Make Frequent Flier Miles Work Better for You, in Just 2 Steps

Passengers traveling in airplane
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Using a credit card to earn frequent flier miles is a popular way to get free travel. For example, I am flying to California this Thanksgiving. I was able to book my $650 roundtrip with 25,000 miles and a fee of $11.20. That means my miles were worth 2.6 cents each. Or, to put it a different way, I earned a 2.6 percent return on my credit card spending.

However, which frequent flier strategy will be best for you is not always obvious. To make the smartest decision, you should ask yourself:
  • On which airline should I earn my miles?
  • For my chosen airline, which credit card should I use?
Airline Choice

If you are a frequent flier, then the answers may be obvious. For example, if you fly 30,000 miles a year on Delta (DAL) for work, then topping up your air miles with credit card miles makes a lot of sense.

But if you don't travel a lot for business, then you should let the numbers guide your airline choice. And you really shouldn't think about a lifetime loyalty strategy. Instead, you should think about your immediate travel goal. A free trip to Hawaii? Or Europe? Or do you just want to fly home for Thanksgiving, like I did? Your answer impacts the airline that you should chose.

When redeeming miles for a free trip, airlines offer multiple redemption tiers. For example, if you want a free trip in the continental United States, American Airlines (AAL) offers MileSAAver awards (25,000 miles for a round-trip ticket), but they are only available some of the time. AAnytime Awards cost 40,000 miles. That is a huge difference.

A study showed big differences among airlines on how many miles are required, on average, to redeem for a free ticket. For example, if you want to fly to Hawaii, the average number of miles required was 65,463 at Delta vs. 82,246 at American.

Here is a summary of the best airlines, and the miles required, by region. Remember, these are averages based upon historic data, and your mileage requirement may differ.
  • Mainland U.S. flights: Southwest Airlines (LUV) (20,969 miles)
  • Hawaii: Delta (65,643 miles)
  • Europe: American (77,049 miles)
  • Mexico: JetBlue (JBLU) (32,679)
  • Asia: United (UAL) (104,470)
  • South America: Delta (87,275)
  • Australia: American (75,000)
Credit Card Choice

Once you choose the right airline, you then need to decide which credit card can help you earn the miles the quickest. And that answer is not always obvious. Most airlines have many various credit cards that help you earn miles. The biggest differences:
  • Bonus offers. And how much spend is required to earn them.
  • Category bonuses. Some cards may offer two points per spent spent in restaurants, whereas the other card offer two points per dollar spent on airline tickets.
  • Free checked bag. This benefit can add up quickly.
I used a tool, where I can input how much I spend by category and see the best credit card choice. Here are a few examples.

Let's Use United Airlines as an Example

To earn miles on United, you can choose from several cards. Chase (JPM) offers a United MileagePlus Explorer Card, where you automatically earn United Airlines miles. Chase also offers the Sapphire Preferred Credit Card, where you earn Ultimate Rewards Points. Those points can be converted instantaneously online into United miles. Both cards have annual fees.

How you spend can have a big impact on how quickly you earn miles. The Sapphire Preferred card offers two miles for every dollar you spend at restaurants. So, if you are a big foodie, you can earn miles a lot quicker on Sapphire Preferred. In addition, you can earn 40,000 bonus points if you spend $3,000 in the first three months. All other purchases earn one point.
  • A wealthy foodie spending $1,000 a month in restaurants would earn 64,000 miles in the first 12 months (40,000 bonus offer and 24,000 points from restaurants).
  • A recent graduate spending $500 a month (none of it on restaurants) would earn 6,000 points (not enough spend to qualify for the bonus offer, and 6,000 points from spending).
Compare that to the United MileagePlus Explorer Card, which allows you to earn two points for every dollar on United purchases. In addition, you get one checked bag for free per flight, which can be a savings of up to $100 per flight. The bonus offer is 30,000 points after you spend $1,000 in three months. All other purchases earn one point.
  • Our foodie would only earn 42,000 points (30,000 bonus offer and 12,000 points from restaurants).
  • The recent grad would earn 36,000 miles (30,000 bonus points and 6,000 points from spending).
Another Example for Delta Airlines

You can earn Delta Airlines miles in a number of places. American Express (AXP) offers Delta credit cards. In addition, any Amex card with membership rewards can have those points converted to SkyMiles. And even the Starwood Hotels' (HOT) Preferred credit card can have the Starwood Points converted to SkyMiles. Each card is a little different.
  • The Amex EveryDay Credit Card offers two points on up to $6,000 worth of groceries and a 20 percent bonus if you make at least 20 purchases per month.
  • The Platinum Delta SkyMiles Credit Card offers two points for every dollar spent at Delta and free checked bags.
  • The Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card allows you to earn one point for every dollar spent. However, when you transfer 20,000 points to Delta, you get a 5,000-point bonus. So, that means you can earn 1.25 points per mile on your everyday spending.
This Seems Complicated

Without the right strategy, it could take you a very long time to earn free travel, and you probably would have been better off earning cash back. Just remember to choose the airline that makes the most sense, and then choose the card that best rewards your spending pattern. A tool like MileCards helps to make the math easy.

But, if you just don't want to be bothered, you can easily earn 2 percent cash back and spend it on whatever you want, including travel. Citi (C) recently introduced the Double Cash credit card. So long as you pay on time, you earn 2 percent cash back. And there is no annual fee.

Unlike airline miles, the value of cash is obvious. And you don't need to worry about availability of reward seats. As airline miles become less valuable, and cash back rates get higher, the difference between the two is narrowing.

