Frequent Flyer Challenge: Summer 2013 Edition (with Reader Stories!)

Update: This post contains outdated offers and should only be used for reference. Click the following link for the most up-to-date offers on my favorite travel hacking cards. -cg

Greetings, friends and readers!

It’s time for another round of the infamous Frequent Flyer Challenge, where I show readers how to earn hundreds of thousands of miles and points that can be exchanged for free travel everywhere.

Longtime readers will recall that I’ve earned millions of miles and points and put them to use flying all over the world (literally!). Last month I went to Malaysia and back with every flight paid for through miles and points.

But wait! Over the past few years, many AONC readers have adopted travel hacking strategies for their own benefit. This time I thought I’d show you what some other people in our community have achieved.

Here are just a few of the hundreds of success stories I’ve heard from our readers.

“We’re on a 10-Month, Round-the-World Honeymoon”

First up, Jes Albro writes in from Edinburgh, where she’s currently in the midst of going around the world –>

Josh and I are on a 10-month round-the-world honeymoon, and we have used points from our Chase Sapphire and Chase Ink cards (LOVE the Sapphire card!) to get Business Class tickets for two of our long-haul flights (from LAX-AKL and NRT-BUD). At the moment we are using SPG points from the AmEx SPG card to stay for three days in Edinburgh during the Fringe festival, and have also stayed a few other places with SPG when we wanted to stay in a bit of a nicer place every now and then.

We also used BA (Avios) points from the Chase British Airways card to fly from OSL to EDI and will probably use them for a few more flights while we’re in the UK where it’s a bit easier to actually use the miles without paying ridiculous fees. I’ve had the 100,000 points for quite a while now after the getting the card a few years ago when you mentioned it and this is the first time I’ve actually used any of the points.

“Being a travel hacker has given me the luxury of booking last-minute flights”

In our next story, Anna Z writes in from Manila with a report of earning 400,000 miles (!) in a few months without flying →

I bought Frequent Flyer Master in 2010 when I was researching on how to get miles for a trip from New York to Manila. There was a promo for Chase debit cards that time so I applied for both a personal card and a business card. Within a month I got 50,000 miles for the debit cards. After using the miles for my trip, I then applied for credit cards. The next cards I had were the Citi American Airlines card and American Express Platinum Card. In a matter of a few months I got around 400,000 miles all without flying. It was perfect timing when I got those miles because I was already planning on quitting my job to embark on a six-month adventure trip in Southeast Asia. Because of the small success I had during the first year, I started applying for multiple cards last year. The most I applied for was six cards in one shot. I was approved for all of them (!) and my credit score was not affected as much as I expected.

From 2010 until today, I’ve accumulated more than a million miles with various airlines. In 2011, I’ve flown at least twice a month and have used the miles for long intercontinental flights. Over time my travel style has changed and I’m always buying one-way tickets at the last minute. Being a travel hacker has given me the luxury of booking last minute flights. Some of the flights I had include: Manila to Zurich on Singapore airlines, Zurich to Budapest on Swiss Air, Madrid to London on British Air and New York to Hong Kong to Manila on Cathay Pacific. I’ve also flown business and first class with American Airlines, Air Canada, Lufthansa, Thai Airways and my favorite: Cathay Pacific.

Not only that, I also get to stay at wonderful airport lounges around the world. In the beginning I only wanted miles for a round-trip economy ticket to the Philippines. Now I get so spoiled because I’m always flying Business Class on all my New York to Manila flights. My six month adventure trip extended to 2+ years. More than two years after I started hacking, I’m still traveling, still earning miles and still having a lot of fun.

“My Credit Score Has Gone Up… Earned Over 450,000 Miles Without Flying”

Austin Church writes in from Las Vegas… but the photo appears to be his wife Megan from their Hawaii trip →

I bought Frequent Flyer Master in December 2010 because I wanted to take my wife to Hawaii. After reading the guide, I took advantage of a special promotion through American Airlines and used 70,000 miles from a Citibank credit card sign-up bonus to book our tickets for only $20 each. We were hooked! Since early 2011, we have racked up over 450,000 miles without flying.

