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Here’s Where My Miles Come From

People often ask me how on earth it is that I can get my hands on such a large stash of miles and points. Truth be told, it really isn’t anything mind-blowing, so I thought I’d share the details…


The Short Version

The short version is that credit card sign-up bonuses are the single-biggest contributor, often by a pretty wide margin. But I also earn a lot of points / miles the old fashioned way (i.e. by actually traveling). I’m lucky that much of that travel is for reimbursable work trips, so it doesn’t it doesn’t actually take that big of a bite out of my personal wallet.


The Longer Version


Credit Card Sign-up Bonuses

As I said, credit card sign-up bonuses provide the largest share of my points in a given year. In a typical year, I collect about ~300,000 points / miles from credit card sign-up bonuses. That’s usually the product of ~6 new cards with a sign-up bonus of ~50,000 points / miles each. Sometimes it’s more cards, sometimes the average bonus is a bit bigger (the 100,000 BA Visa bonus and 2 x 75,000 Citi AA bonuses from previous years are great examples), so a “big year” in credit card sign-up bonuses for me is more like ~500,000.


I also earn a pretty substantial amount of assorted miles and points by actually traveling! A typical year for me is in the range of ~75,000 “revenue” miles in the air, and ~50 “revenue” nights in hotels (i.e. not counting award redemptions). The vast majority of those miles are on United (or Star Alliance partners that let me credit to United), and the vast majority of those nights are in Starwood hotels. With a 75% bonus for maintaining Platinum status, that translates to ~131,250 miles from flights. I estimate my average daily hotel costs (including room rate, meals, and incidentals) at about $200/night. As a Starwood elite I earn 3 points / $ spent – but for the purposes of this estimate I’m going to call it 5 points / $ spent to take into account quarterly promotions and the fact that I do have some nights at Hilton or Marriott where the earn / $ spent is much higher. 50 nights X $200 / night X 5 points / $ = 50,000 points from hotel stays. In a big year like last year, those totals can rise considerably. Last year I flew about 125,000 “revenue” miles, and had about 75 “revenue” nights in hotels. Taking into account the 100% bonus for being 1K on United, that works out to ~250,000 miles from flights and ~75,000 points from hotel stays. I could certainly earn more hotel points if my preferred chain was Marriott or Hilton – but each of those points isn’t worth nearly as much a single Starwood point. View From the Wing notes that Starwood is actually one of the worst programs out there in terms of earn rate, which is true - but I really like their hotels and their program for a variety of other reasons.

Last year was a busy one for traveling

Last year was a busy one for traveling

Credit Card Spend

Most of my travel is for work purposes, and from a points-earning perspective I’m fortunate to have some pretty significant reimbursable work expenses. Based on the past few years and looking forward to my anticipated travel schedule, I probably average about $40,000 per year in reimbursable work expenses. The vast majority of that is flights, hotels, and meals so I would estimate that I average about 2 points for every dollar spent. That works out to ~80,000 points / miles from reimbursable work spend in a typical year. NYC is an expensive place to live, so my personal expenses aren’t insignificant either. Travel and meals are my biggest categories for personal spend as well, but of course there’s groceries, utilities, gifts, etc, etc, etc. All told, I estimate my personal expenses that can go on a credit card at about $25,000 per year. At an average of 2 points for every dollar spent, that works out to ~50,000 points / miles from personal credit card spend. Of course, in a heavy travel year (like last year), the work figure can go up a good bit. Last year was more like $50,000 in reimbursable work expenses, which works out to ~100,000 points / miles.

Other Bonuses

The last category I’ll call “Other Bonuses” and includes things like making everyday purchases through shopping portals, picking up a handful of points here and there for silly promotions on Facebook, and targeted promotions on credit cards (e.g. get 5 points per dollar on every dollar spent at grocery stores) . It’s hard to recount all these bits and pieces, but my best estimate is that I pick up ~25,000 points / miles from other bonuses in a typical year.


Adding it All Up

Add those all up and it works out to somewhere between 600,000-650,000 assorted points / miles in a typical year. Depending on my travel patterns that figure can get as high as 800,000-1,000,000 assorted points / miles. You’ll notice that this figure doesn’t include any “manufactured spend”. I know that’s a big part of how others play this game, but it just isn’t for me (as I outlined a few weeks ago).

Here’s how my total breaks down, first in a “typical year”:

My points earning mix in a typical year

My points earning mix in a typical year

And here’s roughly what it looks like in a “heavy travel year” like last year (the only categories that went up in absolute terms are flights, hotels, and reimbursable work spend):

My points earning mix in a heavy travel year

My points earning mix in a heavy travel year


Significant Others Mean Significantly More Points

All of the figures above reflect my own earnings. My beautiful wife brings in another ~300,000 or so herself, which means our total household haul is just shy of 1,000,000 in a typical year. Not bad :)

Together, we have almost 60 unique loyalty program accounts. That’s a nightmare to try to keep track of, to say the least. I use AwardWallet (my referral link) to monitor our balances and expiration dates. The free version is great, but I use the “Plus” version which allows the tracking of expiration dates for unlimited programs (among other benefits).

AwardWallet is one of my favorite frequent flyer tools

AwardWallet is one of my favorite frequent flyer tools


Where do you get your points and miles from? How much of them come from these (or other) types of activities?

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