Just remember, if you decide to earn rewards (either cash or miles) from a credit card, make sure you pay the balance in full and on time every month. If you don't, the interest you pay on your debt will be much higher than any miles or cash back that you earn.

Nick Clements is the co-founder of, a website that makes it easy to cut your costs without cutting your lifestyle. He spent nearly 15 years in consumer banking, and most recently he ran the largest credit card business in the United Kingdom.

5 Most Outrageous Airline Fees
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Make Frequent Flier Miles Work Better for You, in Just 2 Steps
Passengers have come to expect a carry-on baggage fee out of Spirit Airlines (SAVE), the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, carrier whose itineraries are basically a woven fabric of fees. They've even begun to realize they'll get the same treatment from Nevada's Allegiant Air (ALGT).

But Frontier Airlines -- which charges $25 online, $25 to $50 elsewhere -- is tough to take. The airline had been struggling since merging with Midwest Airlines in 2010. It got worse when Frontier slashed its Milwaukee hub to the bone in 2012 and when parent company Republic Airways spun it off into a low-cost carrier that year.

What was once one of the most comfortable flights in the U.S. and one of the best deals in domestic air travel became the airline equivalent of a prepaid calling card. To completely erase any vestige of the airline that passengers once loved, Republic decided to focus on the Philadelphia market by moving to lower-tier airports in Delaware and South Jersey. In October, the airline was sold to a private equity firm.

The New York Times says passengers should relax, and that the low fares more than make up for the inconvenience of a carry-on bag fee. The Times used pre-deregulation fares as a point of comparison and gave its argument all the context of a grandpa who remembers when candy bars cost a nickel. It's still a $25 to $50 carry-on fee char
Fifty bucks for one checked bag on Allegiant Air. Low-cost carrier, my eye. This shouldn't be a surprise coming from an airline that charges $10 to $35 for a carry-on bag when you check it in online (that's $35 to $75 if you just show up with it at the airport), but that makes it no less egregious.

Allegiant argues that its checked bag fees are only $15 to $35 when you check them in online, but seriously? In the age of the check-in kiosk, does anyone honestly believe Allegiant is putting that extra cash into an employee paycheck? It's grift, and even template-setter Spirit Airlines only starts the in-person bag pricing at $45. Frontier, which doesn't quite have the hang of this whole low-cost racket yet, charges only $25 at the airport for that first checked bag.

When passengers started paying $15 for that first checked bag back in 2008, many knew we'd get to $50 someday. Congratulations to Allegiant for being just soulless enough to push up that timetable sooner than anyone expected.
Blame Air Canada (AC.B) for leading the way on ticket change fees. It charges $200, $75-$150 same day

It's not that U.S. carriers are great in this regard. United (UAL) charges a flat $200 and $75 same-day, while Delta's (DAL) change fee starts at $150 and goes as high as $450, but with a $50 charge for same-day service. These scared little Mounties who tremble in fear whenever a Porter Airlines jet powers up on a nearby runway have the audacity to not only charge a major U.S. carrier price on the front end, but to make people cough up as much as $150 if they're put in a position where they have to change flights at the last moment.

Flight snowed in? Oh well, pay us. Tornadoes near the runway? Too bad, pay us. We ran late and made you miss your connection? Too bad, pay us.

If you combined Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, a perp-walked Justin Bieber, that video where Avril Lavigne uses Japanese girls as props and anything Drake has ever done at a Toronto Raptors game, it just might look as bad as this. What happened to you, Canada? You used to be all polite, laid back and helpful. All of a sudden you find some oil sands and it's like Texas North up there. At least the Lone Star State has Southwest Airlines (LUV) and its zero-dollar change fees. All you have is an airline with a heart as cold as a hockey pond and as dark as any Canadian NHL team's building during the Stanley Cup final.

This fee makes sense on Southwest, which has a legacy of cattle-call boarding, but $9 to $40 for American Airlines?

Delta and AirTran each charge $10 for the privilege because some folks just like getting on the plane early and getting situated. It doesn't make them not have to move when the person with the window seat arrives and it doesn't prevent them from getting whacked in the arm by heavy carry-on bags when the other passengers come tromping through, but it lets them decompress.

That's fine. But $40? Considering that parents with children, seniors, people with disabilities and members of the nation's military tend to be seated early to begin with, there's a shallow pool of priority-boarding folks to choose from. Take card-carrying flyer club members with boarding priority out of the equation and you're catering solely to sociopaths: People who are going to treat the armrest like it's a night under the hoop with Roy Hibbert, shatter the kneecaps of the person behind them with their forceful reclining and launch the seat in front of them like a catapult if the person sitting in it dares to recline his- or herself.

It's bad enough that the airline's already validating this individual. Don't pay $40 to be this person.

The standard sleep set of an undersized pillow and blanket used to be offered for free. Then airlines such as US Airways began charging $7 or so for them. Then people got wise and either left without or brought their own.

As a result, airlines have largely eliminated this amenity. Those that still carry pillows and blankets charge $3 to $10 to buy "luxury" amenities that their competitors just don't offer anymore. They're throwbacks to the days when passengers dressed up for flights.

That is how airline passengers were tricked into paying $10 for a blanket and pillow and loving it. We don't blame Virgin America for doing it, but we credit them for working it into a whole freewheeling culture that includes texting flirty messages to passengers and ordering drinks for them from your seat's touchscreen display -- and hooking up with them in the bathroom with your parents on the same flight, in some circumstances.


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