How to Score Free Travel: Beating the Airlines at the Frequent Flyer Game

Lufthansa A380 Cabin
Today’s guest post is by airline loyalty program expert, Seth Miller. Seth was good enough to share with us some of his tricks in not only earning more airline miles, but actually redeeming them for amazing trips.

So you like to travel. Wouldn’t it be better if you were traveling more and paying less money to do so? Of course it would. Welcome to the world of airline loyalty programs or, as I like to refer to it, my terrible obsession with points and miles.

Loyalty points programs have become pervasive in society these days but it all started 30 years ago with American Airlines and their AAdvantage program. In the years since, the rules have changed and the programs have become significantly more complex, but there are still tremendous opportunities out there if you know where to look. Consider this a primer on getting the most points – and, more importantly, the easiest redemptions – for minimal cost.

Trade your credit score for big rewards
So you’ve got a decent credit score and you’re not carrying a balance on any of your cards, right? (If not, stop now, pay off your bills and come back later. Seriously.) Excellent. Now is the time to trade some of that excellent credit for the miles you need in order to travel in style. Applying for a new credit card will ding your credit score a few points here and there, so be forewarned.

Doing it a half dozen times in a year will knock you down a bit. But unless you’re applying for a mortgage or otherwise need to have perfect credit instead of just really, really good credit the impact is negligible. And the up-side is HUGE.

Depending on the airline and the credit card company the offers range from 25,000 points up to 100,000 points just for signing up and spending a bit of cash on the card. The spend thresholds are usually reasonable (although not always) and the annual fees are usually low enough (and often waived in the first year) to make it an easy way to accumulate a lot of miles quickly.

British Airways recently was offering 100,000 miles for signing up with their card and spending $2,500 in a couple months. Piece of cake and those points are worth WAY more than the hit on your credit and the annual fee.

So credit card enrollment bonuses are great, but it is also important to be careful to not sign up too quickly for all of them. For one thing, you are more likely to be denied if you sign up for too many too fast. And the points will often expire without activity on the account so it is good to have a trip in mind before signing up. Finally, most of the enrollment bonus miles are a one-time deal so do not expect to ride this gravy train forever.

Even with the limitations that the credit card approach offers, the huge bonus miles credits are well worth it. Keep an eye on the deals that are out there, pick a card or two and sign up. Once you’ve got the points in your account it is time to plan that trip.

Know you partners
On a recent trip from San Francisco to Frankfurt I was seated next to a lovely young woman and I started to explain my mileage obsession to her (she asked, really!). She got to talking about how hard it was to accrue enough miles for a redemption and how the programs made it so difficult. On the surface that is certainly true, but nearly every airline has partners that significantly ease the burden.

The flight we were on happened to be a Lufthansa trip. She mentioned that she normally flies on United Airlines but this time she opened a new account with the Lufthansa Miles & More program to accrue miles on this trip. Big mistake. It turns out that Lufthansa and United are partners (along with 25 other airlines in Star Alliance so the flight could be credited to her United account even though we were not flying on United. The other global alliances – SkyTeam and OneWorld have similar arrangements amongst their partners and other airlines may not be in the alliances but often still have partnerships with other programs.

From a practical perspective this means you should avoid earning in multiple programs within the same alliance. As you’ll read below, the best value comes from having as many points as possible in a single place. This is probably the most common mistake folks make as they accrue miles and one that is incredibly easy to avoid.



More points are worth more

This isn’t nearly as silly as it sounds at first read. Of course having more points is better than not having more points, but the effects of accumulating the points are magnified as the account balances rise – to a point. Having 10,000 miles in each of three programs is pretty much worthless; having 30,000 in a single program is real value. And getting that balance up over 100,000 points can lead to some incredible opportunities.

Redeeming 25,000 points for a domestic award ticket is not often a great deal, though there are certainly a few routes that are more valuable for such awards than not. But the value of the points you’re redeeming is likely pretty low. Redeeming 50,000 points for a trip to Europe in the summer when airfares are often much closer to $1,000 than to $500 is a pretty solid return on that accrual investment. If you can get to 100,000 points and redeem for a business class ticket instead the value proposition starts to shift dramatically.

It is quite unlikely that you’re actually going to pay the $7,000-$10,000 fare for that business class award with a couple stops in Europe or Asia, but if you’ve got the 100,000 or so points that it costs to redeem for that luxury, go for it! This is, without a doubt, one of those things that everyone should aim to experience at some point in their life and thanks to the frequent flyer programs it isn’t all that difficult. In the past year I’ve flown in first or business class on long-haul flights on Lufthansa, Swiss, Continental, Virgin Atlantic, Copa and probably a few more. It is, quite simply, a better way to fly.

If you’re accruing miles fast enough, then start thinking bigger about your award trips. Start to look not just at where you want to go but also look at which big, comfy seat in which you want to make the trip.

Creativity is key to redemption

Do not trust the airline websites or even necessarily the phone agents when it comes time to redeem your miles. They aren’t nearly as creative as you are and their systems are built to work against you. There are certain scenarios where they work well, but that isn’t the default. I’ve redeemed nearly 3 million miles in the past three years and almost none of it came from just one search on line.

