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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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Michael Moore-Jones
5 years 10 months ago

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!

Corina
Corina
5 years 9 months ago

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.

Alan
5 years 10 months ago
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 flyertalk.com… Read more »
Austin Yoder
5 years 9 months ago

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.

Greg
Greg
5 years 10 months ago

FICO score, anyone? Too many credit cards?

Collin Ferry
5 years 10 months ago
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… Read more »
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Sarah
Sarah
5 years 10 months ago
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… Read more »
Stephen
Stephen
5 years 10 months ago

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.”

Carlos
Sean
Sean
5 years 10 months ago

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 (citicards.com) only offer 40,000 miles.

Nomadic Matt
5 years 10 months ago
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… Read more »
RamitGroupie
RamitGroupie
5 years 10 months ago

I think it’s worth keeping an eye on miles- they’re tax-free, and as long as you’re not missing out on more valuable perks with other cards, with little effort you get a free flight here and there. If you get an idea about what periods offer lower redemption levels, you can maximize the points you have.
It works better for some destinations than others- I have a harder time finding a cheaper flight to Italy, so use miles, and pay for a discounted ticket to say, South America or the UK.

Eurotrip Tips
5 years 10 months ago

Well that’s informative!

The only itch I have is about the credit scoe. I’m kind of protective of it, I really don’t want any scatch there. Anyway, being in Canada, I’m not eve sure I can get one of these cards because flying in/out of Canada is so expensive as opposed to the US.

Great tips though, I’ll have a look through the several links you provided. Thanks!

RJ Weiss
5 years 10 months ago

Great post Matt.

I find the least damaging way of earning miles has been through opening up bank accounts instead of new credit cards. While this still counts as a hard inquiry, it doesn’t have the same effect on your FICO score as opening a credit card.

Can’t wait to read more on your blog Matt. Thanks.

Molee Leng
Molee Leng
5 years 10 months ago
Yup, a while back, Chase offered 25,000 Continental miles for opening up a Chase Checking account with something like $100 minimum and paying $25 for the cheapest debit card, which then allows you to avoid the first checked luggage fee and to accrue 1 mile per dollar spent. You had to use the debit card at least 6 times per month to avoid the monthly service charge though. It’s also worth it to note and remember that redemption is easier on certain airlines than others (Southwest > Continental > AA >>>>>>>> US Airways). Maybe the people who are traveling the… Read more »
DanP
DanP
5 years 10 months ago

I’m a little suprised by this post. While informative, and a pretty cool idea if it works for you, it really doesn’t seem to fit in with your traditional guidelien for the site. Not much of a big win in my opinion. But kudo’s to anyone who does a fligh to europe for free. Just seems like alot of effort. I prefer to use my 2% cash back Mastercard and not over complicate anything.

Raoul Alwani
Raoul Alwani
5 years 10 months ago
It’s so interesting that these posts have the appeal that they do. Airline travel is like a sexed-up way of taking a bus. You get transported from point A to point B, but because of the costs they need to segment the market to get more revenue from customers willing to pay more. Despite the fancier food and real silverware (and maybe a pair of socks), are the perks really better? We all get sucked into it as well, flying premium, and then accumulating miles so that we can continue to feel special. I’m always flying, and this year for… Read more »
Nomadic Matt
5 years 10 months ago

While I love the extra leg room on short haul flights and the no baggage fees, what really makes my elite status great is when I fly long haul international, which is a lot. Getting a flat bed to sleep on is worth the extra hassle to me. As is being able to shower in lounges between connecting flight.

But everyone is different and for some people it might not matter.

Gal @ Equally Happy
5 years 10 months ago

I suppose this is nice for someone who travels a lot. However, I’d rather stick with my good cash back program on my card. It’s far more flexible and I can use the cash anywhere as opposed to just on travel. I suppose I’m giving up some benefit but that’s the usual flexibility vs. return tradeoff, which in this case I’m good with.

