How To Earn Frequent Flyer Miles Without Getting More Credit Cards

December 8, 2011 by Anil Polat  

colorful toy airplane

Although opening up various credit cards tied to airline miles deals are great ways to rack up points quickly, they tend to be limited to residents of the US. Regardless, credit cards aren’t the only way to earn a chunk of frequent flyer miles at once. Multiple debt accounts can also have drawbacks like potentially damaging your credit, annal fees that can be difficult to keep track of, and high interest rates.

So rather than getting more plastic, let’s use what’s already in your wallet to rack up points for a free flight or two even if you don’t fly all that often.

messy deskFirst Get Yourself Organized

One reasons the airlines are comfortable with mileage programs is they know most people don’t keep well enough track of them to redeem rewards before they expire. Luckily for us there’s free Awardwallet to keep track of all your accounts in one place and online.

  • Awardwallet recently introduced the OneCard; a physical card (that looks like a credit card) that keeps all of your mileage accounts in one place. Show it at the airport, hotels, etc. and with one swipe you won’t miss out on miles due to a jet-lagged memory. OneCard starts at a recommended donation of $10 but I’ve got free upgrade codes – the first 5 people can use free-amqrmr for a Pro account.

las vegas airport gateRemember the best strategy for earning useable miles is to stick to the most versatile airline in each of the major alliances. A United Mileage Plus account is ideal on Star Alliance since their miles work for almost all of their other airline partners. For the Oneworld alliance go with American Airlines (AA). Now, that doesn’t mean you have to always fly United or AA; just use your mileage account numbers with them for all of their partners.

  • Reclaim Recent Flights – Most airlines left you claim miles 12-24 months after you’ve flown so you might have two years of miles waiting for your account.
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An exception is when you’re constantly flying the same airline (say for routine business trips); in those cases it might be advisable to break with the convention above to earn a few more perks with the given airline.

Shake What Your Bank Gave You

Chances are you already have a credit or bank card that you can put to use to earn miles. Almost all airlines and partner programs have online stores connected with large retailers like Apple, Starbucks, and Sony and more. Typically you can earn an extra mile or three for every dollar spent on things you would buy anyway. WebFlyer also has an updated list of any special online store deals that might currently be going on.

santiago dancing couple

  • Travel Related Things Can Earn You MilesCar rentals, hotel stays, train rides…pretty much anything that you typically associate with traveling can earn you frequent flyer miles. Aforementioned WebFlyer talk has an updated list of all the current promotions. Don’t forget to ask for point credit and have your mileage account number handy.
  • Subscriptions Can Be The Path To Mileage Bonuses – Many things that require monthly or annual fees like Internet at your house, mobile phone contracts, and cable television often has mileage bonuses associated with them. You’ll need to check with your primary alliance airline store (e.g. United Mileage Plus) but keep miles in mind for anything that has a recurring payment.
  • Large Purchases And Loans – It’s surprising how many banks and airlines offer huge point bonuses on top of car loans and approved mortgages. Again, it comes down to checking and the best place to start is online with the airline.
  • Graduate College – Yes, you can earn miles along with your college degree. [EDITED: this deal is currently expired.]
  • [EDITED] Use Smart Apps – Although it’s only available in the US for now, reader Vinny points out the free reward earning app, Checkpoints which lets you earn miles and reward points by visiting stores and making purchases. Think foursquare with benefits. (Thanks for the tip!)
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You can further take advantage of your existing credit cards by scouting for balance transfers at 0% interest. Many reward and point cards still offer mileage bonuses (albeit reduced by around 35-50%) for balance transfers.

hamburg airportGet Hacking

There are a number of forums online specifically designed for “travel hackers” looking for the best frequent flyer deals.

If the term “hacking” makes you uneasy, there’s a more straightforward way to accumulate miles that might otherwise go to waste.

Ask Your Family And Friends For Leftover Miles

There are probably people in your life who’ve flown in the last year or two and couldn’t care less about their accumulated frequent flyer miles. You can save those miles from falling into Vulcan’s black hole by asking them for a transfer to your account. That costs around $25-100 depending on the airline and miles but can be a great gift travelers can ask for on birthdays or around the local holiday season.

[messy desk photo by: andhij]

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  1. JoAnna says:

    I am always so confused with the alliance thing, and here’s my main question: How do you transfer miles from one partner airline to another? I’ve opened up accounts on all the airlines I’ve flown so I have small bits of miles for all of them. How do I move them around?

    One of my main concerns with trying to accumulate air miles through alliances is that I know it’s not just a one-to-one transfer. For example, if you fly certain classes on Korean Air (including economy – class Q), these miles don’t transfer to a Delta account, in which case, what’s the point of the alliance?

