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The frequent flyer bandwagon

I've got this pen pal who is a complete nut for frequent flyer miles via credit cards. Now, I kind of avoid credit cards. I've got one or two store ones, and two Visas, one of which I got for its lack of transaction fees overseas. I'm rather leery of them b/c years ago I got into Big Debt with them.

She has pointed out to me that I can earn s/thing like 60K points with American Airlines if I get their card AND spend $3K in the next three months. I went on the FlyerTalk forum to their Newbie forum and asked if there is any way to predict how much in dollars these points would be in airfare. The answer was that unlike British Airways, AA doesn't go dollar-for-point. There's also a terribly confusing chart on AA's site that I can't decipher.

Now, I do spend over $1K a month, but that includes my rent, which I cannot pay with a credit card. I have very few bills, live quite frugally (rarely go to restaurants, no daily Starbucks, etc.), spend $100 a month on gas for the car. I'm not sure I'll hit the $3K mark. I suppose I could buy a new wardrobe or something, and I would of course buy my plane ticket with said card. But I'll admit we are not the average American household and don't have a lot of disposable income. I suppose I could arrange to pay my utilities for three months with a credit card...

So...I guess my question is: Should I jump on the frequent flyer bandwagon? Is it really going to be worth it?

(I admit, I'm going a little bit nuts right now checking airfares. Trip is not until Memorial Day weekend 2018 and of course I'm worried prices will rise...)


Posted by
9719 posts

Too many variables, Sandra. If you can't make the 3k, you won't get the miles. The miles could be worth it if you can snag a 60k round trip ticket from your home airport on AA. But if you can get to NY cheaply, you can fly from there for $400 or so round trip on various airlines. In that case, you wouldn't want to use miles. So, if you don't feel confident about something, follow your gut, and don't let anyone push you into something.

Edit: I’ll add that avoiding paying money for flights is always one of my goals and we’ve had bunches of nearly free flights thanks to miles and companion certificates, but I still say study it well and do what you feel confidant doing.

Posted by
5645 posts

The frequent flyer "bandwagon" is most definitely worth it (sure has been to me) - if:

  1. You can pay your balances off every month and avoid finance charges.
  2. You have the self-control to avoid charging up big debts on your cards just because you can. (Sounds like this might be a red flag for you).
  3. You can actually use the miles. Those AA miles sound great - but when would you use them and for what? Where would you fly? If you have a trip planned, hop on AA's website and search for award flights and see if you'd be able to use them right now.

I have a pile of AA miles I haven't used in years - I find that Southwest points and Alaska Airlines miles are much more useful to me. (Alaska partners with AA, ironically, and I find it easier to use Alaska miles to travel overseas on AA vs. using my pile of AA miles!)

If $3,000 is too much for you to hit in three months, an Alaska card gives you 30,000 miles with $1,000 spend. (If you want to avoid the annual fee, dig up the link that also gives you a $100 credit in addition to the 30,000 miles - offsets the $75 fee.) 30,000 miles isn't enough to go overseas with Alaska - but 40,000 miles is. You'd get 1,000 miles for the $1,000 spend. If you can spend $800/month for a year, you might make it to 40,000 miles by the end of the first year (cancel the Alaska card before you have to pay the annual fee in a year).

If you travel only domestically, and Southwest Airlines works for your cities of typical travel, their frequent flyer program is outstanding. Sometimes they have bonuses of up to 60,000 points for spending $2,000 in three months (that just ended - wait a few months til it comes back). If you think you worry about spending too much on credit might make a specific plan to hit the $2,000 spend on a card like this and then CANCEL the card as soon as you get the points bonus - you won't lose them!!! And that way, you won't be tempted to charge too much. Still, I find Southwest's program amazing - I haven't paid for a domestic airline ticket in years thanks to these Southwest credit card deals!!!

