Cutting Travel Costs: $0 Airfare

Our next trip is scheduled up. It’s just a short 8 days this time. In January we’re on our way to Los Angeles, CA.

While our trip to Europe worked out to be quite a steal, we’re getting a bit creative this time around and it turns out we’ll be able to save a good amount of money. So today’s the first post in a little series where I’ll map out what we’re doing and how you can save some dough when traveling stateside.

Let’s start it off with the big ticket item of any trip, airfare, and how we got United to foot the bill for our roundtrip tickets.

It All Adds Up

Traveling by air can be an expensive endeavor. When you look at the big picture there’s your flight, then the baggage fees, the car rental, the hotel stay and the money you’ll spend eating. And this doesn’t even take into account the cost of seeing the sights and the inevitable entertainment that you’ll spend money on.

Conventional travel sure can be expensive, but with a little bit of planning and creativity you can alleviate many of the costs.

No one would argue that one of the most expensive parts of traveling is the airfare. A single roundtrip ticket to an exotic destination will cost you well over $1000 and will definitely put a damper on any slim budget.

Luckily enough though, airlines are willing to foot the bill for your flights as long as you’re willing to play along a bit with their game. It’s the Frequent Flyer Miles game.

Not Just For Frequent Flyers

While the name itself is very misleading, frequent flyer miles have a lot less to do with frequently flying than may be expected. Yes the business traveler who’s on the road 300 days a year, traveling all over the world definitely racks up a lot of frequent flyer miles, but the good part for the rest of us is that we can rack up nearly as many while we’re simply on the ground going about our daily routines.

While there’s an elite few who earn the bulk of their miles in the air, travel hackers are earning hundreds of thousands of miles on the ground. All it takes is a little legwork.

At any given time you can sign up for a credit card and earn upwards of 60,000 miles just for using it to buy your groceries for a couple months. And what do those free miles get you? Well the 50,000 miles that I just cashed in got us 2 roundtrip tickets from Chicago to LA. Not bad when there’s the potential to be awarded that amount of miles for simply getting a credit card.

Now I didn’t actually earn all those miles by signing up for a single credit card. I used my initial sign up bonus when we flew first class to Hawaii on our honeymoon, but I did earn the bulk of those miles while at home by simply using the card for purchases that I was already making.

Logging into my United Mileage Plus account and seeing that I had enough miles for 2 roundtrip tickets was really exciting. You see I’m more of a passive mileage earner, I don’t think about it at all and just let it all happen (kind of my motto for life in general) so I had no idea how many miles had accrued.

The reminder that got me checking was Steve Kamb’s post last week over at Nerd Fitness where he blogged about his nearly around the world itinerary that cost him a grand total of $418.

While our itinerary is nowhere near as jaw dropping as his, we both learned the ins and outs of travel hacking from the man who’s on pace to visit every country in the world before he’s 35, Chris Guillebeau. Chris’ Frequent Flyer Master is an excellent resource that I can’t more highly recommend. And he’s also releasing a new product after the first of the year and if early signs are any indication, it’s going to take travel hacking to the next level.

How to Crank Up Your Miles

Anyway, although I’m a passive earner, let me share a few tips to get you going. First, find a credit card that’s offering big miles for signup. I personally have the Chase United Mileage Plus Visa Signature Card. Right now they’re offering 30,000 miles, a free one-way upgrade certificate and a $25 travel certificate. Not bad for just signing up for a credit card.

So first and foremost, find your card and register for the program. Just for using the card you’ll earn 1 mile for every dollar you spend.

Next, register your card with their Mileage Mall. If you’re with United, this is what you’re looking for. Just for registering your card and clicking their link before shopping online, you get bonus points. It looks like right now you can earn up to 5 miles per dollar spent depending on where you’re shopping.

Now here’s where it can get slippery. The key with all of this is not to spend money just to earn miles. Let me repeat that, if you’re buying things just to earn miles then they’re worthless. The point is, if you’re already buying, say a blender from Target, simply go to the Mileage Mall site, click on their Target link and then use your card for the purchase. That’s it. Say you’re spending $100 at Target, that’s 350 miles just for clicking a link and using your associated card.

You may be surprised how quickly that can add up, I always am. What adds to my excitement is that Marla has more than double the points that I did, so not only is the LA trip on United, so will our next. Details on that coming soon.

Well anyway I hope that helped give you a very basic idea as to how you can begin to cut your travel expenses without much effort. In the next post I’ll address hotel accommodations and how you can save while stateside.

If you want to learn more about travel hacking and how to earn mongo mileage, be sure to check out Chris Guillebeau’s Frequent Flyer Master and know that if you purchase his guide using the above link you’re helping to support this fine establishment (ie. it’s an affiliate link and we get a few bucks if you buy, but even if we didn’t we’d still recommend it because it’s killer) 🙂

Are you currently registered in frequent flyer programs and, if so, have you ever redeemed your miles? Let us know your experiences in the comments.

2 responses to “Cutting Travel Costs: $0 Airfare”

  1. James Chartrand - Men with Pens Avatar

    Up here in Quebec, we’re in the AirMiles program, and there are several ways to earn air mile points:

    1. Get the basic signup card free. Present it at any air miles affiliated store and earn points without charging to a credit card. We use this for all our groceries, pharmaceuticals and home renovation stuff. S’awesome.

    2. Get an airmiles affiliated credit card – you earn points for each transaction you charge to your card. Less tempting than number 1, but still good.

    3. Double dip. Charge to your airmiles credit card AND show the basic signup card for extra point happiness.

    4. Get an airmiles affiliated bank account. Pretty much all your basic banking and debit card transactions earn you points.

    I don’t even think about the program and I still earned 2,000 points in 2010 alone. Were I to actually buy all goods using my credit card and pay it off right away, I’d be really banking the points.

    As it is, I have enough points amassed to pay for the plane for my ultra-secret upcoming trip, so that’s pretty cool!

    1. Jeff Sarris Avatar

      Very good. Sounds like it’s the same premise as the Mileage Mall, but with an in person option as well. We purchase everything but groceries online so I’ve never looked into face to face affiliated store promotions; it’s great to hear that’s working out for you!

      PS. Ultra-secret it is 😉