The best ways to earn and burn frequent flier miles

The best ways to earn and burn frequent flier miles

More globe-galloper than globetrotter, an expert frequent flier weighs in on the best cards, flights, programs and strategies
Frequent Flyer
The American Airlines AAdvantage program is the best in the world, says the author.

The possibilities of frequent flier miles first tantalized me one evening in New York City 11 years ago, when I was 18 and I found that I’d be able to get elite status -- with its bonus miles, queue-skipping privileges and many other perks -- from a couple of international trips I had to take anyway.

Having grown up internationally, in the United States, Japan and Britain, I had spent years flying without earning miles, but from then on I was determined to put everything I had into them.

From reading online forums and tracking programs closely over the years, I became something of an expert. In 2009, I made a documentary about people who live for miles and love to fly, and I’m currently working on a longer version.

As my flying has ramped up (I travel often for work now) I now spend an hour a day on average keeping tabs on all aspects of the ever-changing world of miles. Here’s some of what I’ve learned. 

First choice

Overall, I consider the American Airlines AAdvantage program to be the best in the world.

They have great oneworld partners to use miles on, they offer miles on cheap fares, and their miles are the easiest to use to get the free seat I want. 

I use AA miles to make the bulk of my redemptions for long-haul first and business class travel on airlines like Cathay Pacific (CX), Japan Airlines and LAN Airlines.

My favorite (and most common) redemption with AA miles: 67,500 miles one-way in CX First between any point in the United States and any point in Southeast Asia, a ticket that can easily run in the US$7,000-plus range.

But I also keep a balance of miles in their partner British Airways’ (BA) program. While BA tend to charge far too much for long-haul flights (and they tack on fuel surcharges) they have great deals on shorter flights.

When I wanted to fly from Los Angeles to Maui last month, I would have had to use 45,000 AA miles for round-trip tickets.

But using BA miles (on AA flights) the cost was just 25,000 miles.

In another example, Tokyo to Hong Kong through BA’s program is just 20,000 in economy round-trip or 40,000 in business (compared to AA at 40,000 and 60,000 respectively.)

This is even more true of very short flights -- a short one-way ticket within the United States, like Chicago to Cleveland, can be very expensive (if paid for). While AA would charge 12,500 miles one way for any trip within the United States, BA will set you back just 4,500 miles for this leg.

The smartest ways to rack them up

Even though I tend to fly around 150,000 to 200,000 miles a year, roughly half of that is on free tickets, so I rely on credit cards to bulk up balances in a handful of other programs to keep the miles flowing and the options open.

Although I currently live in Hong Kong, I have a U.S. billing address so I can take advantage of the intense competition there that’s led credit card companies to offer thousands of miles just for getting a card.

For example, I earned 100,000 BA miles for getting the BA credit card from Chase -- that’s five round-trips between Tokyo and Hong Kong, for free.

I tend to have between 10 and 15 credit cards open at any given time, most of which I get for the bonus, then leave dormant and cancel before the annual fee falls due the following year.

Best cards

frequent flyer miles By signing up for a special challenge, the author obtained elite status for the international trips he needed to take anyway.
My favorite credit cards for regular use are the Chase Sapphire Preferred card and the American Express Premier Rewards Gold card. Chase gives double points for all travel and dining purchases, plus has no foreign transaction fee, while the Amex offers triple points for airfare purchases.

Both cards earn points in those banks’ own points programs, from which points can be transferred to a number of airlines. This means I can wait until I want a certain seat, find it, then transfer to the best airline for booking it.

Chase is great for transfers to United’s and BA’s programs, while I often do American Express transfers to AC’s Aeroplan and All Nippon Airways' (ANA) Mileage Club (which have their own set of good deals on certain itineraries -- see below).

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Favorite flights 

When it comes time to redeem, I enjoy the challenge of hunting down seats on interesting airlines.

There are a lot of unexpected routes where you can pick up a great airline between two cities that aren’t in their home region.

In addition, I’ve found a few great deals over the last few years of intensive award-booking, and the following are some of my favorite flights to redeem miles:

-Air Tahiti Nui is a partner of AA, and they fly from Los Angeles to Paris. Normally using AA miles you’d look to AA to carry you on that route, but that would mean connecting somewhere. Air Tahiti, for the same amount of miles, gives you a nonstop option plus other fun things like Tahitian beer.

-CX flies Vancouver to New York and vice versa (as part of a one-stop flight originating in Hong Kong). There’s definitively no better way to get between these two cities.

-Royal Jordanian flies between Bangkok and Hong Kong, and when connecting at Hong Kong on an award flight, they’ll often have seats available in business class even when CX doesn’t. Similarly, Thai Airways (TG) operates a Hong Kong to Seoul flight that’s almost always available in business class.

-AA will take you from Europe to Hawaii or Alaska (with a stop in the mainland United States if you so desire) for 40,000 miles round-trip in economy. This has to be one of the best ratios of miles spent to distance traveled out there, thanks to the fact that AA defines Honolulu et al as being in the same award “region” as New York or Miami.

-ANA has “low-season” (usually in the fall and winter) redemption rates for travel between Japan and some Southeast Asian cities (like Hong Kong) for 17,000 miles round-trip. This is the absolute cheapest way to get to Japan from other parts of Asia.

-US Airways and AC's programs both have favorable routing rules that allow travel from the United States to Asia (or vice versa) via Europe on a range of great Star Alliance partners. In AC’s case, that includes two stopovers in addition to the final destination. I used this to travel in first class on Lufthansa, Swiss and TG, flying Hong Kong-Ho Chi Minh City-Bangkok-Frankfurt-San Francisco-Dusseldorf-Zurich-Hong Kong. Previously this was an outstanding value at 120,000 miles all-in, and though it’s now risen to 180,000, that’s still a pretty good deal.

Further reading

flyertalk FlyerTalk is an online forum where more than 400,000 members exchange information about miles and deals.
-View from the Wing 

Gary Leff’s blog is full of insights into the ins and outs of mileage and travel, and is a great source for deals and mileage offers as they happen.

-Milepoint and Flyertalk

Two frequent flier forums packed with information and knowledgeable users. You’ll need some time to trawl through the thousands of posts, but they’re invaluable for mileage junkies-to-be. Flyertalk is where I got started more than 10 years ago.

-For a look at how far some of these junkies go, check out my 20-minute documentary "Frequent Flyer." 

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Gabriel Leigh is currently the Hong Kong correspondent for Monocle, and is in production on a feature-length documentary about frequent flyer miles, expanding upon his 2009 short on the subject entitled "Frequent Flyer."

Read more about Gabriel Leigh
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