Jimmy
5 years 10 months ago

I have to agree with Dan above – there are just way too many negatives to warrant all the hassle of airline mile accumulation / redemption. I’d much rather pay a little extra than have to constantly keep up with all the various airlines’ various promotions, limitations, etc. Not to mention having to purchase items I might not necessarily need / want to gain additional miles AND churn through numerous credit cards?! No thanks.

Brian
Brian
5 years 10 months ago
I’m actually kind of sad you posted this as there is a lot of useless crap that can cause people more harm than good if they actually do it. 1. Airline shopping malls If the store you want to shop at is the only place that offers that product and they also happen to be on the airline’s online shopping mall you might be able to pick up some miles. However, more often than not you save dramatically more money by comparison shopping than picking up a few miles worth 1 cent each. Stupid Example: Signing up for Netflix to… Read more »
Nomadic Matt
5 years 10 months ago
Just to defend a few points: Shopping malls- I was on the fence about Netflix before, leaning more towards them now that i can use it on my iPhone but the miles cemented it for me. However, I don’t think people should go spend money just for miles. That’s just stupid and really bad finance. Business class is not worth debt. Churn and Burning- This is practice I am not advocated. Signing up for 1 or 2 credit cards in not a churn and burn. It’s not wise to sign up for 10 cards and cancel all of them. 1… Read more »
Fred Perry
7 months 29 days ago

Yes Matt, it is just a matter of how adjustible in nature you are and it also depends on how frequently you travel. For frequent travelers, it becomes important to have an stressfree journey

Keff
Keff
5 years 10 months ago

So, Matt player a consumer whore for a year, spend at least hundreds of $$$ that he wouldn’t otherwise, and spend hours and hours of his life and attention… to get a nicer seat and a good lunch for 8 hours. Well Done!

With the same effort, he could have turned his living room into luxury of first class for the rest of his life.

nick
nick
5 years 10 months ago
Am an avid follower of both this blog and flyertalk, so none of this post was news to me. In fact some parts are rather misleading (such as not mentioning having to spend $2000 to get those 100,000 British Airways miles, the difficulty of actually redeeming miles, or that buying a cheap ticket for earning miles is done to get elite status and certainly not the cheapest way to get miles.) For those interested to learn more about getting free or cheap miles I’d recommend reading http://www.freefrequentflyermiles.com and the flyertalk forum instead. I personally get better value using mileage cards… Read more »
Mary
Mary
5 years 10 months ago

I have to agree that this post doesn’t meet the usual IWTYTBR standards. Woah! 1,000 miles for watching an AA toolbar demo!!! Oh Ramit, where is your brilliant snarky mockery when I need it?!

To be clear, I don’t think it’s a bad post. But some of these suggestions don’t seem worth the effort.

Kaila
Kaila
5 years 10 months ago

I think this was a great post! I’ve actually had researching this on my to-do list for a couple weeks, so it’s super helpful. I like the beginning to end process that Matt gives, and I’ll probably start testing this out this week.

A question for Matt – Have you tested out different airlines and noticed if any one has a particularly better reward system, or do you just go with your favorite airline?

Thanks for a great post!

nick
nick
5 years 10 months ago
If you want to learn more about frequent flyer miles you need to visit the flyertalk forums, but realize that the benefits you will gain are not necessarily the big wins ramit talks about (spending a few minutes to watch a toolbar demo to gain $10 worth of miles for example). There are advantages between the different programs and it depends on where you would like to travel, but basically you should not spread the miles between different programs. Having 25K miles each at United, Continental, and US Air is less useful than having 75K miles in US Air, which… Read more »
Tyler Tervooren
5 years 10 months ago

Hey Kalia,

If you’re in the US, a good strategy to use is to target your earning on US Airways and American Airlines as US Air is a Star Alliance partner and AA is a One World partner which, essentially, allows you to book through those carriers to get flights on basically every major airline in the world.

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Grumpygrizzly
Grumpygrizzly
5 years 10 months ago

Don’t forget your local grocery store cards. I know Safeway not only gives you $.10 off per gallon when you spend like $100.00 in groceries but, they also give me Alaskan Airline Miles at 1 mile per dollar spent.. I make my purchases using a credit card that gives me mileage as well so in a sense, I’m double dipping.

