Frequent Flyer Secrets: How to Travel in Style Without Breaking the Bank
Frequent Flyer Secrets: How to Travel in Style Without Breaking the Bank - The Art of Churning Credit Card Points
For frequent travelers, maximizing credit card points and airline miles is an art form. With the right strategy, you can rack up hundreds of thousands of points and fly in style for next to nothing. The secret is churning - strategically applying for new credit cards to earn large signup bonuses.
The first step is to identify cards that offer lucrative introductory bonuses. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred offers 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months. That's enough for a roundtrip flight to Europe. You can often earn bonuses with the same card family repeatedly by applying for different versions.
Next, you'll want to time your applications carefully. Most issuers won't approve you for a new card if you've opened several in the past few months. Space out your applications and avoid applying for multiple cards on the same day. Check your credit report to ensure you don't exceed the recommended number of new accounts per year.
Once approved, work towards meeting the minimum spend for each card's signup bonus. Pay for all your regular expenses like groceries and bills with the new card. Consider prepaying utilities and insurance if you need extra spending. Just don't overspend beyond your means.
Be sure to use each card at least once every few months to keep it active. Set calendar reminders so you don't miss out on any retention offers. Also, pay off your balances in full each month to avoid interest charges. Carrying a balance defeats the purpose of churning for free travel.
When the annual fee comes due on a card, assess whether the perks are worth paying it. Often it makes sense to close cards after the first year unless they offer generous travel credits or elite status. Apply for a retention offer first and if it's not worthwhile, cancel.
Watch for restrictions when transferring points between loyalty programs. Not all are 1:1, and some programs impose transfer limits. With a bit of research, you can maximize the value of your points through savvy transfers.
What else is in this post?
- Frequent Flyer Secrets: How to Travel in Style Without Breaking the Bank - The Art of Churning Credit Card Points
- Frequent Flyer Secrets: How to Travel in Style Without Breaking the Bank - Maximize Airline Mileage Programs
- Frequent Flyer Secrets: How to Travel in Style Without Breaking the Bank - Know When to Book (and How Far in Advance)
- Frequent Flyer Secrets: How to Travel in Style Without Breaking the Bank - Fly Business Class on a Budget
- Frequent Flyer Secrets: How to Travel in Style Without Breaking the Bank - Stay in Luxury Hotels for Pennies
- Frequent Flyer Secrets: How to Travel in Style Without Breaking the Bank - Transfer Points Between Programs
- Frequent Flyer Secrets: How to Travel in Style Without Breaking the Bank - Use Points for Free Companion Tickets
- Frequent Flyer Secrets: How to Travel in Style Without Breaking the Bank - Splurge on Airport Lounges
Frequent Flyer Secrets: How to Travel in Style Without Breaking the Bank - Maximize Airline Mileage Programs
Frequent flyer miles are the lifeblood of award travel. With the major US airlines, accumulating miles is straightforward – simply fly and spend on co-branded credit cards. But true mileage mavens look beyond earning to maximizing the value of every mile.
American and United award miles on a revenue-based model, while Delta uses a more opaque, dynamic algorithm. Knowing the ins and outs of each can help you stretch your miles further. For example, American offers reduced mileage awards on some routes outside the US. I once flew to Asia for just 35,000 miles each way in economy – an absolute steal.
United still relies on fixed award charts, so study them carefully. Flights under 700 miles can be a great value at just 10,000 miles each way. I try to save my United miles for premium cabin awards to maximize their worth.
Delta doesn’t publish award charts, so flexibility is key. Being open to whatever dates, routes and cabins Delta offers helps avoid sky-high mileage rates. Sign up for mileage expiration alerts – miles now expire if unused after 2 years.
Airline partners are another avenue for multiplying miles. Credit card transfers can effectively convert points to miles at very favorable rates. I prefer to credit my flights to mileage programs like Alaska that still have partners across all three airline alliances. Those versatile miles can then be used to book award flights on various global carriers.
Finally, don’t underestimate mileage rebates on paid tickets. Most airlines offer 25-50% back, especially in premium cabins. I watch for discounted business class fares I can triple-dip: earning miles and status two ways on the same trip while still getting 25% back. That rebate effectively reduces the ticket cost.
