.

@Choire Sicha@facebook The dining programs are my favorite! It’s like surprise bonus miles, because there are actually a shocking number of restaurants that participate. And they do sometimes run bonuses where you get lots of extra miles for filling out the little review form (you don’t have to actually “write” anything) – but as Choire notes, there’s no penalty for ignoring their review requests.

There’s also a site where you can take millions of surveys for miles (I think it is called emiles), though I tend to only go there when I’m really bored/broke as the return on time investment is pretty low.

@HeyThatsMyBike I just registered for all the dining programs today, though, and it appears you can’t stack airlines on the same card. Am I missing a loophole? United, Southwest, Delta, and AA all use Rewards Network for their dining program, and you can only register each card with one airline. Which isn’t a problem if you have a billion cards, but I only have two.

What is it about the airline miles game that makes me feel so self-satisfied? And so aghast when I realize a friend of mine has flown without earning miles!

I’m also a big fan of the points I earn from my (free) Chase Freedom card. Every few months I apply those points towards an airline ticket directly, so I don’t have to just be tied to whatever airline I accrued miles on.

Also…airline miles are probably the only context in which I use the word “accrue”

bangs (#379)

I do this! I have an airline card that works with any airline. I put everything on it and pay it off right away. At xmas I used my points to fly to a place that is stupidly expensive to fly to that I really didn’t want to go to and couldn’t justify actually paying real money for.

elizabeast (#629)

@bangs What is the name of this card and where can I get one? The main reason I don’t play the Airline Miles Game is that I can’t decide which airline to be tied to! A card that works on any airline is my dream!

AnnieNilsson (#406)

@elizabeast Right now I do recommend the United Milageplus Explorer card. They are pretty generous with their miles, and United flies all over the place. One thing to check before you attach yourself to any airline is how many flights they operate out of your nearest airport. I once spent three years in Iowa just sitting on a giant pile of US Airways miles that were unusable to me there. It was SO ANNOYING.

bangs (#379)

@elizabeast It’s the Avion card from the Royal Bank, if you are in Canada.

@bangs Ding! Useful to know.

elizabeast (#629)

@AnnieNilsson I’m gonna research that card! Right now I have a points card that I’ve done pretty well with (I didn’t pay for ANY Christmas presents last year!), but I see a lot of travel in my future and I need to switch it up.

pizza (#599)

Perfect timing. I just got a united plus card (with a 50,000 miles sign-on bonus!) last week.

AnnieNilsson (#406)

@pizza I love that card. I just got a trip to Mexico out of it!

@pizza Ugh, just got back from France, for which I accumulated my first grown-up miles — usually when I fly I give the miles to my dad, as he’s usually helped me pay for the ticket to get out of whatever godforsaken country I’ve become stuck in. Anyway, they talked up this card about 53,000 times during the flight, and I was really disappointed because my credit is too terrible to qualify.

@stuffisthings Speaking of which, they should have a program where you get, say, 100 miles for every time you hear an announcement about duty-free shopping. I’d get a business-class ticket to Sydney in no time!

pizza (#599)

@AnnieNilsson Nice! I’m going to be booking a flight to Amsterdam shortly with my new miles.

nonononononono. this is farrrrr farrrr farrrr too complicated. plus i got disqualified in the second paragraph.

ejcsanfran (#248)

Of course, also remember to spend your miles wisely. My mom drives me crazy – she had over 100K and frittered it away on cheap-to-purchase coast-to-coast flights. Only spend your miles to travel overseas, ideally in business class – you get way more bang for your mile.

And, difficult though it may be, try to stick with your program of choice. I’m going SFO-CDG//AMS-SFO in the fall – I could’ve flown non-stop on airlines not in my main program. But by changing in ORD on UAL, I’ll end up with close to 20K miles for the flights and the purchase of the ticket with my UAL credit card – which I think gives me enough miles to fly SFO-SYD in business (obviously, the only viable option for a 15 hour flight).

AnnieNilsson (#406)

@ejcsanfran True on the spending wisely tip. If a ticket is 300 bucks or so, don’t waste a whole 25k chunk of miles on it, save that for the thousand dollar tickets and you will feel like a conqueror of worlds!

Niko Bellic (#311)

@ejcsanfran This! Not only that, but try to spend your miles on overseas flights having more than one leg. This can be huge, because those flights cost more in dollars per each leg, but the price in miles is the same as long as you stay in the same “zone” (usually a continent). Also, pay attention to peak vs off-peak, as peak can be 50% more in miles (but often is also in dollars).

