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I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the fourth post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

There are currently some huge sign up bonuses that folks new to the miles game can pick up.

I’ve categorized some of the best offers below, but before applying for any cards, I recommend checking out my Introduction to Travel Credit Cards from yesterday.

I also recommend getting a Free Credit Card Consultation instead of picking cards on your own. It breaks my heart when people come to my Award Booking Service with the wrong miles for the trip they want. There’s no reason to Make the Biggest Mistake in Our Hobby.

  • What are the best cards for beginners?

Best Card for Economy Travel

Citi Prestige® Card

The Citi Prestige® Card comes with 50,000 bonus ThankYou Points after $3,000 in purchases made with your card in the first 3 months the account is open.

ThankYou Points can be used like cash toward the purchase of any airline ticket with no blackouts. You get 1.6 cents off of American Airlines and US Airways flights or 1.33 cents off any other flight. That means 50,000 bonus points are worth $800 in flights on American Airlines.

The card also comes with up to $250 in statement credits each calendar year to offset airfare purchases. So the first $250 in plane tickets in 2015 and the first $250 in plane tickets in 2016 are free. That’s another $500 in free tickets before you pay the annual fee again in 12 months. (We’re up to $1,300 in flights so far if you’re counting.)

My review of the Citi Prestige Card explains its other benefits like access to the American Airlines Admirals Clubs and Priority Pass lounges, the fourth night free on hotel stays, 3x points per dollar on air travel and hotels, and 2x points on dining and entertainment. $250 Air Travel Credit each year.

The card comes with a $450 annual fee that is not waived for the first year, but remember that you get $1,300 in free flights during the period covered by the $450 annual fee.

Application Link: Citi Prestige® Card

Best Card for Awards to Asia, South America, Central America, Australia

Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard®

With recent devaluations to the United and Delta award charts, American Airlines miles are the most valuable miles.

American Airlines miles are the undisputed best miles for ultra-luxury redemptions, and the miles are valuable for trips to Asia, South America, Europe, and Australia. On a recent trip, I spent 67,500 American Airlines miles for a First Class redemption from New York City to Singapore with 23 hours in Macau along the way.

The Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard® offers 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months.

That’s enough for a roundtrip to Asia, Europe, South America, or Hawaii.

Beyond the sign up bonus, cardholders also get a 10% rebate on American Airlines miles redeemed each calendar year up to 100,000 miles redeemed.

The card’s $95 annual fee is WAIVED the first year.

Application Link: Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard®

Best Business Card

Ink Plus

The Ink Plus is a business card that offers 50,000 Ultimate Rewards sign up bonuses after spending $5,000 in the first three months. Ultimate Rewards transfer 1:1 to United, Singapore, British Airways, Korean, Southwest, Virgin Atlantic, Hyatt, Amtrak, and more.

The Ink Plus earns 5x points on internet, phone, and cell phone bills; 5x points on purchases at office supply stores; 2x points on hotels and gas; and 1x points on everything else.

The Ink Plus has no annual fee the first 12 months, $95 thereafter.

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Best All-Around Card

Sapphire Preferred

The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a personal card that earns 40k Ultimate Rewards after spending $4,000 in 3 months. Ultimate Rewards transfer 1:1 to United, British Airways, Korean, Southwest, Virgin Atlantic, Hyatt, Amtrak, and more.

You also get 5k bonus points for adding an authorized user while applying, so I think of this as a 45k bonus point card. (Adding an authorized user does not prevent that person from getting the card at the same time or in the future as a primary account holder and getting the full sign up bonus.)

The Sapphire Preferred earns 2x points on dining and travel. Dining includes bars, restaurants, and fast food. Travel includes airfare, hotels, taxis, rental cars, tolls, parking, and much more.

The Sapphire Preferred has no annual fee the first year, then $95 thereafter.

Best Hotel Credit Card (Limited Time Offer)

Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card

The Citi® Hilton HHonors™ Reserve Card is the best card for giving you free luxury hotel nights. The card comes with two free weekend nights at Hiltons worldwide after spending $2,500 in the first four months. The free nights are best spent at top-tier Hiltons and Conrads that can go for $500 or more per night.

For a limited time, the card even comes with a $100 statement credit if you spend $100+ on a Hilton stay in the first 90 days after getting the card.

This card is perfect to get aspirational stays at top tier properties like the Conrad Koh Samui that goes for 95,000 Hilton points per night and costs more than $1,000 per night.

The card also comes with Hilton Gold Status, so you can enjoy free internet and breakfast on those free stays.

The card earns 10x points on Hilton stays, 5x on airlines and car rentals, and 3x on all other purchases.

There card has no foreign transaction fee. The annual fee is $95.

Application Link: Citi® Hilton HHonors™ Reserve Card

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Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get an additional $500 in free airfare on any airline in the first 12 months plus free airport lounge access worldwide for only a $450 annual fee. Why I got the card.

