The Mileage Game: Getting Started with Credit Card Bonuses

The following is an excerpt of a paper that Rocco Pallante wrote to introduce his family to “The Mileage Game” (pdf). While offers and personal needs will vary over time, Rocco’s article and these posts should be a helpful guide for those who want to earn free flights. Warning: Don’t play if you aren’t paying off your credit cards every month.

The frequent flier mileage game is a hobby of mine, because I love to help friends and family score great travel deals.

Miles Needed to Fly: In case you are unfamiliar with frequent flier awards, here are some typical mileage requirements for roundtrip tickets on various routes with different airlines. All of these are at “Saver” levels, which have capacity controls and may not always be available on the exact flight you want. However, if you shop early and have a little flexibility, you can usually find a Saver award. Most airlines also offer “Standard” awards, which are available on almost every flight, but they cost double the miles, and that is not a very wise use of your hard-earned miles. Delta is impossible to predict, as they have done away with their award chart altogether. Recently, I have scored some decent domestic redemptions on Delta, but their international redemptions are ridiculously expensive.

Mileage Requirements for Roundtrip Award Tickets

U.S. Domestic United20 – 25,000 50,000
    American 15 – 25,000 50,000
    Delta 15 – 55,000 52-100,000
U.S.–Europe United 60,000 120,000
    Star Alliance Partners 70,000 140,000
    American /
OneWorld Alliance
57,500 115,000
    Delta 40 – 98,000 172-366,000
U.S. – Asia United 70,000 140 – 160,000
    Star Alliance Partners 70 – 80,000 140 – 180,000
    American /
OneWorld Alliance
65,000 140,000
    Delta 64 – 172,000 220 – 540,000

Bonus Miles: Nearly everybody already earns some airline miles, either the old fashioned way (flying) or through credit card spending. However, the greatest opportunities to amass big numbers come from chasing the sign-up bonuses that accompany new credit cards. Sure, you can earn 50,000 miles by spending $50,000 on your current credit card. OR….you could earn 50,000 miles by simply applying for a new card. Which would you prefer? I say do both, and earn 100,000 miles!

How Many Cards Can You Get?: In general, Chase Bank has the best bonuses, and they offer many different cards. If you already have a Chase card, you can cancel it and then reapply for the exact same card a month later and get the bonus miles. Chase will permit this as long as you have not earned a bonus on the exact same card during the last 24 months, which means you can basically cancel and reapply for each card every 2 years.

Vagabond Finances notes that some Chase cards actually require 48 months and no one can have two Sapphire cards at the same time.

Credit cards
If you cannot pay in full, and end up paying interest on your purchases, then none of this makes sense.

Initial Spending Requirement: Most of the cards with big bonuses have initial spending requirements, typically $3,000 to $5,000 in the first 3 months. If you do not spend this amount, you do not get the bonus miles. Needless to say, I am assuming that you can meet the spending requirement and still pay off the card each month. If you cannot pay in full, and end up paying interest on your purchases, then none of this makes sense. If you are having difficulty satisfying the spending requirement, there are some simple steps you can take.

Vagabond Finances notes that Rocco’s tips for reaching the minimum expenditure are in his article.

Expat Warning: Meeting the initial spending requirement in just 3 month is rendered more difficult by the fact that your new credit card will take significantly longer to reach you while overseas. One partial solution is to have your contact at your US address give you the credit card numbers before they place it in the mail. Why? You could go ahead and spend online or over the phone using the numbers.

Cards With No Spending Requirement: There are a few cards that have no spending requirement, or a very low requirement. One of the best deals currently out there is the AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Master Card from Barclay Bank (Some of these card names are brutal!). This card is offering 60,000 American Airlines miles with no spending requirement. There is a $95 annual fee, so I view this card as if I am buying 60,000 miles for $95, or 0.16 cents per mile. As noted later, I think miles are worth 3-4 cents each, so this is a great deal. Another way to look at it is that you are getting two roundtrip domestic tickets on American Airlines, or one roundtrip to Europe, for $95. Any way you slice it, this is a screaming deal.

Rocco Pallante

Commercial property appraiser and entrepreneur by day; avid collector of frequent flier points by night. Rocco has an unending drive to "go the extra mile" to score a free flight for himself, his family, and the charities he loves.