I'm on record as not loving American Airlines or their loyalty program. I mean, both are fine, but I can't imagine being "loyal" to American Airlines out of anything deeper than geographical convenience. I've had decent flights on American, and I've made decent redemptions through AAdvantage -- nothing in either direction has ever blown my socks off, but I think that's about par for the course with US carriers. I've also (lately) found American to be a lot better about releasing award space than United, whose lack of availability on their own flights is downright insulting, and Delta, whose pricing gets more and more egregious with each passing week. Still, while I'd never considered buying AAdvantage miles even on sale, Barclay's new Flight Cents program provided too good of a deal to pass up. It's a basic round-up program, except (like with most round-up programs), the whole rounding up process is a ruse designed to trick you into spreading a one-time purchase out over hundreds of little purchases. In theory, Barclay rounds every purchase up to the next dollar and then gives you one mile per each cent added on to the total. That way, you don't notice that you're spending $100 at the end of every month on 10,000 miles... except that that's exactly what you're doing.
When I first wrote about the program, I went through some potential ways to maximize the earnings, since it isn't as easy as all the "Earn 300,000 AAdvantage miles for only $3000!!!!" headlines seemed to suggest when the program was first launched. After all, you'd have to spend a lot of money on the card to round up enough cents to get to 300,000 miles (that's 50,000 miles for six months, which represents the monthly cap and the length of the pilot program, respectively).
My original plan was just to set an auto-reload on my Amazon account for $1.01 each day, which would get me around 3000 miles per months. However, the more I thought about it, I wanted to earn more. After all, I consider it an uncommonly good deal, and I rarely purchase miles/points outright. (The last time I did so, it was to take advantage of a 50% bonus on SPG points, which I then transferred to Virgin America and then Alaska - another uncommonly good deal.)
While cash is always better than points, I'm reasonably confident I'll be able to use these points for much more than the purchase value. At 1 cent per point, you can fly in business class from SFO to JFK for $325, or first class for $500. SFO to Chicago in first class is $250. US to Europe in business class is $575 (provided, of course, that you can find non British Airways awards and avoid the fuel surcharges). Each of those represents a substantial discount over even the lowest cash rates I've ever found on those flights. Even for BA first class with fuel surcharges, you're looking at around $1350 one way, which is about on par with what most travel blogs consider a great deal (except of course you wouldn't earn any miles). But the point is that even if you used your Flight Cents miles this way, you'd still get a pretty good deal.
So, now that my motivation was sufficiently stoked, I needed to figure out how to boost my mileage earning. The answer will be obvious to anyone who uses Amazon reloads regularly, which is to manually make several $1.01 reloads every day. Amazon makes it super easy - it takes less than 5 minutes to do 10-15 reloads. Now, I had assumed that Barclay would either process a bunch of $1.01 purchases on the same day as a single transaction, or failing that, that the Flight Cents program would pretty easily detect this type of gaming and disallow the earnings. Happily, neither of those things turned out to be the case, and I was off to the races.
I could have gone crazy and tried to earn the maximum each month, but despite how good of a deal those miles are, I don't have a spare $500 per month to spend on this kind of thing. However, $100 per month for 10,000 miles over the six-month trial seemed like a reasonable expenditure, so that was my goal. The only hitch is that my card's annual fee came due at the end of December, meaning I would have to factor the fee into whatever miles I ended up buying through the program... or just cancel the card, which was my actual plan, since I hadn't used it after the single purchase that was required to earn the bonus ($1.50 at a parking meter in Berkeley).
I thought maybe earning a retention bonus would ease the sting of the annual fee, so I called Barclaycard yesterday to see what I could get. Naturally, I had to explain why I had barely used the card, although the rep I spoke to didn't ask me about the hundreds of $1.01 Amazon purchases at all (thankfully). I went through the standard churner spiel, at which point he flat out asked me if I had only opened the card for the bonus with no intention of ever using it. I said yes in a roundabout way that took my listener across the country to O'hare, where I saw an ad for the card that initially piqued my interest (not true), and so I decided to open the card and give American Airlines another chance (also not true), although I was admittedly motivated by the bonus (definitely true).
Finally, after some back-and-forth made slightly comical by the fact that the guy had the hiccups really bad, he offered me 5000 miles for $1000 in purchases over 3 months. I took it, which means that by the end of Flight Cents (assuming I continue at my current pace with the Amazon reloads), I will have earned 66,000 miles for a cost of $695 or 1.05 cents per mile.
That's not the total cost, of course, since there's an opportunity to the cost of those Amazon reloads. Let's say that instead of $600 in Amazon credit via reloads, I had purchased a $600 gift card with my Chase Ink, which would have given me 3000 points. If we're being extremely generous, let's say that those 3000 points are worth four cents each, since that's about average for a longhaul business class redemption. That means I have to tack another $120 onto the cost, which brings the net cost per mile up to 1.2 cents per mile.
That's actually not that much better than when American runs mileage purchase bonuses, although those bonuses usually require you to spend thousands of dollars to get the best value, whereas Flight Cents offers an even better value with a much smaller cash outlay required. (There's the time involved in doing the actual reloads, but my time is worthless, so that's fine.)
In the end, I'm curious to see what becomes of Flight Cents after the trial. It would be cool if they kept it around for good, but I have to imagine that they'll introduce some sort of daily cap or other method designed to keep the program to being gamed so aggressively. Or maybe they don't care, since they're earning swipe fees on each of those reloads, and I'm using the card instead of burying it in my credit card binder. I'm curious to hear others' experience with Flight Cents. Have you been earning tons of AAdvantage miles, or have you mostly ignored it?
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