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I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the third post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

If you’re new to miles and points, you could easily open credit cards today with sign up bonuses totaling more than half a million miles and points.

There are other ways to earn miles and points, but none is as easy, quick, and cheap as opening up travel rewards cards. I’ve earned over 90% of my lifetime miles and points from credit cards, mostly from their sign up bonuses.

A startling amount of fun I’ve had in life has been the direct result of trips taken with miles earned from opening a credit card and meeting its minimum spending requirement. I don’t want to over-sell credit cards, but I don’t want to under-sell them either. Credit cards are the bread and butter of this hobby.

Today’s post will be one of the longest of the entire 2015 Beginners Series because I want the entire introduction to travel credit cards to be in one place.

  • How do travel credit cards affect your credit score?
  • How can you get three free credit reports per year?
  • What are the three things I look for in a credit card?
  • How do I double my miles with business cards?
  • How long do I hold my credit cards?
  • What about annual fees?
  • Will you ever run out of credit card bonuses to get?

How Credit Cards Affect Your Credit Score

Credit cards affect your credit score in several ways according to FICO, which produces the most widely-used credit score in the United States.

Note that I am not offering financial advice, nor am I a financial professional. I am an expert on miles and points who has opened dozens of credit cards. Consult FICO’s website directly or your financial professional instead of blindly trusting my synopsis.

  1. Applying for a credit card hurts your credit score. In my experience, my score drops 2-5 points per hard credit pull. By the way, these hard credit pulls stay on your credit report for 24 months.
  2. Getting the new credit line that comes with a new credit card raises your credit score. When you open a new card but don’t spend more money per month on your cards., your “credit utilization ratio” gets better.
  3. Canceling credit card accounts that are less than 10 years old doesn’t affect your credit score because accounts stay on your credit report for 10 years from opening no matter what. (Average age of your accounts is part of the score.)
  4. Making on time payments raises your credit score. And this is the most important part of your credit score.

The net result of opening dozens of cards and having around 15 open at the moment is a credit score in the mid-700s for me. That’s excellent for a 27 year old. There are older folks in this hobby who have opened more cards than me with scores in the 800s. My credit score is already high enough to get approved for any credit card I want. If I get it above 760, I’ll qualify for the lowest interest rate on pretty much any loan.

Check Your Credit Report

Start by going to annualcreditreport.com, the only site where you can get a free, no-strings-attached credit report from the three bureaus once a year. Some people like to get one of these reports every four months instead of all three at once.

Make sure the information on the reports is accurate and that no one has stolen your identity.

The reports do not include your credit score. There is often an option to buy a score for $8 or so, but these are usually “FAKO” (that is, not true FICO) scores.

You can get a free FICO score if you have any Barlcaycard or Discover card.

Do Not Get a Credit Card If…

Don’t get a credit card if you will spend more on a card than you do by carrying around currency and paying for things in cash.

Don’t get a credit card if you will not pay the bill in full each month to avoid interest charges.

Don’t get a credit card if you will need a major loan in the next 24 months, since the credit pull from opening a card stays on your credit report for 24 months.

Credit Card Basics

If you’ve looked at your credit report and understand how a credit score works and have decided to open one or more travel rewards cards, that’s where I can help. There are four main things I look at when deciding whether to get a card.

  1. The card’s sign up bonus
  2. The card’s category bonuses
  3. The card’s perks
  4. The card’s annual fee

Notice what isn’t on the list. I don’t know and don’t care what the APR on any of my cards are. I pay off my credit cards in full each month. If you can’t do that 100% of the time, don’t get a credit card.

Sign Up Bonus

Rewards cards tend to offer [x] miles or points after spending $[y] on the card in the first [z] months after getting the card.

We want the sign up bonus to be as big as possible while also ensuring we can meet the minimum spending requirement in the specified time frame.

Sign up bonuses are where I get most of my miles. If spending $1,000 on a new card gets me 50,000 miles, I’m earning miles 50 times faster than spending $50,000 on any old card to get 50,000 miles. The key to being a miles millionaire is clearing many sign up bonuses.

Category Bonuses

Category bonuses are far less important than sign up bonuses, but you should be aware of them.

I have cards that offer me 5 points per dollar on telecom bills, 3 points per dollar on dining, 2 points per dollar on gas, and tons of other bonuses on many categories of spending.

When I’m not spending toward a minimum spending requirement, I’ll consider my category bonuses, but my first priority is minimum spending requirements.

Why? A 50,000 mile bonus after spending $1,000 on a new card is like getting 50 miles per dollar, and my best category bonus on an existing card is 5 points per dollar.

Perks

I have cards that offer me free checked bags, free airport lounge access, airline fee credits, discounted award prices, and more.

I put a dollar amount on a cards’ perks just like I put a dollar value on its sign up and category bonuses before deciding whether to get or keep a card.

