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How to use airline miles to fly business class (without even stepping foot on an airplane)

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When I ran a guest post in 2009 called “How to travel full-time for $14,000,” it was one of this site’s most popular posts ever.

So I’ll be sharing more tips about traveling. Today, techniques to use airline miles to fly business class…even when you don’t fly that often.

Enter Matthew Kepnes, who has been traveling around the world for the past four years — and often getting people to pay him to travel. He runs the award-winning budget travel site, Nomadic Matt’s Travel Site.

His guest post shows how to use the airlines rewards against them to fly business class, without even having to step foot on a plane.

[Here’s Matt]

Business class. The dream of all who fly. With its flat beds, delicious food, wide seats, and pampered service, it seems the part of the plane reserved only for frequent fliers or those with deep pockets. At least, that’s what I used to think. Now I fly business class on all my long haul flights and I’m neither a rich man nor that much of a frequent flier (I don’t even fly enough each year for get elite status). So how do I get into business class then? I use the airline’s rewards system against them.

Airlines offer so many ways to get frequent flier points that it’s relatively easy to accrue enough miles to fly business (or first) class. And the best part? You don’t even need to fly to get the points! Whether you sign up for credit card, take their surveys, or shop through their website, earning miles doesn’t mean you actually have to fly any. I currently have over 80,000 miles in my American Airlines account, of which only 8,400 are flight miles:

I just flew first class from Europe on miles I never earned by flying. So how many miles does it take to get a business class ticket? Here’s the breakdown:

American Airlines:

United Airlines

A round trip business class ticket to Europe then costs about 100,000 miles. So how do we get those miles without flying? Here’s how:

Sign up for a branded credit card. Whether you love Delta, fly United and the Star Alliance, live and breath Jetblue, or are hooked on Oneworld, all U.S. carriers have a branded credit card that gives you a 25,000-30,000 points when you sign up and make one purchase.

Delta AMEX card: You earn 25,000 miles when you sign up.

United Visa: Earn 30,000 miles when you sign up.

Citi AAdvantage: Earn 30,000 miles on sign up.

These cards have annual fees of $95 dollars but most wave the fee the first year and if you don’t want the card, just cancel. [NOTE FROM RAMIT: Be careful about this. I would rather have you choose 1-2 good cards and stick with them instead of churning card after card.]

Watch out for deals. I sign up for all the airline mailing lists. I always watch out for special 2 for 1 miles deal. Or when they have special card offers to get extra miles. Last year, British Airways offered a card that gave 100,000 miles for signing up. That was a first class ticket home. American Airlines just gave me 1,000 miles for watching a demo on their new shopping toolbar. I got 5,000 AA miles by opening a Citi checking account. I got triple miles by buying some clothes from Gap just by seeing it in their mailing list. That doesn’t even utilize all the special bonus offers airlines have on cars, restaurants, and hotels. Make sure you sign up for airline (and credit card) newsletters so you can stay informed about these deals.

Sign up for an unbranded credit card. Sign up for the Starwood Express card and get 10,000 sign up points. When you convert 20, 000 points into miles, you get a 5,000 bonus:

The new AMEX Hilton Honors Surpass card gives you 40,000 points for signing up and 20,000 more after you stay at a Hilton property can also be converted into airline points. Even better, that card also gives you Gold VIP status for a year and a Priority Pass card (discount access to over 400 airport lounges). Hilton’s reward ratio isn’t the greatest:

But you are getting at least 4,000 miles. If you max out the full value of the card, that is 9,000 miles.

Shop at their member stores. All airlines have special offers with all the big stores- Amazon, Apple, Best Buy, Target, etc. Shopping at those preferred stores will earn you 2 to 4 miles per dollar spent- sometimes even more. If you spend 1,000 dollars a month, you can earn up to 3,000 miles just by going through their websites. The products don’t cost extra. I do all my shopping through the airline malls simply for the extra miles.

An example from United Airlines’ Mall:

I just signed up for Netflix. Why?

It got me 1,500 more miles on American. Airlines offer ridiculous deals when you sign up with their preferred partners.

Take the challenge. If you are taking a long trip, go with American Airlines. By paying 300 dollars you can take the 10,000 mile challenge. If you accumulate 10,000 miles by flying that many miles in 3 months, you get 1 year platinum status which gives you get automatic upgrades into business class as well as lounge access. They do not advertise this on their website. You must call customer service and ask to take the challenge.

Fly Crazy. When airlines get into price wars or offer new routes, they often launch ridiculous double or triple mile offers. Often times you can take a quick and cheap flight and gain triple miles. This is a frequent tactic that frequent fliers use to accrue lots of miles really quickly. Though, it is time intensive.

Put everything on the card! I pay nothing in cash. I put everything on my card- from Starbucks to phone bills. My total monthly spending is about $2,500 per month. That’s more miles for me. Everything I do is to benefit my mileage account.

So signing up for a branded credit card (30,000 miles), 2 unbranded credit cards (19,000 miles), my monthly expenses ($2,500 x 12 = 30,000 miles), 7,500 miles in “deals,” and watching for double rewards (est. 4,000 miles) gets me 90,500 miles in 1 year without ever setting foot on an airplane. Plus, this low balls the amount of miles I would probably accrue. I probably spend more money, sign up for more bonuses, and do some added shopping in a given year.

