This is a guest post from April Dykman, an avid GRS reader, and a writer and editor by trade. April is a potential Staff Writer for Get Rich Slowly. In her first article, April described how she discovered freedom from mindless spending. April is an active commenter at this site.

When my husband and I went to Italy in 2006, we spent $2500 on plane tickets. We’re planning to spend much less for our next hop across the pond because as of this month we have over 80,000 airline miles — just enough for two tickets to Europe.

I used to think frequent flier miles were only awarded to, you know, frequent fliers. Or people who use an American Express for big company expenses. I certainly didn’t think little ol’ me who gets on a plane maybe once a year would be able to rack up enough miles to matter.

Then I stumbled upon Free Frequent Flyer Miles, a guide written by Gary Steiger, air-mileage earner extraordinaire. I couldn’t believe there were so many ways to earn miles. Soon after, I learned about sites that offer quarterly cash rebates. From these two discoveries, my online buying process developed.

Rewards card
We started by applying for an air rewards card and received 30,000 miles for opening the account. My husband and I put every possible expense on this card — even our electric bill. The card earns one mile per dollar spent.

Warning: Super important disclaimer ahead. If you do not pay the balance every month, rewards cards are not for you. There are lower interest credit cards and the interest charges on a rewards card will kill any travel benefits. Our card has a higher rate than our non-reward cards, but we never pay one cent of interest. We also pay a $50 annual fee, which doesn’t bother me considering the savings we’ll get on plane tickets. In short, read the fine print.

Airline shopping malls and rebate sites
I would never buy something merely to earn rewards. But we all buy stuff at some point, and there are benefits to be gained by shopping online. Let’s say I need to stock up on some household items like detergent and dish soap. This is the process I use:

  1. Google the items. Note the names of the merchants offering the three best prices (include shipping charges).
  2. Check the airline malls and rebate sites. I use AAdvantage eShopping and Ebates. In my example, drugstore.com participates in both programs and offers free shipping for orders over $49. Let’s say my merchandise total comes to $55.
  3. Search for coupons. Typically I Google the merchant name and “coupon” or “code.” I found a $10 coupon code for drugstore.com.
  4. Log into Ebates or rebate site of your choice. Click on the merchant name, and a new window will open. (Ebates offers 6 percent back on drugstore.com purchases.)
  5. Log into AAdvantage eShopping or airline shopping portal of your choice. Click on the merchant name, and a new window will open. (AAdvantage offers three miles for every dollar spent at drugstore.com.)
  6. Using the last window to open, select your items. I always log into AA last and purchase from the AA window to ensure I’ll receive my miles. Sometimes the registration tracking to AA can be overwritten if you click to another affiliate, though I’ve always received both the rebate and the miles.
  7. Go to the checkout screen, and enter your coupon code.
  8. Complete purchase with a rewards card.
  9. Follow up to ensure you receive your rewards. It can take up to 60 days for air miles to be credited.

This process takes me maybe 10 minutes. Using my example, I’ve paid about $45 for $55 of merchandise. I will get $2.70 in cash rebates and 180 air miles (135 miles from the airline shopping portal and 45 miles for paying with my rewards card). No purchase is too small — the rewards will add up quickly.

More tips

  • Sign up for mailing lists for sites you frequent. Often subscribers are privy to special discounts.
  • Try out a site like wishlisting.com, which allows you to bookmark items and alerts you when they go on sale.
  • Stock up on products you know you’ll use if a bigger order means free shipping. I buy three bottles of dishwashing liquid per order, or more if it’s on sale.
  • Spend time perusing lists of participating vendors — you might be surprised. When we installed new floors, we bought materials from a store in town, only to discover that we could have bought our supplies online from the same merchant and earned 2,000 miles. (Yes, just to torture myself, I did the math.)
  • Look for rewards on subscription services. A new Netflix account awarded us 1,500 miles.
  • If you buy gift cards, see if the merchant participates in rewards programs. (Be sure to check the merchant exclusions. Some give credit for gift cards purchased, others for gift card money redeemed.)
  • Watch prices on items you buy. If you can find something cheaper in a store, weigh the savings versus the rewards.

Diversify
The next thing we need to do is to diversify. Right now we only have miles with one airline. Since the company can change its rewards program at any time, we’d be much better off if we stockpiled miles from several airlines. According to Gary Steiger’s site, he has nine airline accounts!

I encourage anyone who shops online to make the most of every dollar. Memberships to most reward programs are free. For very little effort, I’ve received $160 in cash and earned enough miles for roundtrip tickets to Europe. Even with the fees and taxes, we’ll pay much less for plane tickets than we would without the miles.

What about you? Do you participate in rewards or rebates programs? Which are your favorites?

Photos by Andres Rueda.

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