Posted by
3972 posts

Don't let ff miles lure you into a credit card that will tempt you to spend more than you feel you can afford. Less debt is always preferable and the fewer credit cards you have, the easier it is to stay out of debt. My husband(who travels a lot for work) is big into these ff/hotel points cards but we are fortunate to have the income to pay off our cards every month and getting cc bills makes frugal Prius-driving me twice as aware when I spend money( my idea of dinner out when at home is Cracker Barrel-I consider Panera and Five Guys to be expensive!)

Posted by
6158 posts

Hi Sandra, consider the annual fees of the cards. Most of them have a fee that combined with the small amount you need to pay to redeem a ticket may not be worth it if you don't fly more than once a year. You don't want a card that encourages you to travel more than you think is wise for your budget, and "free miles" can become expensive if they cause you to spend more $$ on hotels, restaurants, etc. than normal.

Your details sound like you are a financially smart person to spend conservatively, so I would trust your gut instinct on this one.

Posted by
583 posts

A few things I should have explained:

I have no plans for domestic travel in the foreseeable future. I'm planning to go to London in the spring, and it looks like Alaska Airlines doesn't go there. So unless their points transfer to some other airline, I'm not sure the card would do me much good.

I can drive to EWR or JFK, and it sure would be great if something in the $400 or so range popped up in my search (other than Icelandair and Aer Lingus). Hoping for nonstop on this trip.

Regarding restaurants: We tend to frequent family owned places where $20 for the two of us is a Big Night Out. LOL

Posted by
5645 posts

You can fly direct from Philly to numerous European cities using Alaska miles on AA. Go to Alaska's website and search - check the "use miles" box first or you won't be allowed to search. They have other airline partners besides AA, but I find they are the cheapest. (As cheap as 40,000 miles RT to Europe, but higher between about May 15 and Oct 15.)

I'm stopping in Philly next May to see family for a few days, then flying direct to Paris, then a few weeks later flying home Paris to Portland on AA with one stop in Chicago - all for 40,000 miles. Alaska allows one free stop-over too which is really sweet.

Posted by
5645 posts

Another plus of Alaska's frequent flyer program: free changes and cancellations to award tickets up to 60 days before departure. (For partner awards like AA, there is a non-refundable $25 fee though.) I always take advantage of this and change my itinerary several times before departure; sometimes better flights become available. You can keep looking and change just the inbound or outbound if one better flight comes up. Using my AA miles directly, there's a big fee to cancel and redeposit my miles ($150?). I might be able to change for free - but I like having the flexibility to cancel if I book a ticket on a whim months in advance when I'm not remotely sure I'll be able to go...

Posted by
7036 posts

It doesn't sound like your spending profile is a good match for these programs. They are perfect for people who travel a lot for work (thereby racking up a lot of expenses) or people who have larger monthly expenses (related to lifestyle, living in a high cost area, family or dependents to support, etc). No need to jump on any bandwagon. "Spend more to save more" is just not a good model, although it's used by businesses all the time to steer people into irrational behavior.

Posted by
583 posts

Andrew H--thank you very much for the information! I have traveled so infrequently that I did not realize I could do the Philadelphia to London trip in such a manner.

I just did a fake booking and I need 60,000 miles plus $204 to go from PHL to LHR. So if I'm reading this correctly, if I spend $2K, I would get 60,000 miles. I could probably do the $2K and pay it off without any problems (I know I'd spend enough on groceries just to pay for that!).

I would actually rather fly out of PHL than EWR. I have a friend who lives there and I could spend the night at her house before the flight.

Posted by
5645 posts

As a disclaimer: I sincerely DO NOT want to encourage ANYONE who thinks they could get into serious debt with another credit card to jump on the "frequent flyer (credit card)" bandwagon! However, it sounds like the Alaska card might be a good replacement card for one you already have, especially if you could use the miles (sounds like you can). And if you already have Alaska miles, getting 30,000 more might not be a waste.

Otherwise...IF you could meet the $1,000 spend in three months, get the miles, then CANCEL the card (and truly have the discipline to pay it off until then and not get into debt), it might be viable to do it, say once a year. (Alaska and BofA let you get a new card and a new bonus fairly often.) Don't feel the need to keep the card forever. Once you get the miles, you keep them even if you cancel the card.