Frequent Flyer Secrets: How to Travel in Style Without Breaking the Bank - Know When to Book (and How Far in Advance)
Knowing the optimal time to book award flights can make the difference between an epic trip in a suite or getting stuck in a middle seat in economy. As a general rule, I aim to book as early as possible, usually 9-12 months out for long haul international trips. Airlines release award space furthest out, then open up more seats as the departure date approaches.
For flights to Europe, I’ve found 215 days in advance of departure to be the “sweet spot” for booking premium cabin awards. At that point, airlines have loaded their schedules but not all seats have been taken by elite status members with early access. This window offers the widest selection of business class award space before the seats get snatched up.
Domestic U.S. flights are best booked 60-90 days out as a compromise between award availability and last minute flight changes. Inside of 60 days, schedule changes increase so I avoid booking too close to departure. Airlines will reaccommodate you if they move your flight times significantly, but the new routing may be suboptimal.
Don’t forget to set up expert flyer or award availability alerts from your preferred mileage programs 9-12 months before your desired travel dates. This gives you advance notice when award seats open up on your routes, allowing you to jump on them right away before anyone else can.
Occasionally, I’ll book speculatively when I find an exceptional award price, even if the dates are uncertain. Routings like Australia to Europe for only 50,000 miles in business class get snatched up instantly, so I take the risk. Worst case, most airlines waive the change fees when modifying award tickets to alternate dates.
Don’t forget to keep checking back regularly after initially booking – award seats do open up last minute on even the most competitive routes. I once scored a first class suite from New York to Abu Dhabi just two weeks before departure by frequently checking availability right up until the last minute. Persistence and flexibility are key.
The one case I avoid booking too far in advance is when traveling to regions prone to economic uncertainty or political instability. Unfortunately award tickets are generally non-refundable, so I try not to lock in trips more than 6 months out if there is a reasonable chance external events could disrupt travel plans. Regularly monitoring travel advisories and insurance coverage limitations can help mitigate unwanted risks.
Frequent Flyer Secrets: How to Travel in Style Without Breaking the Bank - Fly Business Class on a Budget
Business class is the holy grail of premium travel, but the staggering prices often put it out of reach for budget-minded flyers. However, with a bit of strategic planning and flexibility, experiencing the pampered business class lifestyle is surprisingly attainable even on a shoestring budget.
The key is leverage. Miles, points and vouchers give you bargaining power to access business class seats without footing the entire cash fare. With the right credit card and mileage program combinations, you can feasibly earn enough for a free business class flight every year or two. Signup bonuses and mileage transfers allow you to stockpile premium-cabin miles quickly.
When redeeming miles, remember that not all miles are created equal. Programs like Krisflyer and Avios base awards on distance flown, so look for routes in the right sweet spot. Flights under certain mileage thresholds can offer an outsized value. British Airways only charges 50,000 Avios roundtrip between the US east coast and Dublin or Shannon, an incredible bargain. Similarly, short hops within Europe on airlines like Air France and KLM can price as low as 25,000 miles roundtrip.
Mileage sales crop up periodically, allowing substantial discounts on awards—keep an eye out and pounce when they pop up. I’ve flown to Asia for as little as 35,000 American miles each way by booking during a 25% off sale. Partner awards also hold opportunity. United’s Star Alliance partners like Air Canada, EVA Air and Singapore offer competitive redemption rates, especially for North American flyers.
When award space runs dry, look to mileage upgrades on revenue tickets. Most airlines offer one-way upgrade awards, providing an affordable alternative to forking over for a full business class fare. I credit my paid economy tickets to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan whenever possible, since their program offers upgrades from economy to business as low as 15,000 miles each way on its partners. That’s just a fraction of published fares.
Cash fares can also be reasonable if you remain flexible on airlines and cabin configurations. Watch for business class sales that periodically crop up, especially on new or unpopular routes needing to stimulate demand. I’ve flown transatlantic lie-flat business class for around $1,200 roundtrip this way. Also check dynamically priced “basic business” fares that strip away some frills in exchange for lower prices.
Consider open-jaw tickets with a budget carrier connection to position yourself to a gateway city. I once pieced together a business class open-jaw from Greece to Abu Dhabi connecting through Dublin for cheap on Ryanair. The intra-Europe leg was economy, but still a great value overall.