My credit score is excellent, and has actually gone up since we began our travel hacking adventure. This year alone, we’ve already booked a total of 8 plane tickets, which have cost a total of $500. We can travel anytime we want-for pennies on the dollar! The challenge now is not finding a way to pay for our dream vacations but trying to prove to our friends how easy travel hacking is. Next stop…New Zealand?

“Free surfboard service from Singapore Air”

Lastly, Brandon Cronon writes in from San Francisco with a story of surfing in Indonesia for a month →

I had great success with racking up a bunch of miles then using those miles to take a year off work and travel to Central America, South America and Indonesia. All of my international flights over the course of that year were paid for using miles.

Two years ago I was offered a position with my company that entailed a lot of flights between Arizona and California, mostly on Southwest and US Airways. All of my flights as well as hotel and car rental reservations were paid for by me on my personal cards and then expensed to the company. I also did most of my regular spending on my credit cards.

I started by opening the AmEx SPG card, making the $5k minimum spend within the first 5 months. That experience left me hungry for more. I subsequently opened up the Chase Sapphire, US Airways Mastercard, Chase United and AmEx SPG business.

Since I was flying US Airways so much I transferred my Starwood SPG points to that mileage program, in transfers of 20,000 miles at a time to get the 5,000 mile bonus. I ended up with enough miles to fly from San Francisco to Panama City, then Medellin to Sacramento (to return home for my cousin’s wedding, but only for a week), then San Diego to Cusco, then Salvador, Brazil back to Panama City, then Panama City back to Los Angeles. Upon returning to the US after all of this travel I still had over 90,000 US Airways miles burning a hole in my pocket and I wanted to keep going. I was invited on a surf trip to Indonesia so I burned 80,000 miles to get there and back. I spent a month in Indo and it was fantastic.

Booking that last flight to Indonesia was interesting. I was trying to book it only a week and a half before my desired departure, and when I called the number on the back of the credit card to book it the lady made it seem like there were no flights available. I thought I was screwed. But then I told her that my schedule was super flexible and she started putting in work for me—she spent 45 minutes on the phone and ended up booking me on a crazy itinerary with a 24-hour layover in Bangkok, which I took advantage of to explore a piece of the city. As an added bonus she got me on Singapore air, which will take your surfboard bag for free. Nice!

As soon as I returned to the U.S. I opened the Chase Ink Business (50,000 bonus!) and AmEx Delta Gold (30,000 bonus). I’m back in the game. Within one year I will be able to make that trip all over again. It’s an addiction.

These Stories Are a Small Selection

I’ll share more reader stories when I publish the results of my latest applications. In this round I hope to earn at least 150,000 miles and points, entirely from new applications.

These cards will not adversely affect my credit, as I’ve shown several times in the past. In fact, careful management of new cards will actually improve your credit score over time.

But Wait! A Few Disclaimers First

1. This isn’t about “gaming the system,” it’s about responsibly managing long-term credit so that you can be rewarded with free travel.

2. If you can’t manage credit responsibility or just don’t like credit cards, you shouldn’t do this.

3. In some cases we receive a referral bonus for cards. We always post the best available links, and if you don’t want us to receive a bonus, you can always visit the bank’s websites directly.

Summary: always think long-term.


The Best Overall Cards

Update: This post contains outdated offers and should only be used for reference. Click the following link for the most up-to-date offers on my favorite travel hacking cards. -cg

Every card below is one I have personally received and used, in some cases more than once. All of these links lead to our partner site, Cards for Travel, where you can learn more about them.

Starwood Preferred Guest. Once a year, AmEx increases the welcome offer for their hugely-popular Starwood Preferred Guest cards. This time they’ve raised the offer a full 20%, to a total of 30,000 points upon sign-up and completion of a $5,000 minimum spend. This special offer is only valid for the month of August, after which the bonus will revert to the usual 25,000 miles.