Here is how I spend my miles every year: I pick two destinations in Europe, and then I get a ticket to one with a stop-over at another. There are some limitations, obviously. A stop-over has to be a big hub, and you can’t stay more then 3-4 days there, etc. But, it’s worth making your plans around it… it gets to be a really great deal.

@AnnieNilsson Yes, this!!! I recently talked a friend out of using 25K miles for a shop hop between NYC and ORD, which could be had for $200. Save miles for expensive trips, or an even better use of miles–particular with European airlines like BA, and increasingly US ones as well, that charge fuel surcharges– on business class tickets. More bang for the buck. International business class is totally the way to go.

Tuna Surprise (#118)


Preach! I flew business class (fully reclining seats) on a NYC-Hawaii trip using my accumulated miles. Although the flight wasn’t particularly expensive in coach, having a fully reclining seat on a 10 hour flight (including the red-eye back) was awesome!

meg (#329)

@ejcsanfran For the benefit of any other Australian readers I’ll add this rather boring comment that I have found the very opposite to be true in this country. (Granted, we only have two domestic airlines.) To fly return from Perth (where I live) to Sydney (where my family lives) costs on average $500 or 30,000 points. To fly return to London/New York would cost me >$2000 or 130,000 points, so it’s about equal – but using your points isn’t an option on many international flights from here, and the available ones are always the worst route with random 13-hour stopovers, whereas domestic points flights are far more bounteous easy-peasy to pick up. Additionally the sooner I can use my points, the more value I’ll get out of them as the points required for flights are increasing all the time. So I gave up on the lovely thought of a free overseas trip on Qantas’ dollar in all it’s damn-the-man-save-the-Empire joy and instead am getting busy using up my points for regular trips to go cuddle my nephew.

AnnieNilsson (#406)

Oh I just remembered a good one! Sign up for Netflix through your airline and get 2,500 miles. I am a chronic Netflix canceler, but the last three times I’ve decided to “give them another shot” I have simply used a new email address at sign up and they’ve credited me the miles. Three times! Holla.

smack (#307)

Also, Schmunited might give you out free first class RTW tix with 400k miles, not that I’m saving up weirdly or anything (380k! too bad we just used 80k of my husband’s for our upgrades to and from Europe this month, but it’s okay that lie-flat is the BOMB).

There are brazilians of schemes out there to get you the most bang for your buck (I think the coins from the us mint thing where you buy coins with your CC and then desposit the coins in your bank, and then pay off the bills has been killed, but I know people on Flyertalk got MILLIONS of miles). Check out but don’t get mad at me if you start obsessing and seriously considering doing mileage runs with a 5 hour turnover in Hong Kong just because it’s $.03 a mile and then you become a mileage running freak.

Remember, it’s really, REALLY fun (specifically on international flights) watching all those poor schmoes file by you while you sip from your glass of champagne.

We mostly save our miles for upgrades (yeah, btw, anywhere in the US > SYD, you have to get upgraded or you will KILL YOURSELF FOR REAL) but we also have a weird thing about how we will kind of go anywhere? Tip: business class seats to Lagos Nigeria on New Years Day – NOT THAT EXPENSIVE. Problem is is that you’re flying to Lagos. Which like, what do you even do there. Good qualifying miles. We haven’t done it yet, but we’re considering it.

I will stop nerding out. I could talk about miles and airlines and flying FOREVER.

@smack brazilians?

ejcsanfran (#248)

@smack: Yes, because I am a horrible person, the highlight of any of my (rare) trips up in the front of the plane is asking the FA to remind the economy class rabble to look at me as they schlep back to steerage. Also, could you reheat these nuts?

@smack Ach! A fellow Flyertalker! Sorry… I totally missed this when I replied downthread. Yes, love for Flyertalk whenever… I have wasted so many hours (days? months?) ducking down the Flyertalk rabbit hole. I rarely fly BA, and yet I find myself hanging out reading the wacky BA posts. I’ve learned a lot about champagne from those guys!

ejcsanfran (#248)

@ejcsanfran: *NOT look at me! UGH – why no editing?

Annie: your thoughts on using a points card instead of miles? I like the versatility, but this makes me feel like maybe a point is way less valuable than a mile.

Love this piece.

AnnieNilsson (#406)

If your goal is flying, then go with miles. Points are more versatile in a sense, but the value per point tends to be lower, as their redemption is structured differently. Miles tend to be a flat rate: 25,000 for a RT ticket. Whereas points are usually applied toward the actual cost of the ticket; often at a rate of 10,000 points = 100 dollars.

