Spending Miles for Free Flights

In my earlier post I introduced a travel planning example for a trip to London. I discussed how to earn miles for an American airlines AAdvantage award from credit card signup bonuses from Barclaycard and Citi. Economy MileSAAver awards to the U.K. cost 30,000 (30K) miles per flight. I’m going to search for a roundtrip costing me 60K miles. During my research, using Google Flights, I found American offers non-stop flights from my local international airport (LAX) to London Heathrow (LHR).

Searching for Award Flights

First, I go to the American Airlines web site to search for available award seats. Let’s see how I do:

AAdvantage Award Search

I log into my AAdvantage account to check how many miles I have. This will also help me to save time booking an award. I sometimes select the Advanced Search link, just below the Search button, to add more airports to the search criteria. Also, there are options to set travel time preferences and class of travel.

Fortunately, I am searching for award travel ten months ahead of my travel dates and there are Economy MileSAAver awards available. Of course, some of the flights are with American’s partner airlines. To adjust my departure or return dates, I select from available dates in the table. Each date displays the price in miles for available award flight(s).

Selecting Travel Dates

AA Awards Select Dates

Selecting Flights

I click on the CONTINUE button at the bottom of the table to display a list of possible flights.

AA Select Flights

In fact, there are four pages of possible flight combinations (departure and return) due to partner flights and alternate airports. I deselect other airlines and airports to focus on American flights from LAX to LHR. The display shows two non-stop departure flights:

  • AA 108 departing at 6:10PM
  • AA 136 departing at 7:50PM

I select flight AA 108 since to get into London early enough for a power nap. Once refreshed, I like to seek out a pub for fish and chips and some cellar-temperature beer!

AA Select American Flights Only

At the time of writing, there are no award flights with American for non-stop service on October 15th. However, I have flexibility for my return date so I select October 16th to search for a non-stop flight. In this case I find a flight AA 109 departing LHR at 12:15PM.

Completing the Reservation

Next, I click on the CONTINUE button at below the flight list. The site asks me for passenger details – the default are the details saved in my American AAdvantage account. If I am spending miles for award flights for others, such as family members, I enter their details here. Once I have checked the passenger details, I click CONTINUE and select seats for each flight. I must still pay Taxes and Carrier-Imposed Fees of $188.61 for this award trip. I use a credit card that earns me a few more miles to numb the pain! There it is – spending miles earned from a credit card signup bonus for a free trip to London. How cool is that?

As the saying goes “wash, rinse, repeat”. The process is similar for other U.S. airlines so you can follow the outline above for United, Delta, Alaska, and others. International airlines have their own challenges and vary considerably in terms of ease (or lack of) of booking award travel. And, sometime, a higher bill for those dreaded Taxes and Carrier-Imposed Fees (did I mention British Airways?).

Until next time…fly free little birds!

List of Airline Frequent Flyer Programs

I joined two frequent flyer programs in 1990, shortly after arriving in the U.S. from the U.K. I was flying with American and United with my job as a technical consultant. Fortunately, both airlines survived despite many mergers in the industry. Many airlines offer frequent flyer programs. You can find comparisons of these programs on various frequent flyer discussion group web sites, such as FlyerTalk. However, just as with wine, where many experts will tell you “drink what you like”, I say similarly about frequent flyer programs – “fly with who you like”. There’s no cost to join a frequent flyer program, so why not join as you book flights? Earn miles when you fly and earn more for dining, shopping, staying at hotels, renting cars, using credit cards, and more. Many airlines have frequent flyer program partnerships with other airlines via one of the three global alliances or with other cross-marketing agreements.

The primary airline frequent flyer programs I use are American AAdvantage. United MileagePlus. I joined other frequent flyer programs for specific regions or routes where the airlines are not members of the three global alliances. For example, I often take Southwest flights to San José and San Francisco, so I’m also enrolled their Rapids Rewards program.

Global Airline Alliances

Alliances provide expanded networks with more destinations, while enabling me to earn miles with my primary frequent flyer programs. Through my elite status with American and United, I can also upgrade my travel experiences with their partners. Priority check-in and boarding, free checked bags and, for international flights, access to airport lounges. I can also redeem miles for flights operated by alliance partner airlines. This is very useful when my primary airlines do not offer flights between my preferred departure and destination airports. It’s important to note that some airlines are joint marketing partners with other airlines, even though they do not work within one of the major alliances. In these cases, the partnership may include reciprocal benefits in their frequent flyer programs, code-share flights or other joint activities. And, there are some airlines, such as Southwest, that do not include any airlines within their frequent flyer programs.

oneworld

American Airlines

American Airlines, British Airways and Qantas launched their oneworld alliance in 1999. It is the third-largest global alliance in terms of passengers. Here is a list of the alliance’s current members and their respective frequent flyer awards program (with links):

Star Alliance

United Airlines

Star Alliance was the first global airline alliance formed in 1997. It is now the largest alliance by passenger count. Founder members are United, Lufthansa, Air Canada, Thai Airways and Scandinavian Airlines (SAS). The alliance’s current members include:

SkyTeam

SkyTeam is the most recent major airline alliance, and the second largest by passenger count. The original members of the alliance are Delta Airlines, Air France, Aeromexico and Korean Air. The alliance’s current members are:

Other U.S Airlines

Several airlines in the U.S. are not in any of the alliances. However, several of these airlines are partners with other major airlines. As such, you may earn and redeem miles within their respective frequent flyer programs when flying with these specific airlines or with their partners.

