If you thought air miles were for business travelers who — like George Clooney in Up In The Air — live permanently at an altitude of 38,000 feet, you’re wrong. They can be used by ordinary people like you to obtain free or discounted flights, or even those all-coveted upgrades to first class.
You don’t have to be a frequent flyer, either. By changing where you shop, and the credit card you use, you can start racking up air miles with your everyday spends. Here’s what you need to know.
The One Secret to Effective Air Mile Collecting
Here’s the thing about air miles. They’re effectively loyalty programs, which means that if you want to get the most value out of them, you have to stick with one program (or two, max). There’s literally no sense in trying to earn miles for United and American and Delta. Pick one, and focus all your efforts on it.
Personally speaking, I try to focus on British Airways and their Executive Club program. There are a few reasons for this.
First, it’s a great airline, and British Airways flies into Newark from its hub at London Heathrow. Although British food leaves a lot to be desired, the food on BA is typically top-notch, even in economy. It’s also a member of the OneWorld Alliance, which allows me to spend the points I’ve acquired (called Avios) on other airlines, like Qatar, American, FinnAir, Iberia, Qantas, and more.
So, what loyalty program should you choose? In short, the one that’s right for you.
Choose the one that flies to the places you frequently visit, and, ideally, that’s based in an airport you live near. If you’re based in New York, you might want to stick to American, which has its main hub at JFK Airport, or United, which is based at Newark. If you live near Atlanta, you might want to stick to Delta. You get the idea.
Don’t Forget Hotels
It’s also worth noting that many hotel chains have their own loyalty programs. As always, if you want to effectively use these, it’s best that you choose one and stick to it.
I really like the Hilton HHonors program, because it offers expedited check-in to members without elite status. Hilton Hotels can be found in pretty much every city on the face of the planet, and you can collect points through the other hotels owned by the Hilton Worldwide group, including the Doubletree- and Hampton-branded ones.
When I’m not staying in a Hilton Worldwide hotel, I tend to book through hotels.com. This is because I’ve got status with it (which is really easy to earn: 30 nights gives you the highest tier of status), and because it gives me a free night’s stay for every ten nights I book.
It’s worth remembering that if you book your stay through a hotel search engine, you typically won’t earn any points or status with the hotel chain itself.
Now that you know you’ve got to be loyal to a single airline (or hotel), let’s talk about the ways you can rack up air miles other than with flying.
Booking Hotels with RocketMiles
One of my favorite travel bloggers is Ben Schlappig, who writes for One Mile at A Time. This guy knows all the tricks of the travel-hacking world. His experiments with credit cards and loyalty schemes have earned him a lifestyle where he perpetually circles the globe from the first-class cabin of an A380.
Just book a hotel, and you’ll earn a set number of miles. The amount earned varies depending on the loyalty program you’re crediting the miles to and the hotel you book. Sometimes significantly so.
Recently, I looked at hotels around where my fiancé lives in New Jersey. There were two that each cost roughly $2000 for two weeks. One would have earned me 15,000 Avios (enough for a return trip from New York to Toronto), while another one would have earned me 37,000 Avios, which is just short of the amount you’d need for a return flight from New York to London in economy class, or an upgrade to business class.
What makes RocketMiles great is that it supports almost every single airline loyalty program; from AAdvantage and BA’s Executive Club to more niche airlines like Saudia and Meridiana.
Your miles will be credited to your nominated account after your stay. In the FAQs, RocketMiles warn that it could take a couple of weeks.
Using The Right Credit Card
As someone who is quite debt- and risk-averse, I’ve not done this personally, but I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have.
Many credit cards are partnered with airlines, and allow you to earn air miles on your everyday spending. What’s more exciting is that these often have generous sign-up bonuses, where if you spend a certain dollar amount in the months following your account opening, you receive a large bonus. Typically, this is enough for a short-haul round trip in economy class.
This is one of the easiest ways to get free flights: just replace your trusty debit card with an airline credit card, and use it for all of your spending.
Some credit cards don’t offer points, but instead include free subscriptions to PriorityPass or Global Entry. These can definitely be worthwhile, as the cheapest PriorityPass subscription is about $100 per year.
It’s also worth mentioning “churning,” which is becoming increasingly popular of late. It essentially involves opening an airline credit card and earning the maximum bonus. Once you’ve got that, you close it down and open another airline credit card, ad infinitum, until you’ve got an improbably large number of air miles.
It’s risky, and it only really works if you’ve got good credit, but if you’re interested you can read all about it on the churning subreddit.
Hire A Car Through Your Airline
If you’re flying somewhere with limited public transportation (like the United States, Canada, or Australia), you might find yourself needing to hire a car. This can be expensive, although probably less so than taking endless Ubers and taxis.
It’s also a great opportunity to earn air miles. That’s because many airlines allow you to book cars through Avis, Hertz, and Enterprise through their own websites. While these might be a little bit more expensive than booking your car directly from the company, the points and miles you’ll earn should offset any extra cost.
With British Airways, you can hire a car directly through their website. Points are automatically credited to your Executive Club account after you return the car.
Likewise, if you tend to fly with Lufthansa (or any Lufthansa Group airline, like Swiss, Austrian, and EuroWings), you can book your car hire through Hertz and earn points.
Buy Train Tickets
The Virgin Group has its fingers in an awful lot of pies. You’re probably most familiar with its airlines: Virgin America, Virgin Australia, and Virgin Atlantic. In the UK, the Virgin Group also runs Virgin Trains, a rail network which connects London with the North West and Glasgow.
The Virgin Trains website lets you book tickets for journeys operated by their competitors, including First TransPennine, Northern Rail, and London Midland. That’s awesome, because Virgin Trains is typically a little bit cheaper, and it doesn’t charge any booking fees. But even more awesome, it allows you to collect air miles for Virgin Atlantic, at a ratio of £1 to 2 points.
Since Virgin Atlantic codeshares with Delta, it means that you can use these points to book Delta flights.
Engage with The Company
Companies love social media. It allows them to connect directly with their customers, and respond quickly to their complaints, criticisms, and compliments. As a customer, you can benefit too, by being aware of any problems they might have.
I follow British Airways on Twitter, and I’m also on their mailing list. This has made me aware of promotions it’s running. One was a sort-of birthday present to me, wherein if I booked a short-haul flight within Europe, I’d earn a set number Avios, depending on the class of travel.
Likewise, I also follow Hilton Hotels. In 2015, it changed its method of login from a PIN system to a much more secure password system. This followed a period of insecurity for the company, where many people were finding their accounts utterly drained of points. In order to get its users to switch over, they had a promotion where anyone who changed their password would be credited with 1000 HHonors points.
Marriott International are having a similar promotion at the time of this writing. If you follow them on Instagram before the 21st of June, and then forward them the email address associated with your Instagram account, they’ll credit your Marriott Rewards account with 500 points.
Finally, it pays to complain. If you’ve got an issue with an airline, send them a letter of complaint with your membership number. Odds are good they’ll recompense you with a healthy dose of air miles.
Although you should do this in moderation. In his Rolling Stone profile, Ben Schlappig talked about how he used to complain to United over the most trivial of issues. Eventually, they figured that he was gaming the system, and the airline banned him for life.
Over to You
It’s worth pointing out that this wasn’t an exhaustive list of ways to earn air miles. There are far too many promotions and offers to list comprehensively. One of the best is with the UK supermarket, Tesco, which allows you to earn points and redeem them for Avios. If you know of any other good opportunities, be sure to share them.
Have you found a great way to earn air miles without flying? I want to hear about it. Let me know in the comments below.