How We Flew for Free, and How You Can Too

When we talk to people about the logistics of how we made our trip work, one thing that always seems to surprise people is the fact that we did not pay for a single long-haul international airplane ticket during the entire year. We flew on all of these flights for (basically) free:

Houston -> Mumbai
New Delhi -> Houston
Houston -> Philadelphia
Philadelphia -> Casablanca
Casablanca -> Johannesburg
Johannesburg -> Istanbul
Amsterdam -> Philadelphia
Philadelphia -> San Diego

How did we do this? Miles and points. Lots and lots of miles and points. After explaining this fact to people, the next thing we hear is usually “Ok, so how do I do that?” In this post, I’m going to detail how we set about accumulating over 500,000 frequent flier miles, how we planned the trip to maximize the value of those miles, and how you can, too. (Note: This post is pretty lengthy, but in the interest of getting you started on the right foot, I wanted to be thorough.)

What are Miles?

Frequent Flier Miles (“Miles”) are a reward you receive from airlines when you use their products and services. Miles are earned in a few different ways:

  • Flying – When you buy an airplane ticket and take the flight, you earn miles for that flight. For example, the distance between Houston and Chicago is 925 miles, so you would usually earn 925 frequent flier miles if you took that flight. This is why they are called “miles” – you usually earn one mile for every mile flown.
  • Sign Up Bonuses – When you sign up for an airline-branded credit card, such as the United Mileage Plus Explorer Card offered by Chase. After singing up and spending a certain amount of money on the card in the first few months, you will receive a “sign up bonus” of several thousand miles from the airline.
  • Regular Spending – When you make purchases with your airline-branded credit card. Typically, you will earn about 1 mile for every $1 you spend on the card. Some cards offer different reward amounts based on the type of purchase. For example, the Chase United Mileage Plus Explorer Card gives you 2 miles for every $1 you spend on United tickets.

How do you redeem miles?

You redeem miles directly with the airline on which you earned them, and you use them to buy air travel. Some programs allow you to use your miles for other types of travel purchases (hotels, rental cars, etc.) though we generally recommend against doing so, and this post is confined solely to the topic of buying airfare with miles.

Each airline has their own rules about how many miles it takes to buy a particular ticket. Here is United’s award chart. Here is US Airways/American Airlines award chart.

Typically, there is a single price for a given origin/destination regardless of time of year or the cash price of the actual ticket. For example, it costs 60,000 miles to buy a round-trip economy ticket from the US to Europe on United no matter how much the same ticket would cost in cash, and no matter when in the year you go. This is a crucial point to understand later on.

What are Points?

“Points” is a catch-all term for rewards points you receive from credit card companies for using their products. They are earned in a few different ways:

  • Sign Up Bonuses – When you sign up for a new credit card, you will often receive a “sign up” or “welcome” bonus of several thousand points after using the card for a certain period of time after enrollment.
  • Regular Spending – When you make purchases with your card, you will typically receive 1 point for every $1 you spend. Some cards offer bonuses for making certain types of purchases (e.g. dining out, travel, office supplies), where you will receive 2+ points per $1 spent.

Note that when you use an airline-branded credit card, you typically receive miles and when you use a credit card that’s not airline-branded you typically receive points.

How do you use Points?

This is heavily dependent on which credit card company’s points you’re talking about. Each program is slightly different and I encourage you to thoroughly explore the rules and options of a card’s reward program before you apply. That said, there are three ways to use points which are fairly common:

  • Transfer Them – Some rewards programs (notably Chase Ultimate Rewards) allow you to transfer your points to an airline frequent flier program at a 1:1 ratio, meaning you can turn 10,000 points into 10,000 miles with an airline.
  • Redeem Them Directly – Most rewards programs have online shopping portals that are like their own versions of Orbitz.com where you can shop for plane tickets and buy them with points instead of with cash.
  • Statement Credit – Most rewards programs allow you to turn your points into statement credit after the fact. For example, if your credit card bill is $500 at the end of the month and you want to pay it off using points, you can convert 50,000 points into $500 worth of statement credit to pay your bill.

With very few exceptions, transferring your points to an airline frequent flier program is the way to go if you’re looking to get more airfare bang for your points buck.

What did we do?

The first thing we did was choose an airline on which we wanted to earn most of our miles and to which we wanted to transfer most of our points. We chose United Airlines for three reasons:

  • Star Alliance – United is a member of the Star Alliance, a group of 27 airlines worldwide that have integrated themselves with each other to some degree and cooperate for the mutual benefit of the airlines and their passengers. United allows you to use your miles to fly on United Airlines as well as any of the 26 other Star Alliance partners at no additional cost in terms of either miles or dollars. This means that even though United doesn’t fly to South Africa, you can still fly there with United miles by flying on Star Alliance members Turkish Airlines, South African Airways, or Lufthansa. And you can book these tickets directly through United.com just as though the flights were on United. I cannot overstate how huge a deal this is.
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards Transfer – Chase allows you to transfer Ultimate Rewards points directly to United at a 1:1 points to miles ratio. This means that if I earn 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points, it’s just as good as earning 50,000 United Miles.
  • Favorable Routing Rules – Currently, United allows one stop-over and two open-jaws on a single rewards itinerary. This means that the following two tickets each cost 60,000 miles per person:
    1. US -> Rome -> US
    2. US -> Rome -> Paris -> (make your way to) London (on your own) -> US

So you can visit Rome for 60k miles, or you can visit Rome, Paris, and London for 60k miles and the price of a train ticket from Paris to London.

