How to earn thousands of miles per month without taking a single flight
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No one likes missing out on a good award class upgrade opportunity.
Last summer, I was in Florence (FCO) changing the date of a return flight back to San Francisco (SFO) that I’d booked using 70,000 United Airlines miles on Lufthansa (a saver award business seat!) when I noticed a first-class seat open up for just 40,000 miles more on the airline’s flagship A380. I knew this was possible — TPG has written a number of times about Lufthansa opening first-class award seats to Star Alliance partner bookings at the last minute — and I wondered if I had anywhere close to the 40,000 needed left in my account in order to grab the ticket.
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I didn’t; I was nearly 20,000 miles short.
I don’t remember the dollar value of that FCO-SFO Lufthansa first-class ticket at that time, but currently the exact flight is $8,460. Still, buying 20,000 miles for around $700 plus tax recovery fees didn’t feel like a splurge I needed to make given that I was already experiencing the huge privilege of flying FCO to SFO (with a stop in Munich) in Lufthansa business class, and the trip itself was already proving to be costly.
Related: 6 tips for booking Lufthansa first-class awards
Though I find myself flying more infrequently these days and instead hoarding miles for big vacations like the one mentioned above, I’ve become increasingly more passionate about mileage accrual. And I wonder, what if I had just been a bit wiser with my mileage earnings in the months leading up to my Italy trip last summer? If I had used online shopping portals, would I have had enough miles to make the fare class upgrade without shelling out extra cash to purchase miles?
Just about every airline has an online shopping portal, which enables online shoppers to earn extra airline miles in addition to whatever they’re earning through their travel rewards credit card.
Basically, if you were going to buy something at Macys.com for $100 (add $20 for taxes and shipping) using your Chase Freedom Unlimited card, here’s how making your purchase via an online shopping portal would benefit you doubly. Let's assume the portal is offering 2 airline miles per dollar.
After you click through the shopping portal for your preferred airline and buy your $100 item using a Freedom Unlimited card, which earns 1.5% cash back on purchases (1.5 Chase Ultimate Rewards points per dollar), you’ll thus earn the following:
- $120 x 1.5 points per dollar on the Freedom Unlimited = 180 Chase Ultimate Rewards points (or $1.80 if you redeem for cash back)
- $100 x 2 miles per dollar through the portal = 200 miles
As a United MileagePlus credit card holder, you can earn an average of 25% more bonus miles on top of the standard offer at most stores.
Related: The beginner's guide to airline shopping portals
Curious, I embarked on a 30-day experiment to torture myself, buying my normal amount of household stuff and personal necessities using only United’s shopping portal.
Before I got going, I set a few parameters: I wouldn’t buy something I didn’t need just to earn miles, and I wouldn’t be beholden to United just because that’s the airline I decided to focus on. If there was clearly a better payback system available, or a better price on a non-earning site, I’d use that instead. The goal was to make it easy and fun, but to scratch an itch I’d had ever since I was 20,000 miles short of what I imagine would’ve been a life-changing flight experience.
I started by installing the MileagePlus shopping portal extension for Chrome. The interface itself leaves much to be desired, but the button makes it easy when you’re searching Google and want to take a broad glance at participating retailers.
I mostly bought little things here and there — birthday presents, etc. A "Treat Yourself Bonus" promotion appeared at the top of the portal dashboard a week or so into my challenge. It was straightforward with no apparent stipulation on stores. If I spent $300 before the offer ended, I would earn an additional 1,000 bonus miles. Frustrated that I’d already made a large purchase for the challenge — a set of tires — I was determined to get that extra 1,000-mile bonus. I didn't force a purchase, but this was a fun carrot that I hit just before the offer ended.
Related: The best rewards credit cards
I also earned an extra 25% from using my United Explorer Card a few times, which I knew was a possibility.
After 30 days, I went into my account and was impressed at the total: 3,275 miles.
I’m fairly certain now that if I’d done the same thing last summer for a number of months leading up to my vacation, I would have had a much smaller deficit of miles to purchase in order to warrant the upgrade. The portal itself is an easy tool to use and I’d been underusing it.
And while 3,275 miles alone isn’t going to get me anywhere, I did next to nothing to get them. A few months of doing this, combined with miles earned from traveling and from using my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Chase Freedom Unlimited, and I’m in a really good place.