Annual Fee

Almost all rewards cards have an annual fee, though many waive the fee for the first 12 months you hold the card.

Some people have a hard-and-fast rule that they only want to get cards with no annual fee. I don’t understand those people.

Fees stink, but I pay them if I get enough value to more than offset them.

I’m not afraid to get a card with an annual fee the first year, but I’m also not afraid to cancel a card because of its annual fee.

Canceling Credit Cards

I would hold all my credit cards forever if it weren’t for annual fees. As mentioned above, that would increase my credit score by keeping my total credit line and average age of accounts high.

Unfortunately most cards just aren’t worth paying an annual fee to hold year after year.

Whether to keep a card or cancel a card is an arithmetic problem that involves adding up the marginal benefits of holding the card and subtracts the annual fee. Here are the factors to consider.

When I get a card, I put a note on my calendar for 11 months later to decide whether to keep the card. If I decide to cancel the card, I call the number on the back and let an agent know I want to cancel the card because of the annual fee.

The agent usually offers me something of value to keep the card. Sometimes they’ll waive the annual fee. Sometimes they’ll offer bonus miles. If the retention bonus is good enough, I’ll keep the card. Otherwise I’ll cancel the card.

Canceling a hotel or airline card where the points or miles go into your hotel or airlines account does not cause you to lose the miles. Those miles are safely in your airline or hotel account and will expire in accordance with normal expiration rules.

Canceling a card that earns credit card points like Chase Ultimate Rewards does forfeit all of the points you haven’t yet redeemed. Redeem those points before canceling the card.

Business Cards

Most awesome travel credit cards have a nearly identical business version. If you can open business cards, you can basically double your miles-earning opportunities.

You don’t have to have a huge, profitable, or even incorporated business to open business cards.

You can sign up with your social security number as a sole proprietorship and truthfully describe your side business on the application.

Will You Run Out of Cards?

This is a question I get from a lot of people. They wonder if opening a lot of cards at once makes sense because one day they might run out of cards.

Don’t worry about it.

First of all, there are over 20 worthwhile cards to open on the market. Second, new cards are being created all the time by the banks, and many of them are attractive. Third, you can get many cards more than once.

Some cards you can get over and over without canceling your first card. This is the case for the Alaska Airlines card.

Other cards you can get every so often. For instance, you can get Chase cards and their bonuses again after waiting two years from your last bonus. This rule varies by bank.

Further Reading

This post will be by far the longest post in the series. But I barely scratched the surface of the many things you should know about travel credit cards. For more in depth information on each sub-topic:

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I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the second post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

In just a few days, you’ll be earning hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles, and you need a place to put and track them. Below are the bare minimum airline and hotel programs that Americans should be members of, and as you get more involved with the miles game, you’ll probably sign up for more.

By signing up for these programs, you’ll be able to take advantage of most major miles promotions and credit card offers, and you’ll be able to fly domestically and internationally for pennies.

Each program should just take a moment to sign up for, so don’t skip any even if you’ve never flown the airline. Trust me that they all have a lot of value. For instance, you might not expect that British Airways is often the best program for domestic flights within the United States, and that its miles are also very easy for an American to amass..

If you already have an account with a listed airline, then try to sign into it, so you can figure out your account number and password. Write down your user name or number and passwords all in one place because you’ll add them into your new Award Wallet account today.

  • What airlines and hotel programs should you join today?
  • What is Award Wallet and why should you join it?

The Programs

If you fly any other carriers like Virgin America or JetBlue, you should also sign up for their programs, but if you don’t fly them, you can stick to the seven listed airlines. If you’re an avid couchsurfer, you can skip signing up for the hotels.

Airlines

Alaska Airlines

American Airlines

British Airways

Delta Airlines

Singapore Airlines

Southwest Airlines

United Airlines

Hotels

Club Carlson

Hilton

Hyatt

IHG Rewards Club

Starwood

Award Wallet

I keep track of my miles and points with Award Wallet.

Award Wallet is a free service that tracks your balance, status, user name, and password in nearly every airline, hotel, credit card, rental car, and loyalty program in one place.

The three big exceptions are United, Delta, and Southwest which have blocked Award Wallet from accessing your account information.

I still use Award Wallet because it tracks other airlines, my transferable points, and my hotel points. All told, it tracks 32 of my accounts.

Not only are your balances now listed in one place, but you can click the Update All button to see them all updated in a fraction of the time it would take to go to every program’s site.

Another great feature of Award Wallet is that it automatically enters your programs and finds your upcoming travel plans and puts them in one place, the Travel Plans tab.

Award Wallet is a fantastic resource that I use every day to keep track of almost all my balances in one place.

Open your free Award Wallet account now. Populate it with the accounts you set up in this post by clicking the Add a Program Link, then searching for its name or finding it listed alphabetically by category.

By doing this, you can forget about memorizing account numbers and passwords; they are all stored by Award Wallet. You can also substantially cut down on the number of programs you have to log into to see your award balances.

