Like many frequent flyers, I'm a travel-hacking hobbyist: I sign up for credit cards to get bonus miles and keep an eye on my mileage account to get elite status like MVP or MVP Gold.
Now there are more resources for the emerging travel hacker who wants to step up their game and earn some free trips.
Joe Cortez is the editor at "MileCards.com," a subsidiary of Lending Tree (a loan comparison website). On the site, you'll find brief descriptions of many of the most popular mileage-earning cards. There also are articles describing the features and benefits of various plans.
The site has a flexible bar, which you can slide to match how much money you spend each month — and a calculator to determine the approximate value of each mile or point. There's a side-by-side comparison of Visa cards, Mastercards, American Express and Discover. While many of the high-mileage cards have annual fees, there are many that will waive the fee for the first year. From the site, too, there's a link to apply, from which the website makes a commission.
One of Cortez's current favorites is the American Express Platinum card. This is different than Delta Air Lines' co-branded American Express card, which also bills itself as "platinum." The Delta card gives a fat bonus of Delta SkyMiles, while the American Express card awards bonus "Membership Rewards" points that can be transferred to many different loyalty programs.
"The American Express Platinum card is good for the elite traveler who appreciates special perks," said Cortez. "Platinum cardholders get special discounts at the Fine Hotels and Resorts collection including spa credits, dining credits and other discounts," he said. Then there's the $200 Uber credit for rides, the $200 airline incidental fee credit and all-lounge access, including the "Centurion" lounges. The fee: $550 per year.
For Delta travelers, Cortez likes the Delta Gold Skymiles card from American Express. On the MileCards.com site, there's a 30,000-mile bonus. But Cortez admits that you can find bigger bonuses up to 70,000 miles, including on Delta.com. One big advantage is cardholders get one free checked bag for up to eight people in a single reservation.
What card is at the top of Cortez's list for travelers in Alaska? The Alaska Airlines Visa card from Bank of America. "People underestimate the Alaska Air card," said Cortez. "It's one of the best." In addition to the yearly companion fare and low minimum-spend requirement, Cortez likes the partner airlines like American Airlines, Icelandair, Condor and Emirates.
While Cortez's site does a nice side-by-side comparison of credit cards, that's just one aspect of travel hacking. Matt Kepnes runs a website called NomadicMatt.com and details in one post how to earn 1,000,000 frequent-flyer points each year. This includes steps like signing up for a bunch of credit cards and then detailing his strategy for meeting the minimum spending requirement.
I met "Nomadic Matt" in Portland a couple of years ago, standing in line at a food cart. We didn't talk too much then, but have corresponded in the meantime about travel-hacking techniques. Since he lives in the Lower 48, he's a bigger fan of American Airlines and the "oneworld" alliance, while I lean toward the Alaska Airlines plan. But his million-point-per-year plan includes things like shopping online through your mileage plan portal (most airlines have one, including Alaska Airlines) and signing up for your airline's frequent dining program for restaurants.
Kepnes and I met while attending a conference featuring one of my favorite travel hackers: Chris Guilleabeau. He visited all 193 countries by the time he turned 35 and has fine-tuned travel hacking into an art form. He's the one who taught me to "stack" credit cards so I can roll the sign-up bonuses from several cards into one plan. I chose the Chase Ultimate Rewards program. In my wallet, I have three of the Chase cards. Between them, I earned 220,000 points, which I can move between several loyalty programs. My favorite is Hyatt, but others include United Airlines, Korean Air, Air France and IHG (Holiday Inn and Intercontinental).
Cortez, of MileCards.com, is quick to point out that frequent-flyer points are a lousy investment. "These points depreciate at an alarming rate," he said. "If you have a particular trip you want to do or a particular reward you want to claim, these bonuses are a good way to achieve that," he said. "Our goal is to help you leverage your dollars for the best travel experience."
So it's not enough just to earn the bonuses and rack up the miles and points. You have to use them right away. Don't sit on them, as they become less and less valuable over time. Your goal is to "earn-and-burn."
Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.