How I've Flown Around the World for Free for a Year

How I’ve Flown Around the World for Free for a Year


Be My Travel Muse has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Be My Travel Muse and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are my own, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities.

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Over the past few years I’ve been flying for free, often in business class, by using miles. I’ve also been able to earn Premier Silver status with United this year.

When I mention this to friends they assume it’s because I’ve racked up miles solely from flying. While that certainly helps, it wouldn’t get me very far. With newer rules regarding mileage earnings it’s not as easy to build up status the traditional way as it used to be.

My technique is available even to those who don’t travel all the time, because my ability to fly for free has come almost entirely from credit card signup bonuses and travel rewards.

I should also mention, though it’s possible to travel hack for my international readers, my experience has to do with US cards, which offer the most attractive bonuses. It’s also essential that you have good credit and pay off your cards responsibly.

With that in mind here’s how I do it:

Step One: Sign up to earn miles in every alliance

There are major airline alliances that can get you all over the world, including the Star Alliance and One World. Sign up with a major US airline in each alliance and make sure that you’re always earning on any flights that you take. For example, if you fly with Qatar Airlines, you can earn miles with American Airlines by giving them your AAdvantage number when you check in or book the flight.

Never miss out on miles, even for short flights! It’s free to have mileage memberships, so you might as well take advantage!

Personally I find booking flights to be easy and reasonable with American Airlines and United. Delta, on the other hand, has been more challenging and ‘expensive’ in terms of miles for finding long-haul flights, so I’ve focused less on earning with them and more on United and American.

Step Two: Sign up for cards with stellar bonuses

How I've Flown Around the World for Free for a Year
At the Priority Pass lounge in Zurich, Switzerland

Earning miles doesn’t have to mean spending more than you usually do or killing your credit score. I recommend opening a card with a compelling bonus when it’s time to make a big purchase, and making sure it offers multiple points for the areas you spend in most, like travel. The Chase cards discussed below both offer 3x points on travel and even travel insurance. I also look for cards with other generous perks, like free lounge access and especially no foreign transaction fees.

Here are some key things to remember about getting these bonuses and making the cards worthwhile:

  • You must meet the minimum spend in order to earn the credit, which could be anywhere from $1000-$5000 within the first 3 months of opening the account. In order to meet the minimum spend, I charge absolutely everything that I possibly can – gas, groceries, electronics, business expenses – everything. If I’m with a group and I can sweet talk everyone into giving me cash and letting me put the whole bill on my card, I do that as well. Every little bit helps.
  • Pay off the entire balance in full each month. If you have to pay a financing fee each month because you’re carrying a balance, travel hacking won’t make financial sense.
  • Don’t overextend yourself to meet the minimum spend. I only open cards before I’m going to make a big purchase or if I know I won’t have a problem meeting the minimum spend.
  • Make sure you qualify for the bonus. In some cases, you’ll already have a card that is too similar or might have opened too many cards within a year to get another bonus (Chase has this rule).

My favorite cards right now are the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase United Business Explorer, and Chase Ink points cards. Here’s why I like each:

Chase Sapphire Reserve:

How I've Flown Around the World for Free for a Year
  • 50,000 points as a welcome bonus, with a minimum spend of $4000 in the first 3 months.  This is equivalent to receiving a bonus of $750 (you get 1.5 cents per point when redeeming!)
  • 3 points per dollar spent on travel, including airfare, taxis, hotels, and trains.
  • FREE Priority Pass airport lounge access (I seriously LOVE this perk!).
  • Up to $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • Travel Insurance – particularly great for rental cars or loss of luggage.

Chase Sapphire Preferred:

How I've Flown Around the World for Free for a Year
  • 60,000 points as a signup bonus, with a minimum spend of $4000 in the first 4 months. The points are worth $750 toward travel.
  • 2 points per dollar spent on travel (including airfare, hotels, and rental cars) and restaurants.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • Travel Insurance, particularly great for rental cars or loss of luggage.

While any and all miles are great, I have found that Chase’s point system yields the most flights. You can use your miles as a dollar value if you use their system to book a flight, or you can take advantage of their 1:1 transfer to airline partners and open up your options exponentially. This is how I build up my United miles, and how I booked a business class flight from Cairo, Egypt to Santiago, Chile, for 100k points on Emirates.

For Chase Sapphire Reserve, there are some drawbacks. The annual fee is $550, however they will give you a $300 statement credit, which you would earn after meeting the minimum spend. They also offer a $120 DoorDash credit. I strongly feel that the Priority Pass membership is worth it, and if you apply for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓, it pays for itself. I’ve looked into American Express’ equivalent Platinum card and don’t feel the benefits match up for me.

If you don’t think you need the Global Entry and won’t spend at least $300 on travel per year, then Chase Sapphire Preferred will make more sense, with an annual fee of $95.