And you might be surprised where you can charge things (e.g. some utility bills) for no extra cost. I pay my internet, cell phone, and water bills with a credit card; power and gas I can't yet. I pay cash at local restaurants but use my credit cards at chain restaurants. But again, as long as you can PAY IT OFF every month, it's not a great idea. Don't be embarrassed if you can't - everyone is different! Don't go into debt just to try to earn some frequent flyer miles.

Posted by
24814 posts

For most people who stay in hotels (rather than apartments requiring cash payment), the easiest time to rack up miles is during vacation. Vacations mean spending money on lodgings, food, airfare and ground transportation. But the miles (and any bonus) you earn during this year's vacation won't help this year; you have to hope they will eventually allow you to get a free (or tax-only) ticket for a future vacation. If you don't travel regularly, this year's miles may not get used soon. Since airlines fairly often increase the number of miles needed to claim an award ticket, the miles you earn this year may be worth less than expected by the time you are able to use them. And that is all aside from the fact that it's not so easy to claim mileage tickets during peak periods, and you may need to use more miles in order to do so.

Posted by
417 posts

Here is what you do not know. It is very difficult to get the ticket you want with frequent flyer. Where exactly do you want to go. Is it international. Frequent Flyer tickets (especially the ones that use the least amount of points) are limited and go quickly. You often have to book your ticket 330 days out and even then the super saver FF are not available. I was a very loyal AA frequent flyer members for years. I used my AA credit card for everything. I accumulated a lot of miles. But over the years it became more and more difficult to actually use my miles (for Hawaii & Internationally). Last summer I blew my remaining FF miles on a family trip to Japan. I cancelled my AA FF credit. I switched to a Costco cash back card which gives me 4% back on gas and travel and 3% back on most everything else.

I admit I have never booked a FF domestic (mainland) ticket so I don't know how easy or difficult that is to get. But I do know that Hawaii, Asia, and Europe are very difficult during prime seasons.

Posted by
5645 posts

jehb2, next year I will fly to Europe for the fifth year in a row using Alaska Airlines miles. It's just not true that it's "very difficult" to get tickets. Sure, I have been booking them at least a few months in advance (certainly not a year in advance), but they can also be changed/canceled up 60 days before departure. American Airline's Aadvantage frequent flyer program? I agree, it's not so easy to use those miles - which is why I am still sitting on a pile of AA miles. That's why I recommend Alaska's program instead.

If I wanted to fly in the peak season of the summer, then I might need a few more Alaska miles. But I prefer not to go then anyway; I'd rather go in the spring or the fall.

As for domestic flights: Southwest's program in particular is very different from the others. There are no blackout dates; there is no set tier of points per flight. The required points for a SW flight is proportional to cost in dollars. If I book it now for 5,000 points and then the dollar fare doubles, then it would cost me 10,000 points to book it. I can book SW tickets whenever they have fare sales, with points. And with SW, reservations made with points can be canceled completely free of charge, at any time - even 10 minutes before the flight departs. (You can change them for free too, but you must pay the current fare in points, which could be lower instead of higher - in which case, you get points back.)

Posted by
24814 posts

Jehb2 is right that it is sometimes very difficult to use the miles you've accumulated. I think Hawai'i is especially challenging. Most likely some airlines are tougher than others.

It always helps to have some flexibility, which I realize is not possible for most folks who are not yet retired. I was able to fly into Rome (late May) and home from Zagreb (mid-October) in 2015 on a minimum-mile ticket. I did the same thing in 2016, into Madrid (mid-May) and out of Barcelona (mid-August). And this year for 32,500 miles I booked a holiday trip to San Jose/San Francisco that would otherwise have cost me about $700. In all cases I was able to select itineraries for which I paid a reasonable amount of tax. None of my flights were booked a year in advance; most were nailed down around 3 months ahead of time or less.

Most if not all airlines allow you to book one-way tickets, which can be handy if your miles are spread across multiple airlines or if you are finding only unattractive options for one leg of your trip on the airline you intended to use.

