How Can I Fly for Free?
Become a flight attendant. For those of you elsewise employed, however, the answer is air miles. Here’s the thing about air miles: many of the people who earn enough of them to travel, don’t have the time or desire to use them. Most of the people who want them, don’t feel they can get them. They don’t travel enough to accumulate a significant amount.
But there are a variety of ways you can get the miles you want.
Those of you with the surplus have a couple options for that over-eager odometer. The first is look into what else you can get besides airline tickets. Look for alternative rewards from flowers for your honey to TVs and electronics; many of the companies that have special relationships with your frequent flyer miles program offer tremendous savings on their products or they can issue gift certificates. Some programs provide ways you can donate to a favorite charity. And if all else fails, hey, be a buddy and redeem a reward for that special friend or relative who doesn’t get around enough.
Despite often earning a boatload of miles (I am a travel writer after all) I can use them up rather quickly. So what can you do to get that free ticket faster?
Sometimes the obvious is overlooked. Sign up! That’s right, I’ve bumped into many travelers who find themselves on an airline they usually don’t travel. You must register for air miles before the journey. Air miles programs are free, so get on top of that. Enter your frequent flyer number when you purchase your ticket, or at the counter when you check in. (I’ve even done it at the gate but don’t recommend it – I believe I was lucky that day.) If you are already a miles club member you can usually claim those miles after the fact if you forgot to give them your account number before the flight. It may require some hassles with the airline’s website or even mailing in a boarding pass.
Be Aware of Partner Airlines. Got an American Airlines account but you’re flying Japan Airlines (JAL)? Or you’ve got a United account and want a ticket on Thai Airways? Find out the airline’s alliance. The miles may be transferable to the partner airline. Got a Starwood credit card from American Express? Your Starwood Rewards points can be converted to several airlines at a 1:1 ratio.
So maybe the cheapest ticket you could find was with Thai Airways and you don’t have a frequent flyer account with them, nor do you ever imagine you will fly with them so often for it to matter. But in most situations you can give your account with another airline if that airline is an affiliated partner. In this case, I’d be dumping my Thai Airways miles into my account with United. (Be aware that in the case where you forgot to do this when you ticketed or when you checked in, that it can become a headache to credit miles after the flight when the miles are going to another airline’s account.) Also, some deeply discounted tickets may not accrue miles or may not transfer 1:1 to your chosen member airline
What’s in your wallet? (or purse, money belt, or the secret pocket sewn in your underwear, oh Clever One)? You’ve seen the credit card commercials, but there’s not just one card out there giving rewards. Some are wedded to a particular airline which may seem a little restrictive, but there still may be some flexibility there, particularly if the airline has an agreement with other airlines.
Make sure you know how easy or hard it is to get your rewards. My cards are directly affiliated and the miles go into my account every month. Any hassles would be directly with the airline. However, Capital One claims to make it easy. Orbitz also offers their own card.
Some cards come with annual companion tickets, another bonus to figure into the equation. Sign up bonuses and spending rewards add up faster for me than even my round-the-world trips. I took a credit card with a sign-up bonus of 20,000 miles. That’s very close to a round-trip ticket in the US. Put all your bills on one card and take advantage of periodic double miles offers and the miles just start piling up.
Read your fine print. Some have annual fees and if you are “taking advantage” of their whopping interest rates at times, probably you should just cut the cards and pay cash for the tickets—you’re not gaining anything here. For cards that waive the first year’s fee, call them up to cancel at 11.5 months and you may be surprised how quickly they can find you a fee-free alternative.
Check out emiles.com and their minutes for miles operation. You provide marketing info, and earn 5-200 miles in a few seconds just looking at an ad and clicking your opinion or taking a cheap subscription to the New York Times. Shoppers will find some nice offers here; I’m just there for the mileage though.