We then did everything we could to earn as many United miles as possible and as many points that could be transferred to United miles as possible. Specifically:

  • When we had to fly, we flew United if at all possible. This maximized the number of flight miles we earned.
  • We applied for a couple United branded credit cards:
    1. I got the Mileage Plus Select Card which came with a 40,000 mile bonus, as well as a 5,000 bonus for adding an authorized user (added Danielle).
    2. Danielle got the Mileage Plus Explorer Card which came with a 50,000 mile bonus as well as a 5,000 bonus for adding an authorized user (added me).
  • We applied for the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
    1. I got one and got 40,000 Ultimate Rewards Points
    2. Danielle got one and got 40,000 Ultimate Rewards Points
  • Every dollar we spent (with the exception of our rent) was spent using one of the above 4 credit cards, earning us at least one point or mile per dollar spent. “Dining Out” got 2 points per dollar on the Sapphire card, United purchases got 2 miles per dollar spent on the United cards, etc. We stayed aware of which card would be most beneficial for any given purchase, and used that card.

You’ll notice that from the sign-up bonuses and authorized user bonuses alone we got 180,000 points/miles. To help you understand exactly how far you can go on those miles alone, here’s an actual itinerary you can book for 2 people for less than 180,000 miles on United:

AlmostFree

US -> Casablanca (stay in Morocco as long as you want)
Casablanca -> Johannesburg (stay in South Africa as long as you want)
Johannesburg -> Istanbul (stay in Turkey as long as you want)
Istanbul -> US

Booking that ticket out of Chicago, staying in each place for about 2 weeks, and going this summer would cost $14,000 for 2 people on United if you paid cash. Or you could apply for some credit cards and go for free (well, almost – you still have to pay some taxes/fees, which will come out to a few hundred dollars).

How can you do it?

The section above should give you a pretty good idea about how you can do something like this yourself, whether you’re considering long-term travel or looking to take a 2 week vacation. The steps are:

  • Choose an airline/Alliance and sign up for the airline’s frequent flier program if you’re not already a member.
  • Choose credit cards that will earn you large sign-up bonuses for your chosen airline and/or points that can be transferred 1:1 to miles for your chosen airline. If you have a spouse, have them apply for one, too.
  • Make sure you meet the minimum spend requirements to earn the sign up bonus, often $500-$3,000 in the first 90 days, but sometimes as little as $1.
  • Earn as many additional points/miles as possible by using your credit card(s) for your everyday expenses, flying your chosen airline as often as possible, adding authorized users to your card(s), etc.
  • Book your award travel at least 3 months in advance to ensure good award seat availability on your chosen flights.

Finally, some dos and don’ts:

  • DO NOT choose Delta Airlines. With Delta, you earn flight miles based on the cash cost of your ticket rather than the actual number of miles flown, and you redeem your miles based on the cash cost of the ticket you’re looking to buy rather than a flat rate.
  • DO NOT get in over your head. If you have a history of abusing credit or being unable to pay off credit cards, you should absolutely not use this strategy. We paid the full balance of each card every single month, thereby paying $0 in interest. Paying interest will quickly add up and make your “free” tickets very expensive. Be responsible. Don’t buy things you wouldn’t otherwise buy, just make sure your regular, routine purchases go on your card and the card is paid off every single month.
  • DO look for other mileage earning opportunities. You’ll sometimes get emails from the credit card company or the airline offering, for example, 5,000 bonus miles if you sign up for a Wine of the Month club. Sign up, earn the miles, pay for the first month, and cancel (unless Wine of the Month is your thing – if so, enjoy your wine and your miles).
  • DO inquire about earning opportunities when renting cars. Virtually every airline has an agreement with virtually every car rental agency whereby you can earn miles by renting a car, with no additional cost.
  • DO NOT follow this strategy if you intend to buy/refinance a house or take out a large auto loan in the next 12 months. Applying for several credit cards tends to lower your credit score (marginally). Knocking a few points off won’t matter when it comes to your daily life, but a few points here and there can make a huge difference when applying for a mortgage. Please consult a financial professional if you plan to purchase a house or refinance a mortgage in the next 12 months prior to applying for any new credit.
  • DO claim miles that you’re owed. If you have flown in the past 6 months but did not give the airline your frequent flier number beforehand (or hadn’t yet signed up for their frequent flier program), you can usually claim those miles after the fact for the next 6 months. Research how to claim “missing miles”, or post a comment here if you need help.

Cards we recommend

Chase Sapphire Preferred (Applying through this link helps us out)
United Mileage Plus Explorer
Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Visa
Barclays Arrival Visa

Other Resources

  • FlyerTalk.com – The definitive hub for earning miles and points. Expert help is available on their forums, and their articles and news items are a great help.
  • MileValue.com – Another fantastic resource for all things miles and points.
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