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Paul E
Paul E
5 years 10 months ago

While I found the post interesting, it doesn’t seem to fit with Ramit’s message.

-Focus on Big wins.
-Spend extra time increasing income rather than cutting coupons and returning bottles.
-Spend money on things you enjoy while ruthlessly cutting expenses you are ambivalent about.

“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.’

Seems like Ramit is willing to compromise his message for page views 🙁

RamitGroupie
RamitGroupie
5 years 10 months ago

I’m surprised so many people object to this and jump on Ramit for some imagined inconsistency. It’s a pretty painless way to get something of value; it”s not .25 off a bottle of soda.

Daniel Mick
Daniel Mick
5 years 10 months ago
@all critics of effort involved: this is a *HUGE* win. You either mis-extrapolate the effort involved, or minimize the returns possible. I’ve been stockpiling airline points for over a year now. I have 100,000k+ AA, 55k+ United, 26k+ USAir. We’re planning our international vacation, and multiple US trips. While I love train travel (oh yeah, 30k+ Amtrak also), I rarely have the luxury of time to travel cross-country. These points equate to free $2,000+ value in airline travel for a few hours of effort a year. How is several hours for $2,000+ not a HUMONGOUS win?! I’ve done this entirely… Read more »
Slee_Stack
Slee_Stack
5 years 10 months ago

@Daniel:
Finally, cash back rewards suck. 25k points is like $250 just for signing up! Do cash back cards offer that…?

Yes they do, check out Chase Freedom $200 cashback offer here:

http://www.chasefreedomnow.com/drtv2/

Giovanni Gonzalez
5 years 10 months ago
Thanks for the post! I agree with Matt. So many people don’t take advantage of this feature! Examples: Consultants/Business Owners — put EVERYTHING on your business card (or personal card if work for a corporation) that is attached to miles, and see the miles grow! I have over half-a-million miles and probably 1/5 were miles flown. My wife and I are planing a round the world trip using 190k miles with One World [that’s 16 stops flying business class]. I agree with Ramit though, be careful with opening card after card. Your credit score will get damaged. Try to stick… Read more »
Ben@BankAim
5 years 10 months ago
Great post! But whats ever better is having any AMEX card. With American Express you can earn points on everything. We use it for our business and have hundreds of thousands of points. Then you can transfer points to Delta (for a very small fee, up to $99). PLUS if you transfer points during one of their promotions you can earn an extra 15%-25%. I was able to earn 15% on 200,000 miles which means I just got an extra 30,000 miles or a round trip ticket anywhere in the US. I go with AMEX because their partners with Delta… Read more »
Diana
Diana
5 years 10 months ago
I understand people being haters about this not seeming like a “big win”- but for me, nothing gets me going like a good groupon, using miles for a flight, finding a dime on the sidewalk, ect. I know that a lot of people reading this website feel the same way. I often think that if I got rich, it would take all the fun out of my frugal habits, because then I’d just look like a stingy asshole when I decide to buy a day old cookie at the bakery and freshen it up in the microwave. PS. my boyfriend… Read more »
Susan
Susan
5 years 10 months ago
I have to wonder when this post was originally written. Frequent flyer miles are notoriously difficult to redeem for airline tickets these days — and it’s almost impossible to get one for the number of miles the airlines post. From my personal experience, my last two trips I purchased with airline miles went this way: Business class from LAX to Buenos Aires November 2009 – not even possible with Delta or United miles. Cost 230,000 Amex miles (transferred to Aero Mexico). Business class from LAX to Florence Italy September 2008 – not possible with United miles. Cost 250,000 Delta miles.… Read more »
Nomadic Matt
5 years 10 months ago

Those photos are right from the airline websites that I took a screen shot of last month. They clearly show Europe is 50k miles.

jacob
jacob
5 years 10 months ago

I was a littel disapointet about this post..
This might work in the states, but not here in Denmark, creditcard is only something you get from the bank you use..:( We dont have “smart” CC banks..