Finally, don’t forget the value of credit card vouchers and airline perks. For example, the United credit cards offer annual passes to the airline’s network of lounges. This allows me complimentary food and drinks before my long-haul economy flights, softening the journey. Similarly, I maximize annual airline fee credits from cards like the Amex Platinum to purchase discounted business class lounge day passes whenever my travels don’t otherwise qualify for the perk.
Frequent Flyer Secrets: How to Travel in Style Without Breaking the Bank - Stay in Luxury Hotels for Pennies
Luxury hotels conjure images of unapproachable opulence, reserved only for the upper crust. Fortunately, that’s far from the reality in today’s competitive accommodation landscape. With a bit of resourcefulness, even ordinary travelers can bed down in true five-star style for pennies on the dollar. I’ve stayed at some of the world’s top properties like the Park Hyatt New York and Conrad Bora Bora for less than $100 per night - let me share my secrets.
The key is flexibility. Luxury hotels rely heavily on business travelers and corporate accounts, resulting in low weekday occupancy. Leisure travelers willing to stay midweek can swoop in to snag unsold rooms at deep discounts. I monitor sites like FiveStarAlliance that consolidate luxury hotel deals and watch for rock-bottom rates Sunday through Thursday nights. One summer I lived like a king at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay for under $200 per night when rooms normally go for quadruple that.
Another prime opportunity is during off-peak seasons. Places like Arizona and Palm Springs offer luxurious desert resorts that sit eerily empty in the scorching summer months. That’s when to pounce on a bungalow at the Boulders Resort & Spa Scottsdale that would cost a pretty penny in peak winter. I’ve also targeted rainy season in exotic destinations like the Maldives that see dramatically lower occupancy from May to September.
Leverage hotel loyalty programs by being brand agnostic. I concentrate my stays with a few select chains to maximize elite benefits. As an Ambassador member at Hilton, for instance, I’ve been upgraded to penthouse suites at top properties like the London Bankside and Lisbon Chiado at no extra charge - an experience worth far beyond what I paid.
Finally, keep an eye out for creative packages and bundles that add value. For example, the Hotel Del Coronado near San Diego routinely offers room rates inclusive of dining credits and spa treatments. This effectively reduces the nightly cost while allowing you to enjoy amenities often out of reach. Similarly, I’ve purchased discounted gift certificates at sites like Raise to prepay for luxury hotel stays at significant savings off retail rates.
Frequent Flyer Secrets: How to Travel in Style Without Breaking the Bank - Transfer Points Between Programs
Transferring points between loyalty programs unlocks immense value, yet remains an underutilized strategy by many travelers. While most earning opportunities are straightforward, transfers are where the real mileage magic happens. With a bit of research, huge mileage redemptions can be attained through crafty point swaps between programs.
Let's walk through an example. Last summer I was eyeing a Lufthansa first class award from the US to Europe for 110,000 miles, an exceptional bargain. However, I didn't have nearly enough miles in my Lufthansa account. Rather than spend over $10,000 out of pocket on expensive revenue tickets, I got creative.
I had a stash of American Express Membership Rewards points, which transfer to a wide array of airline partners. Among them is Air Canada's Aeroplan program. Conveniently, Aeroplan happens to be a transfer partner of both Amex and Lufthansa's Miles and More. The rates are favorable too - 1,000 Amex points transfer to 1,000 Aeroplan miles. Aeroplan then transfers to Lufthansa at a 1:1 ratio.
So by routing my Amex points through Aeroplan first before sending them onwards to Lufthansa, I could effectively convert Membership Rewards to Miles and More miles at parity. Within a week, I had moved enough points to book my Lufthansa first class award. Not only did I save over $10,000, I earned qualifying miles and status credit for the flight too.
That's just one example of the immense possibilities through thoughtful point transfers. It does require some homework to understand program partnerships and transfer ratios. Tools like Wheretocredit.com make it easy to visualize the web of transfer options across various currencies. Ensure you note limits on transfer frequency and minimums to avoid hiccups.
Also beware that not all transfers are 1:1 - Amex to British Airways Avios for example converts at pathetic 5:4 ratio. Similarly, Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer to United at a poor 2:1 ratio. Know which transfer ratios offer a respectable value before moving points.
