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Stacking the deck

Originally frequent flier miles were literally measured in miles – distance flown equaled miles awarded, and eventually free travel or other goodies, to entice customer loyalty to a particular airline. But those days are gone, nowadays, loyalty ain’t what it used to be; with flights running at near-capacity, freebies and upgrades are harder to come by, so some airlines seem bent on devaluing frequent flier miles.

Earning miles by flying has become far more complicated for most travelers who do not book the most expensive fares. The spider web of rules are built around confusing algorithms with partner airlines and restrictions on fare class eligibility. And when it comes time to spend them, award prices are going up and award rules are getting more obscure.

Could it be time to look to your wallet to earn those coveted frequent flier miles?

By racking up credit card points and miles instead of focusing your purchasing power on a specific program, it’s possible to extract more value. Credit card programs allow you to earn and burn miles without the restrictions of airline loyalty programs.

If you play your cards right (literally), you can score tens of thousands of miles at a time just for signing up for a card. Most of the good deals have spending requirements, but if you have to put purchases on a credit card anyway, why not earn the maximum amount of miles in the process?

“Once-loyal fliers are increasingly shopping around, becoming airline ‘free agents,’ buying on price and discovering alternative and low-cost airlines,” says Stefan Krasowski of the Rapid Travel Chai blog. “Premium travel credit cards are replacing airline and hotel elite status cards at the top of wallet for business travelers.”

Of course, credit card offers change frequently, so it pays to shop. Right now two of the biggest out there are the Chase Sapphire Reserve card (so much in demand that the manufacturer actually ran out of the metal material used to make the cards) and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard for world travelers who always look forward to the next adventure.

Chase’s high-end card offers benefits like travel credits, fee waivers for TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry, and lounge access. While eligible applicants receive 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points for spending $3,000 within the first three months, they must still pay the $450, which is not waived.

Another juicy offer is the Barclaycard, which offers 50,000 points for spending $3,000 within the first three months, but only has an annual fee of $89 (waived in the first year). Cardholders earn double miles on all purchases (not just a bonus on certain categories as with other cards). Miles can be spent as travel credits or for gift cards, which relieves you of the pressure of finding award space on a particular airline.

“A mile flown is no longer a mile earned with airline programs, but a mile spent is still a mile (or more) earned through credit card programs,” explains Krasowski.

Savvy spenders know how to manage their budget to have more than one card without dinging their credit. Score a few card bonuses and you have enough for several free trips. Note that card offers peddled on the plane or in airport terminals are rarely the best deals. Consult websites like, which detail card offers and benefits on a daily basis.

If you want to win the mileage game, stock up on ‘currency’ that can be used any time for travel or easily transferred to another program. By choosing the right credit cards, you obtain the flexibility to rack up miles expeditiously without tying yourself down to one travel program.

As they say in the advertising world, maybe it’s time to ask “What’s in your wallet?”

By Ramsey Qubein