There’s a lot of research one does before taking on a project as lofty as ours. Traveling around the world as a family, albeit a small one, is no simple measure. Among that research, one tends to look for ways to save as much money as possible, and airfare is an understandably huge cost—in fact, it’s typically 30-60% of the total cost of a trip. If there’s a trick that can make that price tag shrink, well, then that’s a fine trick indeed. Thanks to the blogosphere, it’s easy to discover just what that is. Enter the realm of Award Travel.
For practically pennies on the dollar, you and your family of varying sizes can scurry around the world with ease basking in the jealousy-inducing thought that the person in the seat next to you paid somewhere close to full price for their ticket, while you and your kin did not. Huzzah. But don’t let those opportunistic blogger-types fool you; though it might be fairly simple to score a free roundtrip flight from New York to LA, round-the-world award travel is a whole different ball game. In fact, it’s not really fair to call it a game at all. Let’s call it a full-time job.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a huge fan of award travel, but—just like anything else that’s worth it—it comes at its own special price. Getting to the point where you can fly around the earth on airline points instead of dollars is not accomplished without a great deal of learning, patience, and dedication.
I want to give you what I didn’t have when I started this journey: an idea of what you should expect should you decide to travel around the world with award points. It is my biased opinion that minimizing your trip cost in this way is well worth the effort, but depending on your own situation, certain factors may make it more hassle than you care to experience. For your convenience, I’ve made a list of cons so you can determine right now if this is for you, and therefore potentially justify reading this extremely long article:
1. Award Travel is only realistically available for citizens of certain countries such as the US, Canada, or UK
2. Redeeming points can be extremely difficult to understand
3. There’s a huge learning curve to flying for free as a family
4. Potential credit risk if you’re dumb about how you’re collecting points
5. Collecting points for 1 is easy… collecting points for 3 and above is not
6. Lap babies do not fly (completely) for free
Did I scare you off yet? Good. Let’s get started.
In The Beginning, There Were Alliances
There are two airline alliances that cover almost every flight in the world. They are the Star Alliance and Oneworld. Star Alliance has airlines like United, Lufthansa, TAM, Singapore Air, and many others. Oneworld has American Airlines/US Airways, Qatar, British Airways, and more. There is a third one with Delta and a couple others, but it’s not too useful, as they are still very small (called SkyTeam Alliance).
Points between the two major alliances are valued differently – as in, 10,000 points in Star is not the same as 10,000 points in Oneworld. Both have different flight schedules for award travel, but both are pretty compendious between destinations. Star Alliance covers the majority of everywhere, while Oneworld doesn’t have much to do with Australia/Oceania.
Not everyone is as crazy as us and needs to save for an entire year’s worth of round-the-world family travel. But even if you were, the first step is the same: regardless of whether your trip has 1 segment or 5, you need to see how many points you need for your flight.
Step 1: Find Out How Many Miles you Need to Go on your Trip
Go to milez.biz and plug in your departure/destination. When asked to select airline programs, select “United / Star Alliance” and “American Airlines / Oneworld”. Those two will get you the amount of points it’ll cost for any of the airlines within the respective alliance, regardless of whether that’s British Airways or Qantas. Hit the button.
Scroll down to the bottom and you’ll see something like above. It breaks out the pricing by alliance and by type of seat. Obviously the higher classes are going to cost more points, but that’s where you get the real value in using points—economy’s nice and all, but with a bit more points you can get a major upgrade. With a family, though, that’s not always a possibility.
Make note that the points you see here is roundtrip and per person (except for lap babies). If you want a one-way cost, divide that number in half. Also make note, I’ve found it easier to get points for United, and here’s why…
Step 2: Pick a Rewards Program
The picture above is from the ultimaterewards.com (UR) website, which is Chase’s credit card rewards program. What’s nice about that is UR points transfer to everything you see above. If you book your award travel flight through United, you have access to all the airlines on Star Alliance. This is where I like to get detailed and know exactly how many points each of our flights will cost.