Update: the Starwood card is still available, but the additional bonus miles offer has ended.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. My favorite everyday spending card, especially on the road since there are no foreign transaction fees and you get double points on restaurants and travel expenses. This one has a 60,000 point bonus after a $3,000 minimum spend in three months. Points are posted to the lucrative Ultimate Rewards Program and can be transferred to multiple airlines and hotels. I especially like their value for transfers to United and Hyatt.

The Platinum Card from American Express. If you’re an especially active traveler, the benefits of this card can outweigh the hefty annual fee of $550. You’ll get a 60,000 point Membership Rewards welcome bonus, a $200 airline credit every year, free Priority Pass Lounge Membership ($399 value) and Global Entry application reimbursement (worth $100). Plus, you’ll impress your friends with a sexy card.

Cards I’m Getting This Time

As mentioned, I already have every one of the cards mentioned above—but fortunately there are still a few options. Here are the cards I’ll be picking up in this round of applications. It’s good to vary your applications by issuer, so for this round I’ll be getting cards from Chase, Citi, Barclays, and American Express.

American Express Starwood Business. I’ve had the personal Starwood Preferred Guest card from American Express for many years, and am adding this one to my wallet this year during the 30,000 Starpoint bonus promotion (ends on September 3). Starwood points go far with Cash and Point redemptions at Starwood Properties (Westin, W, Sheraton, St. Regis and others) or can be transferred to more than 30 airlines with a 5,000 point bonus for every 20,000 points transferred.

Update: the Starwood card is still available, but the additional bonus miles offer has ended.

Barclay Lufthansa Lufthansa Premier Miles & More World Mastercard. The Lufthansa card gives U.S.-based flyers a chance to earn a deposit of 35,000 miles in the European Miles and More program that includes Lufthansa, Swiss and Austrian airlines. These miles are great for Star Alliance redemptions, especially premium seats on European airlines which can be difficult to book through U.S. partner airlines. You’ll get 20,000 miles for your first purchase and can earn up to another 15,000 miles with balance transfers. If you dream of visiting the First Class Lufthansa terminal in Frankfurt, this card is for you.

Chase Freedom. This card actually gives you $150 back as a sign-up bonus when you spend your first $500. Free money! The card also provides 1% cash back on everyday purchases and 5% cash back on spending at bonus categories that change quarterly. Amazon is one of their categories for the last quarter of 2013—that’s a lot of cash back for holiday shopping.

The ThankYou® Preferred Card by Citi Bank. Another cash back card that gets you 20,000 ThankYou Points after spending $1,500 within three months. Thank You points can be redeemed for travel, gifts or money. The 20,000 point bonus is equivalent to approximately $200 in gift cards. You’ll get double points for restaurants and spending in specified annual categories.

Citi AAdvantage Cards. I like American Airlines miles for their usefulness in booking partner awards on great airlines like Cathay Pacific and Qantas. Citi has a few different cards, and the normal offer for the AAdvantage World Mastercard is 30,000 miles with a $1,000 minimum spend in three months.

Insider info: At the moment there is a better offer for 50,00 AAdvantage miles to get the Citi AAdvantage Signature Visa, a similar card requiring a $3,000 spend in three months. As explained in that long forum thread, that there aren’t any details about the actual offer on the application page—you just have to trust that the miles will arrive, as they have for many other applicants.

Remember: Travel Comes First! (Don’t Forget To Use Your Miles)

Miles and points have little value if you don’t put them to good use!

Life is for spending, not saving, and so are miles and points.

After my Malaysia trip last month, I thought more about where I hope to go in the future. Even though I’ve been to every country in the world, there are still so many places I haven’t seen properly.

Among other trips, I’d like to return to Laos and Lithuania. I’d like to visit Israel and cross over to Palestine, something I missed on my first visit to Jerusalem. I still haven’t been to Antarctica.

Miles and points make so much of this world possible, but ultimately what matters most is the experience itself. Whether you’re into travel hacking or not, I hope you make progress toward planning some kind of trip this week.

Happy adventures,

– Chris


Have questions? We might have answers! Frequently asked questions are answered in the archives for previous Frequent Flyer Challenge updates, as well as the Cards for Travel site. You can also send us a note.

Image: Keith

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