Unfortunately the free version of Award Wallet only shows expiration dates for three programs’ miles. I have some free codes to upgrade, which will cause Award Wallet to display all your expiration dates. First 30 come, first 30 served:

If all the codes are used, but I frequently announce the giveaway of new codes on Twitter. Follow @milevalue.

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Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get an additional $500 in free airfare on any airline in the first 12 months plus free airport lounge access worldwide for only a $450 annual fee. Why I got the card.

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I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the first post in a monthlong series. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

Frequent flyer miles are your ticket to travel more, better, and cheaper.

Mastering frequent flyer miles, hotel points, and credit card programs truly is life changing. (I’m literally typing this from a free $500-a-night ocean view room on Maui.) To help you master travel rewards, I am revising and updating my Free First Class Next Month series for beginners, which I first ran in March 2012.

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A sunset on Oahu I saw because of hotel points

 

Frequent flyer miles from travel credit cards have allowed me to visit 55 countries at the age of 27, with enough miles left over to go anywhere in the world tomorrow if I wanted to. I pay less for these trips than you probably did for your last vacation, and I’m usually flying in Business or First Class.

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Where I’ve Been. Next stops: Cuba, Colombia, Spain, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania

First Class

When I say “First Class,” I’m not talking about those slightly wider seats at the front of the plane you see as you board a flight to Cleveland. International First Class means your own fully flat bed in your own enclosed suite while being waited on and served fine foods and wine.

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You can fly First Class on an Etihad A380 for only 36,000 miles (less the sign up bonus on one credit card)

Luxury is attainable with frequent flyer miles, and it usually costs far less than a paid ticket. I flew in Cathay Pacific First Class for the miles I had gotten for opening one credit card plus $43 out of pocket. Do you have $43?

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Cathay Pacific First Class Suite

More Travel

I know for many people luxury travel is not the goal. They just want to get their family on vacation or to visit grandparents, and they don’t have the money in the budget for these trips. Using frequent flyer miles can also help a family travel for peanuts. I recently described how a family of four could fly to Europe for only $274 total!

What’s the catch? You’ll have to learn a few things and open the right credit cards.

In this series, I’m going to be showing you the tricks that experts use to fly in First Class anywhere in the world for pennies. By next month, you’ll be a pro at earning frequent flier miles for doing things you already do and redeeming them for dream First Class vacations you thought you could never afford.

more than 50 countries
We got to the Great Wall of China with miles

In addition to frequent flyer miles, I’ll be teaching you about how to find incredibly cheap cash fares and hotels, so that you’ve got a full arsenal of ways to travel cheap or free.

If you have two minutes a day, you can enjoy Free First Class Next Month! Bookmark this page, and check back tomorrow when we take the first step to Free First Class Next Month. Or better yet, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts

Forward those emails to your friends, so they can also learn and become your travel companions.

For those who can’t wait until tomorrow, here is a link to every post in the last series. This series will follow roughly the same topics.

Free First Class Next Month 2014: Table of Contents

  1. The Beginners Guide to Frequent Flyer Miles and Points (Introduction)
  2. Signing Up For Travel Loyalty Programs and Award Wallet
  3. Introduction to Travel Credit Cards
  4. Best Current Credit Card Offers
  5. Transferable Points Program Basics
  6. Earning Miles from Flying
  7. Shopping Portals
  8. Manufactured Spending
  9. You Can Earn Miles Doing Anything
  10. Don’t Let Your Miles Expire
  11. Airline Mile and Hotel Point Redemption Basics
  12. Airline Hubs, Alliances, and Award Search Engines
  13. Basics of Redeeming American Airlines Miles
  14. Basics of Redeeming United Miles
  15. Basics of Redeeming Delta Miles
  16. Basics of Redeeming US Airways Miles (this program no longer exists)
  17. Basics of Redeeming British Airways Avios
  18. Basics of Redeeming Alaska Airlines Miles
  19. Basics of Redeeming Southwest, JetBlue, Virgin America, and Frontier Miles
  20. Basics of Redeeming Singapore, Aeroplan, Flying Blue, ANA, Lufthansa, and Korean Miles
  21. How to Book Complicated Awards with Segment-by-Segment Searching and Wikipedia
  22. How to Pick the Best Seat with Seat Guru
  23. Setting Kayak Price Alerts to Always Pay the Lowest Price for Flights
  24. Basics of ITA Matrix to Find Cheap Flights and Fuel Surcharge Info
  25. Should You Chase Status?
  26. Cheapskate Lodging with Hotel Promos, Hostels, airbnb, and CouchSurfing
  27. Name Your Own Price on Priceline to Save Hundreds on Hotels
  28. Cancelling Cards
  29. The End

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Earn 50,000 bonus points (worth $800 in American Airlines flights) after spending $3,000 in the first three months on the Citi Prestige® Card. Plus get an additional $500 in free airfare on any airline in the first 12 months plus free airport lounge access worldwide for only a $450 annual fee. Why I got the card.