The point is that it doesn’t take a lot to get to the 100,000 miles mark. And if I never fly, sign up for another bonus, or do other shopping, where would the other 9,500 miles come from? Well, I could buy them from the airlines or use my existing miles to get an upgrade from your coach ticket:

On American:

On United:

By even utilizing a fraction of these tips, you can accrue enough miles to take a business class flight at very little (or no) cost to you. Signing up for a credit card, do some shopping, and you’ll be flying in luxury no time. Take a flight to Asia on American and now you are platinum status for a year giving you automatic upgrades. So often we think about earning miles as difficult and requiring a lot of flying. However, if you focus on using their reward system against them, you’ll find your mileage account jumping by leaps and bounds each month and putting you in business class on your next flight.

Matthew Kepnes has been traveling around the world for the past four years. He runs the award winning budget travel site, Nomadic Matt’s Travel Site and has been featured in The New York Times and Yahoo! Finance. He currently writes for AOL Travel and The Huffington Post.

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  1. […] See the rest here: How to use airline miles to fly business class (without e&#1… […]

  2. Some of these tips can be applied to the programs offered here in New Zealand, but it seems as though the system in the US is too different for it to work fully.

    You can get credit cards that give you miles, sure, and at certain shop you get miles, but there are never miles bonuses or anything for signing up.

    Frustrated that it won’t work here in NZ, but nonetheless awesome tips that I’ll be sure to use when I’m living in the US!

    • I agree with Michael, If you are outside the USA, in Canada or NZ for example you could apply many of these tips but the system is def. exclusive to US.

      But either way this post was very encouraging and has me pumped up to look into gaining travel miles and flying first class soon.

  3. Nice round-up, Matt.

    Of course, there’s a whole art of amassing points and rewards, but learning how to redeem them most optimally warrants a whole new post altogether. For instance, I just tried to book a reward ticket from Bostont o Buenos Aires, only to find out that since it’s the height of the tourist season down there, the miles needed for a free ticket are nearly triple what they normally might be in the off season.

    Anyways, for any of you aspiring travel hackers out there, I highly recommend the Frequent Flyer Master eBook (as well as the forums). Those two resources have helped me accumulate and redeem LOADS of miles.


    • Those are great resources, Alan. Anyone interested in accumulating miles effort instead of money could more specifically check out out the flyertalk US Mint Program FAQ.

  4. FICO score, anyone? Too many credit cards?

  5. I’ve read that canceling cards (if you’re churning) only drops your score by a few points. My concern is what happens after a year or two when you’ve already claimed all the mileage offers. Do the credit card companies actually keep track and ‘block’ a bonus on somebody who applies for the same card three years later? I’ve currently got over 200k miles in various accounts (I’ve already done the credit card deals) and I’ve got another 75k from AA on the way. But once there gone….what then?

    How bad is the actual credit damage for burning/churning Ramit? Does the cost really outweigh the gain?

    • For many people, no. But for some people (e.g., Matt and Chris Guillebeau), they have found some really interesting ways to get tons of free miles.

  6. […] original here:  How to use airline miles to fly business class (without even … Click here to cancel […]

  7. Ditto what Collin and Greg said about canceling cards. This is the main reason I don’t take advantage of the ‘waived annual fee’ offers, but I’m not sure how awful it is for one’s score to cancel cards three or four times in five years.

    I haven’t done the accounting in years, but last I checked, it made more sense to use a cash back credit card and buy fares when they’re cheap than to accumulate miles in a notoriously unstable currency. Spending $25,000 evenly over three years with a 1%-cash-back card and then buying a ticket yields $250 (in rewards) + $11 (assuming 3% return on investments) + 1000-4400 miles for future flights (because you ultimately bought the ticket w/o miles). It’s hard to know exactly how to value the latter–it depends heavily on what routes you fly. Because I do a lot of coast-to-coast flying on my own (read: Virgin America for ~$220 RT) and international travel for work to dramatically different locations, an airline mileage card doesn’t seem to make as much sense. Has anyone seen a thorough accounting of this anywhere?

  8. Nice article, and more responsible (particularly with Ramit’s addition) than some recent ones I’ve read that recommend getting 10-15 credit cards for the miles and canceling them all after a year. “Yay, I got three first class flights and now I can’t get a car loan. Livin’ the dream, baby.”

    • For sure. That drives me crazy. It’s fine for some 20-year-old world traveler, but when you need to get a car, etc, those few trips won’t really compare to the additional fees you’ll be paying.

    • Has anyone been able to get this offer to work? The website errors out upon submitting. Calling Citi directly has been less than helpful, and the same cards on the main site ( only offer 40,000 miles.

  9. I’m no FICO expert but from my understanding whenever you open a new card, you get a short term ding on the score. So as long as you aren’t churning 10-15 a year, I don’t really see too much of a problem. Plus part of your score is your debt vs available credit so if you have a lot of cards that keep your debt/credit ratio in good shape, then lots of mileage cards won’t hurt you. Then again if you don’t have any CC debt, canceling a card won’t hurt you much either.

    All in all, from my understanding opening 2 or 3 credit cards isn’t going to be that big of a deal. Chances are, you’ll probably keep one anyways.