This week, I made international news when I put my travel smarts to work and scored $11,000 in American Express gift cards for being bumped off several Delta Air Lines flights with my family. You can read the article about how I did it here. People were amazed, and the story got picked up by television outlets, websites and newspapers from London to Indonesia. But here’s the secret: My experience was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what you can get from the airlines.
Travel hackers make it their business to hunt down insider tricks and loopholes to beat the airlines at their own game. It’s their way of getting free flights, complimentary upgrades, all kinds of perks and even cash, in some cases. I convinced a handful of travel experts to share some of their best tips. By using these strategies, you can travel in ways you never thought possible.
Before we dive into the super-savvy advice, let’s take a look at some of the basic rules that every travel hacker agrees on. And if you want more great affordable travel ideas, check out “The 33 Cheapest Places To Travel In 2018.”
1. Consolidate your miles. Small mileage balances spread across too many airline accounts will make them nearly impossible to use. Instead, pick a few frequent flyer accounts to maximize their earning potential.
2. Pay for everything using a credit card (and pay off that bill). The slowest way to earn airline miles? By flying. “Earning airline miles from flying is actually the least lucrative way to build up your frequent flyer accounts,” says The Globetrotting Teacher founder Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie. Put away the cash and the debit card, and use mileage-accruing cards for anything and everything, including bills and everyday items like shampoo and pet food. And don’t use the card as a line of credit — paying interest defeats the purpose.
3. Get the right credit card. “Many cards advertise themselves as ‘miles’ cards, but don’t allow their internal miles to be converted to airline frequent flyer miles, but can only be redeemed toward a statement credit on travel booked through certain sites,” according to Pedro Pla and Grace Cheng, founders of Get.com. You want a card that allows you to convert your points into actual airline frequent-flyer miles. Experts generally agree that the best card for earning miles and travel rewards is the Chase Sapphire Preferred, with American Express right up there. With both cards, the points you earn can be transferred to a number of different airlines. This also offers some protection against airlines devaluing their points.
Who: Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie, founder, The Globetrotting Teacher
Travel Expertise: Sills-Dellegrazie is a blogger, teacher and award travel expert. She has been able to hike in Patagonia, spend time with elephants in Thailand, snowmobile in Finnish Lapland and much more all because of miles and points. She shares shows others how to earn and use miles and points for award travel on her blog, The Globetrotting Teacher.
1. Use airline alliances to your advantage. When flying on a foreign carrier, check and see if they’re a member of an airline alliance or have partnerships with other carriers. Then, credit your miles flown to an airline that makes sense by attaching that frequent flyer number to your itinerary. For example, while flying on Finnair, you can credit the miles earned to American Airlines because they are both Oneworld Alliance members.
2. Be smart about where you redeem your miles. Airline miles can be redeemed for award flights on that airline, as well as on any of their airline alliance members or partners. Remember that Finnair flight you credited to American Airlines? With all those miles pooled into one account, you can book an award flight flown by American Airlines, Finnair or any of their partners. Have United miles? Use them on United, Thai Airways, Swiss Air or any of their StarAlliance members and airline partners.
3. Know where to search for airline partner awards. American Airlines only shows award availability for a few of their Oneworld Alliance partners. Instead, search on partners like British Airways or Qantas to find the award flight you need. Write down all the flight info and call American Airlines to book it with your American Airlines miles by giving the agent all the award flight info. Tools like Flyermiler.com can streamline the process by showing you which partners fly to your destination. And make sure you pick the right partner. For instance, when using American Airline miles to fly to Europe, avoid flying on partner British Airways, which charges high taxes and fees for transatlantic flights.
4. Look into multi-stop awards tickets. If you’re using United miles for an award flight, make use of their Excursionist Perk and get two destinations for the price of one. A typical roundtrip from the U.S. to Lima, Peru costs the same amount of miles as an itinerary that includes a multi-day stop in Ecuador on your way to Peru.
Who: JT Genter, community editor, The Points Guy
His Expertise: Already well-traveled, Genter stumbled across The Points Guy (TPG) in 2014. Blown away by the potential travel savings from utilizing credit card sign-up bonuses and knowing mileage program sweet spots, he jumped in head first. Since then, he and his wife Katie have generated over 4.6 million miles/points and visited 26 countries, primarily on award or discounted economy fares.
1. Get a free checked bag, early boarding, and other perks with co-branded credit cards. One of the biggest no-brainers in air travel? Co-branded airline credit cards. While many of these have annual fees of $69-$99 per year, you can save far more than this even if you’re a periodic traveler. Many airlines offer co-branded credit cards that will allow you — and your companions — to check a bag for free. Hoping to carry-on? Many of these cards also will give you early boarding, so you can snag valuable overhead bin space and not have to resort to gate-checking your bag. Some co-branded cards even come with a companion ticket, saving one TPG contributor almost $500 on this perk alone. Other airlines will open special award space just for credit card holders, allowing you to stretch your miles further than if you didn’t have the card.
