"Travel Hacking": Using Credit Cards to Get More Frequent Flyer Miles

Here’s the second part of my two-part series about using frequent flyer miles for free travel. In our first post we looked at some general tips for “travel hacking.” Today we’ll look at a few ways that you can use credit cards to help you quickly get a lot more miles, allowing you to travel much sooner.
But first, as I mentioned in the last post, there’s a big “catch” or at least a caveat with credit cards: You have to use your credit and your credit cards wisely. If you don’t pay them off in full at the end of each month, most benefits of having the card will be cancelled out by interest charges and late payment fees. I have a few credit cards, but in my mind I try to think of them as debit cards, that is, I don’t spend money on them if I don’t actually have the money to pay them off when the statement comes at the end of each month. Just keep that in mind before applying for any credit cards. 
Now, let’s look at some questions:

How do I get frequent flyer miles with credit cards?

It depends on the credit card company and the specific card, but if you’re approved for a card, you’ll generally have to spend a specific amount of money with the card in a specific period of time, before you get the sign-up bonus points. For example, a Chase Sapphire card I recently got required me to spend $3,000 on the card within three months to get 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points. I normally wouldn’t have spent so much on a card like that, but it was around the holidays and I had some big purchases. Plus, I added my mom to the account, and she was able to put some of her spending on it, and later reimburse me when the bill came. A good point to make here is that you shouldn’t find things to spend money on just to meet the minimum requirement, but if you are going to be buying things anyway in your day-to-day life, you may as well get some frequent flyer miles for it.
Taken from the United Lounge in Houston. One credit card I got came with two free lounge passes.
It’s not a huge thing, but small bonuses like this can make traveling more pleasant.
What are other “catches” to credit cards?
You should also take a card’s annual fee into account. Some cards don’t have annual fees, and those are good, although they often have much lower bonus miles, especially for the sign-up bonus. In many cases, a card’s annual fee is waived in the first year but once you start your second year, you’ll be charged for the card. This fee can be anywhere from $45-95 dollars, usually (although there are cards that have annual fees in the hundreds of dollars, but they usually include things like free access to all airport lounges). In some cases, you can avoid the annual fee starting in the second year simply by calling the customer service line and asking for them to waive the fee or to downgrade the card to a no-fee card. Or, if you’re not using it, you can also just cancel the card. You may think this could negatively affect your credit score but that seems to not be the case, generally (check out Chris Guillebeau’s explanation and expansion of this topic here).
What if I don’t live in the U.S.?
That makes the situation much more difficult, unfortunately. I still have an address in the U.S. and I’m an American citizen, so I can get many of these deals with no problem. But the general consensus among most travelers is that it’s much harder if you live outside the U.S., simply because the biggest frequent flyer and mileage communities are based there, and the best credit card offers are usually limited to there. You can still join frequent flyer programs and accumulate miles by flying, of course, but some of these other “tricks of the trade” may be difficult to pull off. It’s also the reason that almost all our miles are in my name, and not Angela’s. But if we were both living in the U.S., we could theoretically get twice as many miles from credit card sign-ups and the like.
Our hotel room in Buenos Aires. Remember that these programs aren’t just for flights; many are connected to hotels.
Does this actually work?
Yes, definitely. As I mentioned in the previous post, we took our trips to South America and Germany using frequent flyer miles, and we’ll also be taking a trip to China later this year. The China trip was from British Airways miles, all of which I got from a British Airways credit card; I’ve never even been on a British Airways flight (but I heard they’re a pretty nice airline, relatively speaking).
How can I keep track of my credit cards?

Like I mentioned before, Award Wallet can be useful for at least some points and credit card programs (I know they have Chase on there), but I’ve also heard good things about Mint.com. I’ve used that to monitor my checking and savings account, but I’ve not taken the time to link credit cards to it. Still, it comes recommended by some of the travel and savings blogs I follow, so you may want to check it out.
How do I know which credit cards are the best?

That’s probably the most important question here. If you follow some of the blogs I mentioned in the previous post, a lot of them talk about credit cards, since they really are one of the fastest ways to get a lot of miles. Credit card offers change, but these bloggers stay very much on top of what’s current. Chris Guillebeau even set up a site called Cards For Travel that gives a lot of tips and even lists the best current credit card offers (click here for his current list of the best cards). 
The general consensus right now seems to be that Chase’s Sapphire Preferred card is the best option for many people now (Lucky also talked about it here). It gives you 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $3,000 on the card in three months. Ultimate Rewards are good because they aren’t linked to any specific points or miles program, and can be transferred to most programs at a 1:1 ratio. That means you’re not stuck with having miles in only one program. It also doesn’t charge the foreign transaction fees that most credit cards these days charge. This particular offer is going to end soon (I think at the end of February or March?), so if you were thinking of getting this card, now is a good time. I got it when I was in Colorado in December, and it’s a good card for me because it doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, which is obviously a big issue for me since I spend most of the year in Costa Rica. Plus it’s a surprisingly thick, heavy, and metallic card, and people always think I’m some kind of high roller when I use it, especially here in Costa Rica.  
Also, Mommy Points recently blogged about how she applies for credit cards, and includes information on credit scores and the other things she takes into account when considering a credit card.
Yech! If this was “The Golden Age of Travel,” maybe we’re better off now!
Any other questions?
Again, the reason I’m writing these posts is because I’ve been very fortunate to have benefited from these mileage programs and credit card bonuses, and I wanted my friends, family, and readers to be able to benefit from them as well. Travel hacking isn’t for everyone, though. If you’ve not got a lot of time, or if you’ve simply got a ton of money burning a hole in your pocket, you may be just as well off buying your tickets directly. But if you approach the whole thing as a hobby, even spending a small amount of time on travel hacking can reap big rewards. 
If you have any other questions or comments about any of this, I’m certainly not an authority on these matters, but I can try to help you as much as I can, or at least try to point you in the right direction. 
Thanks for reading! Have a good day, and happy travels!
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Errand-Running Monkey at Sitzblog
Hey! I'm Ryan Sitzman, the person in charge of Sitzblog. If you want to know more about me, you can check out my profile on Google or go to my personal site, RyanSitzman.com. You can also click on any of the redundant little boxes to the left and it should take you to my profiles for all kinds of social networks. Thanks!

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2 thoughts on “"Travel Hacking": Using Credit Cards to Get More Frequent Flyer Miles

  1. Very concise blog post about the benefits for frequent flyer miles.

    I agree with everything that you have outlined.

    I also feel people should not “manufacture” spending just to get a credit card bonus offer. Stay within your budget and you will still be able to rack up 100,000s of miles.

    No need to over reach and expose yourself to more risk than is needed.

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