The prospect of free travel is so alluring that an entire industry has sprung up around collecting frequent flyer miles. Hotels, rental car agencies, and of course credit cards all offer enticing programs.
While many people enjoy exploiting these programs to their fullest potential, plenty of people become disaffected with mileage programs due to their complexity and constant devaluation.
If you’re one of these disillusioned people, get ready to turn your perspective around. You can learn to earn free travel both with and without using points and miles.
Flying for Free without Frequent Flyer Miles
First, here are four individual techniques that I have found effective for earning free travel without resorting to frequent flyer miles.
1. Get Bumped
Airlines have been flying their planes more full than they ever have. The only way that they can achieve this efficiency is by overselling their flights and counting on some passengers not showing up. When they end up with more passengers than seats, carriers are required to solicit volunteers to give up their reservation in exchange for compensation.
Airlines used to offer free flight vouchers that had restrictive blackout dates, but now you can receive airline credit in the form of vouchers that can be worth hundreds of dollars and used on any ticket.
How to do it: First, when you book your next trip, try to identify flights that are likely to be overbooked. These are flights to and from major business destinations at the beginning and ends of the work week. Flights around the holidays are also good candidates for a bump. On the day of your trip, pack light and don’t check any bags; airlines look for passengers who can change plans at a moment’s notice without any complications.
Lastly, get to the gate at least an hour early and speak with the agents the moment they arrive. Just smile and ask if they are “looking for volunteers.” Airline staff will know exactly what you are talking about and you will be the first on the list if there is any chance they need you.
If no staff people are available, or if you find out that they’re not currently looking for volunteers, make sure you grab a seat near the counter so you can quickly get to the agent if they make a change and an announcement. If you’re on the list, you will be instructed not to board until the last minute once they know if they can accommodate all confirmed passengers. If you do receive the bump, have an alternate flight in mind so that you can request it.
2. Take Advantage of Promotions
I recently visited a bicycle race that was sponsored in part by an airline. They set up booth where they were giving away gift cards, worth $10 to $50 off of any flight. They were happy to give me a dozen cards. The next day, the same company had a promotion offering fares starting at $9, and we were able to use the gift cards for the entire cost of a trip including taxes.
How to do it: We were lucky to get a dozen cards right before the $9 promotion, but that good fortune came because we are constantly on the lookout for discounts and promotions. You need to be on high alert if you want to get the best timing and the best deals.
In addition to gift card giveaways, airlines frequently hold other contests and promotions to gain publicity. To help you find these promotions, sign up for newsletter lists from airlines, and keep an eye out for airline sponsorship at sporting events and festivals. If you land a gift card or coupon but can only use one per reservation, maximize them by booking separate one-way flights, instead of a round trip. That way you’ll be able to use both discounts, one for each leg.
3. Find Companion Vouchers
Many companies offer free or discounted companion vouchers. For example, the Delta SkyMiles Platinum Card from American Express offers customers a free companion voucher each year. You can apply the voucher to any regular online bookings. The US Airways Premier World MasterCard also offers a similar benefit.
How to do it: When you’re choosing a credit card, look for airline benefits but pay extra attention to the restrictions in the fine print. Some of the companion passes offered in promotions through third parties require you to book the tickets through an obscure travel agency.
With these plans, you can easily end up being forced to pay at least double the normal price before you can earn your “free” ticket. Other restrictions on these third-party vouchers include blackout dates and capacity restrictions. The most valuable companion vouchers will always be the ones offered directly by airlines that contain few, if any, restrictions.
Airline service is less than perfect, to say the least. The companies can’t do anything about the weather or air traffic control, but they’re still responsible for their customer service. You can take advantage of how willing they are to resolve issues by providing discounts or free flights.
When you have suffered a service failure, or if you’re disappointed in your gate experience or staff on the flight, report your problems to the airline. If you’re professional, specific, and reasonable in your complaint, they’re likely to reward you with valuable vouchers good for future travel.
How to do it: Write a brief, polite email to the airline’s customer service department. Remember that the person reading your complaint will likely be viewing hundreds that day, so keep it to the point and leave out personal details. The goal is not to elicit sympathy with a sad story, but to focus on the actions of the airline. Do not threaten to never fly with the airline again; just indicate your loyalty to the company and the amount of business you intend to give it in the future.
How to Use Miles to Travel for Free
After you’ve exhausted all of the non-mileage methods of scoring free flights, you’ll discover that there are many easy way to earn and use miles to travel the world for free using customer loyalty programs. Even if the flight is not completely free, using miles can allow you to travel in business class or first class for less than the price of an economy ticket.
5. Earn Miles from Credit Card Spending
Using credit card rewards wisely is step one to earning your way to a free flight. Once you have one of the best travel rewards credit cards with mileage rewards, use it as your primary method of payment for your day-to-day expenses.
The key is to always pay your balance in full and on time; otherwise your miles earned will be a worth fraction of the interest you will owe. Savvy mileage collectors eventually find themselves charging utility bills, parking fees, or any other purchase they can use their credit card for.
6. Get a Credit Card Sign-up Bonus
Big spenders can earn a great deal of miles on their credit cards, one for each dollar charged. The rest of us, however, have learned that it can take years of spending to earn enough miles for a free flight. Fortunately, there’s a shortcut: sign-up bonuses.