Posted by
1221 posts

I just finished up getting my 60K miles for the American Express Delta card sign-up promotion. All my utilities except the electric bill plus my car insurance let you pay by credit card without charging a fee for it and between that and grocery purchases, it was really easy to hit the spending requirements- I didn't spend more money on things, it was just paying differently for them and I never carried a balance.

If you are interested, do your research- there are many different promotions, and the good one will offer twice as many miles as the 'standard' offers for a lot of cards. And many of the big card issuers are going to rules that say you can only get one sign up bonus per specific type of card to prevent people from repeatedly signing up for the bonus offers and then cancelling year after year. Flyertalk is a good starting point there for best current and likely offers because unlike a lot of travel bloggers, the posters there aren't getting commissions to steer you to specific cards- they're just looking for the good deals themselves like everyone else.

London is often an easier frequent flyer ticket to get at the 60K economy transatlantic award level- lots of flights there so not as much competition for the 2-4 cheap award seats on every plane, and the $150-$200 in mandatory airport taxes and fees for tickets from most UK airports discourages people who are looking for the truly 'free' ticket from snapping them up.

We have made use of the free checked bags on domestic flights card benefits, and the value there is already more than I will pay in annual fees next year. (First year annual fee was waived).

Posted by
362 posts

There are so many variables here.

For reference, I currently fly outside the US about 2 or 3 times a year. I have the most basic possible (with a fee) credit card with both Delta and American Air. For me, the bonus miles earned on Delta are worth it. At present, those miles do not expire. And with AA, if I charge something once a month, I add to my miles which remain viable.

I also had major surgery earlier this year. That alone enabled me to receive a huge bonus of miles on my Delta card.

Each situation is unique. If you don't fly more than once a year, I'd look for a card that goes where you want to travel with the lowest (or zero) annual fee.

For those cards with fees, there are tradeoffs. Free checked bags. Early boarding. Insurance. It totally depends on what your card covers/charges.

If I only flew once or twice a year, I'd go with the lowest fee credit card that flies out of my local airport. It's an easy way to earn extra miles toward future trips. But if you don't fly that often? I'd skip the airline branded credit card UNLESS you hope to travel more in the future.

Posted by
10306 posts

A FF miles credit card works, IF you can use it to pay for most of your everyday/ monthly expenses AND you pay it off in full every month.

Using the miles has gotten progressively more challenging as time has gone by.

I find the miles return the best bang when used for biz class international travel. If you do not have any domestic travel to build your mileage, trying to to do it all by card spending makes for a real 'uphill' trek.

Examine your options carefully before taking the plunge

Posted by
2526 posts

Playing the miles game is a fading effort for me. In the past, it was more lucrative. Now? A cash back credit card is my first choice when shopping and use the returned cash to buy more travel. My experiences in finding available “free” flights typically have been VERY frustrating save for those via Alaska Airlines.

Posted by
4272 posts

They are perfect for people who travel a lot for work

Unless work requires use of a travel work credit card....

A cash back credit card is my first choice when shopping and use the returned cash to buy more travel.

I'm here also. I do keep one airline credit card for the free bags but I don't use it for purchases other than air travel with that airline. And if I don't have any trips planned with that airline for the upcoming year I will dump it.

I have churned credit cards for travel, but it is not free as it all takes time.

Posted by
3089 posts

SandraL, I think I charge like you do, very little. There are a few bills that go on a charge each month, but nothing much; newspapers, cell phone($30.00). I don't expect to ever do the free ticket bit. However, I have benefited from my 2 charge cards. 1. the first is cash rewards for each dollar spent on a no fee, credit card. This is my favorite as it builds money to use against any type of travel. 2. I always fly the same airline to Europe so I have their CC, which has a small annual fee, and I get extra points if I use it on their airline and when I do shop on line (rarely shop) if I go thru their site before going to the shopping site, I also receive their airline money/points. I use their money system to lessen the cost of their flights or upgrades by a few hundred. It doesn't cost me money and I haven't had to change my own financial system...which is: 1. I'm cheap, 2. I still deal with physical money in the USA and I don't want to change that...keeps me on budget. This flawed but rewarding system might work better for you, as there is not a lot of planning, and I use the airline money as I'm buying the ticket, special procedures.

