For many years, earning miles required buying tickets and sitting on real flights. I could easily estimate the miles I would earn from a trip by looking up the flight distance. If I flew more than 25,000 or 50,000 miles with one airline in a calendar year I would earn elite status. At that point, I could use elite bonus multipliers to calculate how many more miles I was earning for a trip. Ah…the good old days! Unfortunately, over the past few years, major U.S. airlines have moved to a revenue-based system, using the base fare, to calculate earned miles. Base fares do not include airline or government-imposed surcharges or taxes. Travelers who have no elite status in an airline’s program typically earn five miles per dollar. However, elite members continue to earn bonus miles. For example, United MileagePlus Premier Gold members earn an extra three miles, for a total eight per dollar spent. In addition, airlines are devaluing their miles by steadily increasing the redemption cost of awards. As a result, it is more difficult earning miles for free flights. But, this is really the old way of earning miles. Rather than spending cash to buy tickets and sitting for many hours in cramped planes, there are easier methods – one of which I’ll discuss in this post.
What’s Your Travel Goal?
Even if you eventually earn tens of thousands of miles, it may still be difficult to spend, or redeem, them for award travel. You may find your favorite airline doesn’t have award seats available on the dates you want to travel. Or, you may discover the redemption cost is double what you have saved for. Why is this the case? One of the reasons is you are competing with thousands of smart travelers, with more experience than you. They have plans for earning miles to meet their travel goals, and book early – often up to a year in advance. In addition, airlines are quite clever at limiting award seats on popular routes since they would prefer to sell tickets for as many seats as possible to boost their profits – after all, isn’t that what their shareholders expect? If you need to fly at short notice or to a popular destination with few flight options you should prepare to redeem miles for higher cost standard awards than the early-bird specials, or saver awards.
Making a Travel Plan
So, let’s take a look at travel planning step-by-step. Firstly, set your goals for destination and timeframe that match your interests and availability. If you can fly during an off-peak season, or even a less popular day during the week, you will have an improved chance to score lower cost award seats. Are you traveling alone, with a partner, or with a family?
Secondly, research flight routes from your local airports to your target destination. One great search tool I like to use while researching flights for a trip is Google Flights. By entering my nearest major airport, Los Angeles International (LAX in airport code language) and the city nearest my target destination I can get a quick list of potential airlines that serve the route I want to take. In the example for this post, I set my destination for London (LHR). Next, I enter target dates for travel. For this trip, I have flexibility to avoid the Summer peak travel season so I enter October 1st to October 15th as a baseline. Below, you’ll see the first results displayed by Google Flights.
I typically look for airlines that offer nonstop flights and I note the general range of ticket prices. Nonstop flights from the West Coast to Europe help to cut to likelihood of connection issues due to bad weather or incoming plane delays. Next, check how many miles you will need to redeem for an award ticket with these airlines. Here are links to some of major U.S airline award charts to start your research. Note: Delta doesn’t publish an award chart but you can get an estimate by doing a Google search, such as “Delta award chart”.
In my example, I’m going to research American’s award chart (see below).
I find a range of award redemption prices for Main Cabin (aka Economy) travel for my target destination region, Europe. Yes, I know the UK is now Brexiting from the European Union (EU) but, geographically speaking, it is still technically in Europe. Most airline award charts only give you the cost for a one-way trip. You’ll need to double the number miles to get the total cost for a roundtrip flight. In my example, I am able to travel to and from London for as low as 45,000 AAdvantage miles to as many as 130,000 miles. From my experience, I’ll most likely be able to find MileSAAver awards for off-peak travel a few months in the future at a cost of 60,000 miles roundtrip. For this trip, that’s a reasonable target for earning miles. If for some reason, you have earned miles for many years, especially via business paid travel, you may already have enough miles to redeem your award ticket already. Super cool – go get ’em cowboy! Or, you may want to consider the fares at this time are actually quite low – I would typically pay for this trip by credit card and not use miles. There are a couple of benefits buying the ticket with a credit card: first, I don’t need to wait to earn enough miles for the trip; and, secondly, I’ll earn more miles toward future free travel.
Earning Miles FROM CREDIT CARD SIGNUP BONUS
In the case of American Airlines, we have several options for earning miles from credit card signup bonuses – via co-branded credit cards, or indirectly through points transfer partners.
