There have been plenty of great mileage-earning opportunities of the past, things like buying coins form the US mint, buying savings bonds, and buying debit cards online with a credit card.
Some of my favorites classics were:
- I earned 20,000 Delta miles for a Bosley hair restoration consultation. I had more hair then than I do now.
- I used to like grocery shopping. At Safeway of all places. Thanks to the now defunct GroceryMiles program.
- 64 Coke cups at Wendys earned a free roundtrip ticket on Airtran Which, naturally, led to dumpster diving.
- Miles for making child support payments
- There used to be big miles for long distance. I once signed up to earn 25,000 miles for switching to Sprint. As soon as I’d qualify for miles, I’d switch long distance carriers again.
- You even used to be able to earn miles for giving blood.
- And while there have been on-and-off mileage offers for Lasik surgery, 5000 miles just for the exam was pretty good.
But in many ways there are better mileage-earning opportunities now than ever. When I first started in the hobby a 15,000 mile signup bonus for a credit card was pretty good, we had never heard of 50,000 mile offers.
And while it may cost more miles for award tickets than it did in the past, and availability isn’t as good as in the special period of 2008 – 2010 (“the Great Recession”), back ‘in the day’ you couldn’t even combine frequent flyer airline partners on a single award, fewer programs offered one-way awards, and airline alliances didn’t even exist.
Net net, while I think the game is harder than it was four years ago, it’s at least as good as it was when I got started 15-20 years ago.
Here are the top 10 ways to earn frequent flyer miles today:
- Credit card signup bonuses
There’s nothing that matches the scale and speed with which you can earn points through big credit card signup offers.
- Ongoing spending where you earn more than 1 mile per dollar (category bonuses)
Cards incentivize spend by offering more than just a standard mile per dollar in specific categories. Play your categories right, and with the right mix of cards, and you can earn far more points for your spending each day and rack up points quite quickly.
- Mileage shopping portals
Sometimes the mileage amounts are fairly small, if you’re only spending $20 and you’re earning 3 miles per dollar that’s 60 miles.
But you’re earning miles for things you’re going to buy anyway, just start your online shopping at a mileage portal and click to the store of your choice instead of going to that online e-tailer directly. Most online stores give miles or other rebates for your shopping if you do this.
And the rewards can actually wind up quite large, 20 miles per dollar and I’ve even earned 100 miles per dollar on certain purchases without a promotion to stack – and promotions do abound all the time, especially around the holidays, back to school, and other peak shopping seasons.
Here’s how to choose which mileage portal to use for your shopping, and here’s my interview with the President of Cartera Commerce which runs many of the sites.
- Buying items through mileage portals, earning credit card points as well, and selling the items
This is just a variation on the above, an arbitrage play, if you find items you can sell for about what you paid for them you can pocket the miles or other rebates. There are some big players in this space, I’ve written about it in the past, and it’s not something to enter in without being sure you can get your cash out. But there are folks earning hundreds of thousands of miles a year this way.
- Buying monetary instruments with a credit card for the miles, and getting the funds back into your bank account
The classic example used to be buying coins from the US mint with a credit card (and free shipping). You’d earn miles on your credit card, deposit the money back in the bank, and pay off the credit card.
- Actually flying
Flying 100,000 miles a year on American Airlines, I earn 200,000 miles (without promotions) because it’s not just the one mile per mile flown but also a 100% bonus (based on my elite status) on top of that.
That’s enough miles for 2 business class roundtrips to Europe or South America, and nearly enough (110,000 miles each) for 2 business class roundtrips to Southeast Asia.
- Opening investment accounts (Fidelity, sharebuilder)
Sharebuilder offers a few miles for opening accounts and Fidelity offers big miles with big deposits. Like 50,000 miles for a $100,000 deposit.
Plenty of folks have earned more than one bonus from Fidelity.
You used to be able to game Fidelity’s deposit requirements but they’ve since closed that loophole.
- Bankdirect checking
I’ve used Bankdirect as my primary checking account since July 2003. They give me 100 miles for each $1000 of average balance each and every month, and there are signup bonuses as well.
In a low interest rate environment this is a pretty good return, especially since there’s no tax reporting on the miles but you’d pay tax on interest earned (such as it is these days, on a checking account).
They now cap mileage-earning based on a $50,000 balance, but that’s still 5000 miles per month if you max out (at a monthly fee for the checking account of $12).
- Suntrust Delta debit card
Suntrust has one of the few remaining mileage-earning debit cards. You earn 1 Delta mile per dollar spent.
That’s useful because some transactions are far less expensive paying with a debit card than a credit card (like federal taxes, you pay a flat ~ $3 or so rather than 2% or more) and some transactions can’t be made with a credit card (like money order purchases).
They now let you sign up online
Some folks, especially those outside of Suntrust business areas, have had their accounts closed. Many times this has been because of account behavior the bank found suspicious.
The Suntrust Delta card has been my primary means of earning Delta miles in recent times.
- Miles for Dining
Dining programs have long been a good way to earn miles. You eat out with your friends, choose a restaurant that’s a member of a program, and make sure you’re the one that picks up the check. It’s even better when your friends kick in for their portion of the bill.
What are your biggest mileage-earners?