How to Travel the World using Frequent Flyer Miles
Air miles, frequent flyer miles, loyalty programs, travel rewards, points – whatever label you want to use, it’s no secret that redeeming points/miles can save you money and infuse a little luxury into your vacation. With so many programs out there, finding the right program for you can be confusing and sometimes overwhelming.
To help simplify the process, we turn to Travis from Extra Pack of Peanuts, a website dedicated to helping people travel more by taking advantage of frequent flyer programs.
Travel More with Frequent Flyer Miles – 5 Questions with Extra Pack of Peanuts
Before answering any other question, the most important one is “Why should I be interested in frequent flyer miles in the first place?”
I could wax poetically on and on about how great they are (after all, I do write a blog about them) but really, the best way to explain why you should take the time to learn about frequent flyer miles is through an example.
Last July, my sister was getting ready to move to Spain. She currently lived in Philadelphia but was itching to visit some old friends in New Zealand and also wanted to see her wonderful twin brother in Japan before the move.
But wait… isn’t going to New Zealand and Japan the opposite direction from Spain? And won’t a trip like that cost a ton of money? Since my sister’s a missionary, she’s not exactly rolling in the dough.
Turns out, yes, a trip like that will cost a lot of money. $4,231 to be exact. So it looks like that trip is out of the question, right? Wrong!
Luckily, my sister had heeded my advice in March 2011 and opened up two credit cards, which gave her a total of 150,000 American Airlines miles as a sign-up bonus.
Not only was she able to take this trip around the world for a total cost of less than $150 in taxes and fees, but she still had 53,000 miles leftover! That’s enough for another round trip ticket between Spain and the US.
So, are frequent flyer miles worth it? Ask yourself two questions:
1. Do you want to travel?
2. Do you like waste money on things you can get for free?
If your answers are yes and no, respectively, then this interview is for you!
Q1. You spend a lot of time researching frequent flyer programs. What are your 3 favorite programs and why?
Really, the first thing most people need to know about frequent flyer miles is that almost all airlines are part of an alliance. This is great for travelers because now, instead of using your frequent flyer miles to fly on that airline only, you can use your miles on that airline AND all it’s partners.
So if I earn 100,000 United miles, I can use them to fly on United or any of the 24 members of Star Alliance. This means that the whole world is literally at my fingertips.
To cover all my bases and provide myself with the most flexibility, I try to earn miles in both of the major alliances, which are Star Alliance and OneWorld (there is a third alliance, Skyteam, but its pretty shoddy and even a miles-nerd like me doesn’t pay much attention to it).
My Star Alliance airline of choice is United. Each airline has different rules about how you can use their miles and United’s rules are some of the most lenient. They allow you to book one-way trips at half the price of a round trip, they allow you to stop-over and stay in city for up to a year before continuing to your final destination (meaning you get 2 vacations for the price of 1), and they don’t tag on fuel surcharges when you use miles to book a ticket, which saves you hundred of dollars.
Also, it is very easy to earn a lot of United miles because Chase points transfer to United at a 1:1 ratio. Many of the best credit cards out there earn you Chase points, so if you get 50,000 Chase points for opening a credit card, that really means you’re 50,000 United miles.
My favorite Oneworld Alliance airline is American Airlines. Like United, they are very lenient with what they allow you to do with your miles and they also offer reduced priced tickets for off-peak travel.
To earn my bulk of American Airline miles, I use my American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card. These SPG points transfer to American Airlines at a 1:1.25 ratio, so every time I get 50,000 SPG points, I’m transferring them to 60,000 AA miles.
Lastly, my third favorite program is Southwest. Since I use all my United and American Airline miles for international travel (which is a much better value than using them for domestic travel), I use my Southwest points to get me around the United States.
Southwest offers some pretty amazing deals, the most amazing of which is the Southwest Companion Pass. This allows a person to travel with you for free for 2 whole years every time you fly Southwest. I can literally hop on a Southwest flight every single day from now until the end of 2013 and I could take someone with me for free, each and every time.
Obviously, if you use it a lot, this can be worth thousands of dollars. The best part – I was able to get this pass without even taking a single flight with Southwest! All I did was open up 2 different Southwest credit cards and the pass was mine.
If that’s not enough, Southwest allows you to cancel your flight at any point and get a full refund of your points (something most airlines don’t allow) and always gives you 2 free bags. If you are located in the US and want to fly domestically, there’s no better program.
Q2. What advice would you give to a newbie that wants to take advantage of travel rewards programs?
The first, and most important thing, is to GET STARTED! I’ve talked to thousands of people about frequent flyer miles and the amazing trips I’ve been able to take because of them, and I have yet to have a single person tell me: “Eh, that’s not that cool. I’d rather pay for my ticket.”
