Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Travel Post- Or How To get an $8,500 business class ticket for $200

“I think I just got an $8,500 airline ticket for $200 and 125,000 miles” I told my fiancĂ© last night. We’ve probably spent more time anxiously researching honeymoon destinations than we have actually completing the x’s and o’s of the whole getting hitched process. We both have a thing for travel, and I’ve become a big nerd about the way we travel, essentially spending many a night pondering how two people on nonprofit salaries can fly in those seats that turn into beds after sampling nice wine andeating a beautifully prepared filet mignon. Poco a poco though, I've yet to work my way into a First Class Suite (you read that right) on Singapore Airlines or taken a shower in First Class on Emirates. For some people, trashy TV is their guilty pleasure. Mine is pretty simple: airlines and travel have always fascinated me, and I feel as giddy as a kid the night before Christmas when I prepare for a big trip!

(LEFT) Portion of a three page menu on our JAL flight from Honolulu to Tokyo
(RIGHT) The seat that turns into a bed on one of our Cathay Pacific Flights

Laura and I aren’t new to this. Over the summer, when we were both transitioning to new jobs we decided to travel for six weeks. Our journey took us from LA to Honolulu to Tokyo to Hong Kong to Bali to Bangkok (take a breath), where we then took a train to journey through South Thailand, Malaysia, and ending in Singapore on our way back to Los Angeles. The damage on this trip: about $150 each and 130,000 miles using a lesser known award called "The OneWorld Explorer."  This trip also was in business class, meaning seats that turn into beds, lounges at connecting airports to freshen up with private shower rooms that were bigger than my apartment. For more on the OneWorld Explorer, FlyerTalk is the definitive source in my opinion.

Lately, more and more friends have been asking me how we do this. And the answer, like most good things, can be a bit complex. But when you really look into it, it comes down to a few key ingredients: frequent flyer loyalty, a good credit card signup bonus or two, and finding ways to get bonus miles on everyday purchases. Let me explain:

I’m an American Airlines guy. Sure, from time to time (every long haul flight) I wish I was on Virgin America, with their sexy lights, or JetBlue, watching DirecTV live from my seat. But at the end of the day, what matters to me are two things: how and where can I use the miles/points I earn, and what benefits come with loyalty.

The benefits are pretty straightforward: I sit in emergency exit rows (when not being upgraded to First Class) and stretch my legs out nearly every flight. As a platinum member of American Airlines (someone who has flown 50,000 airline miles  a year with AA and their partners) I also earn double miles on every flight I fly. This adds up. A roundtrip from LAX to London earns most people 10,000, I get 20,000- that’s almost a free domestic round trip ticket right there! What’s more, I get to go through priority airport screening, rarely waiting in line, and often keeping shoes, belt, and jacket on when I use TSA Pre. Finally, when I need to call the airline, I’m connected to an agent in less than one minute usually. I could go on but the message is simple: loyalty pays dividends for me and my travel.

But where you can use miles are just as important. American, Delta, and United are all part of different airline alliances, meaning you can use your miles not just on flights with those airlines, but often with 20+ different partners (click the airline links to see each alliance and the airlines that are a part of it). When we went to Asia, we flew Cathay and JAL (two amazing airlines). Going to New Zealand, we’re taking Qantas. So your miles, on a major carrier, can really take you almost anywhere in the world you want to go!

So for me, I'm always on the look for when I can do American. If I'm booking personal travel and the cost is slightly more, I often will pick American, not only for the comfort benefits described above, but because at a certain point, earning double miles, I can rationalize it is in fact the more affordable option given the miles I will earn. It's a personal call for each person, but I've found more often than not, my loyalty pays for itself!

Credit Cards
This is what most people do to get the big miles. If you don't travel much, then you probably have to take a good hard look at it. There’s an entire community focused on maximizing opportunities for credit card bonuses. I’ll list a few of the bloggers I really like in this realm but I have to confess, I haven’t really utilized this that much. I did get an American Airlines credit card with a 75,000 mile bonus after I spent X amount in like 2-3 months (Best offer out there as of writing this is 50,000 miles). But that was it. If you really want to go this route to rack up miles, there are blogs like MileValue that can tell you the secrets much better than I ever could. A good bonus or two help A LOT, but it’s a world I haven’t felt inclined to really dive head first into... But again, most of the people who are swinging these huge miles and points trips do so because of credit cards.

Here a few of my favorite travel blogs who write about the credit card secrets along with other great tips and advice:

BoardingArea (Mommy Points is a great one from this network as is One Mile at a Time)

Maximizing Everyday Purchases
I don’t know about you, but I am amazed how much of my shopping I now do online. Wedding registry- I go online, find the gift, and send it off to the couple. Christmas, why step into a chaotic mall when I can just find a good deal online and ship it off or get it delivered to my doorstep? Heck, why buy a CD or even go out to rent a movie, when I can just get both on iTunes? If you’re like me, you make a fair amount of purchases online as well, through big brand stores. What most people never realize, is there is a way to get bonus miles on these purchases.

Most of the big airlines now have online shopping portals, and you need to think of it as exactly that. Instead of going straight to Target.com, you login to say the Aadvantage EShopping Portal, search for the store or product you are looking for and earn anywhere from 2-30 extra miles per dollar. Looking to buy Rosetta Stone- why not get 7 extra miles per dollar spent on that purchase? Need to go by your local Home Depot to pick up some stuff? Why don’t you order online and have it ready for store pick up at your local store (avoid shipping charges and wait), and earn a bonus 3 miles per dollar spent. 

