To get a free airline award seat these days, it's time to get creative.
Road warriors racking up miles for elite status have been getting hammered by changes to frequent flier program terms. So have leisure travelers patiently collecting enough for that rare "free" ticket. Delta, United and, most recently, American, have all announced program changes this year that alter the number of miles required for various award seats: A few are getting cheaper, while many others get pricier. In some case, the changes almost double the cost.
If you're not a road warrior, taking a few of their tricks can help you earn enough miles for a free ticket, faster—and limit the effect of program inflation. After that, consider swapping your loyalty to a different kind of program.
Check out the video for tips on three popular strategies. Here's how to make these six worthwhile:
Tactic: Mileage runs
"My wife and I had dinner in China once so we could make American executive platinum status," said Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com. Taking a flight solely for the miles is still popular, he said, although some airlines are starting to thwart the practice by awarding miles partially on fare class rather than miles flown. Less-frequent travelers aren't likely to find a mileage run pays off: It's an expensive way to get a few thousand miles, if you're not gunning for even more valuable elite status. But still, it's worth checking for airline mile bonuses to see if a planned trip could net a few thousand extra miles.
Tactic: Credit card churn
Brian Kelly, founder of ThePointsGuy.com, knows some frequent fliers who sign up for several new cards each year to nab the bonus miles. This tactic is a little dicey—consumers risk dinging their credit score with a succession of new credit inquiries and subsequent account closures. Plus, issuers aware of the tactic have added fine print limiting the bonuses to new cardholders only, and requiring the account stay open for a set period, he said. Still, an airline credit card (as in, one) or a general rewards card with a good point-transfer program can be a smart tactic. Many offer bonuses of up to 50,000 miles, and waive any annual fees for the first year.
Tactic: Buying miles
If you're not sold on other tactics, this avenue can be enticing. It's sometimes worth it, but you have to do the math first, said George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com. Skip offers at check-in or at the airport to double or triple miles earned. They're typically the worst deals, he said. Road warriors usually look online, where issuers have better bonuses—as much as a 100 percent bonus on miles earned. Even then, the offer may not be worth it. Miles are worth about a penny each at redemption, but purchase offers usually price them at three times that. The pricier the flight you'll redeem them for, the more likely a purchase is to work in your favor.
Tactic: Paying bills
Once you have a miles-earning card, using it for regular bills—like your cellphone, mortgage or even federal taxes—can net extra miles on purchase you'd normally pay with cash or a check. Approach this with caution, however. Many vendors, including the IRS, charge you the 2 to 3 percent processing fee that the credit card issuer normally picks up. "That kind of negates the value," Kelly said. Even if the transaction is fee-free, paying credit card interest would also more than offset the value of any miles earned if you can't pay the balance in full each month. Not for you? For upcoming graduation, wedding and other gifts, sub cash gifts for gift cards—you'll earn miles for the purchase of each card.
Tactic: Shifting cash
This hack gets a little complex. Some fliers use their miles-earning credit card to buy reloadable bank gift cards at various retailers, earning miles for that purchase, Seaney said. Then they use the gift card to buy a money order, and put that cash right back in their account (or spend it on bills, as above). A few dollars in fees can net thousands of miles: One site, MightyTravels.com, netted 6,000 points for $12.50. "It's like the equivalent of extreme couponing," he said. The catch: Too many big transactions could trigger possible fraud alerts on your card.
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Tactic: Stacking bonuses
An easy one for less-frequent travelers to follow: "When you buy anything online, shop through the airline shopping mall," said Hobica. Each purchase at favorite retailers earns you miles with your preferred airline, even if you don't have a miles-earning card. "They have retailers high and low, everyone from Wal-Mart to Saks Fifth Avenue," he said. "You can get thousands and thousands of miles a year." All on purchases you'd (hopefully) make anyway.