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Welcome to the next interview in our interview series where renowned mile and point gurus share their insights on having Big Travel with Small Money!
Miles & Points Interview: How to Fly for Free
Scott is a travel writer who blogs on Huffington Post Travel and wrote an e-book called How To Fly For Free: Practical Tips The Airlines Don’t Want You To Know so I was looking forward to our chat on Friday!
How and when did you start collecting miles and points?
For the longest time, I thought frequent flyer miles were a scam designed to get people to pay more than the cheapest fare possible in order to fly a preferred airline. Luckily for my future self, I just so happened to be signed into my American Airlines account when I would buy tickets to fly back and forth to California for school, so by the time I started realizing the benefits that miles had to offer, I already had around 50,000 American Airlines miles in the bank.
I’ve always loved to travel, but when I finished grad school and got my first job in early 2010, I developed an acute case of wanderlust. I work at a nonprofit and don’t make much money, so I could never afford to travel the world using my meager bank account. The answer, I soon realized, was using frequent flyer miles to my benefit. I’ve amassed over 1.4 million miles since then and spend too much of my waking day imagining where they’ll take me!
Why did you start your blog? What’s special about it?
I wrote How To Fly For Free: Practical Tips The Airlines Don’t Want You To Know because I typically take 2-3 international vacations a year, and every time I returned friends would pepper me with the same two questions: “how can you possibly afford to travel so much?” and “how do I take cool, free trips too?” I would try to explain that I wouldn’t be able to afford to see the world if I had to pay for my flights. “I used to think frequent flyer miles were a scam, but they’re not!”
I would implore, to little avail. Their doubt would soon turn into apathy, and before you know it they’re back to paying out-of-pocket for expensive flights (or complaining that they never go anywhere).
I realized quickly that most people don’t want to take the time and effort to become an expert. They just want to take an awesome vacation for free!
Plenty of frequent flyer books promise to teach you how to get the cheapest airfare possible. But tips like “get an airlines credit card” or “try to fly the same carrier each time” aren’t terribly useful. These broad overviews are about as helpful as teaching someone to play soccer by instructing them to “kick the ball towards the goal.”
That’s why I ended up writing How To Fly For Free: to give people who aren’t wealthy hyper-practical tips for traveling the world.
What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?
Clearly, credit card bonus offers are the best way to quickly amass miles. But at the risk of rehashing what most readers here already know, I’d like to offer a tip that is perhaps less well-known.
If you’re like me and don’t travel for a living, the perks of elite status, including bonus miles every time you fly, might seem unattainable. However, if you’ve got almost any international flight coming up, you can actually use it to become an elite flyer. Here’s how.
American Airlines and US Airways allow a secret shortcut called a “status challenge” where, instead of flying the necessary 25,000 miles in a year to become an elite flyer, you just have to fly a shorter amount in three months. For American, it’s 5,000 points in three months and for US Airways it’s 7,500 miles (or 10 segments) in three months.
So if you’ve got an upcoming flight from, say, New York to Rome (a distance of 8,500 miles), you can register for a status challenge beforehand and become an elite flyer the moment you set foot back in the states.
Unfortunately, it costs $140 to register for American and $200 for US Airways, but for many people this is a small price to pay to get the countless perks of elite status for the next 14+ months, including free checked bags, priority check-in at security, early boarding, seat upgrades, 25 percent bonus miles, and standby fees waived.
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
Galapagos Islands, hands-down. I had a friend living on the islands and I had some unused vacation days set to expire, so the timing was perfect. The only thing standing in the way of snorkeling with sea lions was a $1600 plane ticket. I can’t afford that!
Instead, I called up American Airlines to book an award flight. The agent I spoke with didn’t even think it was possible to get there on miles, because American only flies to mainland airports in Ecuador like Guayaquil. However, I remembered that LAN was in the same airline alliance (Oneworld) as American, so I should be able to book a ticket to the Galapagos just using my American miles.
Sure enough, after I mentioned this to the telephone agent and suggested a few suitable flights, she apologized for the oversight and booked a roundtrip flight from Washington DC to the Galapagos (via Guayaquil) for just 35,000 miles.