Chase not only has massive bonuses for opening credit cards, they also make it fairly easy to get a solid amount of extra points by purchasing. For example, the Freedom card will give you up to 5 points per dollar on different kinds of items that change quarterly, but usually it’s things like gas, entertainment, food, and amazon.com. The business card Ink Bold comes with a 50,000 point bonus, and also allows 5 pts per dollar spent on office supplies, 2 pts per dollar in travel, and 1 pt per dollar on everything else. But let’s face it, you’re not going to get point-rich by spending massive amounts of money. The sign-up bonuses is where it’s at. We’ll talk about that in a minute, though… the next step is to make sure you know what you need.
Step 3: “Book” Your Flight
Go to http://www.united.com/web/
On the United site fill out the information correctly for your desired trip. Don’t bother with searching for nearby airports, you can do that later and it won’t affect the price much. Do select the “My dates are flexible” option, though, and it will give you a calendar in case a flight on a specific day isn’t available. Make sure you fill out who’s traveling and what age group, and then submit at the bottom. You’ll see something like this:
You want Saver Award. Never fly on a standard award day if you can help it, it’s like double the points. Otherwise follow the color key to know what to select for either economy or business travel. Let’s select a green day just to see both economy/business tickets.
You’ll come to a screen like this where you pick your first flight. Keep in mind that though there are sometimes direct flights, if you’re going to/from any destination that’s not a major hub you’ll have transfers. This is important because sometimes the flight will take you a whole freaking day to get to your destination. Ah, the joys of award travel. Select a flight (usually the first one’s the best, since it’s placed in order of time length) and then select your home-bound flight if you’re flying roundtrip. Under the button you click to select a flight, you’ll see the amount of points for the one-way and the $$ price. That’s literally the cost of your flight. Nice, huh?
After selecting the first flight and trying to book the 2nd, you might see a screen like above. This happens all the time on roundtrip flights, and it all depends on where you’re going and when you want to be home. If you’re flexible, that’s always best. In the event that you’re not, I’ve had really good luck giving United a call on the number they provide for booking award travel and having them find a flight on a partner flight that isn’t showing up online. Again, try to never fly standard. It’s just not worth it.
Assuming you are flexible and find a flight online, it’ll now ask you to sign in. If you don’t already have a United.com MileagePlus account, it will not hurt you to sign up for one. It’s free, and you’ll need it to apply for certain credit cards anyway. Once you’re signed up and signed in, you’ll see what we’ve been looking for this whole time:
Depending on where it is you’re going, this is likely what you’re going to find too. What you see here is exactly what you should expect for your flight cost in both points and dollars. This is a good amount of miles, but it’s not impossible, so stop crying already.
Step 4: Make It Rain (with points, not tears)
The amount of award miles it takes to fly as a family is nothing to shake a stick at, and assuming you’ve got a year or so’s time it’s definitely doable. Short term (less than 9 months) might be a bit harder. Either way, here’s where things get tricky.
Since applying for credit cards is the best and quickest way to get points, you want to get a bunch within a short period of time. Only problem is this will mess with your credit score a bit, and if your score gets too low then you won’t be accepted for more credit cards. If your score’s not around or above 720-740 already, get it there before you try this or you’ll be spending a lot more time getting it up later.
If you’re good to go, then enter what is called the “app-o-rama”. An app-o-rama is a method of bending the system like Neo in The Matrix by signing up for a bunch of cards at the same time so that your score doesn’t have enough time to be affected by each credit inquiry the credit card companies make, therefore increasing your chances that you’ll be accepted for the cards you sign up for. Each card will put a “hard ding” on your credit by about 2-5 points, but again, as long as you’re somewhere above 740 or so you’re pretty safe.
There’s some very ridiculous complexities to correctly performing an app-o-rama, so I suggest some reading at the links I’ll provide at the bottom. It’s imperative you know what you’re doing, because you can get denied if you’re not careful, polite, and patient. By the way, none of this is illegal or shady (millions of people do this and write about it publicly), but it’s not something that credit card companies are dying to have their customers do, given that it’s not likely bringing them more business than what they have already with you.
In theory, an app-o-rama can be performed every 91 days from the last credit card signup. This is because of two reasons: a) it takes your score about 3 months or so to recover the points it lost, and b) credit card companies have rules stating that they will deny anyone that signs up for a card before that period. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between.
