How NOT to earn a million frequent flyer miles for $1000

Last week, Yahoo Travel published an article titled “A Million Frequent Flier Miles for $1,000? Here’s How.” It was a short piece that briefly covered an adventure I undertook last year.  In March 2013, I challenged myself to earn a million points and miles in one month, and to keep net expenses below $1000.  I named the stunt “Million Mile Madness” because I believed (and still do) that it was a crazy thing to do.  I don’t recommend it to others.  Akin to the idea of climbing a tall mountain, it was a risky and difficult task with no real purpose other than to see if it could be done.

My understanding from speaking with the author of the Yahoo Travel article was that the original intent of the piece was to give advice about how to best to earn frequent flyer miles.  Along the way, her editors found out about my million mile challenge and directed her to write more about that.  The result was a bit of a mash up of the two topics which resulted in a few minor errors and, based on my reading of the hilarious comments to the article, many misunderstandings.  Allow me to try to clear things up…

Earning points, not status

While I often write about shortcuts towards earning airline and hotel elite status, the Million Mile Madness challenge had nothing to do with that.  My goal was to earn points and miles that could be redeemed for flights and hotel stays.  This confuses some people because airline loyalty programs award people with two types of miles when they fly: redeemable miles and elite qualifying miles.  The former can be redeemed for free flights.  The latter is only useful for earning elite status with airlines (which can result in free upgrades and other perks).  When you earn points from credit card signups, credit card spend, online shopping portals, etc. it is almost always redeemable miles that are earned, not elite qualifying miles.

I spent much more than $1000, but kept well within my goal

I never intended to limit my spend to $1000.  My goal was to keep net expenses to $1000 or less.  There are many ways to increase credit card spend (to earn rewards) and to get most or all of your money back  (I write often about those tricks).  Often, these techniques cost something.  For example, it’s not unusual to lose about 1% of your money due to fees.  And, usually, as long as the credit card rewards are worth more than 1%, that’s OK.  In the case of my million mile challenge, though, I had to keep expenses to just one tenth of a cent per point earned.  The best way I found to do that was to double dip through online shopping portals (buy gift cards and then use gift cards) and use that technique to buy items at the best discount I could find.  Then, I sold those items to get most of my money back.  For reselling, I used a service called Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA).  Even though there are often hefty fees involved with FBA, it’s a great service since it’s a way to let Amazon handle most of the hard work involved.  If you’re interested in learning more about FBA, please see my post “Tips for selling on Amazon”.

The final tally of my expenses and earnings for the month showed that I had lost only $278, but I also had a net gain of $835 in gift cards and various other forms of store credit.  In other words, in addition to the points earned, I made a profit in the form of store credit.

The Nordstrom and Club Carlson deals were not part of the challenge

The Yahoo Travel article mentioned a few “mega bonus” deals I’ve taken advantage of in the past, and implied that they were part of the million mile challenge.  They were not.  One was a brief promotion in which Nordstrom offered 36 points per dollar for shopping through the British Airways shopping portal (see “How Amazon paid me to collect miles”).  Another was when Club Carlson offered up to 50,000 bonus points for a one night stay at each of their brands (and, no, we did not actually stay at one hotel for three nights under different names – that was an error in the Yahoo article).  Mega-promotions like these seemed to pop up regularly in 2012, so I felt confident that there would be something like that available to me for my Million Mile Madness challenge.  I was wrong.  Not a single point-earning promotion of note happened during the entire month.

The points earned are far from worthless

A common theme in the comments of the Yahoo article was the idea that airline miles are essentially worthless.  This thinking probably comes from experiences many people have had when trying to use their airline miles.  A common scenario is for someone to call the airline in question or to log in online and try to redeem their miles for a specific award: often, a trip to Hawaii.  And, more often than not, that consumer will find that awards are either not available at all or cost many more miles than expected.  This happens because airlines open up limited numbers of seats on each flight at the cheapest award levels and so, on popular routes, those award seats are often snatched up as soon as they are available.  That said, there are ways to get great value from airline miles:

  • If possible, be flexible.  If you have any leeway regarding dates and time of travel and/or destinations involved, use that flexibility to find better awards.
  • Keep in mind that award seats open up at different times.  If you search for an award and come up empty, don’t give up. Award seats may appear later on.  It’s common, for example, for airlines to open up award space within the two weeks prior to a flight.  Once they realize that seats won’t be sold, they’re happy to fill those seats with mile-paying customers.
  • Take advantage of flexible routing rules.  Many airlines allow one or more stopovers (and open-jaws) on round-trip awards for no additional fee.  So, you may be able to visit multiple places instead of just one for the same price.
  • Partner airlines may have better award availability.  Most airlines partner with many others and, in most cases, you can use your miles to book awards on those partner airlines.  The tricky part is that the airlines don’t always show these partners online.  Its up to you to find out which partners fly the routes you are interested in, find out if they have award availability, and then call the airline who’s miles you have and try to get them to book your award on partner flights.
  • If you’ve saved up hundreds of thousands of miles and want to book the perfect trip, consider using an award booking service.  If you don’t have the know-how or the patience to search for the best awards, it may be worth it to spend some money to get expert help.  See “Award Booking Services” for more details.

