Getting the most out of frequent flier points.
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How I snagged over $4000 in airline tickets for only $427.
I’m usually not one to plan too far in advance when traveling, but thanks to a (formerly) healthy stash of frequent flier miles and a lot of patience and research, I’ve got a ton of exciting travel plans for the first half of 2012. At some point between Jan 9th and July 14th I’ll have:
1 week in Istanbul (a city that has long been on my list to visit)
3 weeks in Hong Kong (for several years now one of my favorite cities in the world)
3 weeks in Austria/Switzerland (and maybe Budapest/Bratislava/Leichtenstein? Lots of possibilities still fermenting here!)
5 weeks in Yap and Palau (Pacific island nations scattered between the Philippines and Hawai’i)
14 weeks in Central Asia (Turkmenistan/Uzbekistan/Tajikistan/Kyrgyzstan)
and, as a bonus, a day or two in all of Dubai/Bangkok/Seoul/Guam for a quick taste of each one.
The best part, of course, that instead of paying a fortune for these tickets ($4000 could last 4 or 5 months of traveling in SouthEast Asia, after all!) I paid a grand total, including taxes and fees, of only $427.
How to fly for (nearly) free.
What’s the key to this? Airline frequent flier programs. Not only having and using membership in these programs, but being smart about how to get the most value out of them. In total I spent about 4 hours on the phone with the Continental Airlines OnePass program (sitting one night on the side of a desolate street in the dark touristy heart of Kathmandu, Nepal; thats a different story), but in being patient and knowing the rules I managed to save about $3500 on flights to places I’m crazy excited about visiting.
In total these trips cost me $427 and 108,000 Continental OnePass frequent flier miles. Far from having flown that much with Continental, though, I’ve managed to use credit card bonuses and spending, Star Alliance partner earning, and online shopping specials to bank enough miles. For great info on how to earn miles easily, travel-hacker Rick Ingersoll at Frugal Travel Guy is without doubt my favorite resource.
Possibly more important than knowing how to earn points, though, is knowing the best way to use them. Look for the flights that cost absurd amounts of cash but unusually low mileage redemption, and book those. Take as many layovers and open-jaws (flying into and out of different airports) as the rules will allow, to avoid backtracking within a country to get to your return flight or simply to explore more places. Fly into that tiny airport you really want to go to, rather than searching for the one with the cheapest ticket prices. A wealth of info on how to maximize the use of these options is available from Kent at Dromomaniac. Knowing the rules for routings and stopovers (extended time in the transit city where you would switch planes anyways) is also important for maximizing the usefulness of reward tickets. I’m a big fan of long layovers as well, which can be a quick taste (up to 24 hours) of a city I’ve never been to instead of a monotonous 3 or 4 hours sitting in the airport.
Flights to Yap and Palau only run a few days a week, and only one international airline services this region (conveniently for me, Continental) so even from relatively close airports like Hong Kong the scarcity of flights and competition mean flights can run upwards of $2000. Mileage redemption between South Asia and here, though, is relatively cheap at 30,000 OnePass miles for a round-trip ticket. Round-trip flights within the US can potentially cost more miles than this, and I paid the same for a round-trip between Texas and Kentucky last summer. Knowing that I could use a stopover I managed to fly through Yap on the way to Palau. Essentially, this means that I got a free flight between the two and only paid the mileage cost of a simple round-trip between Hong Kong and Palau. As a bonus, I’ve got long layovers (16 hours each) en route in Seoul and Guam to spend a little time in two places I’ve never been before. All it took was knowing which flights go there and being flexible with which dates I travel on.
On the way to Central Asia, too, stopovers played an important part in my planning. I promised friends in Europe I would try to visit sometime soon, so on the way to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan I took a one month stopover in Istanbul. Not only do I have time to visit this city I’ve always wanted to, but I’m also flying from there to Vienna and back from Zurich. I’ll have time to meet up with friends in Europe, take care of a visa for Tajikistan in Vienna, and save the cost of backtracking by train to Vienna to take my return flight. I checked on ‘budget’ airline websites but didn’t like any of the options, so I booked these flights on Lufthansa for $241. As a Star Alliance partner, these flights will earn me more miles on Continental to use towards my next rewards redemption. Even counting the Lufthansa flights, I get to visit Istanbul/Austria/Switzerland/Central Asia all for just over $300.
I don’t always use these miles for only those absurdly expensive legs, though. To get from Hong Kong to Dubai (the starting point of my Central Asia itinerary) on OnePass miles is a pretty expensive 37.5k miles one-way. I found flights for $600 and under, but they all routed through places where I would need to apply for transit visas and none of the schedules were all that appealing. Instead, I paid $15 and get another of those ‘bonus days’ on a 20-hour layover in Bangkok on the way. Thailand is one of the few countries in SouthEast Asia I haven’t made it to yet, so I’m excited to check out the capital and try some of this street food I’ve heard so much about from other travelers. Was it the most efficient use of my miles? Certainly not. But it turned out to be the most enjoyable way I could find between Hong Kong and Dubai, and still leaves me a few days to get a second look at the souk markets in Dubai before continuing to Istanbul and Europe. By the time my last flight (July 14th) rolls around, credit card special offers and spending should build my balance up again to the point that I’ll be able to comfortably continuing traveling at budget prices on airfare.
Airline rewards like this are one of my favorite ways to save tons of money while traveling. It enables me to, as one of my friends put it, “break the rules of traveling on a budget” by hopping between different countries and regions of the globe. Between January and July I’ll have long visits to 7 new countries, 4 new cities (and 2 old favorites), and visit friends in Asia and Europe. All for $427 in airfare. I’m pretty happy with that.
There’s no real reason you shouldn’t be earning huge mileage points for all sorts of common activities, and using those miles effectively to travel to those out of the way destinations with lots of travel appeal but shocking flight prices. Sign up for rewards programs, do your homework on the reward rules, and fly for (almost) free!
Here’s the route and related cost of all the flights I discuss above:
Hong Kong – Seoul (free 16 hours layover)
Seoul – Yap (2 weeks, counts as a stopover)
Yap – Palau (with a 16 hour layover in Guam)
Palau – Hong Kong
Total cost: $92 and 30k miles.
HK to Dubai
Hong Kong – Bangkok (free 20-hour layover)
Bangkok – Dubai
Total cost: $15 and 37.5k miles.
Dubai to Central Asia
Dubai – Istanbul (with a one-month stopover)
Istanbul – Ashgabat (Turkmenistan)
Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) – Dubai
Total cost: $79 and 40k miles.
Istanbul to Europe
Istanbul – Vienna
Zurich – Istanbul
Total Cost: $241 (and will earn OnePass miles for future use.)