I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

Most of the posts on this site are minutia: a discount on awards to Brazil and Chile or a new Delta route with good award space to Europe. Such posts are only valuable once you understand the big picture and how the miles world works and fits together. Here’s the current big picture.

How to Earn Big Miles

Now, more than ever, the way to earn big miles and points for free travel is through credit cards. United and Delta have slashed the number of miles they give to you for flying their flights, while the number of miles you can earn from signing up for a credit card is often 40,000, 50,000, or more.

There are a lot of types of miles and points you can earn.

Types of Miles and Points from Easiest to Understand to Most Complicated

1. Credit Card Points Pretending to Be Miles

If you’ve seen a Capital One Venture Card ad with Jennifer Garner, you probably don’t understand what Capital One points are because the marketing deliberately obfuscates the product.

Whenever you see an ad that promises miles you can use on any airline with no blackout, the card does not earn true miles. It earns points worth 1 cent (usually) each toward the purchase of any cash ticket. Because you can redeem the credit card points for any cash ticket at a fixed rate, they can legitimately market the card as having no blackouts.

Cards that earn points that can be used at a fixed rate toward any flight are great for people who know how to find cheap tickets, people who don’t mind flying low cost carriers, people who need to travel on completely fixed dates, and families who travel in economy.

These are the simplest rewards program to understand: 1 point/mile = 1 cent or 1.14 cents or whatever the company says they’re worth. You never have to search for award space (explained below); you just purchase any cash ticket on any airlines and redeem your points to offset the cost of the ticket.

Examples of Cards/Programs In This Category:

  • Capital One Venture
  • Barclaycard Arrival Plus and Arrival
  • Many Smaller Banks’ “Miles Earning” Cards
  • Any Card that Promises Redemption of Rewards on Any Airline with No Blackouts

Program to Start with For Beginners: Start with the Barclaycard Arrival PlusTM World Elite MasterCard® with 40,000 bonus “miles” after spending $3,000 in the first three months. The card earns 2 miles per dollar on all purchases, and the miles are worth 1.14 cents each toward any flight, hotel, car rental, cruise, or other travel expense. It is the best of the bunch for its sign up bonus, value of its miles, and the fact that you can redeem for any travel expense not just flights.

Further Reading: Three Steps to Get $500 in Free Flights, Hotels, and Car Rentals from the Arrival Plus Card

2. Airline Points

Airline points are points that have a fixed value or close to a fixed value and can be redeemed on any flight that airline operates. The number of points you need is based on the ticket price.

These are conceptually very similar to the fixed-value credit card points above, except that these can only be used on one airline.

For example, Southwest’s Rapid Rewards can be redeemed for any Southwest flight with no blackouts as long as tickets are for sale. You just pay 70 Rapid Rewards times the base fare. A flight with a $100 base fare would cost 7,000 Rapid Rewards.

These programs are much easier to understand than traditional airline miles that require award searching (explained below) and amounts of miles based on an award chart and award availability.

Examples of Programs In This Category:

  • Southwest Rapid Rewards
  • JetBlue TrueBlue
  • Virgin America Elevate

Program to Start with For Beginners: If Southwest serves routes you want to fly, join the program and get one of the Southwest credit cards when the bonuses go to 50,000 points every few months. If you usually fly with the same companion, get the Southwest Companion Pass–possibly the best deal in travel.

By the way, to figure out where any airline flies, search “[airline] destinations wiki.” To figure out all the routes from your home airport, search “[city] airport wiki.”

Further Reading: Basics of Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America Points

3. United, Delta, and American Airlines Miles

Airline mergers have winnowed down the legacy carriers in the United States to three: American, Delta, and United. They’re miles all work basically the same.

Each is a member of an alliance with a few dozen airline partners. You can use your miles on any of the partners. American Airlines is part of oneworld, and there are 24 airlines on which you can redeem American Airlines miles. United is part of Star Alliance. Delta is part of SkyTeam.

On its own flights, each legacy carriers either releases Saver award space or doesn’t (and releases Standard/AAnytime/Level 2-5 award space.) Saver award space costs the fewest miles, but it is not available on every flight in every cabin. It is most available when the airline expects to have empty seats. Think unpopular days, routes, and seasons.

All partner award space prices at the Saver level, so if you are booking Cathay Pacific or Qantas flights with American Airlines miles, you are paying the Saver price.

The number of miles you need for an American Airlines, Delta, or United award is determined by three things:

  1. The cabin you want to fly: economy, Business, or First
  2. Whether you found Saver award space or not
  3. The departure region and arrival region. The cities you fly into/out of don’t matter. Just the regions. Think North America and Europe.

Once you have those three piece of information, you read off the price of your award from the award chart of the airline whose miles you’re using.