American AAdvantage Co-branded Credit Cards
Citi® AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®
Barclaycard® AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®
At the time of writing this post, Citi and Barclaycard both offer 60,000 AAdvantage bonus miles worth around $800. However, they have different methods of earning miles from a signup bonus. Firstly, with the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard (try saying that fast) you earn bonus miles after making $3,000 in purchases within the first three months of account opening. Citi is waiving the annual fee of $95 for the first 12 months. On the other hand, the Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard (just as difficult to say fast) offers bonus miles when you make your first purchase in the first 90 days and pay the annual fee of $95 with your first statement. Bonus miles are deposited to your AAdvantage account at the end of each monthly billing period. I received bonus miles from Barclaycard only 22 days after I applied for the Aviator Red card – I made my first purchase within a few days of receiving the card. In the case of Citi, I received bonus miles almost seven weeks after I applied for the Platinum Select card, even though I met the minimum spending requirement within a couple of weeks of receiving the card.
With both cards, you earn 2 miles per dollar spent on eligible American Airlines purchases. All other purchases earn you 1 mile per dollar spent. Neither card is the most flexible card in terms of earning miles for multiple airlines or hotels but, in terms of signup bonus and annual fee, for a targeted free flight with American they are among the best options to begin. In addition to the bonus miles, I also like the following benefits that come with both cards when traveling with American:
- First checked bag free for the primary cardmember and up to four companions on eligible bags when flying domestically. Fortunately, for our target destination to the UK, American doesn’t charge a baggage fee for the first bag. But, if you are planning to fly to Hawaii, such as, this card benefit is valuable and will likely pay for the annual fee in one roundtrip. American’s regular domestic baggage fee is $25 per bag. So, a family of four with one bag per person needs to pay $200 to check their bags roundtrip. Compared to the annual fee of $95, this is an easy decision.
- Preferred boarding for the primary cardmember and up to four companions on their reservation. Why is this important? If you are traveling with carry-on bags, such as wheelies, or get stressed out waiting in long lines, this benefit makes your travel a bit more enjoyable. Since many travelers do not check their bags, above-seat storage space is often limited on crowded flights. If you can board your flight earlier you have a better chance of finding space for your carry-ons directly above your seats.
- 25% savings on in-flight purchases – for example, food, beverages and headsets.
- 10% redeemed miles back per year – up 10,000 miles are credited back to you AAdvantage account when using miles for award travel when you have either of these cards. For example, if you use the 60,000 bonus miles for an award trip, your account is credited with 6,000 miles – that’s like getting a 10% discount on your awards!
Another important benefit for your international trips is:
- No foreign transaction fees when you make purchases outside the U.S. While many credit cards in the U.S. now offer this benefit, it’s best to check what’s in your wallet otherwise you may find yourself being charged up to 3% of purchases made while traveling internationally. Since our target trip is to the UK, I highly recommend taking a credit card that has this benefit with you and making as many purchases on your trip using this, or similar, card. You will also earn more miles to use on future free or upgraded trips – getting the hang of this miles and point game?
There are other travel benefits with each card. I recommend you to check out the offers yourself and decide which works for your circumstances. In particular, read the benefit descriptions for Trip Delay and Trip Cancellation coverage. The Aviator Red card offers $1,500 trip cancellation coverage for when an illness or other covered reason forces you to cancel your flight or trip purchased with the card. The Platinum Select card offers $5,000 trip cancellation coverage and trip delay coverage up to $500 for lodging if you experience a flight delay of 12 hours of more.
Note: I do not receive any compensation for recommending these cards – I’m simply using them as example and passing on my own personal experiences of using them.
American AAdvantage Transfer Partner
American Express® Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card
At the time of writing this post, American Express (Amex) is offering a signup bonus of 25,000 Starpoints® after you use their Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) card to make $3,000 in purchases within the first three months. I typically value Starpoints at 2.5 cents so this offer is nominally worth just over $600. Amex is waiving the $95 annual fee for the first year. The Amex SPG card is one of my favorite credit cards for general spending. I can typically receive the best value using my Starpoints for hotel stays at Westin, Sheraton, W and other Starwood branded hotels. However, for the purpose of my example I am looking at the transfer value of Starpoints to American AAdvantage miles. Starpoints transfer at a conversion rate of 1 point per mile, but you also get a 5,000 mile bonus for every 20,000 points you transfer. So, if you transfer the full 25,000 bonus Starpoints, you will receive 30,000 AAdvantage miles in your frequent flyer account. This is an insufficient number of miles, in itself, to redeem for a free flight to Europe. However, you may consider using this as an option to top up your AAdvantage miles, if you are running low for an upcoming trip.
Other American AAdvantage Partners
As mentioned in my earlier post, American Airlines is a founding member of the oneworld global alliance. As such, you can redeem free award flights via American’s airline partners. Each airline has its own redemption award charts and partner award travel inventories. In addition, several premium credit cards have established their own travel points that are earned and redeemed within their travel portals to buy airline tickets and book hotels and rental cars. I’ll be covering these topics in future posts.
Happy travel planning.