Despite all the popular blog posts about using air miles or frequent flyer miles for free flights, it seems many travelers still haven’t signed up for an air mile rewards program. It is not hard to cash in miles for free flights even if you travel infrequently. Here are some of the lessons I have learned with various air mile programs.
Why Use an Air Miles program?
I suspect that the reason people do not sign up for an air miles program is that they feel it is too difficult to build up enough miles to earn a free flight. It is probably easier than you think to earn flights and it is free to sign up for the various air mile programs so there really is nothing to lose. After your first trip overseas you will likely get bitten by the travel bug and fly much more frequently then you now imagine. Remember that you can still sign up after your trip for a short time. It might not be too late if you act fast.
One return flight from Japan to Canada earns about 12,000 air miles. Using StarAlliance domestic travel anywhere in North America takes 25,000 miles. North America to anywhere in Europe takes 55,000 miles. To Japan it is now 65,000 miles. That means with only a couple of flights you can start earning free flights or even use your air miles to bump up to business class. If you combine your flights with other sign up bonuses and air miles earned from a credit card, then the miles will accrue even faster.
For most programs, as long as there is some activity in the last 18 months, your miles don’t expire. That is another reason to get a credit card with air miles. Every time you use the card counts as ‘activity.’
I didn’t register for any program until after about my third or fourth flight. That means I lost out on one free international trip. That value is probably between $1000 and $2000. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the value early on either.
Sign up for a Frequent Flyer Program you are likely to Use.
As a Canadian, it was important for me to use an air miles group that included Air Canada. I travel to Canada often and I definitely don’t want to travel through the US with all the customs harassment and terrible customer service. (No offense to my American readers, but after living in Japan, traveling through the US feels like going to prison.)
Most travelers pick the cheapest flights when booking their travel. It can be in your best interests to pay slightly more to use an airline in your particular miles program You often can greatly improve the quality of your flight by switching to a slightly more expensive carrier. Try virtually any Asian carrier and you will see what customer service was like 30 years ago in North America.
Which Air Miles Rewards Program is the best?
My wife and I only have experience with two programs, StarAlliance and WorldPerks. WorldPerks appears to offer lower mileage requirements for many flights but they are only for unpopular travel days and it seems near impossible to book a flight at the lower mileage levels. So far I have been unimpressed with WorldPerks but if any readers have different experiences I would love to hear about it.
As much as I hate United Airlines for its terrible customer service, I have never had any problems with booking flights on StarAlliance airlines. The mileage requirements are higher than the lowest category of WorldPerks (which is extremely difficult to book) but lower than the highest mileage requirement flights. My experiences with StarAlliance call centers have always been good, especially with the extremely helpful staff in Japan.
Air Miles Hacking
The real difficulty with booking air miles flights is determining when to use your air miles. There are only a limited number of seats allocated for air miles tickets so you have to book far in advance to reserve tickets. I typically book three to six months in advance and even then many days are already unavailable.
In order to maximize the value of your air miles it is often best to pay for the cheaper off-season flights and use air miles booking for peak seasons. For example, a trip to Canada from Japan in February might only cost $700. In August that same flight might go up to $1600 or more. Both flights would require 65,000 air miles so it definitely makes sense to pay for the February flight.
There are also some unique air miles offers with various airlines. With StarAlliance it is possible to fly from Asia to North America to Europe to North America again and then back to Asia for only 90,000 air miles. (This flight is called Europe via North America) Europe alone from Asia takes 80,000 miles and North America from Asia takes 65,000. That is a great way to cash in miles if you are going between the three destinations. Really research the air mile rewards charts the airlines provide to minimize your travel expenses. You will also likely have to call the service centers a few times to find out exactly what is possible. I found that several of the customer service representatives didn’t even know about the Europe via North America possibility until I told them.
Another bonus of using frequent flyer miles to book flights is that fuel surcharges are included. Total fees are typically less than $100 to book an international flight.
The best part of air miles reward flights is that they are good for one year. The cheapest tickets you buy with most airlines are usually only valid for 30 days. One year open tickets are much more expensive, often double the price. If you are going to be away for a long time booking a flight with award miles will save you a lot of money.
Open-Jaw Flights and Stop-Overs
There are a couple of ways to minimize your travel expenses while traveling to multiple cities while increasing the number of air miles you can earn.
