Travel for Nearly Nothing: Airline Miles

I’m going to start a series on traveling for nearly nothing.  I hear lots of people say how they would like to travel but are often held back because it costs a lot.  And indeed, it often does, so let’s find ways to reduce the costs.  Short of finding money on the ground, the best way is through accumulating points.  It is crazy to think I only started collecting points after I got married.  My parents did set me up with a United and American accounts back in the day, but I think all I got were some free magazines occasionally.  In fact, a few months before I took a trip to Singapore on China Airlines and didn’t bother earning the points for it.  Well, it isn’t that hard and I’ll explain it to you as best as I can so you get to traveling for close to free.

What are airline miles?

Airline miles are a type of reward system that entices you to be loyal to an airline or an alliance.  Each program has their own rules for how to earn miles and how to redeem them.  But almost always you can earn them by flying with the airline or its partners and you can redeem them to get a ticket.  Airline rules will vary on how much you earn for each flight as some are based on the distance you fly, but now most are based on how much you spend, your status in the program, and the class of service you are flying.  The amount of miles needed for a free flight vary by the region you start from and are going to and each airline sets their own number of points.

Here is an example of the chart for American Airlines if you are flying from the lower 48 states in economy class.

You’ll notice that there are up to four different prices just for economy class.  That is because the number of miles to redeem for a ticket also varies upon when you are flying.  If you want to fly right before holidays you’ll have to use more points.

Alliances and partners

Now that you know the basics about miles, you’ll need to understand alliances and partners.  When I flew on China Airlines I did not earn miles because I wasn’t enrolled in any frequent flyer programs that were connected to the airline.  However, China Airlines is part of a huge program called Sky Team, while I only had a frequent flyer number for Star Alliance and Oneworld.  These three alliances make up the majority of airlines you would fly on, so I would recommend getting one frequent flyer account in each alliance to accumulate the points.  Personally I use American (Oneworld), United (Star Alliance), and Air France (Sky Team) the most but do have a few more to take advantage of the unique features of each program.

Here are some charts I grabbed from the alliance websites showing the members.  On the left is Star Alliance with 27 members, the right is Sky Team with 20 members, and on the bottom is Oneworld with 14 members.

 How to choose where to collect

A good start would be to choose one airline from each alliance, so you are covered if you fly any of the airlines pictured above.  Note, you could sign up with every airline if you wanted, but I stick to one or two per alliance because the more airlines the further your points will be spread and the harder it is to collect enough points for the awards.  But what you choose should depend on what you would like to do with your miles.   For instance, do you want to use your miles to fly short distances within Europe or are you looking to take trips to Japan from America?  How you answer will determine who you should sign up with.  In order to determine what is better you’ll need to calculate the awards you want with different airlines or google “best miles to” and where you want to go.

Here is an example.  Say you want to use your miles to fly to London from Europe.  On American Airlines this would cost 12,500 miles, but on British Airways which bases its awards on distance, it would only cost 4,500 miles.  If it wasn’t hard enough to keep track of yet, there are also fees when you book award tickets.  Some are as low at $5.60 while others can be outrageous in the hundreds of dollars.  From LAX to Japan would be 25,000 on BA but 35,000 on AA.  However, in other situations like business class from Auckland to Hong Kong would cost 40,000 AA miles, but 90,000 BA miles.

This part is going to be the most difficult.  If you feel like giving up already I’d recommend doing United, British Airways, and whatever Sky Team partner is at your nearest airport.  You may not get the best deal, but you can often get a pretty good one, plus we are talking about free tickets, so what’s not to love?  Also, if you only plan to fly within the United States and select other locations Southwest has a great program that is super easy to use.

How to collect

So maybe you got excited by the idea of free travel and noticed that you could fly to Mexico for 12,500 miles each way during Off Peak season so now you are trying to figure out how to get 25,000 miles.  Well, you could earn miles by flying with the airline or its partners.  In fact, for AA you earn 5 miles per dollar spent on the fare (not taxes), so you’d have to spend over $5,000 to have enough points for a roundtrip to Mexico.

Airlines also have dining programs, hotel partners, and shopping portals which you can use to earn even more points.  Sometimes there can be extremely good deals such as when British Airways was offering 120 points per dollar spent at Match.com.  People spent over $300 and received enough points for 4 roundtrips under 500 miles each way.  Now that is a deal.

Yet those methods can be complicated and take awhile to learn, so let me tell you the easiest, quickest way to earn free flights.  Credit cards.  In order to lure you in credit cards will offer you a huge sum to sign up.  Currently Citi is offering 60,000 AA miles if you sign up for their Platinum Select Card.  The catch is you have to spend $3,000 within 3 months.  This bonus alone would be enough for two roundtrips to Mexico.  However, you have to beware of credit cards.  The fees and interest could easily eat away any rewards you earn.

Conclusion

So I hope you have a better idea about airline miles now.  You now know my secret to nearly free travel.  Last year we earned 300,000 miles from credit card bonuses and 40,000 from shopping portals.  That has been enough to support our jet setting.  Next, I will write about hotel points which is the other costly part of travel, unless you are my wife because then it would be food.

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