For those with caviar travel aspirations and a fishsticks budget, jetting to exotic destinations may be possible only by accumulating airline miles rather than laying out cash. But you can pad your frequent flyer account with your feet on the ground and no extra spending — sometimes in unusual ways.
All you need to get started is a frequent flyer account with your favorite airline, which is free.
Aside from flying the airline and spending big bucks on premium seats, the most obvious way to painlessly add miles to your account is to use a travel credit card, whether a specific airline co-branded card or a general travel card that allows you to transfer points to airline mile programs.
Spend enough to earn the sign-up bonus — which will typically buy a free domestic flight — and then use the card for everyday spending, earning miles along the way. American Airlines and United Airlines recently added bonus categories that make a couple of their co-branded cards more attractive for everyday spending, offering double points on certain categories, such as restaurants. Be aware that travel cards might have an annual fee and could require excellent credit for approval.
Aside from credit cards, log on to your preferred airline’s website and note all the different ways you can earn miles, typically through partnership deals with other retailers and travel vendors. Here is a sampling of methods to add miles to your frequent flyer account.
1. Airline online bonus mall. When you shop through an airline’s online shopping portal, you can earn miles based on your usual spending habits. You essentially enter through a different door, instead of going directly to the retailer’s website. Some airlines list hundreds of retail partners, including mainstream ones like Macy’s, Home Depot and Dick’s Sporting Goods. JetBlue Airways’ program gives miles for in-flight Amazon purchases.
2. Dining rewards. Many airlines offer a dining program in which you register a credit card — any card, not only the airline card. Then, every time you use that card at a participating restaurant, you’ll earn miles for your spending — for example, up to 5 miles per dollar spent with United’s program. The offer might extend to thousands of restaurants, bars and pubs.
3. Hotel. Book hotel stays at major chains through your airline account and you can earn miles, either based on your spending or a flat number of miles per night. Delta Air Lines, for example, also lets you earn miles when booking Airbnb stays.
4. Car rental. Airlines often have deals with car-rental agencies to earn miles by booking through your airline account. Check for other transportation options, too, like Amtrak rail, shuttles and car services. Delta Air Lines includes Lyft.
5. Financial partners. Earn miles when doing business with lending and insurance partners, among others. United Airlines recently gave miles for using a currency exchange company.
6. Household services. Earn miles on Southwest Airlines for choosing a partner home electricity supplier in certain states. Alaska Airlines has offered promotions of miles for installing solar panels, using a pet-sitting service or buying wine.
7. Opinion surveys. Give your two cents and get miles with several carriers. Spirit Airlines even gives a chance to earn miles for playing online games.
8. Loyalty bonuses. Alaska Airlines, for example, offers 5,000 bonus miles for each friend or family member approved for an Alaska Airlines consumer credit card. JetBlue allows you to earn “badges” for loyalty and engagement with the company, such as sharing a social media post.
9. Convert rewards currency. Other loyalty programs may allow you to convert their points into miles. Several travel credit cards permit this. Diners Club cardholders can convert points to Southwest’s Rapid Rewards points.
Using these ideas has a potentially huge side benefit for preserving your hard-earned miles: It likely counts as activity in your frequent flyer account. That means it resets the clock on your miles expiring because of inactivity. Check with your airline to make sure.
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Gregory Karp is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @spendingsmart. NerdWallet is a USA TODAY content partner providing general news, commentary and coverage from around the web. Its content is produced independently of USA TODAY.