EVERYONE is interested in them and everyone wants to travel for free, and yet, 95% of people never do anything about it. It’s because they think it will be too hard or they think it’s too good to be true. They couldn’t be further from the truth.
The hard part has been done for you by people like myself who write blogs about this incredibly geeky stuff. And instead of being too good to be true, frequent flyer miles are too good not to do!
As far as HOW to get started, start by thinking of your dream destination. Before anything, go in with a goal in mind.
Then, look in to how you can start getting there. Credit card signups are the best way to earn huge amounts of miles right off the bat, so start looking at what travel credit card offers the best signup bonus. I keep a constantly updated list on my Best Current Deals page. Unfortunately, these cards are only available to United States residents. If you’re a Canadian, I recommend checking out RewardsCanada.
Once you’ve got yourself a decent travel credit card or two, you can really start to rake in some big miles. Use that card when you go shopping to earn miles for money you’d spend anyway. If you really want to earn points faster, start to use online shopping portals to get big bonuses (example: I earned 9,000 United miles for buying my mother a $300 hot air balloon trip online last Christmas).
If you’re not able to sign up for credit cards, make sure to take advantage of the opportunities around you. ALWAYS earn miles for flights that you take.
This is super easy and yet many, many people don’t do it. In fact, I was one of them up until 3 years ago. Simply sign up for the airlines frequent flyer program before flying (it’s free) and then when you buy your ticket or when you check in, give them your frequent flyer number. You’ll automatically earn miles “the old fashioned way”.
There is a lot of information out there about frequent flyer miles, so the best advice I can give to someone starting out is to take it one step at a time. Find a blog about rewards programs and frequent flyer miles that you like and start reading. Back when I started, I spent hundreds of hours pouring over forums and piecing together what things meant. Nowadays, blogs make it much easier for you.
Q3. Sometimes deals really are “too good to be true”. What are some things people should watch out for when dealing with frequent flyer programs?
The funny part about this question is that so many people who I talk to about frequent flyer miles DON’T start earning them because they think that they are “too good to be true.” I can understand the apprehension (to a point), but in the case of frequent flyer miles, it really is something that is lives up to, and usually exceeds, the hype.
That being said, there are a few things everyone should be aware of.
First, any time credit cards are involved, the most important thing to remember is that you NEED to pay off your bills on time. If you aren’t paying off your bills in full each month, all the frequent flyer miles in the world won’t make up for the crazy interest the credit card company’s are crushing you with. If you’re responsible with paying off your bills, then by all means, take advantage of the system and let the miles roll in.
The second thing to be aware of is that just because you’re using frequent flyer miles does not mean your flight will be free. Some airlines will charge “fuel surcharges” on tickets that are booked with frequent flyer miles. This is a conniving, bastardly way that airlines take advantage of people who aren’t aware of these charges. Sometimes, these fuel surcharges can be over 80% of the price of actually buying the ticket!
The best way to avoid these fuel surcharges and to actually get a ticket for free is to earn miles which airlines don’t charge them. United, USAirways, and American Airlines all never charge fuel surcharges, and so I earn the bulk of miles with them.
An example: I want to fly from New York to London. To buy that same ticket outright, I’d pay $600-$700.
If I use British Airways miles, I’ll pay $400-600 in “fees” even though I’m using frequent flyer miles, because BA charges a “fuel surcharge” (it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that you’re getting screwed here).
However, if I use American Airlines miles to buy that same ticket, I’d pay approximately $50 for some miscellaneous, unavoidable fees like airport tax.
Once you start earning frequent flyer miles, you’ll definitely want to be aware of fuel surcharges. Check out this post for a more in-depth discussion of what you can do to avoid them.
Q4. What “secrets” have you learned to maximize your frequent flyer rewards?
There are A LOT of tricks and tips about using frequent flyer miles. One of the best things (for mile nerds like me) or worst things (for everyone else) about frequent flyer miles is that the rules are constantly changing, which means new “secrets” are always popping up.
Here are some of my favorite secrets (from basic to advanced):
Airline Alliances – Once you learn you that you can use your miles to fly on tons of different airlines, as opposed to just one, the whole world is literally opened up to you.
Award Charts and Milez.biz – Every airline has their own award chart, which is how you determine how many miles you need to pay for a certain trip. You used to have look at each airline’s chart each time you wanted to go somewhere and figure out how much each airline would charge. Now, people much smarter than me created milez.biz, which is a website that aggregates all the airline charts on one website. Simply type in the place you’re leaving from, the place you’re going to, and the site will spit out how many miles you need for each airline.