Many travelers don’t realize that it is possible to fly into one city and fly out of another city. That is called an open-jaw ticket. For example, you could fly into London then travel around Europe by train and finally leave Europe through Rome. These tickets do not cost anymore money and they will save you the costs and trouble of getting back to a city you have already seen.
Stop-Overs are the most underutilized travel tool. Most flights, including air miles booked flights will allow you to visit other cities or stop over in a transit city for a nominal extra fee. If you do it right, you could earn a lot of extra miles for the flight. For example, to travel to any city in Europe there is a good chance you will have to change flights in London. Why not do a stop-over in London for a few days before going on to your next destination? Try to choose a final destination in Europe far from London because you will earn extra air miles for that flight and it will save you in train expenses. Then make your way over land to your third departing airport.
In North America, Hawaii offers some good travel hacking opportunities because it is so far away, yet still part of the US. If you are flying from the East Coast to the West, it can often be cheaper to fly to Hawaii and do a stop over in a popular West Coast city. You can basically get a free or inexpensive trip to Hawaii and earn many extra air miles at the same time. Hawaii is also a good stop over from Japan to North America.
If you happen to frequent an airport hub city like New York, San Francisco, Vancouver, London, Bangkok, Tokyo, etc. you will have many more stop over opportunities than those traveling to more out of the way destinations. Remember that when you are choosing a place to live. You can substantially lower your flight costs and increase your travel options if you are in a good hub city.
On Star Alliance, it takes 200,000 air miles for a round-the-world trip. This is a very good deal if you have enough air miles for the flight. Purchasing the same ticket will likely cost you up to $10,000. It most cases it is probably cheaper to buy individual flights rather than booking a round-the-world flight. 200,000 miles is a lot, but an avid traveler with the right credit card bonuses can easily earn that in a couple of years. Round-the-world flights are somewhat restrictive in that you always have to be flying in one general direction and you can only cross the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans one time each, but they can be a cost effective way to see much of the world.
Credit Cards with Frequent Flyer Awards
I also highly recommend getting a credit card in your preferred air miles group. Every purchase you make will help you earn more miles. In the US in particular, there are very generous sign up bonuses with new credit cards. You can often earn as much as 30,000 free miles just for signing up. That is a free domestic flight just for getting the card and using it on purchases you would make anyway.
Not all air miles programs are equal. Some pay 1 mile per dollar spent, others pay less. My credit card pays 1.5 miles per dollar (actually 100 yen). If you are using the card for all your purchases it doesn’t take long to start earning free flights. Of course, don’t buy things just to earn miles because that makes no sense. It would be cheaper just to pay for the tickets in the first place. However, if you are going to make the purchases anyway then use your card. You can put most of your monthly bills on your credit card and definitely buy all your food, gasoline and other purchases with your credit card. These air miles build up fast, especially if you are using it for business. All my outsourced workers get paid from my credit card through PayPal.
If you can, try to get a gold card. The extra travel insurance and use of business airport lounges definitely makes up for the higher annual fees. If you are delayed in an airport, lose your luggage or have your wallet stolen there are often generous reimbursements for your inconvenience. It sure is nice to relax in a business lounge with free drinks, snacks and Internet access while you are waiting for your flight. You will probably start going to the airport extra early.
Other Air Mile Bonuses
Most air mile programs offer bonus miles for using participating restaurants, hotels and stores. When you sign up with a mileage program you will get mail promoting these bonus mile opportunities. Chris Guillebeau wrote about purchasing government coins and going to a hair loss clinic to earn extra miles. Chris also wrote an ebook about hacking frequent flyer miles if you want to dig deep and uncover some secrets. It is quite possible to earn tens of thousands of extra air miles if you keep your eyes open for the opportunities.
Once you start earning a lot of travel miles you can jump up to a higher status in your frequent flyer program. With just two international flights it is possible to earn enough miles to become a premiere StarAlliance member. This might give you preferential treatment in waiting lines, reservations and in getting better seats on the plane. It isn’t until you are in the highest status that you really enjoy benefits like opportunities to be bumped into business class and the use of business class lounges. The major frequent flyer mileage programs generally honor the status earned in competitor groups so call them up and ask for equal status. Earn your status in one group then get the privileges of all if you are going to fly on multiple frequent flyer mile programs.
It can take a lot of research to maximize the use of air mile programs but it can be worth an extra $2000 plus a year in free flights for frequent travelers and small businesses with many purchases. Even the occasional traveler will likely get several hundred dollars of value per year without much extra effort.