I travel as much as I can and one of the things I get asked the most is how I can afford it. I’m not rich by any stretch of the imagination. I have a stack of grad school loans and spent most of the last three years working for a non-profit organization (rewarding, but not exactly lucrative). My bank account has been supermodel slim for a while now, but I recently decided I was ready for another big trip and needed to figure out how I was going to pay for it.
Airline Miles to the Rescue
Luckily, I discovered Extra Pack of Peanuts (EPoP) and began learning how to get super cheap flights using airline miles. One of the biggest expenses in any international trip is the flight. I’m headed to Australia and SE Asia, and even one of those flights would regularly come in well over $1,000.
Although I’ve flown a fair amount in the past, I’ve always been terrible about keeping track of my miles. I was signed up for rewards programs, but never paid any attention to which airline I was flying or when miles expired. The number of miles needed for a free ticket seemed unattainable, so I never really tried to do anything with them (besides getting a few free magazine subscriptions).
Thanks to EPoP though I learned the trick to getting enough miles for a rewards flight in a short amount of time: credit card signup bonuses. When using this approach, you do need to plan a bit in advance. You’ll need to sign up for the new cards, get approved and receive them in the mail, meet the minimum spend (usually $2,000-$4,000 within the first three months), and then wait for the miles to hit your account (usually at the end of the billing cycle in which you meet the minimum spend). And you don’t want to wait too long to book your flight, as there are a limited number of rewards seats on each plane. I signed up for the credit cards in February, met the minimum spends in April, and immediately booked a flight for late June. I was able to get the flights I wanted on the days I wanted them, but one leg of the trip was down to only one option left.
So which cards did I get?
I signed up for the Chase Mileage Plus Explorer card (which gave me 30,000 United miles after spending $2,000 in three months) and the Chase Sapphire Preferred card (which gave me 50,000 points after spending $4,000 in three months). The Sapphire Preferred is a great card because you can transfer your points to a variety of rewards programs (including United), or spend them directly through the card rewards program. I did both of these…more on that later.
My biggest concern with this process is that I was getting ready to go on a big trip and was trying to cut costs in order to save money, so there was no way I would be able to meet both of these minimum spends within the same three-month period. Luckily, my Dad is on a different budget and was able to help out. If you don’t have someone to help you spend money and you won’t be able to meet multiple minimum spends within the same time frame, space out your credit card applications.
Bonus points – Both of these cards offered 5,000 extra points for adding an authorized user, who only had to make one purchase on the card to qualify. I added my Dad to both cards and got 10,000 extra points. He was then able to use his card to spend money on my account, which counted towards my minimum spend, even though we were living on opposite sides of the country at the time.
How Many Points Do I Need?
That depends on where you are going. You can Google the name of the airline you want to fly plus “reward chart” and find out what a ticket will cost you. I was going to be flying on United, so my chart looks like this. I just entered my starting and ending regions to find out how many points I would need (80,000 if I booked on Roundtrip Saver Award days, which I did since it’s less than half the cost of using Standard Award days).
I already had some United points and the 35,000 from the Mileage Plus card were automatically added. Then I logged into the reward section of the Sapphire Preferred card and moved over the points I needed to reach 80,000. I left the remainder in the award account so I could use them to book the smaller, regional flights I would need.
Stopovers and Open Jaws
Stopovers and open jaws are the secret to getting a great deal on rewards flights. When you book with miles, United allows you to include up to two open jaws (flying into one city and out of another city within the same region) and one stopover (a “layover” of up to nearly a year) in a single roundtrip flight. So for my 80,000 miles, I will be flying from Pittsburgh to Sydney, then (three months later) from Brisbane to Bangkok, and from Bangkok back to Pittsburgh another two and a half months after that.
These perks are not available if you buy regular flights (if I was going to pay for my flights, I would have needed three one-way tickets since I’m not flying in and out of the same city). They give you enormous flexibility with your travels and the ability to get the most out of every reward mile. Take the time to learn a bit more about them here. It’s worth a few hours of effort to maximize your mileage potential.
The Cost (in Actual Money)
The only actual financial cost for this set of flights was for the taxes and fees, which vary depending on which country and airports you will be flying into and out of. In my case, the total for the taxes and fees came to $152.86. Much better than the thousands it would have cost me to buy a regular-priced flight.
Once my main flights were booked I used some of my leftover Sapphire Preferred rewards points to book a flight from Cairns to Brisbane and another from Bangkok to Hanoi, neither of which I could include in my main ticket. Because these points are converted to cash equivalents, there was no out-of-pocket expense, even for the taxes and fees portion.
It’s Not as Hard as You Might Think
I know that some people think that dealing with airline miles is just too much work. I was one of those people! And while it’s true that some really take this to the max, constantly churning cards and earning hundreds of thousands of miles a year just through credit card signups, it doesn’t have to be that much work.
Understanding the process and getting a couple of cards with high bonuses will be able to get you through at least one big trip and potentially several, depending on where you are going. Maximize the bonuses by adding an authorized user to your account (even if they only make one $2 purchase you still get the extra points) and remember that all the money you spend meeting the minimum spends is also earning you points. It adds up fast!