I recently wrapped up a seven-month dream trip in Central and South America. During the entire trip, I flew about fifteen times—but only paid for four flights. The rest were booked with frequent flyer miles.
1. Sign Up
The first step is to sign up for a frequent flyer mile account with the airline you fly the most often in each of the three major airline alliances: Star Alliance, oneworld, and SkyTeam. Otherwise, choose the most logical national/regional airline near your home in each alliance. (For most Americans, the best options are usually Delta, American Airlines, and United.) For family travel, make sure everyone has their own account, including children.
2. Use Airline Alliances
Airline alliances provide more options to both earn and redeem miles. When I lived in Australia for a year, I usually flew Qantas but always earned miles on American Airlines. Even if you book the cheapest flight, the odds are good your airline is part of an alliance. Simply add the frequent flyer number of the corresponding national/regional airline from your country to every reservation.
3. Redeem Wisely
There is an art to redeeming miles. International flights are almost always the best deal. Plus, airline alliances open up a wider range of route options. One-way domestic or international flights are great options for planning multi-city trips. For U.S. domestic routes, fares under $300 are usually not a great value for award travel. (A mileage award for a domestic flight can be almost as much as a more expensive international flight so choose carefully!) For domestic routes in foreign countries, reward mileage levels can be as low as 6,000 miles one-way!
Book award travel online to avoid fees. If that’s not possible, most airlines will automatically waive the agent fee for booking by phone. If they don’t, be sure ask for a fee wavier.
4. Book Early & Avoid Peak Season
The early bird gets the best deal. During holiday and peak seasons, moving your travel dates back a few weeks or even days can save you up to 75%. Award travel for the holidays should be booked months in advance to snatch the best deals. If you wait, you still might get award flights, but you’ll have a higher chance of ending up with multiple layovers.
5. Double Dip
Many hotel and other loyalty programs allow you to earn airline miles in conjunction with their points. Hilton HHonors allows you to earn one airline mile per dollar spent. You can even exchange their hotel points for miles. Most airlines also have deals with rental car companies for discounts and bonus miles.
6. Work Travel
There’s nothing better than getting paid to travel. Many people forget to collect miles on work travel for airlines, hotels, and rental cars. Regardless of who pays for the flight, the person who flies gets the miles. Just make sure all hotel and car reservations are in your name to ensure you get mileage credit.
7. Rewards Credit Cards
Almost every reward credit card includes a signup bonus offer—spend a certain amount (usually $1,000) in the first 90 days and receive up to a 40,000-mile bonus. That’s more than enough for a round-trip flight from the U.S. to Central/South America or a one-way flight to Europe.
Airline-based cards often give you double points for flight purchases and either a discount or percentage back for redeemed miles. You also get free checked bags for you and companions; plus, priority boarding. Keep in mind award cards usually have an annual fee that is waived the first year.) Some non-airline cards even allow you to redeem miles for the partial cost of the flight—and you can still earn miles on those flights. Pretty cool.
8. Dining Programs
Yes—it’s possible to earn miles while you eat. Most major airlines have dining programs that allow you to register all of your bank cards. You earn points when you dine at a participating restaurant with any of the cards linked to your account.
9. Mileage Shopping Malls
Online shoppers should check out airline mileage shopping malls. Many offer extra points when purchasing online through their mall, which links to websites of popular retailers like Apple, Target and Home Depot. Simply click on your airline or credit card’s link to the retailer’s website and all purchases made will earn bonus miles. This bonus mileage varies per retailer and ranges dramatically with regular promotions. Maximize your points by using your airline rewards credit card for purchases. Earn miles while holiday shopping!
10. Social Media
Many airlines offer free miles on social media for watching videos or participating in online promotions. Plus, it’s also a great way to keep up to date about their current sales, new routes and mileage promotions. So follow airlines in your main carrier’s alliance, and start earning miles when you’re bored work.
Want more tips? Check out these 5 frequent flyer myths that we debunked!