2. Fast-track to elite status with a status challenge — or leverage existing status with a status match. One TPG contributor paid a $200 challenge co-pay and then flew a single round-trip flight to earn American Airlines Platinum status. The status paid off just a couple of months later. American Airlines oversold the 15-hour flight from Hong Kong (HKG) to Dallas (DFW) on which she was booked in economy, so AA bumped her up to a lie-flat business class seat for completely free thanks to her status. This sweet upgrade was on top of all of the first class domestic upgrades, bonus miles, and lounge access she got from the status. That’s $200 well spent. If you’ve got status on an airline, take a look at your options to match to other airlines. Airlines are always happy to poach valuable fliers away from their competitors and might give you a status match to their elite program to entice you to switch.
3. Get a free hotel night or city tour on a layover. If you’re looking at flights and dreading the overnight layover options, don’t dismiss these options without doing some digging. Some airlines will accommodate you for these layovers, providing a hotel room to ease your stay. From Tokyo to Turkey, there’s a list of airports that will give travelers a free city tour to ease the boredom of a long layover. Some airlines — such as TAP Portugal and Icelandair — will let you break up your journey with a multi-day stopover at their hub airport. This is a great way of getting to see an extra city during your vacation. The past few years Icelandair has offered travelers a “Stopover Buddy,” a local to show them around the area.
4. Earn crossover benefits with hotels. You might not realize it, but your existing hotel status could get you airline status or visa versa. It’s worth knowing about these crossover benefits that airlines have set-up with hotels to make sure that you’re getting all of the perks you’re entitled to.
Who: Summer Hull, founder, MommyPoints.com
Travel Expertise: Hull has run MommyPoints.com, a site focused on helping families travel more for less, since 2011. She travels the world with her husband and two young daughters using miles, points, credit card rewards and travel deals and helps others do the same with daily tips and stories.
1. Make sure your kids are earning miles on their paid flights. Many people don’t realize it, but most U.S. programs will allow children of any age, even babies, to sign up for frequent flyer programs. (With some, you have to register your children over the phone.) My 1-year-old got her United number literally the day after she was born and my 7-year-old has earned United elite status.
2. Ensure miles don’t expire. Once you start earning points in multiple programs it can be hard to keep track of everything. Track them with AwardWallet.com. Typically you need to have some frequent flyer activity at least every 12 to 24 months to keep those miles active; AwardWallet can alert you to when the points will expire and can store your passwords so that you can log into many of your programs with just the click of a mouse.
3. Remember: Your kids count, too. If you need to get a voluntary (or involuntary) bump payment, or earn miles via a promotion, remember that your kids count onboard just as much as you do. In fact, there was recently a ruling in Europe that lap infants there are eligible for delayed flight compensation, even if they aren’t flying on a full-priced ticket.
4. If a promotion is worth doing for you, it may be worth doing for the whole family. For example, right now Delta is awarding 1,000 miles for each new partner activity you have, so remember you can do some things not only from your account, but from your children’s accounts as well. This can allow you to really increase your bonus earnings when good promos come along.
5. Pool your family’s miles. Some frequent-flyer programs let families pool their miles for free. Some popular examples are JetBlue, British Airways and EGYPTAIR. Again, remember that even if you don’t fly those airlines, you may fly their partners, so the ability to pool miles might still be useful. Your kids’ miles might even be able to help count toward your gold status.
Who: Johnny Jet
Travel Expertise: This travel guru who has spoken at The New York Times travel conference about how to game the system used to be afraid to fly. He conquered that fear and now travels to 20+ countries a year sharing his firsthand knowledge, tips and deals with friends, family and readers.
1. Rethink roundtrip tickets. Beat the airlines at their own game: Look for creative combinations of flights. I did this when I was invited to speak at a conference in Tennessee and had to fly from Los Angeles to Memphis, and then on to New York City. The nonstop flights were sky-high when I used both the multi-city function and when booking two separate one-way tickets. I decided to play around by adding a return trip from New York to Los Angeles the following week. One would think the price would increase, but just the opposite happened. That’s because (*I think*) I had a Saturday night stay and was returning from where I originated. I hit the frequent flier jackpot since that was within the price of the conference’s budget, it was on one of my preferred carriers since I have elite status with them — and I got a free trip home. But even if I wasn’t going home, I could’ve booked this ticket and not used the last leg (though that’s against airline policy so you didn’t hear it from me, and don’t do it too often or you risk losing your miles).
2. Fly into an alternate airport. Want to save money when you travel? Try flying in or out of an alternate airport. For example, rather than flying into (or out of) Miami when going to South Florida, check out Fort Lauderdale Airport (FLL) — it’s 25 miles north and usually much cheaper. To help you with all the major U.S. alternative airports (by actual driving miles), I created this chart.