Chase Ink

How I've Flown Around the World for Free for a Year
  • 80,000 points as a welcome bonus, with a minimum spend of $5000 in the first 3 months. The points are worth enough for 3 international one-way flights ($1000).
  • 3 points per dollar spent on travel, including airfare, taxis, hotels, and trains as well as internet, cable, shipping, and social media advertising fees.
  • Cell phone protection: Up to $600 to replace a lost or stolen phone when you pay your cell phone bill with this card.
  • Free employee cards.
  • No foreign transaction fees.

If you run a business, the Chase Ink is a no-brainer with the 3x points benefits for business fees as well as the welcome bonus. The annual fee for this one is much lower than the Sapphire Reserve as well at only $95.  It’s possible to get the bonus for both cards for a total of 130k points ($1750! Reserve points redeem at a slightly higher value), which can easily take you on an international roundtrip flight first class, or several coach flights.

Chase United Business Card

  • 100,000 miles after you spend just $10,000 on purchases within the first 3 months of account opening! (offer through 4/2/2020).
  • Every dollar spent on United purchases, restaurants, gas stations and office supply stores will be rewarded with 2 miles.
  • $100 annual travel credit that can be used for anything, including application fee for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓.
  • Free first standard checked bag for cardholder + 1 companion on United-operated flights.
  • Priority boarding for cardholder + 1 companion on United-operated flights.
  • No foreign transaction fees.

Chase United Explorer MileagePlus

  • 60,000 miles as a welcome bonus, with a minimum spend of $3000 in the first 3 months.
  • Every dollar spent on United purchases, restaurants and hotel stays will be rewarded with 2 miles.
  • Up to $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓.
  • Free first standard checked bag for cardholder + 1 companion on United-operated flights.
  • No foreign transaction fees.

In addition to the two above, I suggest signing up for whichever airline is offering the best bonus when you’re ready to open up a new card. Often, these guys also waive the welcome bonus for the first year.

I’ve used the Chase United Explorer MileagePlus to help me get status on United. It came with a nice signup bonus, plus I had a huge business expense come up within the first three months of account opening for another business card, and met the minimum spend needed there to get 100,000 miles. I’m using those miles to fly business class from the US to Namibia next fall, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to make that 30-hour journey more comfortable!

If you don’t have a business, you can still get 60k points with the Explorer card, which, when combined with the 1:1 Chase points transfer from other cards, can help you fly business class real quick!

Step Three: Keep Track and Set up Automatic Payments

how to fly for free
Chiang Mai: Flew here in Thai Airways business class

If you’re not used to having multiple cards, staying on top of it can get a little complicated, so in order to avoid any issues, I have automatic payments set up so that my card is automatically paid off in full each month.

I also keep a spreadsheet of every card I’ve opened and when I opened it. If I love the card and think it’s worth it, like the aforementioned Chase cards, I keep them and pay the annual fee. I’ve had each card for years now and think their point system is the best one out there.

For cards I don’t love as much, I make sure to call the credit card company and downgrade the card to a free version before I have to pay the annual fee. Downgrading to a free card will show longer credit and fewer cancellations on your credit history and will reflect better on your credit score.

While we’re on the topic of credit scores: No, travel hacking will not kill your credit score. It hasn’t killed mine. However, you shouldn’t do it if you’ll be applying for a loan in the near future.

How I've Flown Around the World for Free for a Year

Step Four: Look for flights early and often

Though it’s up for debate, booking flights 2 months ahead of time is usually ideal – when using cash.

For mileage, book as soon as you know you’ll be taking that trip, especially if you’re hoping to fly business or first class.

Occasionally I’ve been able to get last minute fares using miles, but this is usually only during low season. Book mileage tickets ahead of time in order to benefit from cheaper fares and keep in mind that some times of year will be difficult with miles, or will cost a lot more, like flying between the US and Europe in the summer. I often pay double to fly home in July vs. December.

Step Five: Shop Through the Chase Portal

how to fly for free
Cusco, Peru. Saved almost $1400 by flying here with miles

To earn even more miles, pay attention to special bonuses.

Sometimes you can get extra miles for certain shopping habits, like 3x points on dining with certain cards, or even 10x points for shopping with a specific retailer. You usually have to register in order to get these benefits, or follow a specific set of checkout instructions. However, if you have a big purchase to make and you can get 10x points on it, then it’s worth the effort, no?

To get these bonuses with Chase, sign into your points interface and select ‘shop with Chase’.

I find these bonuses increase around the holidays, so be sure to take a look before making any big purchases! You can find out about them by signing into your rewards program and being on your card’s email list for promotions.

How I've Flown Around the World for Free for a Year
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I hope these tips help you fly internationally, in business class, for free! By spending like you normally do, keeping track of your welcome bonuses and cards, and paying them off in full every month, you can get rewarded big time for just a little bit of extra effort. The freedom this has given me to spend more when I’m on the ground and to keep more money in my bank account has been literally life changing.

And FYI, the links above are affiliate links. If you intend to sign up, please use the links in this post! I’ll happy dance.

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Be My Travel Muse has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Be My Travel Muse and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are my own, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities.

Responses are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.



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