We are not a family of frequent fliers by any stretch of the imagination. Quite the opposite, actually. Yet with a little ingenuity and intentionality, we’ve learned how to maximize the frequent flyer miles and get the most out of them. Which is how our huge family flew to Europe for FREE.
Not once. Not twice. But three times.
Each visit, we spent three weeks backpacking across the Continent with six to nine children in tow. (Lap babies flew free, even without a ticket.) We’ve earned a total of 26 FREE round-trip tickets to Europe — plus five to Hawaii — so far. And we’re looking forward to traveling to other corners of the world for FREE in the future.
How did we do it? It wasn’t as hard as you might think.
Granted, each trip took several years of saving to earn enough tickets for our big crew, but we accumulated those miles without a big time investment or change in our lifestyle and spending habits.
We put forth a little energy up front to fill out the initial registrations for the programs listed below, then waited and watched as the miles added up over time.
For the sake of simplicity, our family stuck with American Airline’s AAdvantage miles (or point programs that easily converted to AA miles). But there are many different travel reward programs out there. And the following tips will easily translate to most of them, as well. The trick is to pick one (or possibly two, if you’re really ambitious) and stick with it. Earning all your miles in a single rewards program will get you free tickets faster than having a handful of miles with a dozen different airlines.
Earning miles is easy, even for infrequent flyers like us. So give it a try. If you only do #2 and #6 below, you can earn enough miles for one round-trip ticket in the continental US, almost instantaneously!
How to Earn Frequent Flyer Miles
This is the starting point. Even if you don’t fly often (or at all), you’ll still need to register with an airline program as if you did, so that you’ll have an account in which the miles you earn from all other promotions can be deposited. Once you get an account number, make note of it and use that same number whenever you sign up for any other point program.
As I said before, we joined American AAdvantage. You can do, too, by following this link: AAdvantage Miles Quick Enrollment
A few things to note about these mileage accounts: If you do happen to fly somewhere, you can obviously earn miles that way, too. If you are flying with another family member, you can both earn miles, but they will have to be deposited into separate accounts – your miles will be deposited into your account and the miles earned by other family members will be deposited into their individual accounts.
Just be aware that the miles in anybody’s reward account will normally expire after about a year if the account goes for six months or more with no further activity. That’s where the following programs can help infrequent flyers like us hang on to our miles.
There are lots of credit cards available that will reward you with a mile or more per dollar spent using their card. This can be a great way to accumulate miles with only a small adjustment to your purchasing habits.
Some cards carry an annual fee, but the ones our family has used in the past did not, or else they were willing to waive the fee upon request (never hurts to ask!). If you pay off your balance every month and don’t use your card for cash advances, you can avoid paying any interest or service fees, as well.
The year we built our house, we ran as many purchases through our AAdvantage card as we could — after getting a 30,000-mile bonus just for signing up! For more information on how you can do the same, click here: Earn miles on every purchase with AAdvantage
This program allows you to rack up miles every time you eat at any restaurant enrolled in the program. To earn the points, you will need to pay for your meal with a credit card, but any card will do (it needn’t be a AAdvantage Reward card), provided you’ve registered it with the program in advance.
Doing so is a one-time process. Once it is done, you don’t have to think about it again, nor do you need to tell your waiter you’re participating in the program — everything is done automatically. Our family has even earned miles dining at restaurants we didn’t know were in the program until afterwards when we saw the miles post to our account. Maximizing your frequent flyer miles doesn’t get easier than that!
Dining for miles is especially easy to do when you live in a big city, as there are usually lots of participating restaurants to choose from. But even if you live in a small town that offers no AAdvantage Dining options, you can still earn miles while traveling. Our family will be vacationing in New Mexico later this summer, and I’ve already charted restaurants all along the route there and back that will earn us 5 miles/dollar spent, with a 2500-mile bonus if we eat at five of them before the end of the month.
Want to earn miles next time you eat out? Follow this link to register for the program: AAdvantage Dining
Please note: There are other dining programs out there, such as IHG Dine & Earn, but they are all powered by the same company (Rewards Network) and you aren’t allowed to register the same credit card with more than one of them at a time. (You can view a complete list of participating programs here).
If you keep your eyes open, you may spot a special airline promotion. These are not super common, but when you find them, they can really pay off.
For many years, our energy provider gave us miles for every dollar we spent on electricity each month, plus a sizable bonus for switching suppliers in the first place.
When we were saving for our trip to Europe, certain kinds of cereal came with a coupon for 100 AAdvantage miles printed on the box. Several were brands we bought regularly, anyway, so we stocked up on the specially marked boxes. In fact, one of the tickets we got the first time our family flew to Europe for free was paid for entirely by those cereal boxtops!
And if that impresses you, you will really be inspired by this story about a man who earned 1.2 million miles buying 25-cent pudding cups and donating them to charity. He’s our hero!
You can also earn miles by shopping online through airline reward portals such as the AAdvantage eShopping Mall. You can shop the same online stores you normally visit, but by clicking there through this site, any purchases you make will earn you mileage rewards.
I’ll be honest: Our family doesn’t use this method very often — primarily because we’d rather go through Rakuten to earn cash back instead of miles on our online purchases — however, occasionally a participating merchant offers a deal we can’t pass up, like 40+ miles per dollar spent.
