A while ago I was young and more broke I was dating a girl that was going away to graduate school on the other side of the country. Being in graduate school myself at the time I didn’t have a ton of cash to spend on back-and-forth travel. I needed to figure out a crafty way to fly across the country for a reasonable price.
While there was no silver bullet in flying cheap, I was able to first make Gold Preferred and then followed up with Silver and collected close to 180,000 miles all for under $1500.
Those miles earned me 1 round trip business class ticket to Europe and 2 Economy class tickets to Europe – or roughly $7000 worth of airline travel! While I did this on US Airways, my general guidelines could be used for just about any airline with a rewards program.
Look for Promotions
One of the first things I did before traveling was check for any current promotions. At the time of my travels US Airways was running a promotion – Fly 7,500 miles or 10 segments for Silver or Fly 15,000 miles or 20 segments for Gold in 90 days and I signed up (It was a free option at the time but they still offer it, for a fee). Seeing as I was going to fly at least twice that time for approximately 8000 miles I felt it was a no-brainer to signup.
I once rented 6 cars from a particular rental agency. I only needed one but told the attendant to book them and return them. He thought I was crazy (maybe I was?) but I was able to net 20k miles in the process. I used a spreadsheet and would figure out if a particular promotion was worth the cost or not. I value miles at 4~5 cents per mile and will spend money if I can get them for less then 3 cents a mile. That particular time I was able to get miles for $0.009/mile!
Airlines often have various promotions – such as booking through a particular city etc that can boost your mileage count. Sometimes you’ll be surprised that adding an extra stop doesn’t effect the price much (and you increase your chances of an oversold flight).
Purposely Book Oversold Flights
While it requires you to be flexible, booking flights that you know will be oversold can save you on future travel. When a flight is oversold they will ask for volunteers and often provide a hefty voucher to go along with it.
For me, I would always book prime-time flights with a connection from DCA-CLT as I know that it will be full of consultants who aren’t as flexible as me. While I sometimes paid a premium I would get more then it back in the form of flight vouchers – including the time I got one for $600 (double the price of the flight I had bought!).
Airlines will oversell flights on purpose. It’s simple economics: sell the really expensive seats when the flight is near or overfull and just offer people with cheaper seats a voucher for future travel. The airline makes more revenue per flight and both customers are happy – one made his flight and the other one was fairly compensated.
Finding oversold flights is easy but takes a little legwork. Use sites like FlightStats.com to find flights that might be oversold. Do your homework – look at flights on the weekdays you want to travel and see which flights fill up. You will find the best luck flying through a airlines hub.
For instance, the flight to the left is an upcoming flight for this Friday. It’s a prime candidate for a oversold flight – Friday, Early, (business travelers just want to get home), through a hub, and out of a major business city. Notice how few seats there are left? The flight is already oversold – the airline will issue vouchers if those high dollar fares show up looking for their seats. Look for similar flights during the times you want to fly look for a pattern and then use that knowledge to book that same flight far in advance before its sold out!
The nice thing about flying on a voucher is you get status and miles. Vouchers were my number one source of keeping flights cheap. A gate agent once joked with me because the system had issues giving me a voucher because I was already flying on one.
Adding Connections to a flight can significantly increase your earned mileage without adding much cost. I sometimes purposely connected in Charlotte instead of flying direct just to gain the extra miles and segments.
While doing so also increases the chances of delays and cancellations (but hey it increases the chance of a oversold flight), for the leisure traveler it’s a great way to increase mileage without spending more money.
Sign Up for the Credit Card
I’m going to start with a warning: Only do this if you are capable of fully paying your credit card every month. If you are in capable of this it will negate any gain you get from the extra miles.
Sign up for whatever airline you use most and use that credit card to earn miles on every day purchases. Most of these credit cards offer some sort of bonus for signing up – mine netted me 45k miles right away. While the miles earned on purchases seem like a little, a lot adds up over time. All told, I earned roughly 25k miles total just with every day purchases over the two years I had the card – or 70k total with the sign up bonus! Again I stress – pay off your credit card in full if you do this.
For the more adventurous – people on FlyerTalk developed a guide for churning rewards cards. Churning is canceling and resigning up for the same card to get the bonus again. While I am not comfortable with the process (I didn’t want the hit to my credit report) – others seem to do it just fine.
Sign Up For Partners that Contribute Miles
Lots of airline partners will also contribute miles to your account. Rental cars, hotels, even getting an insurance quote can get you miles. Lots of Airlines have referral links for online sites (such as Apple) where any purchase you make will net you miles.
Look into and utilize these miles to your advantage. You may be spending money that can net you miles and you don’t know it. A lot of times Airlines target these partners for promotions netting you even bigger gains. All told I earned over half of my 180k miles through promotions and partners.
So in summary this is how I earned 180,000 miles for under $1,500
- Look for promotions and sign up for them
- Look for and book flights you think will be oversold
- Add connections if they don’t significantly break the bank
- Sign up for the airlines credit card and use it (If you can pay it off each month)
- Finally, leverage airline partners (rental cars, hotels etc) to earn even more miles
Hopefully you too will be able to repeat my success!
You can get airline miles through restaurants as well. I have not set foot on a plane in over 5 years, and that is how I was able to retain my miles, was finding cheap restaurants in the DC area, and accumulating anywhere from 30 to 100ish miles. That way, I extend the expiration date on the miles. You can assign one credit card per airline program, so I simply “cancel” the airline after the miles post, and switch it to the other one.
Thanks Mike, you make a very good point. Dining was how I was able to get a few extra miles.