These types of miles are complicated because you have to be proficient at searching for Saver and partner award space, or you have to hire an Award Booking Service like mine in order to maximize the value of your miles. But if you can handle the complexity, these miles are more valuable than any other type of miles.

If you find Saver award space, you can fly one way from Los Angeles to Paris in Business Class for 50,000 American Airlines miles. That’s probably a $2,000 ticket, which means it would cost about 200,000 Arrival miles.

American, United, and Delta miles tend to be best for international trips, especially in premium cabins.

Program to Start with For Beginners: American Airlines has the cheapest award chart because United and Delta more recently increased the prices on their charts. You can go to Peru for 15,000 miles one way or Southeast Asia in First Class luxury for only 67,500 miles one way. For a limited time, the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard® comes with 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months. The card also comes with other awesome benefits like a 10% rebate on miles used for award bookings.

The business version, the CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World MasterCard®, also comes with 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months. This card comes with 2x miles on select business purchases and a 5% miles bonus on renewal. One person can have both cards. Getting both would be enough for a roundtrip anywhere in the world and up to four roundtrips to the Caribbean.

Further Reading: Basics of American, United, and Delta miles

4. Transferable Points

Transferable points are points you earn from a credit card that you can transfer to many different types of airline miles or other points. For instance, Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer 1:1 to six airline miles/points programs, four hotel programs, and Amtrak points.

Transferable points are awesome because they give you so much flexibility. Each airline program has strengths and weaknesses in terms of the number of miles you need and the availability from point A to point B. Collecting transferable points ensures that no matter where you decide to go, you can always transfer your points to the type of airline miles that is best for the award you want.

To maximize transferable points is extremely complex, though, because you need to understand the basics of every transfer partners to ensure you are using transferring your points to the right partner.

For instance, most people with Ultimate Rewards who want to go to Hawaii from the East Coast are probably transferring their points to United miles to book United flights. That’s a huge mistake. Another Ultimate Rewards transfer partner–Singapore Airlines–can book the exact same United flights for fewer miles. Not knowing that fact would lead to spending too many Ultimate Rewards for your trip to Hawaii.

Examples of Programs In This Category:

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • Citi ThankYou Points
  • American Express Membership Rewards
  • Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints

Program to Start with For Beginners: I like Chase Ultimate Rewards roster of credit cards and partners a lot, and I always start friends and family off with a Chase Sapphire Preferred personal card and Chase Ink Plus business card. They both have 40,000 to 50,000 point sign up bonuses and category bonuses of 2x points that let you rack up points.

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Further Reading: Transferable Points Basics

5. Other Mileage Programs

While you’re mastering transferable points, you’ll have to master other, mostly foreign, airline miles programs.

Programs like British Airways Avios, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, Lufthansa Miles & More, Singapore KrisFlyer, and Air France Flying Blue all offer tremendous value to Americans for certain awards, and you can get all of their miles by earning the right transferable points.

While it might seem interminable to learn about 10-20 other airline programs, it’s actually not very tough. I always say that understanding one airline program like American Airlines is the same difficulty as understanding airline programs 2 through 99 combined. All airline programs share certain principles, which make learning the basics of each one a snap. You just have to learn the few quirks.

Examples of Programs In This Category:

  • British Airways Avios (great for short, direct, economy flights on American Airlines, US Airways, and Alaska Airlines within United States; for flights intra-Europe; for flights intra-South America; for flights from the West Coast to Hawaii; for flights from the East Coast to Europe)
  • Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan (great for Business and First Class on Emirates and Cathay Pacific)
  • Lufthansa Miles & More (great for flights within the Western Hemisphere on Star Alliance)
  • Singapore KrisFlyer (great for Singapore Suites and flights within the Western Hemisphere on Star Alliance)
  • Air France Flying Blue (great for Promo Awards and some Delta flights)
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club (great for Economy and Premium Economy to the United Kingdom)

Program to Start with For Beginners: If you live somewhere with a lot of American Airlines, US Airways, or Alaska Airlines flights, start collecting Avios.

Further Reading: Basics of Redeeming Singapore, Aeroplan, Flying Blue, ANA, Lufthansa, and Korean Miles

Hotel Points

Beyond the scope of this post, but there are plenty of ways to earn free lodging on your travels.

Bottom Line

Miles and points are still the best way to travel for free. The main way to earn them is through credit card sign up bonuses.

The miles world is complicated, so learn about it a chunk at a time. Start by understanding fixed value credit cards that claim to offer miles. Progress to airline points and airline miles. Pretty soon you’ll understand all the foreign mileage programs to which you can transfer your transferable points. Along the way, you’ll have earned and redeemed hundreds of thousands of miles for thousands of dollars in free travel.

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Earn up to 20 free hotel nights after meeting spending $2,500 in the first 90 days on the Club Carlson Visa.

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This is the final post in a monthlong beginners’ series that started here.

