Why You Should Sign Up for Airline Rewards Even If You Don't Travel Much


So you've got a busy job that never sends you on trips. Or you're terrified of flying. Or you have small kids whom you dread dragging onto an airplane. Sign up for some frequent flyer accounts anyway. (See also: Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards)

Why bother if you're not going to be earning miles by buying airplane tickets? Because there are a lot of ways you can accumulate miles besides flying. Once you have all those miles, you can save up for a dream trip or one amazing vacation per year. And if you truly plan to never fly, you can even spend your miles on stuff other than flights.

How to earn miles without flying

My friends say they can't understand how I travel for free through frequent flyer miles, when they have never flown enough times to earn a single free flight. My answer is that I haven't bought enough plane tickets to earn free flights either. I earn the bulk of my miles right here on the ground. There are so many ways to earn frequent flyer miles without flying.

Credit cards

The fastest and easiest way to accumulate frequent flyer miles is by getting a new credit card. Just today, I signed up for a card that will pay me 40,000 miles after my first purchase of any amount. Typically, a new card will pay a similar or larger bonus after you meet a required minimum spend in the range of $1,000 to $5,000.

These cards will also pay you one or more mile per dollar you spend. If you are responsible for running a household of multiple people, like I am, you may find it easy to accumulate 3,000 or more miles per month paying for things such as groceries, kids' day care or activities, gas, etc. Even without the sign-up bonus, that would amount to more than 30,000 miles per year — enough for a round-trip domestic flight on most airlines or a one-way ticket to Europe. (See also: How to Use Travel Rewards Cards to Get Free Trips)

By combining bonuses and points for my monthly spend, I've been able to get my whole family to Australia and back, among other trips — with few of those points coming from actual flights.

Online shopping

You may find it more rewarding to use an airline shopping portal than a rebate site, such as eBates, when making online purchases. During the past two years, I earned about 5,000 miles each year through online purchases, and I am not a big shopper.

Other partner purchases

Rental cars and hotel stays are also good ways to accumulate frequent flyer miles without flying. Don't forget to put down your frequent flyer number at check-in.

Also, you can often get a mileage bonus for switching cable companies or signing up for a new phone plan. I currently get just over 400 miles after I pay my bill every month, which will net me another 5,000 miles this year.

Finally, don't forget to register all your credit cards with airline dining programs, so that you can get miles for eating out at participating restaurants without even thinking about it.

What to do with the miles

The best value for miles is generally flying — especially international flights in business or first class. So if you don't travel much, but you would like to take a trip one of these days, saving up for a really great one is a smart move. Don't worry too much about the miles expiring, because most programs push the expiration date back every time you make a transaction, including earning more miles. (See also: 12 Expert Tips for Redeeming Miles for Free Travel)

If you abhor flying and never plan to redeem your miles by taking a flight, you're probably better off choosing a cash-back credit card as your main card. But that doesn't mean you have to pass when the only rewards offered for signing up for a new service or making a transaction are miles. There are lots of ways to spend those miles other than flying. (See also: 6 Tricks to Making the Most of Your Reward Miles)

1. Book travel that doesn't involve an airplane

On Points.com, you can transfer miles from some frequent flyer programs into an Amtrak account. Just note the exchange rate. For instance, if you want to convert Hawaiian Air miles to Amtrak, you will end up with only one Amtrak point for every five Hawaiian points you cash in.

You can book a car/hotel package, including activities, with miles on American Airlines Vacations, or pay for a cruise with miles through United.

2. Subscribe to a magazine

If you are the kind of person who still likes having paper magazines on your coffee table, the site MagsforMiles.com can be an affordable way to subscribe. For example, to get a year of my favorite, Sunset, would cost me only 600 Hawaiian Air miles. Since these miles are worth about 1.2 cents each, that's a year of the magazine for about $7, which is not a bad price, especially if you're looking to spend a few "pocket change" miles that will never amount to a larger transaction.

3. Go shopping

Delta allows members to exchange miles for retail items such as Tumi bags as well as vouchers for the $100 Global Entry fee, or even gift cards for the airline. United allows you to redeem miles for tickets to Broadway shows, among other things.

4. Get gift cards

Points.com will exchange many kinds of airline miles for gift cards, which could be helpful if you need to get a birthday gift for someone and are short on cash. The individual airline sites may also have information about trading miles for gift cards. However, be sure to check the rates and make sure you're not throwing away large amounts of miles for small value cards.

5. Donate to charity

Each airline has its own list of charities to which you can donate miles. If you were going to give cash anyway, this can be an efficient way to get the miles off your hands while helping the organization. The only drawback is that, unlike a cash gift, a miles donation is not tax deductible.

6. Send a loved one on a flight

Many airlines will charge you a fee to transfer your miles to another person, but there's a way around that: You can use your miles to book a flight for someone else just as you would book it for yourself. So even if you plan to never set foot onboard a plane, you can send your niece on a graduation trip or pay for your mom to come visit you.

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