    • Anil P. says:

      There are two answers; the easy one is you can’t and the second is it depends on the individual airlines. The best thing to do is open up one alliance account (United on Star Alliance and AA on Oneworld seem to be most open to taking miles from other accounts) – then request mileage credit for your flights from them for up to the past 12-24 months.

      It may or may not work but in the future you can always show those (United/AA) account numbers whenever you fly any of their Star Alliance/Oneworld partners to accumulate your points in one place. Their partners almost all accept miles from those accounts if that makes sense. It doesn’t always work in reverse. (Delta SkyTeam is probably the worst alliance when it comes to moving miles or even using them for flights.) Try to stick to Star Alliance or Oneworld if possible to maximize the benefits.

      • JoAnna says:

        Do you actually have to open alliance accounts? So, that’s yet another account, and then you give that number to all the partners and it all goes into one big account?

        • Anil P. says:

          In a sense; the accounts I’ve found that act best as alliance accounts are United for Star and AA for Oneworld. You don’t need a specific alliance account except for those, which you can then use to funnel all of your miles into one place.

  2. Vinny says:

    Great Post Anil!

    It seems that every travel hacking guide focuses so much on credit cards! This info is great!

    Figure I would add that there are SmartPhone apps which allow you to accumulate points and then transfer them to airline miles. Check out:

  3. Jeff says:

    This is a great resource. But what if you did want a credit card to earn miles (for airlines) — which is the best going right now?

  4. Dave Brett says:

    Nicely put, I hate credit cards as I find them too risky but its amazing how many other alternatives there are to gain airmails. I agree with two accounts rather than multiple accounts. I’ve found my airNZ and Ba cards have covered me well across the whole one world and star alliance which cover a pretty large deal. Not a big fan of individual programs per airline but Virgins scheme is rather good. If I’m flying with an airline and I can, I’ll grab them, why not. But I won’t go out of my way to fly with an airline just for the miles. Price is an important factor in that, Lovely post and thank you for the Wallet upgrade : ).

    Also what do you think of the Avios change? better for your miles or worse? I cashed in just before the change, interested to see how it effects the programs.

    • Anil P. says:

      There are many ways ironically because many people don’t grab the offers or keep track of their miles; never using them in the end. That makes for nice deals for those looking for them 🙂 Happy to share the upgrade, enjoy!

      As for Avios, I’m torn. It adds quite a bit of complexity to the existing programs making the points more difficult to use. Adding costs for taxes and fees is something almost all other programs do, in the end the flights end up bring much cheaper generally – and now require less points. It’s a bit worse but not terrible.

  5. Jeff says:

    Great read!

    You mention “Reclaiming Recent Flights” — does this mean that, if you are part of a rewards program but didn’t apply your number to the purchase, you can still earn rewards?

    • Anil P. says:

      Thanks Jeff. Yes, that’s correct. So if you forget to claim miles for a flight, usually 3-14 days afterward you can submit a claim to get them back. You’ll just need your ticket, seat, and flight number (usually). Generally you can find these in your email confirmations and if you can’t find the seat number, a call to the airline usually does the trick.

      Not only that but when you sign up for a miles program, you can claim the last 12-24 months of flights, even when you weren’t a member (for most airline programs).

  6. The OneCard is exactly what I need. I have lost countless miles (including a round trip flight to South Africa!) because I simply forgot to redeem them. Thank you for this tip!!

  7. Nicole W says:

    I have been saving miles for over 10 years to go to Australia. I’m only 14,000 away! If anyone has United Airlines miles they aren’t using, please let me know 🙂

  8. Julie says:

    Awesome post… Im glad I was able to spent time reading your blog, i got a great tips,thnx so much!

  9. These are great tips! I didn’t realize about awardwallet – definitely something I plan to check out right now.

  10. addie says:

    Some of the plans (including United and AA) offer mileage bonus plans for dining and shopping. You don’t have to get a new card, but just register the ones you already use, and you get bonus points for shopping and eating at places aligned with those plans. Which can include stuff like 🙂

  11. I love award wallet. The college program has been closed to new applicants since 2010. You might want to update your information.I wish I could put my son’s college tuition on my card.

  12. lots of good info. What I did to rack up some extra miles was ask my parents if they would let me put all of their holiday shopping charges on my own credit card, and then to just cut me a check for w/e I spent. I hope to get a few extra thousand miles out of it.

  13. I have a bunch of bank cards but not one credit card – I know that there are many benefits with credit cards if you know how to use them correctly, but like many other people I’ve been taught that credit cards are evil and that you just don’t go there unless you need to…

    So it’s good to know that there are ways of collecting flyer miles without having to use a credit card.

    • Anil P. says:

      Credit can be a risky path and even more so when you’ve got points as incentives behind them. With enough flying and some smart accumulating though it’s not too hard to earn some freebies each year.