Every credit card bonus has requirements, and usually that requirement is a “spend $xxxx.xx in 3 months”. If you sign up for a ton of cards, you have to be willing to spend this, or you won’t get some or any of the bonus. That being said, the links I have provided below have suggestions on how you can spend that easily on stuff you already spend money on. Most of these cards also come with a $100 or so yearly fee that’s waived the first year. Some of these cards are well worth holding onto, others… not so much. You’ll have to read up about the best way to cancel when that time comes. There’s a certain finesse to it.
Even though there are many different airlines and entities offering bonuses and rewards for getting and using their card, not all points are created equal. For example, United Airlines award flights are often more points than the American Airlines / Oneworld Alliance award flights, and it’s much harder to get AA points since there’s only a handful of credit cards that will offer you a big signup bonus. And don’t expect your points to transfer, either—once your points belong to a certain airline, they likely won’t let you transfer them to another one. That means that if you have 50,000 points through your Southwest Airlines credit card, you won’t be able to use them on United, even though you can transfer your Ultimate Rewards Points (Chase) to either airline. And, just to make it harder, you can’t book a flight using a combination of points from different airlines, even if they’re in the same alliance. To avoid this, it’s best to get lots of points with a few companies and focus your efforts there. The little guys can be worth it, but you can’t fly around the world (or much of anywhere, for that matter) with the 15,000 Air Canada points in your back pocket, and it may not be worth the effort to invest in more points if they don’t come easily.
To give all this nonsense a real-world application, I’ll give you a real-world example. About 4 months ago a friend came to me with a task: he wanted to get his family of 3 to Cambodia and back from the US and wanted to do so with points. He had 9 months to accrue 160k points for the same airline, as using multiple airlines wasn’t ideal. Though it was a bit of a stretch to collect enough for that short of a time period, it was definitely doable. I suggested the following credit card application schedule based on the available bonuses at the time:
- Chase Business Ink Bold (50k pts, must spend $5k in 3 mo)
- Chase Sapphire Preferred (40k pts, must spend $3k in 3 mo
App-o-rama #2 (3 months from last one):
- Chase United MileagePlus, personal (30k pts w/ $1k spend in 3mo, but some people have been able to get them to bump it up to 50k pts)
- Chase United MileagePlus, business (same as personal card)
This was a pretty moderate schedule. I warned him that when he signed up for the business credit cards they might put it on “pending” and ask a few questions first, but even without having a legitimate taxable business people get those cards all the time. If he was lucky, he might even get another 20k points on the money he’d already have to spend to make the bonuses. If he needed help with the minimum spend, he could use Amazon Payments to game the system a bit and knock out about $1000 a month without spending money (read more about that here).
Last week I asked him how the process was going. He replied:
“I have earned all the points for me and my wife, and we have enough points to pay for my daughter as well. My new goal is to get first class seats. I use Amazon Payments like crazy. I always get a card for me and my wife and my dad. I send money to my dad who sends money to my wife who sends money to me. I have my dad using the cards for bigger purchases and he pays me back. We knock out a $5000 minimum spend requirement every month and I think it is so fun to rack up points.”
You can get more cards than what I scheduled for my friend, and from more than just one company. In fact, some people will usually do up to 8 cards per app-o-rama, which is pretty crazy. Sometimes they’ll sign up for the same card multiple times in a row (this is called “churning”). People are crazy, but for those that can make over a million miles in a year, that’s kind of cool. Think of it as couponing for vacations instead of groceries.
In The End, There Were Free Flights
Collecting the points needed to fly for free as a family can be a daunting and arduous task, but—assuming miles are going to be around for the next couple years—it’s extremely lucrative if you can handle all the hoop jumping. After telling a friend about this method, he told me that I might as well have put all that effort into building a business and making the money I was supposedly saving with points. He may be right. But at least I get to rub my free ticket in the face of the guy sitting next to me in first class. And that makes it all worth it.
Wanna learn more? Here’s some friends that have been in the points game much longer than I have:
extrapackofpeanuts.com - My friend Trav has been doing this for a few years and he’s got some pretty good down-to-earth info online.
millionmilesecrets.com - Another good blog, he works hard for his fanbase so you get good info there
thepointsguy.com - Pretty popular site, and well worth reading thru his information.
There’s also a forum at flyertalk.com, but it takes a while to understand what’s going on there… everyone speaks in jargon. I still have a hard time with it.