You know how, when you’re Christmas shopping for friends and family, you always end up stumbling across something that you have to have for yourself? Well this year, between my Christmas shopping and my normal monthly expenses, I am treating myself to a free round-trip flight to Europe.
Now, I’ll admit that not anyone can (or should) do this. But if you are good about paying your credit card(s) off every month, and you have a good credit score, it’s something you might want to investigate.
Step One: Identify your Objective
Before you do anything, think about where you want to go. For the price of my one transatlantic flight, a couple could have gotten free flights to somewhere domestic. Where you want to go is important because it can impact the rest of the process (more about that later). It also dictates how many points you’re trying to accumulate. I knew I wanted to go to Europe, so I went to United.com and checked out how many points it would take me to get to Rome (arbitrarily picking a city with a major airport). The cheapest one I could find was 60,000 miles, so that became my goal.
Step Two: Sign up
Nice is always nice [Nice, France, 2011]
You’ll probably need about 30 minutes to research, and 30 minutes to complete the multiple subscriptions/enrollments. Here are the things you need to sign up for:
- A credit card
- At least one rewards program (My favorites right now are SPG for hotels and United MileagePlus for flights, but if you live near a hub city for a different airline, then that might be a better choice for you)
- At least one shopping portal
About which credit card to choose:
I picked the Chase Sapphire Preferred because it has no annual fee for the first year, it has a great sign-up bonus, and the points are really flexible (you can book travel through Chase at a discount, or transfer your points over to a lot of other major loyalty programs). It also has no foreign transaction fee, which is important to me since I visit other countries a few times a year. This credit card earned me 50,000 points when I spent $4,000 in the first three months. Since that card arrived, I’ve charged everything I could on that card. Since I’m also earning a point per dollar, I’m also earning a minimum of 4,000 points for the $4,000 I’ve spent. Since this card earns double points on travel and restaurants, I’ve actually earned way more. But conservatively, we’ll say that this earned me 55,000 points.
If the $4,000 spend sounds daunting, and you don’t plan on traveling very far, the Southwest Visa might be a better choice for you. I had this card until about a year ago and I really liked it. New cardholders receive 40,000 miles when they spend $1,000 in the first three months of opening the card. So you get a few less miles, but you don’t have to spend as much. And 40,000 miles will get you pretty far with Southwest. My experience is that you can earn free travel faster with them than with most of the other airlines. The only draw-back: the $99/year fee.
There are tons of different credit cards out there, but most of them either give you less miles than the ones I mentioned above, or they are too restrictive. For example, the American Express Gold Card is nice because you can spend the points at a variety of places, but it only gives you 25,000 points for signing up (and comes with a hefty $195 annual fee starting in year 2). I suggest doing some research and picking one with rewards that are tailored to your needs.
About shopping portals:
To me, the shopping portals are where this really gets fun – especially at Christmas. The portals let you earn more points for each dollar you spend, and all you have to do is click through them. Just visit portal website, then click through to the store where you want to shop. Then you shop as normal, but you get A LOT more points for your purchases just because you navigated to the website through the portal.
For example, I needed a gown for an event in January. I found a shopping portal that offered me 6x points per dollar at Saks Fifth Avenue, so when I ordered the dress through the portal I earned 6 times as many points as I would have earned otherwise. You’ll be impressed with the list of stores included. Some of my favorites are Sephora (up to 5x), Under Armor (up to 5x), Bloomingdales (4x), and Neiman Marcus (up to 6x).
Here are the portals for some of the major US Airlines:
I’ve found that it’s smartest for me to use the Chase shopping portal, since I have the Chase Sapphire card. The Chase portal has a higher earn rate than some of the airline portals, plus I can choose whether to use the points toward flights, hotels, or something else.
Because of the holidays, these portals are running some especially great deals. I saw some sites with up to 15x points with purchases, and United has been offering bonus points when you spend a certain amount (500 points when you spend $100, for example). Since I did the majority of my Christmas shopping through these portals, I’ve earned at least 4,000 points.
Another great destination – Costa Rica, 2009
Step Three: Book Travel
So between the sign-up bonus and the shopping portals, I’m at 59,000 points. That’s just 1,000 shy of my 60,000 goal. Fortunately, I earned lots of other bonus points (for charging restaurants and business trips) so I am a few thousand over the 60,000 mark.
Now I have two options: Transfer my Chase points into United Miles and book the trip, or book the flight through chase (which makes the points go 25% farther). I’ll let you know what I decide when I actually book the flight. Right now, I’m waiting for all the points to clear my account and working on finding a hole in the calendar.
Step Four: Enjoy
Now that you’ve put almost no effort into earning yourself free flights, enjoy them. My recent trip to Italy was paid for with miles and it made the whole trip significantly cheaper. As they say, the best things in life are free!
One quick note before signing off: I am not a financial professional so I should not be giving advice. The purpose of this post was just to share something that works for me. Everyone should evaluate their own situation before deciding to follow the steps above.