Cutting Your Travel Costs with Frequent Flyer Miles

“How can you afford to travel so much?” We’re asked that question pretty frequently, and it’s one that has a lot of answers. Travel is our hobby, so we prioritize our budget accordingly — we don’t ski, sail, or golf (much). We make do with the old couch, drive a ’97 Civic, tolerate the temperamental oven, carpool, pack lunches for work every day, keep the thermostat down low at night, and stick to basic cable (although not having ESPN’s Baseball Tonight during fantasy baseball season can be a bit of a sticking point).

We're neither loyal nor proud when it comes to frequent flyer miles.

We’re neither loyal nor proud when it comes to frequent flyer miles.

When we do travel, we stick to budget accommodations that adhere to Rick Steves’ travel philosophy: “never sacrifice sleep, nutrition, safety, or cleanliness in the name of budget.” (Okay, we’ve missed the target once or twice.)

But our biggest travel-dollar-saving secret isn’t such a secret. It’s frequent flyer miles. We’re not as hardcore as some frequent flyer mile junkies, but we keep our eyes open for easy ways to accrue big piles of miles.

Most airlines offer a sign-up deal for their credit card that includes enough frequent flyer miles to get a free domestic airline ticket. While many of these offers waive the card’s annual fee for the first year of use, some charge a nominal fee (the last card we applied for had an $89 fee). Rather than balking at the fee, we see it as a coupon for an $89 round-trip ticket to anywhere in the US.

Banks do run a credit background check when you apply for the credit card, if that’s a concern. Most cards award the miles (25,000 miles in most cases) after one purchase, while some require a minimum amount of purchases during the first few months of cardmembership (often $750 over a three-month period).

Minimum purchase requirement met?

Minimum purchase requirement met?

To meet the requirements, we’ll make a token purchase — something we’d already buy, like gas or groceries — or exclusively use the new card for all purchases — until we’ve met the minimum requirement — and then put the card away to collect dust.

Long after we’ve received our mileage bonus, the card renewal will show up — along with its annual fee — and we can then decide if we want to keep or cancel the card.

We tend to favor cards affiliated with airlines that better service our frequent destinations (United to Chicago and American to St. Thomas, for example), that seem to have better frequent flyer seat availability, or that offer additional cardmember benefits (companion fare certificates or elimination of checked bag fees). We’ve found that, in some cases, savings from the latter can more than make up for the card’s annual fee.

While there’s a school of thought that urges frequent flyers to stick to one card affiliated with one airline, we prefer not to put all of our frequent flyer mile eggs in one basket. Besides, the incremental miles that we accrue with each month’s purchases tend to pale in comparison with the 25,000 or 30,000 or 40,000 mile bonuses offered by some airlines.

As for accruing miles, we use our credit cards for all everyday purchases. (Our checkbook accumulates a lot of dust.) Groceries, gasoline, Internet, insurance, utility bills, charitable donations, meals, parking meters — if they’ll take a credit card, we’ll use it. This isn’t to say that we blithely say “charge it for the miles” and then wince when we get our monthly statement (okay, once or twice!). We stay within our monthly budget, use the credit card instead of using cash or writing checks, and — and this is key — pay off our balance in full every month. That way, from our budget standpoint, our expenditures are no different than if we’d written checks or paid in cash.

And as for using those miles? It can be tight. Really tight if you’re competing for those very few frequent flyer seats that everybody wants, say on the first Friday of spring break out of PDX or the weekend after Thanksgiving out of, well, any US airport.

We’ve developed a militant philosophy to maximize our chances of scoring frequent flyer seats:  plan ahead. We’ve already booked our free flights for this Christmas and for next spring break!

Most airlines release their seat inventory 330 days in advance, including their “FQTV” seats.  So, we strive to make our travel plans a year or more in advance.  Recurring calendar dates like holidays and spring break make it a bit easier.

Three of us flew to Honolulu in March, and we covered about 80% of the trip with frequent flyer miles.

Three of us flew to Honolulu in March, and we covered about 80% of the trip with frequent flyer miles.

Once we’ve made our destination decision, we’ll mark our calendar for the date that’s 330 days in advance of our departure. A few days before that date, we’ll start to monitor the airline’s website, trying to pinpoint the time of day that they release the FQTV seats (usually between midnight and 5 a.m. Pacific time).

The last two times we booked FQTV seats, I stayed up until 11 p.m. the night before the magic 330-day mark to see if seats had been released. They hadn’t. I set an alarm for midnight, pulled my laptop up onto the bed, and checked again. No dice. I tried again at 1 and again at 2. Nope. At 3 a.m. the seats were available! I hopped out of bed, booked our free tickets, and savored the remaining hours of uninterrupted sleep, knowing that I’d saved hundreds of dollars in airfare! (Erin thinks I’m crazy.  But she doesn’t complain about the free tickets.)

Are you a frequent flyer mile collector?  What are your strategies for cutting your airfare costs?  Enjoy your week or your weekend!


8 thoughts on “Cutting Your Travel Costs with Frequent Flyer Miles

  1. I suspect you’re crazy, too! 🙂 I was a frequent flyer mile collector in a previous life, but haven’t been in several years. I’m much more a vacation at home person now–partly because I really don’t like flying. I can vouch for all your methods, though–and they did make it possible for us to have some big adventures.

  2. I’m a frequent flier mile addict! Mile help me get to place I wouldn’t otherwise afford – like Cambodia or Sri Lanka. Miles are really helpful when flying into out of the way airports. Getting to Phnom Phen requires the same amount of miles are going to Bangkok – but the cash difference is significant.

  3. You bet. We have been using our miles for domestic trips. I was amazed how many free trips I have been able to score from these credit card bonuses.

  4. Surprsingly, our Alaska Airlines Visa that we’ve had the longest has “rewarded” us nicely. We got it originally for the SoCal to PDX perks (including the $99 -now $149- companion fare that could be given to someone else if we weren’t using that year). AND The partner airline awards (although sometimes a lot of work to find and book) have come through for us to China (for Ehren for $25 AMAZING!) and then somehow we had spent enough to do one of our tickets to Mexico a year later. We also flew 3 members of our family home from DC using one-way miles. Could NOT afford these trips otherwise!

    • We have had Alaska cards — on and off — for a few years, too. Amazingly, they offer the 25K bonus even to former cardmembers. We actually didn’t think we’d use the companion certificates, and didn’t have a need for them for a few years, but I think we’ve used them every year for the past 3 or 4! And, they tend to have more availability to Chicago than some other airlines. (Nonstop flights, too!)

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