Virtually every hotel in America has some sort of preferred guest program to reward customer loyalty. They are free to join, you’ll earn points every stay, and can redeem those points for free nights and other perks, which often include airline miles. Sometimes programs even allow you to “double dip” by awarding you with points and miles every time you stay at one of their hotels. Others — including our family’s favorite, Embassy Suites, which is part of the Hilton Honors program — allow you to exchange points for miles.
I regularly receive notices from American AAdvantage, in fact, offering a 20%-50% bonus for converting hotel points to AAdvantage miles during special promotion periods. (Although that sounds like a great way to maximize your frequent flyer miles, unless you are traveling soon and need those miles right away, you’re usually better off using those points for hotel stays)
There is really no advantage here to joining the loyalty programs for hotels you never use, but you are missing out if you ever stay at any of the chains listed below and don’t earn points/miles for doing so!
Points earned can be redeemed for airline miles. Bonus: If you book your stay through Rakuten, you’ll earn cash back in addition to the miles.
Hotels affiliated with Choice Privileges include: Ascend – Cambria – Clarion – Comfort Inn – Comfort Suites – Econolodge – Mainstay Suites – Quality Inn – Roadway Inn – Sleep Inn – Suburban
This is the hotel program that earns our family the most miles. HHonor points can be redeemed for free nights at the hotel of your choice or exchanged for miles on your favorite airline. Follow this link to sign up: Hilton HHonors Program
Hotels in the Hilton Program include: Conrad – Doubletree – Embassy Suites – Hampton – Hilton – Hilton Garden Inn – Homewood Suites – Home2 – Tru – Tapestry Collection – Waldorf Astoria
World of Hyatt’s loyalty program allows you to earn 5 points/dollar spent at their hotels, with easy point-to-miles conversion with over 30 travel partners (including American Airlines). Bonus: Earn additional cash back on Hyatt hotel and resort stays when you book through Rakuten.
Hyatt affiliated hotels are easy to spot — they all have HYATT in the name: Grand Hyatt – Hyatt – Hyatt House – Hyatt Regency – Hyatt Residence – Hyatt Zilara – Park Hyatt
IHG boasts that it is “the world’s largest hotel loyalty program.” You must specify whether you prefer to earn points or miles when you sign up, which you can do by following this link: IHG Rewards Program. Book Holiday Inn Stays through Rakuten to earn cash back, in addition to your points or miles.
Hotels included in the IHG family include: Candlewood Suites – Crowne Plaza – Even Hotels – Holiday Inn – Holiday Inn Express – Hotel Indigo – Hualuxe – Intercontinental Hotels – Staybridge Suites
Best Rate Guarantee. No Cancellation Fees. You must choose when you sign up for this program whether you prefer to earn points or miles.
Hotels in the Marriott family include: AC – Aloft – Autograph Collection Hotels – Courtyard – Design – Edition – Element – Fairfield Inn – Four Points – Gaylord – Marriott – Meridian – Moxy Hotels – Protea – Renaissance – Residence Inn – Ritz Carlton – Sheraton – Springhill Suites – St. Regis – Towneplace Suites – W Hotels – Westin
With Wyndham Rewards, you can choose to earn miles instead of points from the get-go, or you can trade points for miles once you’ve accumulated 6000. Your choice. Also, you will earn a cashback bonus in addition to points or miles when you book select Wyndham family hotels through Rakuten.
Hotels participating in Wyndham Rewards include: Baymont – Days Inn – Dream Hotels – Hawthorne – Howard Johnson – Knight’s Inn – Microtel – Night – Ramada – Super 8 – Travelodge – Tryp Hotels – Wingate Inn – Wyndham Hotels & Suites
How to Maximize Your Frequent Flyer Miles
Although the above suggestions will help you earn miles faster, there are really only a couple of ways to maximize your miles or make them stretch further. You can choose to travel economy class and/or travel off-season, both of which require significantly fewer miles to qualify for free tickets. (Check out this awards chart to see how many miles it’ll take to reach your dream destination.)
If you go with a different (or maybe a second?) rewards program, you may find additional ways to maximize your mileage. We actively collect Southwest Rapid Reward Miles, too. Although that airline does not service as many destinations as American, it does offer a couple of benefits the Aadvantage Program does not. First, Southwest runs a companion pass promotion. Qualifying members can get one free ticket for a named companion anytime and anywhere the pass holder flies through December of the following year. We qualified in March of 2020, which would’ve meant one free ticket every time we flew for 21 months (which was rotten timing, since COVID cancelled all our travel plans for the majority of that time period). Also, points required for Southwest reward travel fluctuate with prices. It will cost you fewer miles to book a cheap flight than an expensive one.
Now that most of the COVID restrictions have been lifted, our family is planning more overseas adventures with younger children who either weren’t born when we took our initial trips or were too young at the time to remember. We can use all the help we can get, so if you know of any good ways to earn miles that we’ve not already listed, please let us know about them in the comment section below!
If you know of others who would like to learn how to fly to Europe or anywhere else for free, please share this article via Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or any of the other options below.
Thanks for reading… and bon voyage!
Ready. Set. Go!
Want more great tips for planning both memorable and economical family vacations? You’ll find a treasure trove of information in my book, Pack Up & Leave. It’s chockful of smart tips that will make your next family road trip or vacation more economical, educational, and memorable.
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