By Daryn Kagan
This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org .
My husband Trent and I are just back from a dream vacation that we couldn’t possibly afford, not if we were paying full price. Each ticket would’ve normally cost $14,500. Thanks to smart use of our rewards credit cards and frequent flyer miles, we paid $15 apiece.
Scoring frequent flyer miles as points chasers
Over the last seven years, we’ve managed to earn millions of frequent flier miles. We are what you might call “points chasers.”
For our recent trip, we kicked things off flying first class from New York to Abu Dhabi on Etihad Airways, where we each had 39 square feet of space, a huge reclining seat, a separate bed almost 7 feet long and a vanity to freshen up. The chef stopped by before takeoff to see what kind of food we we’d like prepared. And before we landed, I took advantage of the onboard shower. For 30 bucks we giggled our way through 12 hours of mind-blowing luxury.
“How nice for you,” you might be thinking. “You travel so much for work that you have a ton of miles to spend on trips like these.” Actually, we travel very little for work.
We just make every dollar we spend earn some multiple of airline miles and then bring that value back to us. You can, too.
A way to fly with flexibility
Using our rewards cards wisely has also given us great flexibility responding to personal crises.
Before my mother died in 2016, there were many times in the last few years of her life that I needed to get from my home in Atlanta to hers in Los Angeles. Having the stash of frequent flyer miles from the cards let me make those last-minute trips.
While some airlines offer “compassion fares” for family emergencies or “bereavement fares” after a death, these tickets are often quite restricted and the discounts rarely save you much. What’s more, the airlines don’t care that you just learned your granddaughter has an orchestra recital a week from Tuesday in a town 1,000 miles away and you need to be there.
What you may want to do is what my husband and I do: Build up a stash of frequent flyer miles with the money you spend running your everyday life such as for groceries, gas, household bills and dining out. Here’s how:
The No. 1 question you need to answer
The most important question to ask yourself is: Where do I want to go?
Do you want miles to take you on a grand, luxurious overseas adventure? Or to make it possible to visit family in another part of the U.S.? The answer is important because not all airlines’ miles programs are created equal.
Some will bring you greater value per mile. Some might be better for getting to a certain part of the world, which might mean breaking up with your hometown airline.
I have a page on my website to help you figure out which airline is best, depending on where you want to go. But here’s the upshot, showing you which airlines give you the best bang for your bucks for different flight paths:
Continental U.S.: Southwest, /zigman2/quotes/201071949/composite LUV +5.23% British Airways
Hawaii: United, /zigman2/quotes/205037281/composite UAL +8.29% British Airways
Europe: United, Delta /zigman2/quotes/200327741/composite DAL +5.61%
South America: American, /zigman2/quotes/209207041/composite AAL +6.80% United
Australia/Asia: Delta, United, Korean, Singapore, Alaska /zigman2/quotes/200972303/composite ALK +3.75%
Middle East: American, Alaska
Africa: Delta, American, United
Advice on using rewards cards to earn frequent flyer miles
Using rewards cards well is your fastest route to accumulating large stashes of airline miles. (My husband and I spend cash on nothing.)
Let me stress that this part of the chase only works if you are someone who carries no credit card balance and pays all your bills on time. You also need a credit score of at least 700 (a decent score, but not rare) to get the cards that will bring you the most value.
When searching for the best rewards cards for you, keep an eye out for ones offering extra perks. For example, certain cards will give you two to three times the number of standard points for airline miles when you use the cards at the grocery store. Others give you multiples on purchases at gas stations.