Everyone wants to travel the world.
Almost every answer to my last question involved travel in one way or another. So I thought I would share the method that I use to continue scoring free flights. It’s not hard, you just have to hack the system a little bit.
Depending on your destination, the accommodations and daily living available will range from affordable to high class luxury. Airline flights are much less forgiving. If you haven’t already ruined your credit during college to pay for Spring break trips and cases of Busch Light you should consider getting a credit card with a sweet deal to maximize your airline miles or points.
Forget those ZERO APR, INSTANT APPROVAL, FREE DOG offers that you get in the mail. There are actually a lot of great credit cards out there that can help book you a free round trip flight anywhere in the world.
Getting To Know The Airline Alliances
Essentially there are three Air Alliances: One World, Sky and Skyteam. Having a credit card with one airline earns you miles towards each one in the alliance. So for example, I can use my AA miles towards any Cathay Pacific flight or British Airways flight.
The three alliances a few of their member airlines.
- Oneworld: American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Iberia, LAN and Qantas.
- Star Alliance: Continental, United Airlines, US Airways, Air Canada, Lufthansa, Swiss and Air New Zealand.
- Skyteam: Aeroflo, Delta, Air France and KLM.
The strategy here is to sign up for an account at one airline on each of the alliances and putting all of your miles into that fund. This way it’s easy to manage the number of miles you have for each alliance and don’t run into the problem where they are non transferrable. I have frequent flyer accounts with American Airlines (Oneworld), United Airlines (Star Alliance) and Delta (Skyteam).
Note: You should get into the habit of signing up for the rewards or loyalty programs wherever they are offered (flights, hotels, rentals). While you may not travel that often now, chances are this will increase in the future and you can begin working towards free perks and upgrades. I recommend tracking your reward points in a Google Doc like this one by Flyalog, so you can easily update it wherever you are.
You’re Going to Spend The Money Anyway
Most of the airline or travel based credit cards are going to include some sort of minimum spent stipulation. You have to spend $3,000 in the first six months if you want the additional 20,000 miles award. While this might be a cause hesitation for some, it’s relatively easy to spend the amount in the given time period.
Spend the minimum, pay it off every month and make the system work for you. Not the other way around.
The trick is to lock your debit card away and use the credit card for everything that you normally spend money on. Instead of giving your roommate cash for the utilities put all of the payments on your credit card for a few months. Get creative, you can do it.
Just don’t go into it thinking, “Wow, this is my first credit card and I need to spend $4,000, it’s time to head to Nordstrom.”
The Best Credit Cards for Traveling
- Points: Specific to a certain credit card.
- Miles: Specific to a certain airline.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card comes with 40,000 points that can be transferred 1:1 to United Airlines, Hyatt and a few other partners. The annual fee is waived for the first year and you are awarded double points for any travel expenses charged to the card. You receive the 40,000 points after a minimum spend of $3,000 in the first three months.
The American Airlines Citi Select Visa Card gives you 30,000 miles after a minimum spend of $1,000 in the first three months and the annual fee of $95 is waived for the first year. Because this is an airline specific card, you get your first bag checked free (a great perk) and priority boarding for all American Airline flights. Each year you also get $100 in free flight credit if you renew the card.
If you’re credit worthy, you can apply for up to four American Airlines Citi Cards that can be redeemed for a maximum of 120,000 miles. That’s 120,000 miles for spending money as you normally would.
Not everyone will be applicable for the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express, but if you have an established credit history then this is your best option. With the Starwood AMEX, you are able to convert your points into miles at any airline with a 25% bonus. So 10,000 points is equal to 15,000 miles on any airline. The only downside to this card is in order to get your 25,000 points, the minimum spend is $5,000 in the first six months.
How To Read The OneWorld Redemption Chart
The chart may be daunting at first, but it’s actually fairly easy to navigate. I highlighted all of the flights originating from North America for you, so it’s easy to see how many miles a flight to Europe will cost you one way. You should never redeem your miles for a domestic flight, it’s a complete waste.After you decide on your destination, you’ll need to see how many points you need to make the trip. For economy class there are three different award types **MileSAAver Off-peak**, **MileSAAver Peak** and **Anytime**. Each requires a different level of miles which depends on when you schedule your flight. MileSAAver flights are only redeemable during the off-peak season. The only difference between Off-peak and Peak is usually choosing between arriving on a Thursday or a Friday.
OneWorld Alliance Economy Off-peak Dates:
- Hawaii: Jan. 12 – Mar. 8; Aug. 22 – Dec. 15
- The Caribbean and Mexico: Sep. 7 – Nov. 14
- Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela: Jan. 16 – Jun. 14; Sep. 7 – Nov. 14
- Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay: Mar. 1 – May 31; Aug. 16 – Nov. 30
- Europe: Oct. 15 – May 15
- Japan: Oct. 1 – Apr. 30
Flying during off-peak dates is the best way to maximize your airline miles. You can usually get a round trip ticket anywhere in the world during off-peak for the same price as one during the regular season.
Note: Flights redeemed with miles can only be paid for with miles. If you are short 25 miles from getting a free flight, you need those additional miles. Instead of buying them, most airlines and credit card companies offer opportunities like surveys to earn free miles.
The Strategy Step by Step
- Sign up for a travel credit card
- Earn the rewards
- Decide on your destination
- Look at off-peak times to fly
- Book it, go and never look back
Advanced Travel Hacking
I’m learning more about this topic and will post updates on in the future. Advanced travel hacking usually involves transferring balances or using limited time offers to maximize points. You should consider signing up for my newsletter so you don’t miss an update.
You’ll notice that airlines like JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin aren’t on that list. These airlines are independent and operate their own loyalty programs. If you live in an area where these are the main airlines, you could benefit from one of these cards. Living in Charleston, it is almost mandatory for me that I own a Southwest credit card. Not only did I get two free round trip flights, but I referred a few friends for over 20,000 more miles. Take my advice, but make it work for you.
There are a few sites like Award Wallet where you manage your rewards points and miles, but their access to many of the top programs has been reduced making it almost irrelevant. Never build your business or application on top of someone else’s platform, you give up control and can be crushed without notice.
When you book flights and declare them as a business expense on your tax return (IRS), well then you’re really winning. Especially when you’re traveling to different music festivals.
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