If you’ve checked out the Free Travel section of our site, you’ll no doubt know that Alexis and I love to travel for free. Within the last year alone, we’ve flown from London to Washington, DC, Washington, DC to Hawaii, and Hawaii to Phuket for our honeymoon, all for free. Well, we’ve done it again (kind of). For our upcoming trip to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Southern Thailand, we were able to save $300 on our flights, which was close to half off the total price. How’d we do it? With the magic of credit card miles, of course. The reason we couldn’t get these flights completely for free is twofold:
- Our bounty of American Airlines and Ultimate Rewards miles couldn’t be used on flights to the more remote islands of Borneo and Lombok. Those miles can be used on a ton of different airlines and are usually extremely useful, but no major airlines fly to these islands, only small budget airlines. Which brings me to the more important reason…
- Even if I could have used American Airlines or Ultimate Rewards miles to cover 100% of the flights, I wouldn’t have wanted to because the budget airlines throughout Southeast Asia make paying in cash much more sensible than using valuable miles. Almost all of our flights on this trip are on AirAsia who has extremely cheap flights throughout the region. For example, flying from Chiang Mai to Kota Kinabalu in Borneo cost $130 per person. Paying for that same route with American Airlines miles (had it been possible) would have cost 15,000 miles per person. That works out to a 1:115 conversion rate (1 dollar = 115 miles). Without getting into too much of the details, this is an extremely bad conversion rate. I could get much better value for my American Airlines miles on some other trip in the future.
So what did I do instead to save $300?
Specific airline miles such as American Airlines AAdvantage or Ultimate Rewards (which transfer to airlines like United, Singapore, Korean, etc) aren’t the only kind of credit card miles. There is also what’s called “fixed-value” miles. Essentially what these cards do is allow you to pay yourself back for travel you already booked. The positives: no airline or date restrictions; the negative: generally less value i.e. 1 airline mile will get you further than 1 fixed-value mile. This trip clearly shows that there’s still a lot of usefulness in fixed-value miles though. So I booked our flights using Skyscanner just like any other trip, the charges show up on my credit card and are labeled as “travel” (which also includes trains, cruises, hotels, etc.), and then I use my miles to pay myself back for those travel purchases. I had 30,000 miles which can be redeemed for cash at a 1:100 ratio, thus the $300 savings.
What credit card did I use?
There are a ton of fixed-value credit cards out there, but the one I used is arguably the best one on the market right now: the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard. For anyone looking to get into the credit card miles game, I highly recommend starting with a fixed-value credit card like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus. This will be the easiest introduction for a few reasons:
- Learning the intricacies of airline miles programs is extremely difficult. I’ve been learning about them for over a year and there’s still so much information that goes over my head.
- The travel booking process is exactly the same as it normally would be. The only difference is that after you book your perfect flight on Kayak or Skyscanner, you can pay yourself back for some or all of your travel (which again, isn’t just flights).
- You can earn these miles very easily just through your everyday spending. I put everything on my credit card (although that’s harder in Thailand as most places don’t take credit cards) and the miles just continue to accumulate. I’m not spending any more money that I normally would have, and I’m certainly not putting us into debt or spending beyond our means. It’s just simple, everyday purchases that I chose to put on my credit card as opposed to debt or cash.
- Lastly, one perk that’s specific to the Barclaycard Arrival Plus is that they give you free access to your credit score. One of people’s biggest concerns when they’re considering applying for a credit card to earn free miles is how it will affect their credit score. For me, my score has only gotten higher in the past year, but being able to check it whenever I want is a nice confirmation.
As I mentioned in the Free Travel section, I think it would be more useful for people wanting to start using credit card miles to cover their travel costs to learn about the process themselves. It’s complicated and time consuming, but it’s worth it if you want to jetset around the world more often than your bank account can afford. Even though I see myself still at the student-level in this whole credit card miles game instead of the teacher-level, I’m happy to answer any questions you have to the best of my ability.