“Earn miles when you spend! 2X miles when you get your hair cut by someone with a monosyllabic first name!”
Pitches for “miles earning” credit cards are everywhere. Some of them come with all kinds of travel perks, some of them have very high fees, and some of them are essentially junk. Sometimes you earn “miles,” sometimes it’s “points,” but in all cases the end result is pretty similar. You earn credits which can be redeemed for airline tickets, either by using a custom travel portal, or by transferring miles to a partner airline. Nowadays, these cards generally follow a pretty straightforward formula. For example, 100,000 “miles” might convert into up to $1500 to spend on a ticket.
Fundamentally these cards are just like any “cash back” credit card, except the cash comes back in the form of travel. Doing an apples-to-apples comparison is tough, thanks to complex structures of multipliers and bonuses. In general, every dollar you spend on your credit card will earn you one reward ”point” or “mile”. Some types of spending earn more points. Each point is usually worth about 1.5 cents towards travel. Signup bonuses can be especially lucrative, so there’s another travel subculture focused on churning through credit cards to accrue bonuses. If you’ve ever thought “I wonder if there’s a way to buy tens of thousands of quarters using a credit card and then immediately truck them to the bank to pay off the card,” this might be a good hobby for you.
It’s probably worth noting that all of this is a bit absurd. It’s a consequence of us all accepting that letting VISA or Mastercard take a 3% cut of all transactions is a reasonable way to engage in commerce. Someday, central banks will figure out digital currencies and this will all seem silly.
Picking a Card
For someone with a strong interest in travel,w finding the right credit card is worth some research. Because of the value of referrals, every travel blogger writes frequently on this topic. Not being a real travel blogger, I’ll steer you towards Amateaur Traveler’s post on the subject.
Being a big fan of convenience, I settled on the FlexPerks Travel card from USBank. We do our other banking with USBank, which makes things easy. They have a travel portal for redeeming miles, and very helpful phone support for trickier itineraries. By being a bit strategic about how we use credit cards, we’re able to earn one or two international tickets per year. This card has a low annual fee, and offers very little in terms of meaningful travel perks beyond the mile earning.
The higher annual fee cards (upwards of $500/year) will offer perks like access to airport lounges, free Global Entry membership, and access to special events. If getting invited to a special dinner where you can chat with folks who happen to have the same credit card as you sounds exciting, you’ve made some interesting life choices.
One other category of card is the airline specific card. Most airlines offer a card which will earn miles directly into that airline’s frequent flyer program. Often, these also have some additional perks around earning airline status. For example, if you spend $25,000 per year on a Delta card, you can avoid the other ticket spending requirements associated with medallion status. For budget-oriented travelers, these cards aren’t necessarily the best choice because the mile redemption follows the more limited frequent flyer mile structure.
Using a card
Once you’ve selected a card, it’s worth keeping an eye out for opportunities to use the card when you might otherwise deal in cash, checks or other types of spending (IE, cases where you’re not racking up debt). For example, if you’re going on a trip with friends, offer to put all the flights on your card and get reimbursed instead of having each person purchase individually. Or, if you’re purchasing a high dollar item like a car with cash or a large down payment, ask if you can put it on a card (and then immediately pay off the card).
Having accepted that this whole situation is absurd, should you bother with a travel card? I think it’s a good way to passively earn some travel. For most folks, stepping up to the high annual fee cards isn’t worth the cost. The airline-specific cards generally have a lower annual fee (though rarely zero). If the airline you travel most frequently offers some baseline perks just for having their card (like free checked bags), it might be worth having that card even if you don’t use it frequently.
If you happen to be in the situation where you’re able to do unusually large amounts of spending on a card each year, you may want to be a bit more strategic. For example, if you make large purchases which are reimbursed by your employer, or you have a capital intensive business, you can probably lock in status on your preferred airline and rack up some pretty great flight credits by being strategic. Live the dream.This entry was posted in Trip Tips