I’ve only paid for one flight to Europe in 12 years, here’s how

My husband Barry and I love to visit Europe and have flown from the west coast to somewhere on the continent almost every year since the mid 80’s. Many of our flights have been free, or nearly free, as we used frequent flyer miles.

The strategic accumulation of miles has been extremely beneficial to us because we travel a lot. We not only have two homes – one in Eureka, California, and a second in Guanajuato, Mexico – but we also visit our distant family members on the East Coast, Canada and Great Britain.

Every airline has a loyalty program, a tiered incentive program to reward customers for their loyalty. American Airlines has its AAdvantage program. Delta has SkyMiles, Southwest has Rapid Rewards, etc. We started collecting miles on United’s MileagePlus in 1986. Over the years, we’ve evolved into a system of earning the most airline miles to fly free, using the following strategies that apply to all airlines aerial.

We stick to one carrier

We fly almost exclusively on United and its global Star Alliance partners. Since United is the only airline operating regularly out of Eureka, we don’t really have a choice. Even if you live in a big city with multiple airlines, I recommend only joining one or two frequent flyer programs at most. Otherwise, you’ll never earn enough miles to fly for free.

We require credit cards that offer bonus miles

United partners with Chase Bank to offer a wide range of credit cards including the Explorer Card, United Business Card, Sapphire Card, and more. These typically offer between 40,000 and 70,000 bonus miles (or points), once we meet the minimum spend requirement of $3,000 to $5,000 within three months.

You do not need to be a registered business owner to apply for a United Business card. For example, if you’re a freelancer, independent contractor, consultant, artist, part-time musician, instructor, or Airbnb owner, you’re likely eligible. Include your name as the business name and, if you don’t have a tax ID, use your social security number.

Explorer and Business cards refund the TSA Precheck or Global Entry application fee. They also offer two free passes a year to the United Club at the airport, a haven of peace and welcome, especially during long layovers, with free food, drink and comfortable seating. That’s a real perk, as United Clubs one-time passes cost $59 per person. To learn more about airport lounge access, see this article: https://www.travelawaits.com/2467439/7-ways-to-access-airport-travel-lounges-without-being-a- member/

We carefully time the purchase of a new card

We are not big spenders, so we only apply for a new card when we know we have major expenses coming up (e.g. annual car insurance, medical, dental, etc.) to meet the minimum spending requirements. I am about to invest in hearing aids, which will cover half of the minimum requirements for Barry’s new Explorer card.

Until recently we canceled the Visa card before the first anniversary

We did this to avoid paying the $95 annual fee, which is usually waived the first year. However, as we got older, we got tired of the constant paperwork and decided it was worth it, especially with the United Club advantage.

We are only allowed to apply for the same card every two years

Let’s say I start using a new Explorer card on January 1, 2023. I won’t be eligible for another Explorer card until January 1, 2025. In a case like this, I can still apply for other Chase cards like United Business and Sapphire Cards.

We don’t apply too often

If we ask for too many cards in close succession, we risk being refused, because too many requests in a limited period of time are a red flag for the banks. I recently learned, however, that if the application is denied, we can call the bank’s reconsideration line to see if there is anything we can do to have our application approved.

We spend our miles on international flights only

Although many people use their miles for hotel and restaurant stays, we reserve ours for international flights. If we book early enough, a one-way flight to a European city can take as little as 30,000 airline miles (we usually buy one-way tickets as we are returning from a different city).

We pay cash for most domestic flights

If we used miles for all of our flights, our accounts would quickly dry up. Plus, we appreciate the perks that come with elite status. Regardless of the airline, once you have flown enough flights and earned enough Miles points, you are considered a preferred customer. This comes with perks like better seats, free checked bags, priority boarding and free upgrades. The more you travel, the higher your status and the more benefits you accumulate.

While we like to fly for free, that doesn’t help us qualify for elite status – what United call Premier – so we have to weigh using miles against maintaining elite status. It’s a dance.

We keep track

On our United Airlines Mileage Plus page, we can see flight history, miles accrued, our level of Premier status, and the month and year we purchased which card, so we know when we’re eligible for a other.

This all may sound complicated, but we’re babies in the game! Dozens of websites and blogs explain in detail all the ways you can save money and travel for almost free. I recommend one of the established sites, The Points Guy, whose founder, Brain Kelly, actually started collecting points when he was 12! Another one I follow is View From The Wing.

Playing the miles game is not for everyone. If you don’t travel much, are already very busy and don’t want to spend time on it, or are not detail oriented, this may not be for you. But for us, it’s worth it. Accumulating miles not only saved us money, it also enhanced our experience as an airline and helped us enjoy flying. Not a bad compromise!

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