3. Use this trick to reach the airlines. During the recent Delta meltdown, people experienced hold times of up to 12 hours, while trying to reach customer service. Want to reach a human faster? Call one of the airline’s international offices. Of course, this tip will only work for major airlines that have reservation agents all over the world like American, Delta and United. But it will also work for foreign carriers. If there’s a storm in the U.S. and you can’t get through to the airline’s U.S.-based agents, try Googling the airline’s name and reservation numbers so you can call their overseas call centers. The appropriate website should pop up with the different numbers, and by using VOIP services like Skype, it won’t cost you very much to call. And it should save you a lot of time and aggravation.
4. Be proactive when it comes to weather delays. Like every frequent traveler, one of my favorite apps is TripIt.com. The site has a free version but their pro version is worth the money if you travel a lot, as they notify you of delays, cancellations, gate changes and other flight details. In case you’re in a real bind and didn’t book through a travel agent, you can call CrankyConcierge.com. For a fee they will help you make other flight arrangements, find a hotel or transportation and assist you in resolving disputes. Get FreeBird‘s first-of-its-kind mobile rebooking tool that empowers travelers to skip the line and instantly book a new ticket — on any airline at no additional cost — in the event of a flight cancellation, four-hour delay or missed connection. For delayed, cancelled or overbooked flights in or to and from the European Union, AirHelp is a brilliant website, app and service that will help airline passengers around the world secure compensation. And check out some of my other tips here.
Who: Pedro Pla and Grace Cheng, founders, Get.com
Travel Expertise: These husband-wife travel hackers are co-founders of the U.S. credit-card comparison website GET.com, which is all about helping people optimize their use of credit cards to get more for their money, especially when it comes to travel. As credit-card geeks, they live by this maxim: “When you use cash, you lose cash.”
1. Compare and shortlist cheaper flight options. It’s smart to make use of all the obvious travel search engines (Kayak, Travelocity, Orbitz, Google Flights, Expedia, Skyscanner, CheapOair) to comparison shop. But also check out lesser-known sites like JetRadar and Wego. And be sure to check out airlines’ own sites and compare prices. Sometimes, the airlines offer exclusive fares on their own sites that are not shared with travel search engines or travel agencies.
3. Take an indirect route. Flights that include stopovers usually cost less, and this strategy could work to your advantage if you aren’t pressed for time, as you might even get to explore a bonus city in your travel itinerary en route to your destination.
4. Take advantage of credit card signing bonuses. A signing bonus of 50,000 points or miles is not uncommon and will really accelerate your earning of air miles. Just remember, most of these signing bonuses come with a minimum spend requirement within a certain time period, so it’s important to time getting these cards with planned spending.
Who: Ramsey Qubein, RamseyQ.com
Travel Expertise: Qubein is an international travel writer who has covered stories from 166 countries for publications including USAToday.com, Afar.com, Business Traveler and Travel + Leisure, among others. He flies nearly 400,000 miles a year.
1. When you volunteer your seat on a flight, be savvy. Clearly, there can be some nice benefits to getting bumped, and there are ways to know ahead of time if your flight will need a volunteer. Websites like ExpertFlyer.com will tell you how many seats are left to sell; seat maps on airline websites are not a good indicator since many may be blocked. If a flight is zeroed out, you know to get to the gate at least an hour early and volunteer your seat. If not, by the time you get to the gate, they may have already made the announcement and have had other takers. And another great tip for wanna-be flight bumpers: Book flights during busy travel periods. Travel during the holidays or on busy days for business travelers like Monday mornings and Thursday afternoons. It can present a better chance to give up your seat.
2. Stay loyal. There is no question that staying loyal to one airline or alliance can yield great bonuses, but when irregular operations happen, you also get priority when it comes to being protected on a later flight. You might get a better airport hotel than other travelers, more bonus miles if something goes wrong or more flexibility when it comes to bending the rules. One example is asking to be flown to a nearby airport if your flight is delayed or canceled — elite members are more likely to get extra waivers from airline staff.
3. Link your rewards programs. If you have not linked your Delta and Starwood or Marriott and United loyalty program accounts, you could be missing big perks. Both hotel and airline partnerships provide reciprocal elite status to certain levels awarding perks like free wireless Internet at the hotel and priority boarding and first class upgrades when traveling. Take a few seconds to link them.
Who: Caroline and Drew Macomber, cofounders, TravelisFree.com
Travel Expertise: Caroline and her husband Drew have spent most of their six years of marriage traveling and living out of hotels. They run TravelsFree.com together, where they publicly publish expenses and teach people how to best use miles to travel as many places as possible.