You did it! You passed Miles Collecting 101. You should now have the basic tools to accrue millions of miles through credit card sign up bonuses mainly, but also manufactured spending, online shopping, dining, flying cheap paid fares, and many other ways.

So what’s next?

Your mileage education is never complete. There’s always something more you can learn, so check back daily at this blog, and sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts. You should now have the basics down and can understand the more complicated posts.

Keep up with your new hobby, and maybe I’ll see you at the front of the plane in the flying bed across the aisle from mine. It’s your turn to enjoy Free First Class Next Month This Month.

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Here is a link to every post in the series in case you missed one. Reading the whole thing should take less than hour.

Free First Class Next Month 2014: Table of Contents

  1. The Beginners Guide to Frequent Flyer Miles and Points (Introduction)
  2. Signing Up For Travel Loyalty Programs and Award Wallet
  3. Introduction to Travel Credit Cards
  4. Best Current Credit Card Offers
  5. Transferable Points Program Basics
  6. Earning Miles from Flying
  7. Shopping Portals
  8. Manufactured Spending
  9. You Can Earn Miles Doing Anything
  10. Don’t Let Your Miles Expire
  11. Airline Mile and Hotel Point Redemption Basics
  12. Airline Hubs, Alliances, and Award Search Engines
  13. Basics of Redeeming American Airlines Miles
  14. Basics of Redeeming United Miles
  15. Basics of Redeeming Delta Miles
  16. Basics of Redeeming US Airways Miles
  17. Basics of Redeeming British Airways Avios
  18. Basics of Redeeming Alaska Airlines Miles
  19. Basics of Redeeming Southwest, JetBlue, Virgin America, and Frontier Miles
  20. Basics of Redeeming Singapore, Aeroplan, Flying Blue, ANA, Lufthansa, and Korean Miles
  21. How to Book Complicated Awards with Segment-by-Segment Searching and Wikipedia
  22. How to Pick the Best Seat with Seat Guru
  23. Setting Kayak Price Alerts to Always Pay the Lowest Price for Flights
  24. Basics of ITA Matrix to Find Cheap Flights and Fuel Surcharge Info
  25. Should You Chase Status?
  26. Cheapskate Lodging with Hotel Promos, Hostels, airbnb, and CouchSurfing
  27. Name Your Own Price on Priceline to Save Hundreds on Hotels
  28. Cancelling Cards
  29. The End

Here are some other good beginners’ posts and resources while you’re at it:

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I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the twenty-eighth post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

Most travel credit cards have an annual fee. One of the main questions people email me to ask is whether they should cancel one of their rewards cards before the next annual fee.

Whether you got a card from my list of top current credit cards or from a personalized suggestion during a Free Credit Card Consultation, eventually you’ll probably wonder whether the card is worth keeping through its next annual fee.

I’ll lay out the two-step process you should use to determine which cards to keep and which to cancel.

How do I approach the decision of whether to keep or cancel a card?

I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the twenty-seventh post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

Today I’ll continue the theme of cheap paid travel when you don’t have or don’t want to use points.

This is a topic I love: saving 60% on hotels using Priceline.com. If you aren’t being reimbursed for your hotel expenses, and you have any flexibility over which hotel you can stay in, Priceline.com’s “name your own price” bidding tool can save you hundreds of dollars per stay, so bookmark this post!

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As the commercials say, hotels give their unsold inventory to Priceline to sell at a steep discount to get at least some revenue. We can swoop in and book hotels through Priceline for a fraction of the retail price, but you have to know the system.

  • How does “Name Your Own Price” work?
  • What trick allows us to circumvent the rules and make it work even better for us?
  • What are the drawbacks of using Priceline that you need to know?
  • How have I saved hundreds with the Name Your Own Price tool?

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I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This post may contain affiliate links. Read my disclosure policy here.

This is the twenty-sixth post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

I probably spend fewer nights in hotels than any other miles and points blogger, despite traveling plenty. Why am I down on hotels?

  1. frequent traveler- I spend probably about three to nine months away from my apartment
  2. frugal traveler- $100 a night or more is never going to cut it for more than an occasional splurge
  3. social traveler- hotels are isolating
  4. anti-tourist- I don’t want to spend all my time in a touristy part of town, eating at touristy restaurants, and drinking with other Americans

I pursue a mixed lodging strategy when traveling.

I stay some nights at top-tier, fancy-pants, several-hundred-euros-per-night hotels. I stay the majority of my nights for free with friends or through CouchSurfing, and I round out the rest of my nights cheaply at hostels or through airbnb.

  • What is CouchSurfing?
  • What is airbnb?
  • When do I stay at fancy hotels, and how do I avoid paying for them?
  • Hostels? Really!?

I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This post may contain affiliate links. Read my disclosure policy here.