Posted by
13802 posts

I play the FF/Credit card game. It works for me because of my circumstances. But I wait until great offers are available.

Example....a few years ago British Airways offered their visa card with a sign-up bonus of 100,000 miles. At the time, that was good for one free round trip in business class.

I recently transferred Starwood Points from their credit card to American Airlines. American was offering a special bonus. So, transferring 120,000 starwood points became 190,000 AA miles.

But it's not just airline miles. Hotels can also be worth it in expensive cities. Recently, I had to change plans while in Europe and go to London. My regular hotel was full so I checked and stayed for a week free of charge using hotel points at a different hotel. The same in NYC where I stayed a week for free when normally it would be abuut $300/night.

For most cards, the first year fee is waived.. For hotel cards, most offer a free night for every year you renew your card. The fee is usually less than the price of a room.

If you are going to have trouble charging the amount necessary for the bonus points then it may not be worth it to get a FF card. You might be better off with a cashback card.

Most importantly, and this really is most important, if you know that having the card can cause financial issues, do not get them. They only work if you pay them off each month. FF branded credit cards usually high interest rates and with your history that could be dangerous

I would suggest, however, that you join the frequent flyer program of every airline you might consider takiing. You will get emails alerting you to sales and specials. It costs nothing to join. And you don't have to have their credit card.

Posted by
1353 posts

Ryan - what cities did you fly into and out of to have such minimal taxes?

Posted by
5645 posts

Flying PDX-PHL/PHL-CDG (one stop-over in PHL) CDG-PDX next May on Alaska Airlines miles (with AA partner flights on some segments): taxes/fees of $116.46 (including $25 "partner booking fee.").

Posted by
5827 posts

Do the math. Especially if you have to pay an annual fee.

Point guy pegs miles worth between one and to cents (US) per mile:

There is also a question of whether you want to jump through hoops to claim awards, especially milage "discounted" awards.

Also consider the loss "opportunity cost" of free (no annual fee) credit cards that give you cash back benefits. For example, the Capital One Quicksilver Rewards Visa is a no annual fee card with no FX mark-up that gives you 1.5% cashback on every purchase. You can spend cash any time with no black outs.

Capital One "Quicksilver Rewards":

Credit Level: Excellent Credit

Rewards Info: Earn unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase, every

New Cardmember Offer: Earn a one-time $150 cash bonus once you spend
$500 on purchases within 3 months from account opening*

Annual Fee: $0

PS My only relationship with Capital One is that of being a satisfied customer.

Posted by
5645 posts

The "dollars per point" or "dollars per mile" valuations seem almost worthless to me. One of the big benefits of Alaska miles and (especially) Southwest points is their flexibility in making changes and cancellations for free. Ever year I book an Alaska ticket to Europe months ahead of time, without knowing for sure I'll be able to go or on those dates. It's nice to know I can cancel the ticket and get all the points back for only $25 if I do it within 60 days of departure. With Southwest, I can cancel 10 minutes before departure for free. How can you value that flexibility in a "dollars per mile" sort of valuation?

By the way, one big distinction I might make is getting and keeping one particular mileage credit card vs. "churning" - that is, getting a card, getting the bonus, then cancelling before you pay another annual fee...then after a set period, get a new card and get the bonus all over again. And repeat. This is what I do. I used to think there was something underhanded about it...but the banks and airlines clearly can control how many times they let you get the bonuses on new cards, and for whatever reason, some of them allow it (some don't.).

Chase for example has explicit policies: on many of their cards, they will allow you to get the same card again (and a new bonus) two years after the last time you got the bonus on the same card. (E.g. for Southwest airlines cards.) But they also won't approve any new card if you've had five or more new credit cards approved in the last 24 months (the "5/24 rule"). Given that they explicitly allow this (they don't have to!), I see nothing wrong with it and like many others have been doing it for years. You might have to pay an annual fee, but compared to the bonus you get, it's usually well worth it.

