After a year-long hiatus, travel is slowly making a comeback. Now more than ever, people are ready to take that bucket-list trip. But with airfare prices expected to rise steadily as travel resumes and finances fluctuating given the pandemic, you may be wondering if you can afford to go anywhere.
Enter airline miles.
Airline miles are the secret to flying around the world free or next to nothing. As rewards go, a comped flight to a dream destination is hard to beat. You can even use airline miles to upgrade your seat and fly business class.
Most people have the misconception that to earn miles, you need to be constantly flying. In reality, you could be earning miles every time you’re going to the drive-through or shopping online. With careful planning, your actions over the next few months can accumulate enough miles to take you somewhere unforgettable when you’re ready to travel again.
Open a travel credit card Opening a travel credit card is not the only way to accrue miles, but it is the quickest. Credit cards offer bulk sign-up incentives to new users who meet a minimum spending threshold within the first few months. These awards can range from 10,000 to 100,000 miles or more and are available on both business and personal credit cards. If you have a big expense like furniture or tuition, consider paying for it with a new card for the sign-up award. Everyday spending can also earn miles. Take note of any category bonuses, i.e., two times the miles on groceries. Factors to consider when selecting a card include the perks and incentives, annual fee, loyalty to a given airline and flexibility of the redemption program.
Shop through online portals Most airlines have frequent-flier programs with online shopping portals that offer bonus miles when you make a purchase through their partner links. For instance, United has a MileagePlus Shopping Program with more than 900 vendors, featuring deals such as eight miles per dollar spent at Macy’s or a bulk award of 3,200 miles for signing up with AT&T. Make sure to click through the link while logged in to the portal so purchases are tracked and attributed to your account.
Take online surveys Airlines like American, JetBlue, Spirit and Southwest all have programs where you can earn miles by taking online surveys. These are a slow burn, accruing 10 to 20 miles per survey and requiring you to take qualifying questions to determine if you are in the target audience. They are worth signing up for as you get a few hundred bonus miles just for opening an account. You can periodically do a survey while in a waiting room or watching TV — every mile counts.
Book with partner brands Airlines also partner with brands outside of online shopping portals to incentivize your business. For instance, when you link your Delta SkyMiles and Lyft account, you earn a mile for every dollar spent on U.S. rides, and two miles per dollar for rides to the airport. Similarly, Delta has a partnership with Airbnb where you earn one mile per dollar spent on stays worldwide. You do not need a Delta credit card to reap these benefits, just a frequent flier account that is free to open. Brand partnerships and point multipliers change over time, so sign up for email updates or log in regularly to scope out new opportunities.
Refer a friend Many travel credit cards offer a bulk award of miles for referring a friend, ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 points per approved referral. This is a great way to introduce your family to the miles and points game by sharing your expertise and positive experience with a particular card. Make sure your unique referral link is used to be credited for approved cardholders.
Pay your taxes Earning airline miles with your taxes takes the sting out of paying Uncle Sam. If you owe a large sum, you can use a new travel credit card and reap the sign-up bonus while simultaneously giving yourself a grace period to settle your balance. Check the terms and conditions first and make sure the reward outweighs any credit card processing fees. For those expecting a refund, airlines frequently partner with tax preparation systems and offer deals annually. For instance, you can get 20 percent off online tax prep and two miles per dollar at H&R Block this year through your Delta SkyMiles account.
Dine out Most airlines have a dining program that awards miles whenever you spend money at partner restaurants. There are point multipliers and sign-up bonuses that usually kick in after spending a minimum amount in the first 30 days and leaving a review. The process is simple and does not require a travel credit card — simply link your preferred payment card to your frequent flier account, and every time you use that card at an approved restaurant, the miles will automatically be credited to your account.
Pool your miles All too often airline miles end up scattered across multiple accounts, making it difficult to reach a redemption threshold. One solution is to take advantage of pooling programs that allow you to transfer points between accounts. JetBlue, for instance, allows TrueBlue members to pool miles with up to seven friends or family members without incurring a fee. Domestic airlines have been slow to offer this feature, but it’s common on international airlines such as Norwegian and Air Canada.
Stay at a hotel Even if you’re not traveling, booking a hotel is a way to treat yourself to a staycation or temporarily change up your office space. Hotels and airlines regularly partner to offer reciprocity, awarding miles for your stay. For instance, Wyndham has a partnership with American, Avianca, United and Frontier where it awards one mile per dollar spent on qualified stays. Booking sites such as Expedia and Hotels.com partner with United, and you can earn miles when you book through its MileagePlus shopping portal. Third-party platforms such as Rocketmiles promise a set award of miles for each night, but you should verify rates on other sites before booking so you don’t end up paying for your own award.
Rent a car Travel credit cards typically have category bonuses for rental cars, allowing you to get a point multiplier for your rental. Certain shopping portals offer bulk booking incentives. Delta, for instance, awards 500 miles for every Enterprise reservation made through its portal. You can also get miles awarded for car rentals retroactively. If you have rented a car in the past six months, contact the company to see about being credited for qualified bookings.
Charitable donations It pays to give back. When you donate to Stand Up to Cancer you get 10 American Airlines miles per dollar on every donation over $25. Even better, your contribution is tax deductible.
This article originally appeared on Washington Post