In my case, I’ve used many of my million points for:

  1. An extended-family trip to New York City:  I used my points to book 5 rooms, mostly suites, at the Hyatt 48 Lex
  2. A two week trip to Europe for three:  We will (soon) fly Lufthansa first class to Paris where we’ll stay 5 nights in a suite at the Park Hyatt Vendome.  Next, we’ll head over to Lucerne Switzerland for four nights at the Radisson Blue.  Then we’ll spend two nights in Murren (using more recently acquired points).  And finally, three nights in a suite in Zurich at the Park Hyatt.  We’ll return in Lufthansa first class, of course.
  3. Many domestic flights for myself and close relatives.

Credit card offers are key

There are many ways to earn frequent flyer miles cheaply or for fee.  Ultimately, though, the single best and easiest way is to sign up for the best credit card offers.  On the first day of my Million Mile Madness challenge, I signed up for 11 cards and was approved for 10 of them.  Once I met the spend requirements for each offer, I earned over 500,000 points and miles from signup bonuses alone.  I would never recommend to others to sign up for that many cards at once — I did it only for the challenge.  However, the example clearly shows the power of signup bonuses.  Thanks to signup bonuses, my first 500K was easy.  The rest was hard – very hard.

Most people don’t need a million points.  By signing up for a few credit cards now and then, earning hundreds of thousands of points can be easy.  Then, a year after signing up for each card, decide whether the card is worth the annual fee.  If not, consider canceling the card or downgrading it to a no-fee version. 

As the Yahoo article correctly pointed out, it is essential to pay off credit card bills in full every month.  Otherwise, your loss in the form of interest payments will far outweigh the benefit of points earned. 

Finding the best signup offers takes some research.  I do my best to keep the best public offers listed on my Best Credit Card Offers page, but sometimes the best offers are not public.  Watch your mail because you may receive targeted offers that are better than any available on the internet.

My credit score is still excellent

A common misconception about credit cards is that having too many open cards hurts your credit score.  It is true that each new credit application can decrease your score (due to the credit inquiries and the shortened average length of credit history), but scores usually rebound in a few months if you’re careful about paying your bills.  This happens because a key component of your credit score is your credit utilization ratio.  The smaller the percent of your available credit you use, the better your score.  So, since new credit cards usually mean higher overall credit availability, your credit score should eventually improve a bit unless you’ve also increased spending.  In my case, my score dropped about 20 points after signing up for 10 cards, but it rebounded to a higher score a few months later. 

Wrap up

I would never recommend to anyone to try to earn a million points in a month.  It’s a ridiculous and unnecessary goal.  However, it is possible to earn hundreds of thousands of points quickly and easily and to get great value from those points if you take the time to learn the strategies and be responsible with your finances.  If you’re new to this, consider signing up for my weekly e-newsletter called “Free Trips and Tricks”.  While my daily blog is really written for people already well versed in this miles and points game, my newsletter is a step by step guide for newcomers.  In the newsletter I’ll teach you the best tricks I know for traveling free (or at least cheaply), and in style.  Signup here.  When you get sick of the newsletter, you can always unsubscribe.

If you’re interested in reading more about my Million Mile Madness challenge, you can view all of the old blog posts on the subject (in reverse chronological order) by clicking here.

About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

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Comments

  1. The “blogosphere” . A never ending circuitous loop of outdated information.

    Any information contained within your so called story would be useless today. Especially since a major media outlet has picked up on it. And yes folks in the Internet space, that dinosaur Yahoo is a major media outlet.

    Wouldn’t even bother to spend the 3 minutes to speed read it. Not a single jewel to be gleaned.

  2. Oh and btw , I could give a flying F about your credit score but thanks for taking the time to write an entire articles that clearly uses the presupposition that other people could.

    Literally falling off my chair laughing at the Ego.

  3. Just curious….(we are planning a very similar trip to Paris & Switzerland) what hotel/points are you using in Murren?

  4. FF
    You must include the cost of the spend for the sign up bonuses
    I guess when you tally up all the expenses it comes in there for buying stuff anyway.
    But quite impressive overall.
    One can easily get to 0.5 cpm with all the basic tricks, but below that is VERY hard work as you point out.

  5. I would not have put so much into Yahoo commenters (I must confess I read every single one of them yesterday!) as over 98% of them have no clue of this stuff and are the ones who indirectly through their “innocent” ignorance are supporting us playing the game by buying regular priced tickets and probably even have no flyer accounts…As it’s mostly the case,they are just there to convince themselves they know all…Great job with last year’s experiment, but as the article proved, Yahoo is/deals with old news….I wonder why people still read them!!!!!