Alaska and Bank of America seem even more liberal in their policies: they allow you to get several of the same exact card (and a new bonus) within the same year. Again - they allow it, so why shouldn't I do it? Note that this could DEFINITELY hurt your credit score, though, so if you are worried about that, be careful.

American Express seems to have a "once in your life only" policy, though I managed to get the Delta bonus twice on two cards, separated by ten years. I doubt I could do it again.

Posted by
1221 posts

I live in an area where airfares are generally pretty expensive (as I joke, the first $200 of the plane ticket only gets us as far as Atlanta) So for summer travel, I can and do get 2 cents per mile on award tickets, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less.

If your time frame is more 2020 than 2018, there are many ways to earn additional miles through assorted 'partner points and miles' . United- mediocre airline, historically great frequent flyer program and the company is rather addicted to the cash they get from selling miles to third parties. I've currently got about 80K in United miles not from actually paying for tickets with them or getting their credit card, but through shopping using their web portal and their MileagePlusX bricks and mortar phone app, and by doing surveys though programs like Opinion Miles Club and e-miles, and assorted activities at MyPoints. (Now I just need to use the miles for flights on alliance partners and not on United itself save for that first dread hop on a Barbie jet flown by United Express to Houston)

Delta is the stingiest with partner points- they're profitable enough they sell fewer miles to third parties. I'm currently going the partner points route to try to turn 13K in Alaska miles into something useful- had like 1,000 Virgin America miles that somehow became a one way domestic economy ticket during the Alaska-Virgin merger, and it seems to make sense to partner my way to turning that into domestic round trip on American.

Posted by
1221 posts

Also, for people who fly Alaska or Delta- if you check a bag and your last flight segment of the day is US domestic to domestic, keep in mind their 20 minute bag guarantee. I just made my second successful '20 minutes or 2500 miles' claim of the year with Delta for bags that came onto the belt roughly 22 minutes after the front door of the plane opened. (Which works out to about 16 minutes getting off the plane and to the landside area and about six minutes waiting for the bag- IMO a good return on my time when I'm not paying bag fees because of the credit card for the bag to begin with)

Posted by
4272 posts

Note that the Delta Amex has a 7 year waiting period between getting a card for bonus points and doing it again.

Jill: Taxes and fees are highly variable. A 2 flight connection on Delta transatlantic to Norway using points only incurred $18.10 in fees and taxes. BA's are so high transatlantic that just the fees are comparable to full priced ticket on a low cost carrier (over $300 each way). For example the fees and taxes on a way ticket from Norway to Scotland on BA using AA points is $44, just a bit less than Norwegian Air's cheap ticket.

But stick with AA planes only, or AA's partner FinnAir, and the fees are less than $30 transatlantic using AA points.

Posted by
583 posts

After thinking it over, I think I'm going to skip the credit card route. Just too many complications, and as someone pointed out, a personal with a troubled background of overusing such a card could easily get into more trouble. I'm debt free now and I'd like to keep it that way!

Thanks, all, for weighing in on this one!

Posted by
360 posts

Sandra, before you overthink this and give up, let me suggest something to you. My husband and I go approximately every 2 years to Italy from Philadelphia (we live outside the city). We fly direct, non stop using American Airlines and haven't bought a ticket in years and we usually fly open jaws (in one city and out of another). We use the American Airline card and yes, you do have to spend $3K in the first three months. We run every bill and purchase through our cards (phone bill, insurances, utilities, groceries,taxes (local), even our coffee splurges at wawa. We pay off the bill every month so there is no interest charge. If you can do this, it is well worth the small effort.

Posted by
920 posts

Another option for AA credit card is this:

Make 1 purchase (pack of gum?) and pay the annual fee ($95) within 90 days and get 60,000 miles. Be sure to track when you get the card and cancel before the next annual fee is due. You can also try to get this card more than once over the next 6 months. I have 3 of them and will be cancelling them soon.