So, if you were trying to get a $450 flight, you’d need either 45,000 points or 25,000 miles. A $700 flight would be either 70,000 points or 25,000 miles.

But points can be useful for things like Amazon gift cards and the like, so I don’t turn up my nose at them. Likewise cash rewards are great too if you are not much of a traveler. Basically I’d just never use a credit card without trying to get something back!

I’ve mentioned them before, but if you really want to get into the miles game, read flyertalk!!! They are amazingly knowledgable and there are some crazy mileage fanatics out there, but the wealth of knowledge on that site is amazing.

@angry little raincloud Those people are incredible.
There’s also a guy that runs a website that is basically solely devoted to the psychotic pursuit of miles. He always has an up-to-date list of all the bonus sign-up offers different airline credit cards are running, plus any other mileage bonuses that may be in action. I’ll see if I can dig it up.

@HeyThatsMyBike Actually, this was the guy.

Don’t forget to look for bonus signup miles as well! I got a 50k bonus for Amex Platinum then transferred that to Delta which had another bonus offer, all told I got 75k miles and Gold Elite status.

Another plus of airline cards is most of them have a few fee waivers or discounts for incidentals like baggage check or in-flight meals. You can usually score a few lounge passes as well.

goodiesfirst (#75)

Ack, I feel like I’ve mastered other grown-up matters (Roth IRAs, paying taxes on time, etc.) but I absolutely don’t understand frequent flyer miles. Embarrassing example: I bought tickets outright (coach, obviously) for a crazy trip to Dubai, Hong Kong and Bangkok on Emirates because I figured that would be better than an US airline for such a long flight. But I somehow should’ve been earning miles in the past so I could get upgraded on Delta, United, AA, etc.?

DrFeelGood (#401)

@goodiesfirst You have to fly/spend quite a bit for most of these programs to work in your favor, IMHO. I have low expenses, and don’t fly for work so it doesn’t really make sense for me. My husband flies like 6x a year though so it adds up after awhile. Most of the time the spending programs to get miles just don’t link up with the way I spend my cash… I find I’m better off just being cheap and then paying for my trip outright. Over the last 5 years I’ve only racked up like 6,000 ff miles. The sucky part is that you can’t apply partial miles to a trip, you have to have the full value in miles.

thenotestaken (#542)

Whoooooooo just booked a trip to SE Asia for $200 using miles! This girl! I actually don’t have a credit card at all, but I’m living across the country from my family and flying home 2-3 times a year over the past few years added up nicely.

workerbee (#638)

I’m sure everyone checks out the online Flyer Talk community? I am OBSESSED. These Flyers really know their stuff and all the hookups. Lots of reviews on different planes, even pilots, best mileage run deals, the extra programs, etc.
We have Delta and shop via delta skyshopping. You can get 8 miles per dollar spent on Groupons, for example. Every merchant you would ever want is on there, all you have to do is go to the merchant from Delta web site. Not too shabby. If you buy stuff for work (office supplies, computer, flowers, anything!) – do it from that Delta page and CHA-CHING. !

Credit scores like FICO are calculated using something called “average age of accounts.” Churning credit cards like this can hurt your AAoA, though this may or may not be a Big Deal, and is less likely to be a big deal if you have a long strong credit history.

“New accounts will lower your average account age, which will have a larger effect on your FICO score if you don’t have a lot of other credit information. Even if you have used credit for a long time, opening a new account can still lower your FICO score.”

Also, is a great place for extra miles. you sign up with any mileage program. you can view ads and answer survey questions, sign up for various websites or email subscriptions (and immediately unsubscribe with the first email), donate to charities, or respond to various other offers to earn miles. once you accrue 500 miles, you can deposit them in your mileage account at the chosen airline. i have earned 1500 miles so far.

BigShow15 (#4,463)

Speaking of which, they should have a program where you get, say, 100 miles for every time you hear an announcement about duty-free shopping. I’d get a business-class ticket to Sydney in no time!

Jeff Randle (#5,907)

Wow, this is great, we fly from Canada all the time.
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benh7777 (#6,256)

A super fast way to earn miles for me is booking hotel nights through rocket miles. At least 1000 miles per night up to 5000 miles per night, most are 2000-3000 per night. I book hotels not only for myself but anyone I know that is planning on staying in a hotel in the future. Rates are competitive with any other online booking site, usually a few bucks more a night but it is well worth the large quantity of miles. Check it out, I think you get free miles just for signing up, and I rarely get emails from them, if I do it’s usually worth looking at.

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