The trip itself was incredible. Iguanas and blue-footed boobies roam everywhere on the islands and the food is as cheap as it is fresh. You haven’t lived until you’ve prepared ceviche with some freshly-caught wahoo that cost a dollar, and washed it down with fresh-squeezed passionfruit juice.
If you ever get a chance to go, I highly recommend going snorkeling in “los tuneles”, underwater tunnels formed by a volcano eruption. As soon as you get in the water, sea lions come up and start playing, swimming circles around you and making you chase after them. Ridiculously fun!
What do your family and friends think of your miles & points hobby?
Early on few believed that I could actually pull off my goal of never paying for international flights again for the rest of my life (unless there’s an absolute steal of a deal). Now, with free trips to the Galapagos Islands, Belgium, Dominican Republic, and elsewhere in the books, that disbelief has morphed into jealousy among most my friends. After all, who doesn’t want to travel the world for free? Among family and close friends, many went from thinking it’s a silly hobby to immense gratitude after I was able to bring them along on free trips using miles, bumped vouchers, or Southwest’s companion pass.
Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?
Most of the cheap flights I’ve found, I owe to a single Twitter feed: @airfarewatchdog. Airfarewatchdog does an incredible job of tweeting out links to cheap fares and showing flights to/from different cities when intermittent sales pop up. Monitoring it obsessively is key, because when you see a truly great deal, you have to act fast.
The best airfare deals last a few hours at most because they tend to either be a mistake fare (someone at the airline pricing desk screwed up) or a short-term sale with an extremely limited number of seats available. Strike while the iron’s hot because it won’t last long. Sales like $250 roundtrip to Europe come along maybe twice a year, so jump on it if you can.
What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?
Letting airlines know about minor imperfections on their airplanes can net you thousands and thousands of miles. For instance, I recently flew American Airlines from the Dominican Republic to Miami and the picture on the closest TV kept flashing in and out. I emailed American Airlines after the flight to let them know that I didn’t care because I was just reading my book, but I figure they’d want to know about the problem so they can fix it for future passengers who might want to watch.
A couple days later, a profuse apology showed up in my inbox along with 2,500 miles deposited in my account as a gesture of goodwill! Kudos, American Airlines.
What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?
Strategizing about which credit cards to get when I began seriously accumulating miles. My very first card was an American Airlines Citi Card that had a measly 30,000-point sign-up bonus. Silly me just went on Citi’s website and saw what cards they publicly offered instead of consulting blogs like Million Mile Secrets to figure out which card offered the most points.
This naïve move cost me my shot at his infamous two-browser trick and tens of thousands of potential miles. From that moment forward, I vowed not to let my lack of awareness cost me huge miles and have worked diligently to stay abreast of the best current offers.
What would your readers be surprised to know about you?
I’ve amassed 1.4 million miles in the past two years, but I’ve only ever paid for two credit cards. We all have arbitrary lines we draw for ourselves, and paying for credit cards is mine. For whatever reason, I don’t want to cross that line where I start applying for credit cards that don’t waive their annual fee in the first year. (I made an exception for two Southwest credit cards in order to get the Companion Pass, but as the unquestioned most valuable travel hack, especially for traveling couples, it was well worth it.)
I’ve only actually flown a few hundred thousand miles in my life; nearly all the rest of my miles have come from credit cards with waived annual fees.
Any parting words?
Never pay credit card annual fees! There are far too many good cards out there to make it worth it to pay $100+ just to keep open one particular card. You’ve already received your sign-up bonus, and the points-per-dollar-spent is rarely a good deal. Just open a different card with a new sign-up bonus!
Here’s what I recommend. A few weeks before the anniversary of when you signed up, look on the back of your credit card and call the phone number listed there. Point to your impeccable record of on-time payments and tell them you’d like to have the annual fee waived for the next year. Every time but one I’ve done this, the agent has agreed to waive the annual fee.
If the agent won’t get rid of the fee, ask her if she can downgrade you to a card that doesn’t have an annual fee. American Express, for instance, lets you downgrade your Starwood card to a no-fee Blue Sky card. Closing a credit card dings your credit score a couple points, so you should only take this option if you can’t get the annual fee waived and can’t get your card downgraded.
Scott– Thanks for sharing your thoughts on having Big Travel with Small Money!