Whether you are just planning your first trip or are a frequent traveler, there are two things you should always do to earn free travel. Sign up for the air mileage program of your favorite airline group and use credit cards from that group.
Many people feel that they don’t travel enough to bother with air miles so they never sign up to those programs, but they are giving up easy money. I didn’t register my air miles for the first few flights I made when I started traveling and I only signed up for an air miles credit card about 5 years ago. I definitely lost out on at least a couple of free international flights.
With most airline mileage programs, it takes about six flights to earn another free flight of the same distance. For people who don’t travel much that might seem like a lifetime but it is possible to accumulate miles faster.
Apply for Credit Cards
Many credit card companies offer large numbers of air miles as a bonus to signing up for new cards. Chris Guillebeau has earned over 300,000 miles or almost five return trips between Japan and the US just from applying for these cards. Often the mileage earned from different cards can be combined towards one particular mileage group. Chris has a great article on all the miles he accumulated just for applying.
Those types of sign up bonuses seem to be most generous in the US but there are other things to look out for as well. My credit card in Japan earns about 1.5 miles for each dollar spent. Most credit cards in Japan only offer 1 mile per dollar (actually 100 yen) so shop around. That means I need to spend about $33,000 to get a free trip to Australia. That is a lot of money to spend but it comes faster then you may think, especially if you are using your card for business purposes. My wife and I put most of our expenses on credit cards including; gasoline, groceries, restaurants, all business expenses, many household bills, hiring overseas outsourced workers, etc. That money ads up.
Another important point to remember is that many credit cards have travel insurance included, so you don’t really need to buy extra coverage. Again read the details and find out exactly what you are going to get with your cards in advance. I used to pay for travel insurance, now it is always automatically included from my credit card company.
Some cards have expensive annual fees that also have to be considered. Sometimes it is worth it to go with high fee cards because they can add benefits like extended product warranties for purchases, upgrades on airlines, access to business lounges and better travel insurance. If you are going to travel, definitely evaluate the added benefits of higher fee cards.
There are also special promotions and deals where you can earn extra miles for shopping at particular establishments or traveling to a certain destination. Keep your eyes open and the miles will start to pile up.
Remember that travel costs increase in peak seasons. If you know you are going to travel in advance, use air miles to travel at expensive times and pay for tickets when it is cheaper to fly. The problem is that there are only a limited number of seats on each flight that you can use your air miles for, so book early.
On longer haul flights you may consider using your miles to upgrade to the next class. More than ten hours in economy class is not fun. If you are doing a lot of traveling, upgrading can be a god-send. If you have a choice of airlines, try to choose a non-US carrier. The quality of service and airplane are almost always better on other airlines, particularly Cathay Pacific, ANA, Singapore, and Qatar airlines.
When you are buying your tickets, talk to your travel agent about possible stop-overs and open jaw tickets. It is possible travel to go to an out of the way place in addition to your planned destination while greatly increasing the number of miles you receive. You might be able to add several thousand miles to a flight and see an extra city with minimal extra cost.
Also when booking your flights, ask your travel agent to look for flights on your particular air miles group. I always use StarAlliance just because AirCanada is part of the network. StarAlliance has partners all over the world so it is easy to find trips to Asia, Europe and virtually anywhere. That is not a recommendation for StarAlliance, just consider where you will do most of your flying when you join a group.
Even if you are not planning on doing much travel in the near future, it doesn’t hurt to start earning miles from your credit card. If you are going to fly anywhere, be sure to join the air miles program of your choice. The miles quickly add up. My wife and I currently have 3 return trips to Australia and back each. That is probably worth about $9000 and it didn’t cost us anything.
You may also want to check out Chris Guillebeau’s discount airfare guide here. I haven’t read it but he is a travel expert and it might be worth your investment.
Here is another article on How to Travel for Free from The Traveler’s Notebook. It is not about air miles.