Anyway, in time spend, its not wort it.. Unless
you can work from your laptop doing flying, and still earn $$$, = Luxus office whit free champange..:)

Anne
Anne
5 years 10 months ago
A few helpful links for those trying to maximize their accumulation: Get miles for dining at specific restaurants. The sites link to your card, and automatically credits miles to your account. I have these linked to my Discover (which I use to get cash back- win/win) http://aa.rewardsnetwork.com/ http://skymiles.rewardsnetwork.com/ A way to track your miles in one place, plus buy and sell them if you need to. http://www.points.com If you have too much time on your hands you can take surveys for products to earn a few extra miles. Not worth the ROI for me, but it might be for some.… Read more »
DB
DB
5 years 10 months ago
Your posting about the American Airlines challenge is just wrong and misleading. You may get Platinum status. But on AA, Platinum is only their mid-tier level. Equivalent to Gold on other airlines. Additionally, upgrades aren’t automatic unless you are purchasing a full-fare coach ticket, which is much more than most people are spending on discounted airfare. Only Executive Platinum members get unlimited upgrades and that’s only on domestic flights. Business Class (International) upgrades are never automatic even for top-tier members, who get a limited number of system-wide upgrades. And, lounge access is only free is you are traveling on a… Read more »
Nomadic Matt
5 years 10 months ago
No, I’m not wrong. Platinum status is their mid-level status but you still get a lot of bonuses and it is better than the bottom tier status on United or US airways. Upgrades are automatic. I got them while I was flying last week. I didn’t request it ahead of time nor did I buy a full fare ticket. I got the cheapest seat and still got upgraded. Lounge access is not available domestically but if you are flying international, you can use it no matter what section you are in. I just did it two weeks ago when I… Read more »
DB
DB
5 years 10 months ago
For someone who flies first or business class all of the time, you really have no understanding of how AA handles upgrades. Executive Platinum members receive unlimited complimentary upgrades (within the U.S., Canada, Mexico, The Bahamas, Bermuda, the Caribbean, and between the U.S. and Central America). Platinum members receive complimentary on Y and B fares (full coach fares). Platinum members may earn 500-mile upgrades. Plats earn four 500-mile upgrades for every 10,000 miles flown. To upgrade a NYC-Chicago flight (700+ miles) would take 2 upgrades. Upgrading NYC-LAX (2400+ miles) would take 5 upgrades. These upgrades must be requested. https://www.aa.com/i18n/AAdvantage/programDetails/eliteStatus/eliteBenefitsChart.jsp https://www.aa.com/i18n/urls/aadvantageupgrades.jsp… Read more »
Diana S.
Diana S.
5 years 10 months ago
Somebody has to bring this up: People spend more money when they buy everything with credit cards. Plastic does NOT feel like real money. According to some studies, the average person spends 20% more! I’m a thrifty accountant, and I spend more if I use credit that if I use cash, check or debit. If I do, and I am not much of a spender, then I figure others do, too. Putting everything on credit cards is not for everyone – and it might not be for you. You might be the person who should not use credit cards routinely,… Read more »
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JT
JT
5 years 10 months ago

Sorry, I have to agree with Susan. Miles are much tougher to redeem now. And in addition to miles, most airlines that I fly require some co-pay to redeem the miles for an upgrade, based on the fare you paid for the economy class ticket you purchased.

I think this post has some good ideas but is a little basic. Also agree that the flyertalk forums are quite helpful.

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Dominic
6 months 10 days ago

If you don’t have time to book award trips yourself, give me a shout! I’d be glad to help you over at awardbandit.com

Roger
Roger
5 months 27 days ago

when I travel I use christopher from http://www.TopbusinessClass.com to either top off the miles that I need or to book a discounted ticket that he offers. Either way I save money, i used this agency for few years now and each flight went smooth, the changes fees are great. had to change my flight by 1 day.. only paid them $90 to do so.

Book Business Travel Tickets Online

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Chrissy Costanza
Chrissy Costanza
4 months 21 days ago

Nice information thanks for sharing. After i red this great article i got great deal on united airlines india through Indian eagle travel website . Thanks once agian.. 🙂 xoxo

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