Miles Safari

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Reader, new friend, and fellow Portland Mustachian, Emma, asked me for some advice on getting started travel hacking. Her goal is a trip to Cape Town South Africa next spring with her significant other. I’ve never planned a trip to the continent of Africa, but I thought it would be useful to deconstruct the thinking process of planning such a trip, starting from the destination and moving backwards all the way to the first credit card churn. So without further ado, let’s jump right in. Step one: figure out what airlines serve your destination. My first stop in figuring out a new destination is always the airlines and destinations tab on Wikipedia page for the airport in question. Scanning through,  I can see that all three major alliances do serve the Cape Town airport. The Star Alliance (United) is served by South African Airways. The Sky Team Alliance (Delta) is served by both KLM as well as Air France. And the OneWorld Alliance (American airlines) is served by British Airways. This means we can get to Cape Town with any of the three major airline currencies. It is also worth mentioning that we can book a round-trip to Johannesburg which has a bigger airport with more flight options, instead, and then book a separate short-haul round-trip flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town using British airways AVIOS for only 7500 miles with no fuel surcharge. Step 2: consider fuel charges. In this blast from the past I introduced the concept of airline fuel surcharges. The airline fuel surcharge is a scourge best avoided. In a nutshell it means that in addition to your hard earned miles, you will have to use your hard earned cash to redeem your miles to pay for fuel. This is where a little knowledge goes along way. This handy chart breaks down when you will and will not have to pay fuel surcharges. The take-home message is that with United miles, you never have to pay fuel surcharges even on partner airlines. With American airlines miles you never have to pay fuel surcharges unless you book a flight on British Airways internationally. And with Delta airlines miles you always have to pay fuel surcharges on international flights unless it is a Delta (not a partner) flight originating in America or Asia. So in this case, we have our answer. We are going to focus on United miles so that we can get to Cape Town without paying fuel surcharges.*** Step 3: figure out how many miles you need. Since we are focused on United, we should look at their award chart. We look up “saver” award fares for star alliance partners and can see that each ticket will cost 40,000 miles each way. So two round-trip tickets will be 160,000 miles. Easy. Step 4: Choose your weapons (credit cards). Our goal is to collect united airlines miles. And there are really 3 ways to do this.

  1. Apply for United branded credit cards.
  2. Apply for Chase ultimate reward branded credit cards, which can be transferred to United airline 1:1 in exchange for United miles.
  3. Apply for Starwood preferred Guest credit cards. Starpoints can be transferred 1:1.2 for United frequent flyer miles.

My go to best credit card offers page is this one from FrequentMiler. And browsing it, it seems to me that this would be my credit card plan.

  • Chase United personal card, 50,000 United miles.
  • Chase Ink Card (business) 50,000 ultimate rewards points.
  • AMEX Starwood Preferred Guest Personal Card. 25,000 star points.
  • AMEX Starwood Preferred Guest Business Card. 25,000 star points.
  • Barclay World Arrival Mastercard 40,000 Points. (This card can be used for cash redemptions to pay for airport taxes, and other travel expenses not payable with miles.)

So if Emma and her significant other both complete this churn, they will have 300,000 United miles ready to go in three months. They will also have $800 to spend on other travel expenses.  Since the trip is in spring, time is of the essence. If her significant other does not want to be part of the fun, Emma can simply do a second churn in 91 days and collect 40,000 ultimate reward points from a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, and 50,000 United miles from a United Business Card. Which would single-handedly bring her total to 240,000 United miles, well more than she will need.  Whether she would get to her goal in time to book a flight with miles is another question. In any case with award tickets, the time has come to get cracking. Time to get churning, Emma!  We’re all behind you. *** A Delta flight from atlanta to Johannesburg remains a possibility, with a separate short-haul Comair flight to Capetown booked with Avios.

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5 Responses to “Miles Safari”

  1. Eric September 22, 2014 at 6:09 am #

    When I applied for the Amex SPG personal and business cards at the same time (at a time when there was a 30K points offer), I was denied for one of them and told by the Amex rep that Amex’s policy is that only one card can be approved in each 30 day period (even across personal and business cards).

    • Miles Dividend M.D. September 22, 2014 at 12:53 pm #

      Eric,

      Thanks for sharing this.

      When was this? My wife was approved for both SPG cards on the same day in April.

      Perhaps this is a new policy?

      AZ

  2. Eric September 22, 2014 at 1:56 pm #

    This was in June. I also just learned that Amex does not allow you to have more than four Amex cards at any one time as the primary account holder; in my most recent round of applications, I opted to cancel one of my existing cards in order to be approved for the new one with the signup bonus (I do separately also have a Wells Fargo Propel World Amex card, but WF is the servicer of that card so it must not count against the limit).

    Thanks for doing these types “nuts and bolts” posts, by the way. I find them useful even as a somewhat experienced player of the miles game.

    Do you happen to have any intel on whether Amex provides signup bonuses to existing Amex cardholders in cases where the terms seem to say they won’t? The terms and conditions of many of their cards (including the public version of the SPG bonus) say this about the signup bonus: “If we identify you as currently having an American Express® Card account, you may not be eligible for this welcome bonus offer.” I passed over applying for some lucrative offers in the past because of this disclaimer, but I don’t know if Amex really denies people signup bonuses in practice merely because they are existing holders of a completely different Amex card.

  3. Austin October 15, 2014 at 11:15 pm #

    Hey there, I live in CT and the United way is certainly one way to do it (and possibly the most user friendly). Another option if she is sitting on a big stack of American miles is to fly through Doha on Quatar Airways. This isn’t listed on the AA site but can be searched on British Avios site and then booked with American agents over the phone. They may even wave the phone booking fee if you ask nicely since it’s not bookable online.

    • Miles Dividend M.D. October 15, 2014 at 11:19 pm #

      Austin,

      Great tip. Thanks for sharing. I will try to get this to Emma for her next churn.

      AZ

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