It also helps to know the “loopholes” in certain charts. For example, my round-trip ticket from Tokyo to Mumbai was only 40,000 miles on USAirways but would have cost 45,000 on American Airlines or 50,000 on United.
Online Shopping – I hate shopping (although my wife likes it enough for both of us), so when someone tells me I can sit in my bed in my boxers, buy something for the same price or less than at a store, AND earn tons more frequent flyer miles, you better believe I’m a happy, happy man!
Off-Peak Travel – Both American Airlines and USAirways offer cheaper tickets during certain times of the year to specific destination. For example, a normal peak ticket from North America to Europe costs 60,000 miles on American Airlines. However, an off-peak ticket only costs 40,000 miles. The kicker: The off-peak season to Europe is from Oct. 15-May 15. For the non-mathematically inclined, that’s SEVEN MONTHS of off-peak time!
Now, I’m not exactly sure how something can be considered off-peak if its actually longer than peak, but I’ll take it. By traveling off-peak you can sttttreeetttcchhh your miles even further, which just means even more free travel!
Stopovers and Open Jaws – These two “secrets” are the crème de la crème of frequent flyer knowledge. By using them, you can get 2 or 3 vacations for the price of one!
A stopover is when you stay in a city that isn’t your destination city for more than 24 hours.
For example, let’s say you were flying from New York to Paris. Instead of flying from New York to Paris directly, you can fly from New York to London. Then, you can “stopover” in London before heading to your final destination of Paris.
Amazingly, you have 365 days to get from New York to Paris, so you could theoretically stopover in London for up to a year before going to Paris. By doing this, you are getting to visit two places instead of just one, and the tickets costs EXACTLY the same!
An “open-jaw” is when you arrive in one city but leave from a different city.
Open-jaws are great because they allow you to travel in one direction instead of having to get back to the airport you flew in to. You can get off the plane in London, make your way through Europe, and then leave from Rome.
Ready for a real head spin? Try using a stopover and an open-jaw on the same ticket (which United allows). You could fly from New York to London and stopover for a few weeks. Then, you’d fly from London to your destination of Paris. From there, you can open-jaw, making your own way to Rome, and fly from Rome back to New York.
Voila…you visited 3 cities (London, Paris, and Rome) and not paid anything more than if you simply flew direct from New York to Rome and back.
Q5. Tell us about your most memorable travel experience that was made possible because you redeemed your frequent flyer miles.
Frequent flyer miles have literally changed my life! In the past year and a half, I’ve been truly blessed to have some of the most amazing travel experiences a person could dream of… and all on a salary that many, many people would sneeze at. I can’t help but laugh when people who are making 2x and 3x more than me think I’m “rich” because of the traveling I’ve been able to do.
Last Christmas, I took an 18 day trip to Australia that included a road trip down the Great Ocean Road, New Year’s Eve in Sydney, and scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef.
In August, my wife and I went on a 3 week trip through Singapore (where I wasn’t allowed on the plane because my “passport was too full”), Indonesia, and India. We spent a few days on the beach in Bali, explored the amazing rice terraces in Ubud (of Eat, Pray, Love fame), rode camels through a sandstorm in Jaisamer, and marveled at the general chaos and craziness of India.
I’ve also been able to tramp through SE Asia on two occasions. Visiting Thailand, my favorite country and future retirement spot, and Malaysia, which has the world’s best street food, as well as seeing Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
But even with all those wonderful experiences, I can honestly say that very best thing I’ve used frequent flyer miles for is flying my mom and dad over to Japan to visit me while I lived there last June.
I had been living there for almost 2 years and I was beginning to think that none of the people from my life back in the United States would ever get to see and experience what my life in Japan was like. This was a pretty sombering thought, especially since the experience had been so life-changing for me.
I wanted someone to see the elementary kids walking home from school with their cute yellow earthquake helmets on, someone to bike through the rice fields with me on my way to work, someone to laugh at the 2-story high waving neon green cat in the middle of town, and someone to take to my favorite neighborhood sushi restaurant.
And while I knew my parents wanted to come see me, they needed a push to take the vacation days and to agree to a 13-hour flight. That push was more of a shove, but they had little choice when I told them that I’d booked them first class tickets using my frequent flyer miles — which would have cost over $20,000 each!
Read more helpful interviews:
- How to Find the Best Travel Deals Online
- How to Teach English Overseas and Travel the World
- How to Travel the World and NOT Pay for Hotels
- How to Budget for a Trip Around the World
Big thanks to Travis for sharing his experiences using Frequent Flyer Miles!
Travis is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Frequent Flyer Miles, the world’s first interactive guide on helping others travel to their dream destinations for free. When he’s able to temper his wanderlust for more than a few hours, he writes posts full of awesome Lego pictures at Extra Pack of Peanuts.