Last updated on January 21st, 2020 at 07:23 pm
By The Pointer
At one point, I shared the limiting belief above. I thought it wasn’t realistic to hold down a job, and still be able to take vacations to other countries a few times each year. The flights alone cost so much that I’d have to work a few weeks just to pay for them. Luckily, I was wrong. Miles and points made it possible for me to travel without having to pay dollars and cents, and I want to show you how to do it, too. That’s what we’ll be doing in the Flying for Free series. This is the first installment, and it’ll give you an overview of what we’re covering.
The 4 Steps to Flying for Free
At a higher level, flying for free isn’t all that complicated. You can boil it down to 4 key steps:
Step 1: Setting a Goal – While this seems simple, many people like the idea of flying for free. They just have no idea where they want to go. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it becomes much harder to make any specific trip happen. If you’re accumulating points in 10 different programs, you may not have enough for a flight with any of them.
Step 2: Determining the Points You Need – Once you know where you’re going, you’ll want to know which airline can get you there, the points program that allows you to book seats on that airline and how many points you’ll need to “pay” for the flight.
Step 3: Earning the Points – You’ll also need to know how to earn points with that program. Spoiler alert: it’s not by spending thousands of dollars flying with that airline to earn butt-in-seat miles. We’ll get into dozens of ways to earn these points cheaply and easily without ever flying.
Step 4: Booking the Trip – Many people think that when they have enough points, they can just book any flight they want. In reality, not every flight is bookable with miles and points, or it looks like the actual number of miles needed is outrageous. Not to mention, not every flight you can actually book with miles and points is visible on the airline’s website. Once you know in the ins and outs of booking award flights, a whole new world of possibilities opens up.
An Example: My First Trip Using Miles and Points
When I was in graduate school, I studied abroad in Barcelona. I used the city as a home base for exploring most of the rest of Europe using discount airlines. It was an amazing time! I arranged my schedule so my classes were only 2 days per week, and I’d use the other 5 days to experience new countries and cultures each week.
One country that I really wanted to visit, but couldn’t, was Russia. Unfortunately, I needed a visa, and I could only apply for it at an U.S. embassy in my home country. After my study abroad program ended, I was still hoping to get there someday, but I wasn’t sure how I could afford it. Miles and points turned out to be the answer.
My desire was intense enough that I spent months scouring all corners of the internet for information on how to travel for free. It took a while, but I felt I had cracked the code. I saw that Air Berlin flew from New York to Moscow and St. Petersburg (via Berlin), and their partner, American Airlines, only charged 40,000 miles (round trip, off-peak economy) for the flights. It wasn’t hard to accumulate the 40,000 miles. I applied for Citi’s American Airlines credit card that had a 50,000 mile sign up bonus at the time.
When the booking process was all said and done, I paid $0 for the credit card (the annual fee was waived for the first year), and the 40,000 miles paid for flights that would have cost over $1,000 otherwise. The only out of pocket cost was taxes of $82.65. If I knew then what I know now, I would have been able to cover that cost, too.
Yes, this series really is free
So you just found a website offering something you really want for free, and your first thought is “scam”, right? Well, not this time. The Flying for Free series really is a free resource. You’re not required to enter your credit card info. It’s not that the first couple of installments are free, then there’s a fee to continue. It’s just plain free. Check out this site’s About page and my Ethics Pledge if you want to know more about why and how I do this.
Free flights? I’m having trouble believing that.
Wow, you’re skeptical…but I would be, too. Through this series, we’ll learn how to pay for airline tickets using miles and points. Instead of spending $595 per person for tickets from Chicago to San Juan, Puerto Rico and back, you can spend 35,000 United miles + $11.20 in taxes and fees. Even then, there are ways to offset that $11.20 so your net cost is $0 (or you could even earn a little money in the process).
I can’t make your time free, though. As with buy-one-get-one-free offers, you still need to do something to get that free item. In this case, you have to invest time learning about, accumulating and using the miles you need. What I can promise you is that are ways to ensure there’s no out of pocket cash cost to you when booking flights. For those who really love to travel, the upfront time investment is minimal compared to the value of all the travel you can get.
Step 1: Set a Goal
The first step toward flying with miles and points instead of dollar and cents is setting your travel goal. As with most things in life, you’re aimless without a goal. What do I mean when I say to “set a goal”? Well, it means knowing the information you would have typed into a travel search engine (eg. Google Flights, Expedia, etc.) if you were paying with cash:
Number of Passengers
Class of service (economy, business, etc.)
One-way or roundtrip
Introducing Rob and Elena
To keep things tangible and specific for the rest of the series, we’ll work from an example. Rob and Elena will be our fictional guinea pigs.
Rob and Elena are a couple that have been together for 6 months. Neither of them has ever been outside of the United States before, but they really want to visit Paris. Here is the travel goal they laid out:
Origin: Los Angeles
Number of Passengers: 2
Class of service: Economy
One-way or roundtrip: Roundtrip
Approximate dates: About 10 days in the spring
Set Your Goal
Just like Rob and Elena, you should set your own travel goal. I’m sure there’s a place you’d like to visit even more than Rob and Elena want to see Paris! In the next installment of this series, we’ll get into some of the background on how different types of miles and points work so we can get you, Rob and Elena to the places you want to go.
More to Come
The 4 steps discussed above are all you need to start flying for free. Still, you’re probably asking, “How did you know which airline to use?” or “How did you know which credit card to sign up for?” Don’t worry, we’ll address those questions in this series. This post was just meant to give you an overview of what we’ll be covering, and show what’s possible. The rest of this series will equip you with more in-depth information on each step.
The Flying for Free Series Table of Contents
Step 1: Overview and Setting a Goal
Step 2, Part 1: Different Types of Points and Their Best Uses
Step 2, Part 2: How Alliances & Partnerships Work
Step 2, Part 3: Determining Loyalty Programs to Consider
Step 2, Part 4: Confirming Availability and Cost
Step 2, Part 5: Valuing Points to Make a Final Selection
Step 3, Part 1: The Best Ways to Earn Miles & Points
Step 3, Part 2: Earning Miles & Points with Credit Cards
Step 4: Making the Booking