My absolute favorite is back when Groupon was giving 8 miles per dollar (today it is 2 miles). A friend bought a tour package to Australia on there, and because it was a $5,000 purchase, earned 40,000 miles. But even if you made that purchase today, you’d get an additional 10,000 miles, just by going through the shopping portal, rather than going right to Groupon.com. The portals don’t change the price, they don’t do anything other than help you earn.

Even if miles aren't your thing, you should still be using a portal like UPromise to earn money to pay down your Sallie Mae loan, create a 528, or deposit money into a high interest rate savings account through Sallie Mae. By using this when booking a hotel through hotels.com or for other purchases, I've been able to reduce my student loans by $400- all for taking 20 seconds and logging into a simple portal before making a purchase I am planning to make anyway.

Amazon Payments
Amazon Payments allows you to transfer $1000 from one person to another before either party is charged a credit card fee. So let's say you write a check to your roommate for rent each month- why not set up an Amazon Payment account and send it to them via that, earning miles on whatever miles credit card you utilize? If you're married and have a few different bank accounts between you and your spouse, same idea can apply: instead of just transferring the money, do it via Amazon payments. Think about it: $1,000 = 1,000 miles x 12 months = 12,000 miles a year extra to your mileage account. That's a free one way domestic ticket!

Dining is another everyday purchase that helps me build points. Each airline has a dining rewards program some restaurants participate in. So for me, each time I get a pizza from my favorite pizza joint, I get an extra 5 miles per dollar spent thanks to the Aadvantage Dining Network. When I traveled a lot for work, I used todetermine which restaurant to try in the neighborhood based on where I’d earn some extra miles. If the place looked good, why not try it, support a local establishment, and get these extra miles to boot? With both the dining and e-shopping portals, you can check if your airline participates by Googling the name of your airline and eshopping or dining program. 

But how do you redeem these miles
If you thought earning was hard, actually using your miles can be something even more challenging. But as my two most recent bookings show, it isn’t impossible. Our Asia trip I booked 3 weeks before departure, and it was in the middle of peak travel season from the States. For New Zealand, we are going there in the peak of their tourist season. The opportunities exist; they just require some patience, persistence, and technology.

The persistence is the easiest part. Each night before I went to bed, and each morning when I woke up, I was logging onto aa.com and searching for reward flights. When the first leg opened up, but the return flight home wasn’t available, I took advantage of a rule with American Airlines that allows you to put a ticket on hold for five days. I searched for the one-way to Auckland, found it, and put it on hold and then searched each day until Monday, the last day, when the return trip became available. I put that on hold, and then Laura and I made sure everything was as we wanted it to be. There's a great post on this process here.

The patience can be the hardest part. Some say the best time to book awards are 330 days out. Often times that can be true I’m told (and it certainly worked for me and our New Zealand trip), but sometimes, airlines wait until they determine it’s safe to open up more rewardspace (Read: They don’t think they’ll sell it) and that can be 90 days or less. So the patience sometimes requires flexibility. Laura and I had determined we wanted to go somewhere far for our honeymoon, but we didn’t dig our heels in for New Zealand: we also were open to Australia, or Vietnam and Cambodia. On my Asia trip, it was like a jig saw puzzle, holding the ticket for five days, and each day calling back, trying to find alternative routes and days to get from one spot to the next when at times it appeared no space was available. It also helps to become as educated if not more about routing rules than the customer service agents. When we had every leg of the journey lined up EXCEPT our flight home, I wouldn't just call and say "I want to get back to LA." I would call with knowledge of the various routes that could happen and ask the agents to check each and every route. Doing so is what allowed us to find our journey home via Tokyo, when originally the agent didn't think there was availability. 

The technology is the most fascinating part to me. I signed up for Expertflyer.com, a service that for $10 a month gave me, among many cool features, an ability to view award space on flights for several airlines, and also create email notifications so expertflyer would email me if the space I was looking for opened up. ExpertFlyer is wonderful for Star Alliance (searches all member airlines) and not too bad for others, you just have to know who you are looking to fly on. Awardnexus is also another possibility to explore. Finally, there is something called KVS Tool- but I haven't yet ventured that way, but if you're programming savvy, you might geek out over it. 

Final Thoughts
At the end of the day, if you're obsessed with travel, it's worth taking the time to really dive in and discover this world. If you know you want to do a big trip, start saving. If you're due for a new credit card, see what deals exist and if they're right for you. If you ever dine out, why haven't you taken 5 minutes to register your credit cards with one of the dining programs? Note: you can only be registered with one dining program, you can't get miles from like 5 programs on one purchase- nice try though! Shopping online, shop through a portal. Making a big purchase in store- see if the store allows you to shop online and pick up in store- and earn those miles! There are all these opportunities, big and small, that are just there for the taking. Be intentional, be savvy, and be persistent! 

I hope this was helpful. I'm by no means an expert, but I've linked to enough experts where hopefully this can be a good launching point! If you’ve got questions, leave me a comment- I’ll do my best to get to them.

Finally, if you need a little extra kick to get the travel bug, read this great blog post and then tell me you’re not itching to travel. We travel for fulfillment. Why not chase it as intentionally as we chase so much else in life?