Cooking Miles 101

airplane-flight-sunsetIt’s been about six weeks since I started my new hobby of maximizing the miles in our frequent flyer accounts, and it’s been a learning experience. With a moderate amount of money and effort, I’ve added about 12,000 miles to my United Mileage Plus account, and have probaby another 5,000 or so in the pipeline. Accumulating miles does take some patience as you don’t always get the miles instantaneously. Some, particular though the MyPoints service, can take weeks or months to show up in your account. There are weeks where miles fly in fast and furious, and others where it it is just a trickle.

Understanding the cost of miles is important here, so if you decide to get into this dust off your math skills. The value of miles varies from airline to airline and program to program. I’ve been focusing on my United Mileage Plus account, and it seems that a lot of folks value them from 1.5 to 1.8 cents per mile. United recently “devalued” their miles. this means that it now costs more miles to fly to certain locales, especially if you want to fly on any of their partner airlines and in better seats (business and first class).

I discovered that my wife’s 25,000 MP miles had expired, but could be reinstated for a fee of $50. This worked out to .02 cents per mile, so it was an easy decision to buy. If you buy miles from the United, you could be paying 3.5 cents or a bit less if you do so during one of their promotions, but concensus is this is almost always a bad deal unless you desperately need a minimum amount of miles to reach a goal.

A lot of folks apply for credit cards frequently for the miles they offer, particularly those that waive the yearly fee for the first year. They earn their miles, and close the cards before being billed for the fee in the second year. This is referred to as “churning” cards, and there is no way I’m playing that game. But after doing some research on the issue, I got a Chase Business Ink card. Why? One, it does have a 50,000 mile bonus after meeting a modest minumum spending goal. Two, it offers 5X miles for every dollar spent at office supply stores and for telecommunication services. I spend about $275 a month for cable, Internet and cell phone service. This means 1,375 miles generated per month (16,500 per year) and simply routing the payments I’d be making anyway through the Business Ink card.

Some folks refer to this as “travel hacking”, a term that others deride, and I can understand why. Compared to computer hacking (i.e., gaining illicity access to computer systems), the activity of accumulating miles by using strategies discovered by miles hardly qualifies. I agree. It takes some skill and creativity to come up with these “hacks”, and when someone used the methods developed by others it was referred to as using “cookbook” methods. Those that come up with the schemes deserve some accolades, like the fellow that earned 2.4 million miles by ordering coins online at face value, with free shipping and miles. If you are simply following the methods thought up by others, you’re cooking miles, not hacking them, at least in my opinion.

For anyone interested in taking up this hobby, I can only counsel that you do your research, follow the blogs of folks who have been doing this for a while and share their discoveries and those of others. I’ve been using an RSS reader and subscribed to about a dozen miles-related blogs that produce regular posts and highlight new methods for cooking miles and carry other news about miles and traveling in general (click here for an OPML file that contains my subscriptions). Start off cautiously but once you’ve learned from small mistakes you’ll inevitably make (frequently caused by failing to read the fine print in some offers), be brave and step up your game.

If you are an experienced travel hacker who has a blog on the issue, feel free to leave a comment and let me know about your site. I realize that what I have here is miles hacking/cooking 101, so no snide comments, please. I’m just posting as I’m learning.

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