Earning the points you need for that dream vacation might not be as hard as you think if you plan ahead. I think it’s useful, especially to beginners, to provide an example of the cost breakdown of manufactured spending to prove it’s worth, so this post should serve as a manufactured spend example of how to earn enough points for a First Class ticket to Asia.
For the purposes of this example, I’ll be trying to earn AA miles so I can fly on Cathay Pacific’s First Class, which is one of the top First Class products there is in my opinion. I’ll use a popular way of manufactured spending: buying gift cards and then liquidating them using either Bluebird or Money Orders.
How Much I Need to Earn
So how many points do I need to earn to make this redemption possible? According to American Airlines’ Oneworld award chart, I’ll need a total of 135K miles (67.5K each way) to make this trip happen. This will get me to Asia (minus the Middle East/Indian Subcontinent which is considered a different region).
I want to earn American Airlines miles in this example, so I’ll be using either an AA credit card or my SPG Amex card, which can transfer points to AA. The method here is fairly simple, at least if you’re familiar with this sort of “work” already. Simon malls sells gift cards up to $500 for a $3 fee for normal personal/consumer purchases. I’ll buy these gift cards, liquidate them using Bluebird or money orders, pay off my credit card bill, then repeat.
How Much I’ll Need to Buy
As I mentioned earlier, I need 135K miles. Using an AA credit card, that means I’ll need to churn $135K worth of gift cards. It sounds like a lot, but if you handle them in batches of $5k-$10K then it isn’t so bad. Heavy hitters with an established routine easily do $10k/day in a matter of 3 hours or less.
Let’s see the breakdown of spending $135K on $500 gift cards with a $3 fee:
It will cost $810 in fees to buy $135K in gift cards. If using an AA credit card, this will earn you enough points for your round trip First Class ticket. This, however, is not the smartest way to earn these points. As I mentioned at the beginning, planning ahead can make a big difference, and here’s where it comes in. Using your SPG Amex card is a far better value because for every 20K points you transfer from SPG to AA, you get a bonus of 5K.
With the bonuses factored in, you’ll need to spend “only” $110K on your SPG Amex to get the same 135K AA miles. That’s 5 transfers of 20K that turns into 25K miles (so 125K miles total) plus another 10K. Using this method, here’s how much our cost would be. Note that the multiple 5K bonuses have been factored in to the total points earned in the bottom right.
We saved ourselves $150 just by using the correct credit card. You can actually do even better than this if you were smart to be using your SPG Amex all along. AA announced that during July there will be a special bonus – an extra 5K miles for every 20K transferred. That means for every 20K SPG points to AA miles, you’ll get the SPG bonus of 5K miles plus an AA bonus of 5K miles for a total of 30K. Let’s see what the math looks like if we took advantage of that for this example.
With this extra AA bonus, you’ll do 4 transfers of 20K + 10K bonus, which totals 120K miles. Another $15K in spend (for a total spend of $95K) gets you the extra 15K miles, which I’ve added on to the total points earned in the bottom right corner. We saved an additional $90, bringing our cost to $570.
Liquidating the Gift Cards
There could be a cost to liquidate your gift cards as well. If you’re using the Bluebird method, where you load your Bluebird card at Walmart using these PIN-enabled gift cards, then your cost will be $0. Loading this way is free and just requires your time and gas money. If you have friends and family that you can enlist to get more Bluebird cards, this method is the preferred method because there’s no cost. Again…plan ahead.
If you don’t have any friends whose Bluebird cards you can use, then the first thing you need to do is go make some new friends. But otherwise you can use money orders.
Walmart sells money orders extremely cheaply, but if you put in some time to research your local area, you’ll likely find there are many other grocery stores or other establishments that accept debit cards for money orders. Walmart charges $.70 per $1K in money orders. For the purposes of this example, I’m going to use a cost of $1 per $500, which is more in line with what a local store might charge and far exceeds what you’d be charged at Walmart.
The math for this one is easy: just $1 per gift card purchased. Using our primary example of $135K spend on an AA card, that’s an extra $270. If you used an SPG card, it would be another $220. If you happened to be using the SPG card all along and had the points available for the special July AA bonus, it would be another $190.
Again, this is just for illustration. If you’re able to get all your money orders at Walmart, then definitely do that. $135K in Walmart money orders would cost only about $95, which is cheaper than any of the above examples.
We’re using three examples here so I’ll go through each one separately.
1) Spending on an AA card: There’s $810 in gift card fees. If you used Bluebird only, that’s your final cost. If you didn’t, then add $270 in money order fees, for a total of $1,080. You successfully got First Class for cheaper than the price of a round trip economy ticket!
2) Spending on an SPG card: There’s $660 in gift card fees. If you used Bluebird only, that’s your final cost. If you didn’t, then add $220 in money order fees, for a total of $880.
3) Using July’s special AA bonus: There’s $570 in gift card fees. If you used Bluebird only, that’s your final cost. If you didn’t, then add $190 in money order fees, for a total of $760.
I kept this example simple to prove two things: 1) There’s tremendous value to be had by manufacturing spend. You can easily pay less than the price of Economy for First Class; 2) Some blogs make it sound free, but there’s still a very real cost to manufactured spending this way. It’s not always easy to see, so breaking it out like I did above hopefully helps see those costs.
Note that the mall gift cards are actually only $2.95 per $500, so you can do this even cheaper. Also, if you really know what you’re doing you can get that fee down to $2.50 or less (maybe even $0).
I also didn’t mention the cost of gas or your time. Remember – if you’re just starting, start with small numbers until you figure it out. Once you build your routine, you can do much larger numbers relatively quickly and easily. Your premium cabin travel really isn’t that expensive if you plan ahead.