Over the next week I will be releasing a series of posts entitled “The Free Flight Primer” in which I show, step by step, how to earn and then redeem frequent flyer miles.  We’ll start at the very beginning of the process and work our way through every step, from picking a destination all the way up to booking the ticket.  In between we’ll talk about tips for figuring out how many miles are needed for a certain flight, how to earn those miles, how to find seat availability, and much more.  I’ll be providing links to tools and websites that are helpful, tons of screenshots of various steps that may prove confusing, and of course, my own thoughts and opinions on the process.  I’ve decided to break it up in to multiple sections and multiple posts, which will make it easier to read and easier to use as a reference at a later date.

To better illustrate the process, I will be providing a case study of a real-life situation that I am currently working on for a client.  When I recently received a request for help on getting an award ticket to Italy in late September, I thought “why not take the readers along for the ride”?  If you’ve ever tried to book an award ticket, you know how difficult it can be.  If you haven’t, then just take me at my word.  While getting a free ticket can be exhilarating, it can also be tedious and frustrating.  Hopefully, after methodically breaking it down in great detail, you’ll be able to use this as a guide to make your experiences easier in the future.  Let’s get started!

Step 1:  Pick a Destination

Before you do anything, you should determine a concrete goal.  Want to scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef?  Attend the World Cup in Rio?  Drink wine and nibble cheese in Tuscany?  While this goal may change as you move along in the process, it will help by giving you a clear focus on what miles and points you want to earn and how many you will need.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where do you want to depart from and where do you want to go?
  • How many people will be going?
  • Are there any specific dates you want to travel?

Case study:  For Rob, my client, the answers are the Philadelphia/New York City area, Italy, 2, and sometime in late September, preferably between Sept. 28-October 13.

Step 2:  Take Inventory of Your Existing Points

Find and Organize Existing Points

Figure out what, if any, miles or points you already have.  If you are unsure, start trying to find “lost” points.  You can do this by signing in to your frequent flyer accounts at the individual airlines websites.  If you don’t even know that information, you can always try calling the airline directly.  I highly, highly recommend Award Wallet for keeping track of your miles and points.  It keeps all your miles and points balances in one place, automatically updates, and is free!  You can’t beat that!

Case study:  Rob informed me that he currently has 38,000 American Advantage miles and 18,000 Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) points.

Get Creative With Your Points

See if any of your points can transfer to airlines or hotels that you have other balances with.  If you have AmEx, SPG, or Chase points, these are especially valuable because of the multitude of transfer options

Here is a great visual chart of transfer partners, made by idoru over at flyertalk.  Feel free to give him credit at this flyertalk thread.  Thanks idoru!

 Case study:  Right off the bat I know that Rob’s 38k AA miles aren’t enough to even book one roundtrip ticket to Europe.  But SPG are super valuable because they transfer to so many partners, one of which is AA.  And, if you transfer in blocks of 20k points, you get an extra 25% bonus, meaning your 20k SPG points turns in to 25k AA miles.  Since Rob only needs less than 2k SPG points to reach 20k, I’d tell him spend on that card as quickly as possible so that he can top off his balance at 20k.  Then, he can choose to transfer his SPG points if he wishes, bringing his total to a potential 63K AA miles.

SPG points can also transfer other airline partners with the 25% bonus, so Rob has 25k miles towards a ton of airlines, except for United/Continental, which transfer at 2:1 and therefore only give him 12,500 miles.

Step 3:  Determine How Many Points are Needed to Fly to Your Goal Destination

Each airline and airline alliance has different mileage requirements for their routes and sometimes there are even “off-peak” specials that you can take advantage of to get even cheaper fares.  Knowing what airline charges what for which route and at what time of the year takes years to memorize, so luckily the good folks at Milez.biz have created a search engine that will give us a good place to start.

I say to start because as of right now, Milez.biz does not include all airlines and only calculates the standard, regular peak fares and does not account for “off-peak” specials or any other promotions.  Therefore, it pays to still do your homework.  For example,  AA, which is part of the OneWorld alliance, has a standard economy ticket for 30k miles each way from North American to Europe.  However, during their “off-peak” season to Europe, which runs from October 15-May 15, you can get that same ticket for 20k miles each way.  The “off-peak” seasons falls just outside our date for this case study, but if you are on the fence on when to visit Europe, it may be worth it to push that trip back up a few days in fall or up a few days in spring to take advantage of these reduced fairs.  Milez.biz would have not shown you the 20k “off-peak” fare, so be sure to check out the actual awards charts as well.  You can find a list of the awards charts on the Airline Awards Charts page.

Case study:  Rob already has AA miles, so the first consideration would be flying OneWorld.  We know that he will have to fly during peak season, and so a standard economy ticket will be 30k each way.  However, we want to keep all options open, so we’ll consider flying a Star Alliance carrier, which would mean most likely getting and using United or USAirways miles (which we’ll discuss later).  Checking the United rewards chart shows that Star Alliance charges 30k each way as well and that there no off-peak specials, so no matter which alliance we choose, we have set a baseline of needing 120k total miles (30k each way x 2 people).  You may think this sounds impossible, but reading a few more posts of the Free Flight Primer, you’ll see just how easy this can be!

Continue to Part Two:  Determining Airline Routes to Your Destination