How I Earned a Million Airline Miles (and other confessions)

AirMilesAmsterdam Window

Photography by D. Plasman

I didn’t wake up one morning and commit to the discipline, as a weekend jogger might respond to an inner longing to train for a full marathon. I’m also aware that earning a million airline miles didn’t just happen. Somewhere along the way, I became a willing participant.

I am not a business traveler. I don’t fly once a week, or even once a month. More like two or three times a year. Most of the flights are domestic: An upcoming flight from Grand Rapids (GRR in airport code) to Jacksonville (JAX) to participate in my niece’s wedding. Last January, a trip to Seattle (SEA) with Jody—Amazon, by the way, is taking over the city. We’ve used airlines miles to fly to New Orleans (MSY) to help residents rebuild their post-Katrina homes.

In recent years, we flew to Rome (FCO) via Frankfurt (FRA) and to Delhi (DEL) via Amsterdam (AMS). Hopefully, later this year, to London (LHR) or Dublin (DUB). All free, save for a modest surcharge.

Only a small fraction of these airline miles accumulated through actual miles traveled; the vast majority came from sign-up bonuses offered through credit cards. I confess: I love it when Chase, Citi, and Barclay banks pay for my airline tickets, as they have for the last five years.

The credit card currently in my wallet is a Chase Sapphire VISA. It came with a generous offer: $3,000 spent in the first three months will earn 50,000 airline points that can be used with United or Southwest—almost enough points for two, domestic roundtrip tickets. The card comes with a hefty $95 annual fee, which is waived the first year. Another confession: I always cancel a card before the one-year anniversary to avoid the second-year fees. The banks never seem to mind these cancellations (customer service reps always wish me well), and the airline miles remain active. Do this with two, three, or six cards and suddenly one has a quarter of a million airline miles.

I’m not an airline miles evangelist on the hunt for converts. This credit-cards-for-airline-miles tactic is not for everyone. Good credit history is a must, so is the discipline of paying off the monthly balance. If I were planning to re-finance my mortgage within the next three years, I wouldn’t be doing this, even though my credit score hasn’t been negatively affected. That said, if your interest is piqued, check out: or

Travel guru Rick Steves (a devout Lutheran) once wrote. “Globetrotting destroys ethnocentricity. It helps you understand and appreciate different cultures. Travel changes people. It broadens perspectives and teaches new ways to measure the quality of life. Many travelers toss aside their hometown blinders. Their prized souvenirs are the strands of different cultures they decide to knit into their own character.” There’s Gospel in those words!

The writer of the book of Hebrews—a travel enthusiast, I suspect—exalts Abraham and Sarah as the ultimate home-leavers who obeyed the travel urge “by heading to a place where they were to receive a blessing, not knowing where they were going.”

If you have the urge to fly to a place, why not get there as cheaply as you can? Maybe even free.

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  1. Jody May 11, 2015 at 2:06 pm #

    My hero!!

  2. Rosanne May 11, 2015 at 2:17 pm #

    Well done!

  3. Nika May 11, 2015 at 7:32 pm #

    My hero on a number of occasions as well! I wouldn’t be able to drive 14+ hours with 3 kiddos without my mom flying to my home (wherever that may be at the time) to drive me back with her! So greatfull for this skill that you posses Dan!

  4. Judy Atwater May 16, 2015 at 7:45 am #

    I really appreciate this Dan. I was renewed and inspired by a simple six days away from Elkhart recently. No flying on airlines involved but my soul was soaring. Douglas and I spent three days in Nashville with a different routine, playing and listening to the younger members of family, a different style of church and worship, romping with a precious Greyhound named Minnie, walking, conversing with “strangers”…not to mention the spontaneous stroll through music row. The highlight was my first experience and taste of the great Smokey Mountains outside of Knoxville. I was overwhelmed by the corridor of spring and reminded of former mountain adventures in Switzerland, Colorado, and our beloved Sierra Nevada’s in California. Precious, life-changing travels that I hadn’t revisited for too long. People and places that have shaped me. I wish I could think of what Annie Dillard says about this happening in your “own backyard”.