Thursday, August 29, 2013

Free Flights!

The Louvre
How would you like to fly to Paris to take in the sights, and then go on to Florence, Italy, for several days before exploring Spain's sunny Costa del Sol coast?  How about taking that trip in business class with room to stretch your legs and all the warm almonds and cookies you can eat?  And what if you could do all that flying for free?

You can!

And Rick Ingersoll, the Frugal Travel Guy blogger, wants to show you how.
Street in Malaga, Spain.
A couple weeks ago, the Nightline segment about Rick was re-broadcast on the Wednesday night show, The Lookout, (Click here to see the short film.) and I was reminded again how easy it is to get free flights.

I've written about this before in "Fly to Europe for Free (Almost)," but now, two and a half years later, Rick Ingersoll and I are not the only ones helping people reach their fly-for-free goals.

This post will give you the basics of the flying-free philosophy and supply many resources to help you.   Bear in mind this is simply an overview (Though a darned good one!) to help you get started and give you ideas.   Some people devote their entire lives to this endeavor, so you will want to consult their websites which are noted throughout this post.  Truly, although you may never be a multi-millionaire, you can travel as though you are!

Free flights hinge, of course, on earning frequent flyer miles.  You will find strategies in this post that anyone can use and other ideas that might be applicable only to some.  But everyone will benefit from at least one idea.

One of the easiest and simplest ways to earn miles is by using your credit card that is connected to an airline for every single transaction you make.  Whether you buy a salad or a sailboat, use your credit card to do it.  As long as you pay off the balance every month so you don't get yourself in a financial bind, using your credit card is easier than carrying cash, gives you a record of your expenses, and earns you frequent flyer miles.  You've got to spend the money anyway for gasoline or groceries, so you might as well make it work for you in as many ways as possible.  This approach will earn you, depending on your spending habits, a free flight every year or two.

If you have an excellent FICO score, say over 700, and you are well-disciplined (You will need to pay the card off every month or you could get yourself in debt in a hurry.), you can earn thousands of miles by taking advantage of credit card sign-up bonuses.  When these offers come along, you can put your regular credit card that you use for monthly expenses on hold (Just stick it in a drawer.), and take advantage of these sign-up bonuses using the new card for your monthly needs. 

American Express recently offered 30,000 frequent flyer miles (enough for a free flight from New York to San Francisco) to customers who use their card to purchase $500 worth of goods in three months (Using the card for your monthly expenses, it would be extraordinarily easy to rack up that amount in no time.  Fill up your car a few times and you're almost there!)  At about the same time, Southwest Airlines, in connection with Chase Bank, offered 50,000 FF miles (enough for two round-trip domestic flights or one flight to Mexico or South America) if you spend $2000 in three months.  These are just two examples.  There are, literally, at least a dozen more.

If these offers do not routinely show up in your mailbox, you can find them on-line here or here (Click on the gray print--Card Match in right hand corner.) and call the bank to set up your card.  Subscribe to The Points Guy free e-mail service, and he will be happy to send you the latest card offers as well as other ways to earn frequent flyer points.  If you're still unsure how to go about this, Rick Ingersoll tells you how here.

If you're worried about all those credit cards having a negative impact on your credit score, Ingersoll reassures, "Every time you apply for a credit card, they do what is called an inquiry on your credit report," he explained. "It costs between 2 to 5 points on your score. It is not a big hit on your score."

Mileage Runs are another trick to earn frequent flyer miles.  If you've got time to take advantage of special promotions airlines sponsor, you can rack up a lot of miles in a few days.  Bob Dashman, one of Ingersoll's conference participants, explained it this way, "One day I flew from Austin to Dallas to Orange County, California, left the airport and then spent five hours with my relatives. Then got back on a plane flew to O'Hare, then Frankfurt, Germany, sat in the lounge for about an hour and then Frankfurt back to O'Hare back to Austin."
I'm sure Mr. Dashman was jet-lagged when he returned to Texas, but he earned an impressive number of FF Miles to show for it!

Mattress Runs take advantage of the many points offered by some hotel chains that can be converted to FF miles.

Rental Cars are another way to earn miles.  Although you will probably only want to make sure you rent from a company that offers miles on your next trip, dedicated FF earners take advantage of specials that come along.

For example, George Smart, another of Ingersoll's participants, did just that when a company offered 10,000 points for a one-day rental.  Mr. Smart went to his local airport and rented every car possible. "Which took about four or five hours," he said. "About 12 or 15 in morning, I would get maybe 60 to 100,000 miles for a very inexpensive investment. That's the equivalent of going to Europe on discount twice."

Stopovers are a way to get two trips in one as Susan Stellin, a travel writer for the New York Times, explains in this article, "How to Get a Seat Out of Your Miles."

     One benefit of award travel is the opportunity to book a free stopover. “Each airline has its own rules,” Mr. Grimmer said. “But you can always get at least one stopover on your round-trip international award.” On American, that stopover has to be at a gateway city in North America, so if you’re flying to South America, you could spend a few days in Miami before continuing to, say, Buenos Aires. Other airlines allow you to book a free stopover abroad, meaning you could book an award ticket on United from New York to Frankfurt, spend a few days in Germany and then fly to Venice.       - Susan Stellin

For the best explanation I have seen on this sometimes confusing subject of stopovers, click on Part 4 in the middle of Daraius Dubash's page .  Also be sure to check out the rest of his blog at  Million Mile Secrets.

Dubash offers many tips for accumulating and maximizing FF miles as do several other bloggers.  While there is a $45 yearly fee for a subscription to "Inside Flyer," for a free comprehensive overview of FF approaches and methods, see this page, and note the ten tools (websites) listed at the end.

Also note that many of the other frequent flyer websites offer free daily e-mails that will keep you informed about special offers and provide strategies for realizing your travel dreams.  With just a little research and a bit of savvy know-how, you, too, can travel like a millionaire!

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