This is the twenty-fifth post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

Airlines and hotels offer elite status that rewards frequent travelers who are loyal to a single brand of airline or hotel. These perks can be incredibly valuable, or they can be not worth the time and money taken to earn them.

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Airline status typically comes with better seats and fewer fees. Lower tier elites might get access to those extra-legroom seats in coach and a reduction in some fees. Top tier elites will get upgrades to first class on domestic flights, a few upgrades to business class on international flights, and waivers of change and cancellation fees.

Hotel status comes with freebies like late checkouts, free internet, free breakfast, suite upgrades, access to a club room, and more points per stay.

  • How do you earn hotel status?
  • How do you earn airline status?
  • Is status worth chasing?

I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the twenty-fourth post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

I use the ITA Software Matrix for two reasons:

  1. to find cheap flights
  2. to find the fuel surcharges on award tickets.

You can search ITA Matrix for roundtrip paid flights for departures over a 30 day period and trip lengths of your choosing. That makes the ITA Matrix another tool for finding cheap paid flights like Kayak price alerts.

On ITA Matrix, you can see a breakdown of a ticket price into base fare, taxes, and fuel surcharges. This makes ITA Matrix invaluable for estimating the out-of-pocket cost of booking an award ticket when fuel surcharges will be included on the ticket.

  • How does the ITA Matrix’s monthlong search work?
  • How can you find the fuel surcharges included on a paid ticket and why does that matter for award tickets?

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I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the twenty-third post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

Over the last few years, I’ve saved hundreds of dollars by setting Kayak price alerts to track the price of a plane ticket I need to buy for a few weeks before booking when the price drops.

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Kayak price alerts are an extremely simple tool that everyone should know about to save money on cash tickets for trips you know you need to take.

  • How can you set a Kayak price alert?
  • When should you book a trip with cash versus miles?

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I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the twenty-second post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

Today I’ll be explaining a tool I use every time I book a flight or research an award to ensure I get the best seat possible, seatguru.com. SeatGuru is an online compendium of airline seat maps.

Using SeatGuru can be the difference between picking an award routing with a fully flat bed in Business Class versus an angled lie flat seat. It can be the difference between sitting in privacy and sharing an elbow rest with a stranger.

Along the left top of the site, hold your cursor over Browse Airlines. Select from the list.

  • How do you use SeatGuru to snag the best flights and seats?
  • How do you select seats on awards?

I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the twenty-first post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

This is a post about the main process I use every day to search for awards.

In an ideal world, you collect the right frequent flyer miles for the trip you want, go straight to the website of the airline whose miles you have, search for award space, and your dream trip pops up.

Airlines use frequent flyer miles to give away seats they don’t expect to sell otherwise, though, which means your ideal itinerary might not have award space if it’s at a popular time on a popular route. In fact, no itineraries with award space may show up on your search.

Just because nothing shows up on an airline search engine doesn’t mean no award itinerary is available.

When a simple search produces no result, you need to move on to segment-by-segment searching.

The idea is that just typing where you live and where you want to go into an airline’s award search engine may not reveal Saver award space even when there is a legal, possible award. Searching segment-by-segment, starting with the hardest segment can yield itineraries that the search engine missed.

In this post I’ll give a step-by-step example of how I used segment-by-segment searching to find award space between San Francisco and London when united.com didn’t show any award space.

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  • What are the six simple steps to search segment-by-segment?
  • What popular non-travel website is your secret weapon in segment-by-segment searching?

I earn a commission for some links on this blog. Citi is a MileValue partner.

This is the twentieth post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

I’ve covered how to earn miles and the redemption options for miles. Now I’m giving the basics of several international airline programs which are transfer partners of one or more of the following types of points:

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • American Express Membership Rewards
  • Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints
  • Citi ThankYou Points

I think of these international airlines programs as niche programs. Most of their redemption options are terrible because of fuel surcharges, but a few redemptions with each program are great because of no fuel surcharges or a super cheap miles price.

Know the great options in each program to save yourself miles and cash by maximizing these programs:

  • Singapore KrisFlyer (UR, MR, SPG, and TY)
  • Air Canada Aeroplan (MR, SPG)
  • Lufthansa Miles & More (SPG, also the only one of these programs that offers a big 50k sign up bonus on an American credit card every few months)
  • ANA Mileage Club (MR, SPG)
  • Air France Flying Blue (MR, SPG)
  • Korean SkyPass (UR, SPG)

Why Collect These Miles?

Most of these programs have a sweet spot that lets you book the same flights for fewer miles than if you used United or Delta miles. For instance, pay 30,000 Singapore miles each way in First Class between the continental United States and Hawaii instead of 40,000 United miles.

Korean, Singapore, and Lufthansa miles allow the booking of mind-blowing First Class products you can’t book with Delta and United miles.

  • What airlines can you fly with these miles?
  • What are the routing rules for these awards (stopovers, open jaws, free one ways)?
  • What are the special deals in each program?
  • What about fuel surcharges?

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