Timing transfers is also key. Most programs only transfer miles between accounts once per day, so don't expect points to move instantly. I always allow at least 5-7 days buffer when transferring to book an award. Also transfer points speculatively in advance when programs offer transfer bonuses. Amex regularly offers 30%+ bonuses when converting points to airline miles, a huge increase in value.
Frequent Flyer Secrets: How to Travel in Style Without Breaking the Bank - Use Points for Free Companion Tickets
Scoring a free companion ticket may seem like an urban myth, but this golden opportunity exists for those in the know. With the right credit card and frequent flyer combination, yourplus-one can jetset alongside you for the cost of taxes only. This virtually unlocks the elusive dream for couples seeking affordable ways to travel together in style.
Let's walk through how I've leveraged points for free companion passesover the years. Two of my favorite programsare Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan and American's AAdvantage. Each offers unique ways to bring along a buddy atno extra mileage cost.
For a trip to Hawaii, I signed up for the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature. The current offer gives 40,000 bonus miles after first purchase, plus Alaska's famous BOGO companion fare. This allowed my wife to accompany me at no mileage cost -I just paid $99 plus minimal taxes forher ticket. With flights to Hawaii often running 40,000 miles roundtrip, that's an easy $600+ value. We used the rest of the miles for inter-island hops to maximize the value.
Similarly, American AAdvantage offers a reduced cost companion certificate each year you renew their co-brandedCiti card. As an Executive cardmember, I've used this to fly with my mom in business class internationally at the tiny cost of $100 plus taxes. That saved us thousands off retail business classfares. Even the entry level AAdvantage MileUp card gives a companion certificate good for main cabin travel.Either way it's an absolute steal.
For extra savings, I watch for bonuses on purchasing miles from programs that offer companion passes. Buying miles is rarely a good value, but sales like American's recent 100% bonus made it advantageous. I picked up the minimum 10k miles neededfor a main cabin companion ticket for just $150 total. That same ticket would've cost me $650 if paying outright. Never spend frivolously, but calculated mile purchases can make sense with promotions.
Timing is also key. I plancompanion awards for long haul international trips to maximize the value. Many companion certificates impose regional restrictions, so be sure to read the fine print. Booking well in advance ensures we snag prime award space together before seats dry up. I also save my companion perks for aspirational redemptions that would otherwise be budget-busters, like flying Singapore Suites. Having a friend along makes the experience even more memorable.
Frequent Flyer Secrets: How to Travel in Style Without Breaking the Bank - Splurge on Airport Lounges
Airport lounges were once an ultra-exclusive perk reserved for only the most elite frequent flyers. But in today's consumer-friendly landscape, nearly anyone can pay their way in for an affordable splurge. As a dedicated lounge rat, I find this airport oasis is well worth the cost before lengthy flights.
While rules and prices vary, most airlines now sell day passes to their airport lounges. American Express also grants complimentary lounge access through Priority Pass to Platinum and Delta SkyClub cardholders. Even without elite status, you can enjoy comfortable seating, free food and drinks, clean restrooms, and a quiet workspace.
I budget $50 per person for lounge day passes when traveling long-haul internationally. While not cheap, it's a worthy splurge that saves me from wasting time in chaotic terminals hunting for decent snacks. Lounges let me dine on hot entrees and relax with premium cocktails instead of standing in security lines with the masses.
The soft economics of business travel mean corporate accounts pay the bulk of costs to operate lounges. Most lounges are fairly empty midweek, so I target my visits accordingly to avoid crowds and maximize my personal value. I've walked right in to spacious lounges during weekday mornings at major hubs and been one of only a handful of guests. That personal space and privacy is well worth the entry fee.
Some of my favorite third-party lounge experiences include Plaza Premium locations for their excellent tarmac views, and Priority Pass lounges that permit free guest access upon entry. I watch for promotions that offer discounted lounge memberships too - American Express often runs deals for 50% off Priority Pass memberships that make the math compelling. Partnerships like LoungeBuddy also provide reasonable single-use passes.
Even when flying budget carriers like Southwest that lack lounges, I'll still spring for day passes on arrival in international airports to freshen up before long flights. The ability to shower, iron clothes, grab snacks, and charge devices makes paying to enter lounges absolutely worthwhile before granola-class journeys.