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How to Get Miles for Free Flights Using Credit Cards: An Introduction

I want to preface this by saying that there are several other websites out there you should visit to learn more about earning miles from credit cards (View from the Wing and Frugal Travel Guy, among others – though FTG’s blog is, how do I say this nicely, a bit crude in its usability and right now I will make an offer to Rick who runs the site: I will gladly help you move your site to WordPress or Squarespace, where you can manage it easily and your visitors will have a vastly easier time using the site.  Contact me if you’re interested.  My help and WordPress are both free.  Squarespace is great and cheap.)

That said, credit card companies have been escalating their offers recently for signup bonuses for airline cards and it’s certainly worth considering applying for credit cards to earn miles to be used for free flights.  For those new to the game, a few basic FAQs I thought would be helpful:

– Everyone new to this asks this question:  won’t applying for credit cards hurt my credit score?  Answer: Yes.  And No.  Yes, you’ll be dinged for a few points for each time you apply (whether you are approved or not).  But if you are approved, you will also gain points for having unused credit.  The short answer is:  If your credit is good and you are not applying for a mortgage for the next 1-2 years, you should be fine.

– I’ve heard about churning credit cards.  Can you explain?  Until last year, Citibank allowed you to apply for American Airlines Citibank cards and get signup bonuses over and over again.  The process of getting a signup bonus, canceling the card, and then re-applying was called churning.  This was a windfall for many, as you could earn several hundred thousand miles a year just for churning.  Citibank put a stop to that last year, and though many of us wept, it makes sense.  Chase, which is associated with most other airline cards, allows you to earn a bonus once a year (for the most part).

– Is there a way to maximize how many miles I get?  The biggest thing people forget to do is to apply for both a personal and a business version of the credit card.  The Delta Amex just offered a bonus of 45,000 miles when you got a Delta Skymiles Amex (now expired).  But you could also get a Business Delta Skymiels Amex (just list your business as Your Name Consulting).  You’d get an extra 45,000 miles for that.  And have your spouse do the same.  Assuming you can meet the spend threshold (in this case, $3k over 3 months), you’ve just earned 180,000 by spending $12,000 on your cards.  Not too shabby.

– Are all offers that lucrative?  Well, no.  The generic signup offer tends to be around 25,000 miles.  But we’ve seen some doozies lately:  British Airways had a 100,000 mile bonus (both you and spouse could get that); American Airlines is still running a 75,000 mile bonus for $4,000 spend in 6 months.  And they offer 3 cards.  Get all 3, and it’s 225,000 points.  Have your spouse do the same, and it’s 450,000 points.  You can’t do this if you’ve ever had a Citi AA card before, however.

– How can I learn about new offers?  Follow the blogs I mentioned above.  These offers come up all the time – the biggest problem is finding out about them.

– Any other advice?  Yes.  I think this is most important:  You HAVE to keep track of the cards you’ve signed up for, what you’ve spent on them, and when the first year free expires.  Set up an excel spreadsheet and calendar reminders.  Spend only what you need to on these “churned” cards, then move on.  But you’ll need to keep close track of that, and of when you need to cancel the card.  I generally cancel after 11 months, to keep the maximum amount of credit open.

– Do you have a favorite miles card?  I’m not really an expert on this (see above, as each of those blogs has plenty of posts about the “best cards”), but my day-to-day card is the Starwood Amex.  The points are transferable into many airline programs with a 5,000 point bonus for 20,000 point transfers, plus they’ve got a wide range of hotels.  I’ve been happy with it.

Good luck…

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  1. Unfortunately, by this point, “the world” is divided between those who have been milking/churning the frequent flyer credit card bonuses and those who don’t have a clue/interest to do so. And, as you’ve pointed out, “the churners” are running out of new opportunities, as multiple applications are being frowned on.

    Oh, sure, I still pick up a new card every few months, but I think I give the credit card issuers far more business from referrals. Like when my infrequent-flying friends ask me how they can get to Europe — cheap. I always steer them to the AA cards. I wish there were easy referral bonuses!

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