How We Fly For (Almost) Free

In honor of Daniel’s birthday today, I’m hosting another “guest post” from him. It truly is thanks to his extensive research and planning that we’re able to do as much traveling as we have. So for all you folks that wonder how we’re able to afford (and yes, I know you’ve wondered!) to fly to Panama, Europe and more, here’s how. I know what it’s like to be a little (or maybe more than a little) jealous of other’s traveling and wish you could be doing what they’re doing. So perhaps this can help you understand and maybe even go on your own adventure. Without further ado, here’s the tips from Daniel. Oh, and Happy Birthday my love!



You’ve heard of frequent flyer miles right? You know, the loyalty rewards airlines give their regular customers to encourage brand loyalty.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a big stash of frequent flyer miles so you can take a free trip here or there? But that takes a lot of paid travel to achieve doesn’t it?

Well, no.

I believe I’ve earned less than 5,000 frequent flyer miles by buying airline tickets and yet here are some of the trips I’ve used miles/points for since Fall of 2011:

Detroit to Panama City – Round trip travel for 3 = 97,500 points plus taxes/fees

Detroit to Panama City – Round trip travel for 1 = 35,000 points plus taxes/fees

Chicago to Austin – Round trip travel for 2 = 38,398 points plus taxes/fees

United States to France+Germany – Round trip travel for 4 = 160,000 points plus taxes/fees

Chicago to Lisbon – Round trip travel for 2 = 98,500 points (no taxes/fees)

To top if off planning is in progress for the dream destination that started it all:

United States to New Zealand in Business class – Round trip travel for 3 = ~675,000 points plus taxes/fees

We’ve earned less than 5,000 points through actually buying tickets yet have accumulated (and mostly spent) over 1 million points since I began collecting them in November 2010. For simplicity that 1 million point figure doesn’t take into account the points we’ve used for hotel stays.

How Do We Do It?

The short answer is: Selectively choosing credit cards with great sign-up bonuses.

Banks and credit card issuers like Chase, Citi, American Express and Barclays have relationships with airlines and airline frequent flyer programs that allow you to sign up for a credit card, spend a certain amount within a given time frame after getting the card and receive a pre-determined bonus. By way of example my first two sign ups were for these offers:

December 2010: Chase British Airways Visa with a 50,000 point bonus after spending ~$1,000 within 3 months of approval.

February 2011: Chase Continental OnePass with a 50,000 point bonus after spending ~$2,000 within 3 months of approval.

I applied for the cards, was approved, met the minimum spending and received the sign up bonus within the 3 month time frame. I used most of these points to book our flights to Panama and back (as you may know we lived there for 5 months after I lost my job and our rental house was sold in 2011). As I recall we would have spent over $2,000 to pay for the same trip.

Our planned flights to New Zealand and back in business class would cost at least $18,000 for the three of us if we paid outright.

Would You Like to Fly for (Almost) Free?

Is there somewhere you’ve always wanted to go but didn’t think you could afford? This could be the year you make the trip.

Depending on where you’d like to go, how many people you’d like to book (and when) you could get there with one credit card sign up. There are usually taxes, fees and some surcharges you’ll have to pay for but choosing to right flights/airline can keep those as low as $2.50 (though ~$60 is more common for international flights).

Besides the fact that you can earn sign up bonuses the most important tactic I learned along the way is that you can actually sign up for multiple credit cards from different card issuers on the same day every 3-4 months to accelerate your accumulation of points.

The best cards to sign up for have:

-A large bonus (typically 50,000 points or more)

-Low minimum spending to receive the bonus

-Highly valuable and/or highly flexible points

-No annual fee OR the annual fee waived for the first year

Some cards are airline branded (i.e. the Chase British Airways card) while others are not airline branded cards but have flexible points that can be transferred to an airline frequent flyer program (i.e. the Chase Sapphire Preferred card).

I prefer flexible points cards but the airline branded cards are excellent too and often have larger signup bonuses than the flexible points cards. The cards which look attractive which you generally do NOT want to sign up for are the cards with fixed value points. It is not that these are no good but they offer much less than cards with points the are directly redeemable through frequent flyer programs or can be transferred to a frequent flyer program.

As an example the Blue Sky card from American Express is a card that is common to get offers in the mail for offering 30,000 points or so. This sounds good but the points can only be redeemed for statement credits at a fixed rate so you generally only get a maximum of ~$300 in value from a card like this.

In contrast there are offers for the Bank of America Alaska Airlines card that offer 30,000 points which can be redeemed through the MileagePlan program for a flight that costs ~$500. Same number of points but since they are not fixed value in this case you can get $500 of value versus $300.

There are even more extreme examples such as 100,000 point offers that are worth $10,000 or more when redeemed for the right business or first class flights.

If you are new to this and want to sign up for a card (or multiple cards) here are some of my recommendations. Remember that if you decide to sign up for more than one card in one day you should generally choose cards from different issuers. For example you might sign up for 3 cards. One from Chase, one from AmericanExpress and one from Citi.

Best flexible points card to start with:

-Chase Sapphire Preferred with 40,000 point offer or better (good points to use for flights, cruises or hotel stays virtually anywhere, moderate minimum spend required)

Best airline branded cards to start with:

-Chase United MileagePlus Explorer card with 50,000 point offer or better (good for virtually any domestic or international travel, low minimum spend)

-Chase British Airways card with 50,000 point offer or better (good for flights directly to Ireland, Central & South America and within the United States, usually has a low min. spend requirement for the 50k offer)

-Chase Southwest Airlines card but only when they are running a 50,000 point offer (good for domestic US flights and some Caribbean and Mexican destinations, usually has a low minimum spend requirement)

-Citi American Airlines AAdvantage card with a 50,000-100,000 point offer. The offers vary from time-to-time and Citi offers multiple versions of the AAdvantage card. I have two different AAdvantage cards myself at the moment (good for travel pretty much anywhere, minimum spending varies)

-Barclays US Airways MasterCard with 40,000 point offer or better (good for many destinations domestic and international, you win the bonus after a single purchase)

-Bank of America Alaska Airlines card with 25,000 offer or better. This card is nice because the offer generally doesn’t require a minimum spend (plus the points are good on many Alaska Airlines partners around the world)

To see what the latest and greatest deals are I usually reference the Top Deals page on Note that some of the cards listed there are business cards rather than personal and there are often multiple version of the same card so double-check the offer you are trying to get before applying to make sure it is the best listed.

If you don’t have a lot of expenses every month that would help you meet the minimum spending on a new credit card but still want to travel using points there are some handy ways to meet the spending requirement with little money out of pocket by using Bluebird from AmEx and Vanilla Reload cards. It requires some how-to research, strategy and work but gets the job done.

If you are concerned about what this will do to your credit my observation is that my credit has improved slightly overall since I began. Here is more about the impact on your credit score. I recommend checking your credit score status using before you begin applying for cards. Make sure it is Good or Excellent.

If it is only Good you may have a hard time getting approved for more premium level cards. If you’ve never checked your credit score before but are getting pre-approved offers in the mail from AmericanExpress then that is a good sign that you’ll be approved for virtually any of these cards I’ve mentioned above. The offers you get in the mail generally aren’t very good but they are a good sign.


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