Frequent flier miles tips: How to amass travel rewards quickly
Yes, I’m a frequent flier mile junkie. Lots of people tell me that my love for miles is really an obsession, and they may be right. I’m a recreational traveler who rarely flies for work. But I collect miles whenever and however I can, viewing the pursuit as a game, one that involves spending the least and acquiring the most miles possible. I spend somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000 annually on air travel, usually taking 15 domestic trips and a few international ones, and I try to earn more than 100,000 frequent flier miles each year.
The South African safari was part of a 32-day, seven-country, five-continent tour that I took two summers ago for my 30th birthday. The 17 flights had a retail value of more than $7,000, but I paid for them with 160,000 frequent flier miles that I’d collected over two years by taking lots of weekend trips, using airline credit cards and making mileage runs — flights taken solely to chalk up miles. The only out-of-pocket cash expenses for the flights were taxes and processing fees, which totaled — are you ready? — about $300.
Modern frequent flier programs started in the early 1980s and have evolved into separate divisions within each major airline. Collecting miles is free and comes with numerous rewards beyond the free flights often dangled before consumers. Nowadays, you can redeem miles for merchandise and magazine subscriptions, donate them to friends or charities, or cash them in for money on PayPal. Consumer Reports and frequent flier sites put the value of a single mile at between one and two cents, although redeeming them for cash often nets less than a penny per mile, and only certain airlines offer that option.
I joined Continental’s OnePass program in November 1998, when I was 18 and a freshman at Kent State University in Ohio. I set up tabs on my e-mail account that tracked the cheapest fares to three dozen U.S. cities. My best friend, Brian, and I went anywhere we could for cheap — mostly quick trips that didn’t interfere with college or working at the local paper.
Brian taught me about miles, planes, flying routes and airports. The most valuable lesson he taught me is one I pass along today: Have one frequent flier account and fly only airlines that feed that account. For me, that was Continental, because one of the airline’s hubs was Cleveland, less than an hour from where I was attending school. Continental — now United after the two airlines completed a merger this year — is a member of the Star Alliance network, the world’s largest airline alliance, which includes US Airways, Air Canada, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and 20 other carriers that all feed my mileage account. I’ve never flown American or JetBlue. I scoff at Southwest. Since I signed on with Continental, I can count the number of flights I’ve taken on non-partner airlines on my hands.