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I’m often asked how I earn the miles for my trips, given that I spend so much of my time in the air. Like most savvy mileage nuts, I earn through a combination of credit card bonuses, flying, strategically purchasing miles, and taking advantage of every promotion out there.
I earn well over a million miles a year, which I don’t think is really unattainable for most.
I probably fly about 200,000 miles per year on American, and as an Executive Platinum member I get a 100% bonus on miles, so that’s 400,000 miles right there. Living in hotels has also given me the opportunity to rack up points on hotel spend, which has made that practice more sustainable.
I pick up 2-3 cards every three months or so, so I’m constantly on the look out for the best sign-up bonuses. I earn upwards of 500,000 points each year from credit card sign-ups alone, so taking advantage of the best offers is key for me.
For other people though, or those just starting out in the hobby, there are a few “core” cards that you should consider adding to your portfolio. These include:
While I hold onto a ton of credit cards long term, if I could pick just one card it would be the Sapphire Preferred. While there are other great cards out there, the Chase Sapphire Preferred has withstood the test of time.
So it’s the card I’ve always recommended to people who are new to the hobby, but now there’s even more reason than before to make the Chase Sapphire Preferred among the first credit cards you apply for.
Best for: multiple transfer partners and good bonus categories
Redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards points for travel in Singapore A380 Suites Class
People new to this hobby are always surprised when they find out just how easy credit card sign-up bonuses are to earn. “So you’re saying I spend $X amount in Y days and then earn ____ points? What’s the catch?!”
For the most part it really is that easy.
If you apply for both of these cards correctly, you’ll end up with over $1,000 to spend on airline tickets.
Best for: domestic travel without blackout dates
A good cash-back card is key for getting the most value out of your miles nowadays. Many carriers levy hefty fuel surcharges on award tickets, and there are always taxes, ticketing fees, and sometimes change fees to consider.
A cash-back card shifts the balance scale closer to “free” travel, in my opinion. While a lot of people like to put the words “free” and “miles” in the same sentence (in other words, miles are “free,” so who cares if award charts are devalued), there’s a direct opportunity cost to every mile you earn, so you want to make sure you’re getting a good return on all your spend.
I like the Citi® Double Cash Card for a no annual fee credit card that offers 1% cash back on every purchase, and then an additional 1% cash back when you pay for those purchases.
There are no limits to the amount of cash back you can earn. For a card with no annual fee, that’s a return which is tough to beat.
Best for: subsidizing fees on award tickets, establishing a travel “fund”
In addition to the sign-up bonuses, using the right credit cards for different types of spend can also make a big difference. Rather than earning 1x point per dollar spent, you can often earn 2-5x points per dollar spent. Those points can quickly add up.
This card doesn’t have a huge sign-up bonus, but has excellent bonus categories for the average consumer. You’re earning three points per dollar at US supermarkets and two points per dollar at US gas stations, plus you get a 50% bonus when you make 30 purchases in a billing cycle.
That means you’re earning 4.5 points per dollar spent at supermarkets, 3.0 points per dollar spent at gas stations, and 1.5 points per dollar spent on everything else.
Membership Rewards points are one of my favorite transferable points currencies, so this is a card I highly recommend.
Best for: Maximizing bonus categories and great partner redemptions
Redeem AmEx Membership Rewards points for travel in Virgin Atlantic Upper Class
Unlike others I’m not making a claim that travel is “free” or costs “just pennies,” though I certainly respect that approach.
There are tangible costs to using miles, and opportunity costs to using less-lucrative cards for your spending, so it’s important to leverage your purchasing power if you want to get the most out of your miles and points.
It won’t necessarily come together all at once, and does take some work.
I try to highlight the best current credit card offers each month, but if you are just starting out I would choose two or three of the above cards, and then build from there. You’ll also want to keep an eye out for “mega” offers (that can be as high as 100,000 miles), so stay tuned to the blog for updates.
Lastly, there’s a common misconception that applying for credit cards will typically hurt your credit score. The reality can be the opposite — in my case, having lots of credit cards actually helps my credit score, and doesn’t hurt it.