1. Look for mistake fares. We’ve flown roundtrip (from the U.S.) to Italy twice, Kenya, Oman, Albania and more for $150 to $220. We also flew to Beijing in business class for $440 roundtrip and have stayed at many nice hotels for under $20 a night. There are now sites and social media that we follow to catch all these deals. For example, we post all mistake fares we see on the Travelisfree Facebook page. We get alerts from all around the web, and when it’s clearly a mistake fare or really good deal, we share it. But there are also airfare deal sites that sometimes post mistake fares — like SecretFlying, Fly4Free and AirfareSpot.
2. Get multiple credit cards. Don’t be afraid to sign up for multiple cards — even from the same company. We’ve applied for some cards dozens of times. Here is a link that shows 10 old AA cards and the bonus earned from each; all of those accounts are now closed, and we’ve probably gotten four more AA cards since then. We rarely sign up for a card offering less than 50,000 miles; some cards will offer as many as 100,000 bonus miles. This trick alone has generated millions of miles for me and my wife.
3. Take advantage of stopovers when using miles. Some airline miles allow a stopover (some allow multiple) when redeeming miles. A stopover is a stop more than 24 hours. For instance, redeeming 60,000 United miles for a trip to Europe could include two totally different destinations for the same price. Here is a list of airline stopover rules, and here is an infographic explaining how stopovers work.
Travel Expertise: Frequent-travel expert Gary Leff is chief financial officer for a university research center. In addition to blogging about his miles and points obsession on View From The Wing, he co-founded InsideFlyer.com, a place for frequent flyers to meet and learn using the latest technology. He’s been called an “air genius” and “the godfather of the [frequent flyer] hobby” in Rolling Stone.
1. Get cheap lounge access. You aren’t usually going to get lounge access for free, but you can get in cheap. Premium credit cards like Chase Sapphire Reserve, American Express Platinum and Citi Prestige bundle lounge access. Here’s another tip: Check out eBay. People get lounge passes with their United credit card, or because they have top elite status with Hyatt and then sell off the passes. You can usually buy the same single-visit United club passes on eBay for $13 that the airline sells for $59.
2. Get your bank to give you points. My BankDirect checking account allows me to earn American Airlines miles. There’s a signup bonus, plus for every $1,000 I keep as an average balance, I get 100 miles a month. I get a lot of business reimbursements, so my checking balances tends to be high; one year, I raked in 50,000 miles.
3. Use this trick so that you don’t lose your miles. Points.com allows you to exchange points between your own accounts for no fee, but you usually lose most of the points in the process, due to the terrible ratios. Therefore, I almost never use Points.com — but it can be useful to keep an account active by moving a single mile into a program where your points would otherwise expire. It can also be useful to move a few points when that counts as partner activity for a bonus promotion.
4. Pay your bills and make miles. With Plastiq.com,you can pay any bill you want with a credit card — even if the recipient doesn’t accept credit cards — and make miles. Plastiq charges a 2.5 percent fee for every transaction, but it might be worth paying in order to get miles by paying your rent or mortgage or car payment. (Plastiq also often offers specials that are worth investigating.)
Who: Laurie Sears Deppa, founder, Kangaroos and Kimonos
Travel Expertise: A lifelong traveler with over 50 countries on her “been there” list, Deppa runs the travel blog Kangaroos and Kimonos. She loves sharing her adventures and travel tips on staying and traveling for little to no money, and on traveling with children. Deppa globetrots with her 5-year old daughter Ellie and, sometimes, her husband.
1. Use airline shopping portals. I don’t buy anything without going through an airline shopping portal, and I wait for the high bonus days. The airlines often offer incentive bonuses — for instance, I got 3,000 extra miles over the holidays. I get emails from all the reward programs I use, so I know when the high bonuses are offered. I usually make a list of the things I need or want (but don’t need ASAP). I bought a futon and two chairs for $1,000 on Kohls.com for 10 points per dollar through United Shopping. We used Discover that time because in the first year, you get double cash back. For buying these things we had to buy anyway, we got $100 cash back from Discover, 10,000 United Points and $100 in Kohls Cash. Then we wrote off the futon as a deduction because we rent our home on Airbnb.
2. If something goes wrong, ask for miles. We just flew on American back from Asia in March. Our flight to LAX got delayed, then canceled. The airline offered a 3,000 point credit as a customer service apology. I contacted the airline after that and asked for more — the airline gave us an extra 10,000 points each.
3. Book your cruise vacations through the airlines. Many people don’t know you can get airline points by cruising. I book my cruises through United Airlines. We posted 5x bonus miles for a cruise that we took in November with Royal Caribbean. We booked directly with United Cruises and we received miles based on the type of cabins and amount spent on each room. We are taking another cruise in May that we booked through United Cruises, sailing out of Barcelona on Norwegian. It all adds up.
Want more great affordable travel ideas? Check out “The 33 Cheapest Places To Travel In 2018.”
More Info: www.forbes.com