    • So true. They keep us alive. I have some friends who travel every other week for work and school and they do not even track miles and points. I told them several times to at least create accounts in the airlines/hotels and see what is going to happen. All they say is I am not interested. I still dont understand not even creating a SW Account where redemption cannot be easier than any other way in the US, as a matter of fact anywhere.

  6. First of all the yahoo editor did a poor job. The y-readers genuinely did not know what they were doing. They cannot agree the fact that not everyone knows everything.
    As Bexho2000 said, if everyone is super picky and frugal in doing this ‘game’ then the market will be over crowded than what it is today. I feel no bad for them. 😛

  7. My family is going to be in lucerne radisson too the end of July. Would love to bump into you n chat over breakfast. What dates are you going? We opted for radisson Zurich since they required a suite redemption for more than 2 people and we thought the points would be better spent in Moscow.

  8. I am sorry for this silly text Greg. I got it many times myself: an incompetent journalist speed-summarizes your article/idea/project and then a flood of nonsensical comments follows. Then we feel an urge to explain, we feel sorry, guilty.. But one should think about this experience in the following simplified way: let’s assume that the Yahoo comments are close to be drawn from a representative sample (of all potential point and mile earners). Then their cluelessness is expected. Otherwise, with more sophisticated earners, the game would have been too costly for the point-givers. The great majority of opinionated laymen (who waste their miles without producing cost) makes this hobby valuable. Cheers and thank you for your careful pieces.

    • Thanks Marek, but I didn’t feel bad about the article or the comments (I thought they were funny). This post was just an opportunity to set the record straight since I felt that the article could mislead people into thinking that I recommended going for a million miles the way I did. I don’t recommend it!

  9. Why all the feigned shock?

    This sort of thing was 100% predictable, and in fact, many people (myself included) criticized your stunt (on this very blog) as being stupid, counter-productive and in nobody’s best interest except your own.

    You, of course, poo-pooed all the valid concerns that many people raised, dismissing all the criticism.

    Now, an army of morons is out trying to replicate the things you publicized, which will certainly lead to further devaluations of the already-devalued programs, individuals who lose money and have their credit scores wrecked, more and more “exploits” getting shut down sooner than they would have been otherwise, and thousands of people chasing the same seats you were hoping to book.

    The only ones who benefit from this idiocy is – guess who? – the greedy and selfish bloggers like yourself. But you don’t care. It’s all about the credit card referral fees and reflecting in your own glory.

    Your greed and dishonesty are only surpassed by your ego and sense of self-importance.

    • +1

      I personally am glad yahoo commenters thought you were stupid, crazy, and spent way more than $1000…that way they will dismiss your stunt as a retarded “look what I can do” brag….It’s one thing to brag about it here, and another to put it out to media (even Yahoo) that would be like MMS showing his favorite circle and arrow article to PBS or adapting it for NPR to play…..profit or not, keep repeating it to wider audiences and deals get shut down…I thought you had a line you woundnt cross and enough common sense and finesse’ to keep things semi-confidential…guess not.

      • +infinity

        Your stunt was a terrible idea, as many told you. This is just one reason why. Crap like this is incredibly stupid. Shame on you.

  10. Is your title an attempt at reverse psychology?

    You know, like, “fine – don’t eat your vegetables” and, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”?

    Just asking.

    By the way, reading the comments on Yahoo was just as much fun as reading the actual story.

    • No reverse psychology here. I really don’t recommend trying to duplicate my challenge. There are much easier and safer ways to get the points you need for travel. Agree about the comments 🙂

  11. This game will only work as long as people like us are the minority. If most people have misconceptions about the game, e.g. credit score drop, credit debt, miles are useless, all the better.

  12. Greg you do a great job with the blog. The comments on yahoo that I did see are typical. Too much work. That goes to the psychology of most people. The people that do best with points and miles generally have a good business sense, or own their own business. As we all know here, you can take this to whatever level or time you want. At the most base level on miles and points I feel the average person with little effort can generate a nice vacation for themselves and save several thousand dollar sin the process. This is with minimal effort like a few card apps etc. Manufactured spend or selling items would not be needed for most just for this single goal.

  13. I felt bad for the Yahoo readers……you are teaching at the doctoral level and they haven’t decided to show up for Freshmen English……..your family will love the Vendome as it is an eloquent grande dame with an absolutely superb staff…….an artistic experience that validates million mile madness……

  14. You’ve inspired me! I think in July I will take on the million points in a month challenge. The only caveat change is I am removing the $1,000 limit. (I don’t recommend that for most folks but in my situation the spend is not a problem.) I’ll report back in August with my results.

  15. Hi FM, you said that you were able to book 4 nights for half the points price, did you do this by booking two back to back reservations out of the same account and then have the hotel merge them together, or did you book one reservation out of a personal account and then a second out of a business account? Basically, how do you get them to give you two free nights.

    • Either book first two nights with personal account and then next two nights with business account, or book first two nights with your account and next two nights with spouse account. I did the former

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