With the best credit card sign-up bonuses out there, you can instantly earn multiple free flights just for getting approved for a card. As with rewards card spending, always pay your bill on time, never carry a balance, and don’t ever spend more just for the miles.
7. Buy Miles
Ever since frequent flyer programs got popular, airlines have made miles available for almost every type of spending activity. They sell miles to corporate partners, and the partners give the miles away. Finally, the airlines cut out the middlemen and starting selling them directly to their customers.
Normally, the purchase of miles is not a good deal, but you can find regular promotions that make sense. For example, US Airways and Delta have run prior promotions in which you can buy miles for half the normal price. Depending on your destination and the time of year you are traveling, a promotion like this can allow you to fly in business class for less than the price of coach.
8. Maximize the Value of Awards
Earning miles and points is only half of the game. The other half is finding the deals when you use your miles and points. The problem is that the airlines feel like they have no incentive to maximize the value of your miles, and they devote scant resources to assisting your search.
In most cases, airline partner awards to international destinations represent the best value for your miles, but it can be extremely difficult to search for these flights on partner airlines using your miles. US Airways, for example, has no way to search for partner awards online, but there are some tricks and techniques you can try to redeem US Airways Dividends miles.
Delta, on the other hand, has an award search engine on its website. The problem is that it doesn’t work most of the time, forcing you to use some creative strategies to redeem Delta SkyMiles rewards.
9. Earn Miles by Flying
While racking up travel used to be the easiest way to work your way to a free trip, lately it’s been the toughest method. Still, it doesn’t hurt to add to your mileage balance by traveling, especially if you can get your business to pay for it.
Never book a flight without using your frequent flyer number. When you complete your trip, confirm that your mileage has posted to your account. If you ever forget to provide your number when you book, follow up with your carrier to get your miles added.
10. Maximize Miles by Choosing the Longest Route
Some people who are trying to pile up the travel miles will go so far as to book a flight with a connection in a distant city to earn more miles. If you have the time to spare, and you don’t mind the extra travel time, you can route yourself through one or more distant airline hubs rather than simply take the shortest connection.
11. Earn Free Miles with Partners or Retailers
Every airline has a list of partners that try to advertise products by giving away some miles. You can get extra miles by answering a survey or watching a promotional video. Bose, for example, recently ran a promotion in which they gave away 150 Delta SkyMiles to anyone who watched a one-minute video about one of Bose’s new headphones.
Other times, you may need to make small purchase, open an account, or get an insurance quote. You’ll rarely get a lot of miles, but these are easy to get and each one helps. Spend a few minutes looking through the mileage section of an airline’s website and you will be amazed at how many ways you can get miles without much effort. Also, monitor retailers’ websites and emails that will often mention these deals.
12. Earn Miles with Online Malls
Not only do airlines have individual partners that offer mileage, they also partner with online shopping retail sites. Nearly every airline has an online shopping mall where customers can earn extra miles from purchases at many retailers. You sign in, and then click through from the mall’s website to one of their retail partners’ sites. The site places a cookie on your computer, and then your purchases will be tied to the frequent flyer mall so you’ll start compiling miles.
Note: This is not the same as the “SkyMall,” which is filled with overpriced novelties; these are links to popular department stores, home improvement stores, and other major online retailers.
13. Transfer Miles to Airline Programs
There are some great mileage transfer offers from hotel chains and their affiliated credit cards. For example, the Starwood hotel chain lets you earn points that can be transferred to miles with over 20 different carriers.
In fact, some travelers use the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Card to earn these points, even without staying at their hotels. Hilton, Hyatt, and other chains also offer the option to trade hotel points for airline miles, with various exchange rates.
14. Concentrate Your Miles on Just a Few Programs
While you’re usually better off flying the airline with the best price and schedule, many travelers choose to only fly with one or two carriers. This way, instead of having a few miles with a lot of airlines, they concentrate all of their miles and make their way to free flights faster.
Fortunately, you can credit your miles to any airline with an alliance. For example, perhaps you normally fly US Airways, but are flying United to Chicago and Lufthansa to Europe. You could open up accounts with each airline and earn a few miles in several programs, or you can credit all of your miles to a single account, since all three airlines are part of the Star Alliance.
By earning all of your miles in just one program, you will reach awards faster and may even attain elite status, enabling you to earn even more miles.
15. Earn Miles with Airline Promotions
Typically, when an airline introduces a new route, or they are trying to drum up business to fight off a competitor, they will offer extra miles to their customers who fly certain routes during a particular time frame. The key is that you have to register for the promotion in advance.
Since registration is free, always register for all promotions on the airlines you fly on the off chance that one of your flights will qualify. Stay on the airline’s email list to be aware of these promotions well in advance so that you can plan accordingly.
Getting something for free is never easy, but in the case of air travel, it’s not necessarily impossible. By picking a few of these strategies, you can earn your way to a free flight without spending an unnecessary extra dollar. It’s the goal of every frugal traveler by taking advantage of frequent flyer programs and other clever methods.
You don’t even have to travel very often to find that a free ticket is within reach. Study at all the ways to earn free travel, with and without miles, and you can determine the ones that fit your spending habits. You’ll end up saving far more money than even the most extreme couponing artist.
(photo credit: Shutterstock)Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any bank, credit card issuer, airline, or hotel chain, and has not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of the bank, credit card issuer, airline, or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.