Other International Airlines

There are many other airlines around the world offering frequent flyer programs and benefits. Among those that have flights to and from the U.S. are:

Summary

Bottom line: I recommend that you join an airline’s frequent flyer program when you book your flights. I add the airline contact information, including website link and phone number along with the frequent flyer number in my phone contacts app. This makes it easier to find your membership number when you book later flights. You should always include your membership number when make travel reservations. Some airlines offer travel benefits only to their frequent flyer members. You do not want to miss earning valuable points and miles. You should also book your flights with a credit card to earn extra points and miles. Most credit cards also offer extra travel benefits, such as free checked bags, travel delay and lost baggage insurance. I’ll be covering some of these other benefits in subsequent posts.

I wish you safe travels.

Collecting Miles and Points for Free Travel – Part 1

In 1990, my wife and I moved from the U.K. to the U.S. with our two young children. I remember being asked by our travel agent what date she should use for our return trip. I said “never, it’s a one-way trip”! A high technology company hired me as a technical consultant in Silicon Valley. As part of my job, I traveled often – domestically at first and then, within a few years, internationally. My manager was well versed in the American Airlines AAdvantage travel awards program. He traveled much more than I did, living in Southern California and attending company and customer meetings across the U.S. As a result, he was an AAdvantage Platinum elite member. His generosity was outstanding and would treat me to First Class using upgrade coupons he received. With colleagues like this, I was in heaven – literally! He encouraged me to sign up for AAdvantage membership during a visit to the airline’s Admirals Club lounge in San José airport. I joined United’s MileagePlus program the same year. This is how I got started on a fun hobby my wife and I refer to as #upgrademylife.

So, after almost thirty years I should be a points millionaire by now, right? Well, collecting miles and points during the early nineties was tedious. I had to actually get on a plane and travel somewhere – what an inconvenience. There were airline credit cards available, but I had no one educating me how useful they were. I used my bank’s no-fee Visa card for business expenses and checks for everything else. It took a lot of time to collect enough miles to get free flights for all the family members. So, I just kept saving miles and not taking much interest in them. We eventually spent most of them on a trip to Disney World traveling first class with American.

In-flight View

One frequent flyer benefit when you travel a lot with one airline is you can earn elite status. Traveling as an elite flyer comes with benefits that you can use on every flight you take. These benefits may include priority check-in and boarding, upgrades, free checked bags, and free food and beverages. Also, you earn miles at an accelerated rate based on combinations of flight distance, ticket class and amount spent. Traveling for business, I regularly attained AAdvantage Platinum and Premier Gold elite status. This definitely improved my travel experience when flying. By the late 90’s, I had traveled enough with American to earn Million Miler status, and recently achieved United’s Million Miler stats too. I’ll discuss this aspect of airline awards programs in a future post.

Hotel Lobby

A related aspect of business travel was getting to stay at many hotels around the world. Hotel chains have their loyalty programs too. Each program comes with varying points earning and redemption rates. And, of course, multiple levels of elite status and related benefits. Unfortunately, during my early career I wasn’t able to focus my stays on just one or two chains. My corporate travel agent booked my business travel. I could only stay at specific hotels per place. So, it took a lot of trips to earn enough points to get a free hotel night. But, I remember you could buy Starwood Gold membership for $20 per year in the early 90’s. Today, that takes 25 nights or 10 stays in a calendar year to achieve. However, with improved planning, I have now achieved Starwood Preferred Guest Platinum status over the past few years. The benefits of this status include regular upgraded rooms, free breakfasts, and lots of bonus points.

Businessman Airport

Now if all the above sounds like a very bleak environment for collecting miles and points, it wasn’t really. Flying was a lot less stressful due to lower levels of security requirements. Another reason that it wasn’t the Dark Ages of Frequent Travel was that airline awards programs were simpler. It’s a more complex environment today, with airline award programs shifting to revenue-based models. Changes in the hotel industry, for example Marriott’s acquisition of Starwood, is causing uncertainty for loyal fans of their respective award programs. In addition, frequent devaluations within award charts are being announced regularly. Fortunately, there are many good strategies to improve your earning and redemption power to counter these changes.

Hotel Pool

So, you may ask, what is the point of all this nostalgic time travel? I want to give you a sense of my early experiences collecting miles and points. From this background, I will fast forward to today and share my experiences from the past few years. The environment for collecting miles and points for free travel has never been better. Financial and travel companies are in a heated battle for your business. They are willing to deliver rich rewards for your loyalty. In future posts, I’ll discuss how credit card sign up bonuses can supercharge your miles and points balances. Also, I’ll share with you some tips I’ve learned about smart use of credit cards for shopping and bill paying. In addition, I’ll cover how to use your airline, credit card and hotel miles and points effectively. Along the way, there will be reviews of places, hotels and restaurants that we visit. And, more…

Subscribe to my newsletter

Please subscribe to my newsletter so you can keep updated on my posts about collecting miles and points. And, perhaps more importantly how to redeem them effectively for free or upgraded flights and hotels. I’ll also include reviews of the places where we visit, stay and eat.

So remember, #upgrademylife is the name of the game – play well my dear readers!