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Five steps to flying for free

Are you trying to earn enough miles for a free trip but don’t intend to fly much over the next year? Are you frustrated with the shrinking value of your miles and want to switch frequent flyer programs? Or are you trying to increase your mileage account so you can get the more expensive unrestricted award because restricted awards are so hard to come by these days? If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you could earn that free trip without leaving the ground once.

Frequent flyers know that the most common misconception held by travelers is that you need to fly, and fly often, to earn enough miles to get free flights. In reality, there are tons of ways to earn miles for your everyday activities, including shopping, talking on the phone, dining out, and using a credit card, as well as airline flights and hotel stays. In fact, you could earn 25,000 miles—the cost of a free domestic award ticket—without ever leaving your hometown.

Even if you consider yourself a savvy mileage-earner, read our step-by-step formula for flying for free to make sure you’re not missing out on additional ways to pick up more miles.

Step one: Choose an airline

The fastest way to free travel is to choose one airline with which to earn miles, and try to put all your mileage-earning activity into that airline. This strategy may sound counterintuitive to those who prefer to shop around and find the cheapest flight each time they fly, but there is actually no reason why these two goals shouldn’t go together.

First of all, if your aim is to earn miles without a lot of flying, you should pick an airline for its partners and destinations, rather than on the basis of ticket prices. Make sure that your chosen airline has a significant number of flights from your home airport, and that it flies to places you’d like to visit for when you do travel. If international travel is in your dreams, some airlines offer awards to overseas destinations for fewer miles than their competitors; read our story on the [% 5284 | deal | best awards %] to find which airline will let you fly for the fewest miles.

Airlines often match each other’s airfare sales in today’s extremely competitive travel market. If there’s a sale fare on the route you want to fly, it will probably be offered by whichever airline you choose, especially if you’re flying to a popular destination. Plus, an airline that has many flights to and from your home airport will be more likely to have sales from your city.

If you’re still worried about saving money on airfare, you could always join the frequent flyer program of one of the low-cost airlines. The up side is that these airlines often offer award travel for fewer points or miles than the majors, and their fares are routinely low. The down side for the infrequent traveler is that these airlines have limited partners, making it more difficult to earn miles without flying, and limited destinations, decreasing your options for award travel.

Once you’ve chosen your airline, be sure to sign up for its loyalty program. You can do this online or by calling the airline’s customer service number, but you’ll often be eligible for additional bonus miles if you enroll online.

Step two: Sign up for a credit card

Almost everyone shops with credit cards these days, and choosing the right card could earn you miles for every purchase, without changing your normal spending habits. Most of the major U.S. airlines have affiliated credit cards with which you can earn one mile for one or two dollars spent, and some offer double miles on certain purchases. Once you’ve chosen a frequent flyer program, sign up for its affiliated credit card; you’ll earn miles without giving it a second thought. Plus, most offer significant signup bonuses, from 2,500 to 10,000 miles after your first charge.

If you normally spend $1,000 per month with your credit card, you can easily earn 12,000 miles or more in a year. Add in the signup bonus and within two years, you’ll have a free domestic award ticket without ever having boarded a plane.

Most airline credit cards do have annual fees attached to them, but if you want to look for lower fees or find out about cards that let you earn free travel on multiple airlines, read Tim Winship’s series on mileage-earning credit cards.

Step three: Earn miles for everyday activities

Now that you’ve got your credit card working toward that free trip, you can speed up your accumulation of miles by earning them for other daily activities. If you have a long-distance plan on your home phone, consider switching to a company that offers miles for charges. [% 5217 | deal | Sprint, MCI, and AT&T %] all have agreements with major airlines to give you five miles per dollar spent, and these companies offer 3,000 to 5,000 bonus miles just for signing up. If you prefer to go wireless, five cellular phone companies offer around 5,000 miles each time you sign up for a new plan.

Surfing the Internet can also earn you miles toward your dream vacation. [% 5273 | deal | Earthlink and AT&T Worldnet %] offer 5,000 to 6,000 miles when you switch to their Internet service. And once you’re hooked up, you can earn one to five miles per dollar for your online shopping purchases if you shop through your airline’s mileage mall.

Like to eat out? You can earn miles for that, too. Just register your credit card with your airline’s iDine program, and you’ll earn 10 miles per dollar when you dine out at over 7,000 participating restaurants in the U.S. There’s no fee to join and no special card to show, and iDine often offers bonus miles promotions through which you can double your miles.

The best thing about earning miles for most of these everyday activities is that once you research your service and sign up, you don’t have to think about earning miles anymore. Keep on going out to eat and talking on the phone as you usually do, and you’ll find that your mileage account will keep getting bigger and bigger.

Step four: Get extra miles for travel

Of course, you can earn miles for flying, but even road trips can net you a few hundred to a few thousand miles. Most airlines, including the low-cost carriers, partner with hotels and car rental agencies so you can earn miles for a trip where you never leave the ground. Even if you only need to rent a car for a day or stop over in a Best Western for a night, you can add a few extra miles to your account.

When you do fly, be sure to check’s Mile Finder to see if there’s a bonus offer on your route. As a promotion, airlines often offer double or triple miles on certain flights, so you can earn miles faster by flying those routes. Combine that with extra bonuses for online reservations and check-in, signing up for e-mails, and using e-tickets, and you can acquire a few thousand additional miles with just one flight.

Step five: Fly for free

With only a bit of your time allocated to research, and without spending any more money than you normally would, you’ll be able to accrue enough miles for a free flight. It may take a few years or perhaps only a few months, but even the most infrequent of flyers can earn a travel award if they follow these simple steps.

In the end, when you’re sitting in first class on your way to Europe or Hawaii, or maybe just across the country to visit Mom and Dad, you’ll be glad you put in the time to earn those miles. Even if you’re only going to fly once a year, why not fly in style…for free?

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