For starters, it is important to leverage the alliances for redemption, just like for earning as discussed above. It is possible to use points accrued in the Delta SkyMiles program to redeem for a flight on Vietnam Airlines, for example. Or on Air France, or KLM, or Tarom or a number of other SkyTeam partners. These partnerships are especially useful when it comes to travel across the Atlantic ocean, with all three alliance having multiple partners on both sides of the ocean. Sure, it may mean an extra connection as you travel, but the flexibility of the partner route networks mean that you’re much more likely to find available seats.

Lufthansa A380

“No” all the time

Some of the best online resources for seeking out award seats include Aeroplan.com, Continental.com, ANA.co.jp (probably the gold standard in Star Alliance, but also the hardest to use), Qantas.com.au and, for some of the more obscure SkyTeam programs, a resource I built.

If you’re still struggling to find the award seats you want there are a number of mileage junkies out there who know these programs inside and out and who are willing to sell you their services for booking award flights. Gary Leff is one of the more widely acclaimed sources but there are many others (self included) and a range of price points for the services offered. Do not be afraid to engage in a dialog with some of these folks and see if they can help you get some value from the points you have.

Get earning and get flying
It isn’t quite as easy as simply signing up for a bunch of credit cards and then flying for free, but it is quite close to that. With a little bit of focus on how the loyalty programs work, particularly with the partnerships out there, redeeming points for award tickets can actually be rather easy and, dare I say it, a fun experience. Besides, once you actually get out there and take the trips, the small investment of time to earn the points and learn the programs is absolutely worth it. I’m traveling more than ever these days and paying less for each trip, all thanks to points.

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By: Seth Miller

Seth Miller is an aerophile and a wanderlust. No trip is too short or too long and no destination too near or too far. In addition to closely following the travel loyalty program industry, Seth works to help educate others on the opportunities these programs offer in a number of online travel communities and writes about his travels in his blog, The Wandering Aramean .

10 Responses

  1. Peter West Carey

    One warning about the glitter on that British Airways offer. I took and and just about have the 100,000 miles. Great! I look to book a trip to Europe for me and my daughter at 50,000 miles each. Great! Go to check out…..$1100 more, please.

    What? What happened to a free flight for those miles? $589 in fees and surcharges ($404 of which is a fuel surcharge).

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      I’m not the author, but I’ll speak from my own experience – you’re right. There’s ultimately no such thing as a free ride, but using miles effectively does mean an excellent discount usually. I redeemed miles a few years ago for 2 biz class tickets to Bangkok, retail value almost $12,000 and I paid less than $1,000. So while not completely free, especially considering what it took to get those miles, it is a very nice perk.

      Reply
  2. Bryan Snider

    Matt,

    I came across an offer a few weeks ago that can get you a fast track to Star Alliance Silver and Gold Status…. It appears to still be in effect. Aegean Air out of Greece just joind the Star Alliance and will give you blue (Star Alliance Silver) after 4,000 miles and Gold (Star Alliace Gold) after 16,000.

    For those who live in the United States you could easily use your new Aegean frequent flyer card for flights on United, and US Airways. After a few coast to coast flights your Golden 🙂

    http://en.aegeanair.com/milesandbonus/program-description/benefits/gold-card-privileges/

    Reply
  3. Lash

    Hi Matt and Seth,

    Thanks so much for the tips!
    I’m probably the absolute worst traveler for taking advantage of air points! I’ve been traveling continuously for 12 years and before that frequently for 8 years. EVery year I do at least 4 international flights. But I’ve never ever been able to get any air points to redeem! I look at other friends/ travelers I know who do redeem flight miles with puzzlement and envy! HOw the heck?!

    I did eventually start at least joining the flight programs. And trying to remember to mention them at check in. (not too successfully) and trying to accumulater points… but never got far enough to redeem alllll my international flight miles. disgusting I must say!

    Based on this aritcle-
    For me, checking into the partnership programs, knowing which airlines are in one group, and paying attention when I book flights, check in , etc will be a good start for me!

    Thanks for the tips and encouragement! cheers, Lash

    Reply
  4. Sonja

    The most frequent problem I’ve found when using miles (and I don’t fly without them) is availability of seating, even when I book 6-7 months in advance. It’s not black-out dates, it’s just the airlines’ limited number of frequent flyer seats available on each flight. The dates I want always seem to be already “sold out.” I’m thinking I should book soon for summer 2012!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      I just booked 2 biz class seats to SE Asia for April 2012 using miles, as soon as they were available for booking I called. I didn’t get the exact routing/flights I wanted, but I’m getting there and in the class of service I wanted.

      Reply
  5. Joe Sylvester

    Planning is my nemesis, I accrue miles and the few seats designated for frequent fliers are never available to someone like me who books 2 months in advance. I usually use them for upgrades.
    Thanks for the tips and I may hire one of these experts in the future

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Ah there’s no need to hire! (although maybe I should consider a new career path) But you’re right, advanced planning is key. I’ve been very successful getting amazing award seats, but I’m on the phone 300 days in advance.

      Reply
  6. Pam Sender

    I have been successful at this. I got 4 tickets to Hawaii for a family vacation. We went in December but the week before school break. I also booked 3 tickets to Israel, had to pay for the fourth because they decided to Israel into the Indian subcontinent just before booking. I also booked those seats 9 months before traveling. I usually find a cheap fare and pay for domestic travel. I would like to explore ideas other than the credit card to boost our points for another vacation this year. When the transportation is free or cheap, we have more money to spend on other things.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      That’s great Pam and you’re right, an amazing trip is suddenly within reach when we can use miles.

      Reply

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