Yesterday I wrote about the 11 greatest miles and points deals ever. Some folks had their own, and there were plenty of amazing opportunities I didn’t add to the list — like how I used to earn 80,000+ miles at a time opening and funding Citibank checking accounts with a credit card (you couldn’t use Citibank credit cards to do this, and after enough accounts they’d say you could not do it anymore!).
What some folks asked me for was, what are the best ways to earn miles today?
You can’t get a free Airtran flight for 64 Coke cups from Wendys.
And yet I’ve never earned as many miles as I do today.
And while it may cost more miles for award tickets than it did in the past, and availability isn’t as good as in the special period of 2008 – 2010 (“the Great Recession”), back ‘in the day’ you couldn’t even combine frequent flyer airline partners on a single award, fewer programs offered one-way awards, and airline alliances didn’t even exist.
Net net, while I think the game is harder than it was four years ago, it’s at least as good as it was when I got started 15-20 years ago and probably better.
Here are the top 10 ways to earn frequent flyer miles today:
- Credit card signup bonuses
Here are the 10 best credit card signup bonuses.
There’s nothing that matches the scale and speed with which you can earn points through big credit card signup offers.
When I first got started in frequent flyer miles, you’d regularly see 15,000 mile bonuses. I had never seen a 20,000 mile bonus until April 2003. Now the low-end of a good offer is 40,000 miles, and 50,000 is the norm.
- Ongoing spending where you earn more than 1 mile per dollar (category bonuses)
Cards incentivize spend by offering more than just a standard mile per dollar in specific categories. Play your categories right, and with the right mix of cards, and you can earn far more points for your spending each day and rack up points quite quickly. Some cards will give you as much as 5 points per dollar, which can be worth nearly a 10% rebate on your spending.
Stack that kind of earning with…
- Mileage shopping portals
Sometimes the mileage amounts are fairly small, if you’re only spending $20 and you’re earning 3 miles per dollar that’s 60 miles.
But you’re earning miles for things you’re going to buy anyway, just start your online shopping at a mileage portal and click to the store of your choice instead of going to that online e-tailer directly. Most online stores give miles or other rebates for your shopping if you do this.
And the rewards can actually wind up quite large, 20 miles per dollar and I’ve even earned 100 miles per dollar on certain purchases without a promotion to stack – and promotions do abound all the time, especially around the holidays, back to school, and other peak shopping seasons.
Remember those miles are in addition to what you earn for putting the purchases on your mileage-earning credit card.
Here’s how to choose which mileage portal to use for your shopping, and here’s my interview with the President of Cartera Commerce which runs many of the sites.
- Buying items through mileage portals, earning credit card points as well, and selling the items
This is just a variation on the above, an arbitrage play, if you find items you can sell for about what you paid for them you can pocket the miles or other rebates. There are some big players in this space, I’ve written about it in the past, and it’s not something to enter in without being sure you can get your cash out. But there are folks earning hundreds of thousands of miles a year this way.
The idea is that you can find items that you’ll be able to sell for as much as you pay for them (including transaction costs), and you pocket the miles as profit.
- Buying monetary instruments with a credit card for the miles, and getting the funds back into your bank account
The classic example used to be buying coins from the US mint with a credit card (and free shipping). You’d earn miles on your credit card, deposit the money back in the bank, and pay off the credit card.
You also used to be able to buy travelers checks from AAA with a credit card. Boom.
Now the idea is to buy gift cards that allow you to use a PIN for debit transactions, then use those gift cards to buy money orders.
- Actually flying
Flying 100,000 miles a year on American Airlines, I earn 200,000 miles (without promotions) because it’s not just the one mile per mile flown but also a 100% bonus (based on my elite status) on top of that.
That’s enough miles for 2 business class roundtrips to Europe or South America, and nearly enough (110,000 miles each) for 2 business class roundtrips to Southeast Asia.
- Opening investment accounts (Fidelity, sharebuilder)
I used to use Sharebuilder for opening account bonuses, the big miles all came from Fidelity. Like 50,000 miles for a $100,000 deposit.
Plenty of folks have earned more than one bonus from Fidelity.
You used to be able to game Fidelity’s deposit requirements but they’ve since closed that loophole.
- Bankdirect checking
I’ve used Bankdirect as my primary checking account since July 2003. They give me 100 miles for each $1000 of average balance each and every month, and there are signup bonuses as well.
In a low interest rate environment this is a pretty good return, especially since there’s no tax reporting on the miles but you’d pay tax on interest earned (such as it is these days, on a checking account).
They now cap mileage-earning based on a $50,000 balance, but that’s still 5000 miles per month if you max out (at a monthly fee for the checking account of $12).
- Suntrust Delta debit card
Suntrust has one of the few remaining mileage-earning debit cards. You earn 1 Delta mile per dollar spent. (UFB direct still has an American mileage-earning card that earns 1 mile per $2 spent.)
Unfortunately I haven’t heard any recent success stories signing up for the card, I provided plenty of warnings as it appeared that the card was being pulled for new applicants.
Some transactions are far less expensive paying with a debit card than a credit card (like federal taxes, you pay a flat ~ $3 or so rather than 2% or more) and some transactions can’t be made with a credit card (like money order purchases).
The Suntrust Delta card has been my primary means of earning Delta miles in recent times, those miles alone got me a couple of business class awards to Australia.
- Miles for Satellite TV
Signing up for DirecTV can be used to earn 25,000 or 30,000 miles at a time — and with a little bit of effort service can be cancelled and re-upped. If you’re going to have TV anyway, you might as well get lots of miles for it.
What are your biggest mileage-earners?
- You can join the 40,000+ people who see these deals and analysis every day — sign up to receive posts by email (just one e-mail per day) or subscribe to the RSS feed. It’s free. You can also follow me on Twitter for the latest deals. Don’t miss out!