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How to Travel the World for Free Using Customer Loyalty Programs

Think you have to travel often to acquire frequent flyer miles? Think again.

In the 2002 movie, Punch Drunk Love, Adam Sandler plays a quirky character who finds a way to earn millions of frequent flyer miles without leaving home in order to travel with his paramour. He realizes that there’s a promotion to earn frequent flyer miles with each purchase of Healthy Choice pudding. He then determines that the value of the mileage far exceeds the cost of the pudding, so he buys the pudding by the truckload, collects the miles, and donates the product to a food bank in order to claim tax deductions.

It turns out that this part of the movie was actually based on the true story of a man named David Phillips, who eventually became known as The Pudding Guy. His story is legendary with a relatively small community of travel experts whose only goal is to exploit loyalty programs in pursuit of free airline tickets and hotel stays.

Yep, it’s true. Just like in the movie, there are creative ways to accrue massive amounts of travel points and miles without even leaving home. Below are seven tips and tricks to get you started.

Ways to Exploit Loyalty Programs and Travel for Free

1. Research Reward Programs
On the home page of every frequent flyer and hotel rewards program website is a list of ways you can earn points or miles. Between reward earning credit cards, shopping portals, and partner earning opportunities, the ways to earn are so numerous that flying or staying in hotels might actually be the hardest way to get miles and points.

2. Learn About Their Partners
If you think that points and miles can only be redeemed for services offered by the company that runs the program, you are missing out on the real value of these programs. You will find that each company is part of a web of alliances and partnerships that offer many permutations of awards. For example, I once helped someone transfer their American Express Membership Rewards points for miles in an account with Al Nippon Airways that they created just for this purpose. They then used those miles to redeem an award flight on Al Nippon’s airline partner, South African Airways, saving hundreds of dollars.

3. Join Online Frequent Flyer Forums
Before the Internet, a select few travelers shared their secrets through a series of newsletters and other minor publications. Like the pudding promotion, these were not the kind of tricks one would read about in the travel section of their newspaper. Today, these tactics are discovered, shared, and honed though online forums. FlyerTalk is the oldest and largest of these communities, and a new forum called MilePoint has just been created by some of the founders of FlyerTalk.

These forums are free to join, but they can be intimidating to newcomers. The best advice is to read through a few topics thoroughly before posting. When you do post, try to offer helpful advice and suggestions rather than ask basic questions that have already been posted over and over again. Lengthy complaints about specific incidents by new members are not received well by long-time members. Finally, be sure to read through the forum’s terms of service to understand what is appropriate and what is not allowed.

4. Subscribe to Travel Blogs
Many of the real geniuses of this game keep a low profile, but some post tips and stories on their blogs. Randy Petersen, the founder of FlyerTalk has created a blog network called The Boarding Area where he hosts some of the top travel blogs. My favorites there include One Mile At A Time and View From The Wing. Other great travel blogs include The Frugal Travel Guy and Upgrade Travel Better.

Subscribe Travel Blogs

5. Organize Your Points and Miles
If you are going to get serious about collecting frequent flyer miles and hotel points, you cannot afford to lose track of your program balances or their expiration dates. I use a free service called Award Wallet that allows you to enter in your account numbers and login information. It can then retrieve the balances, new activity, and expiration dates for all programs for you and your family members.

6. Hunt for Promotions
The Pudding Guy made his millions of miles by astutely recognizing the value of the limited time offer. Since then, dozens of similar offers have come and gone. The key is to stay on top of the latest deals using forums and blogs so you can quickly jump on a promotion before it expires.

For example, in late 2009 US Airways had an promotion where, like the Pudding Guy, you could buy a certain product (TrackItBack stickers) and earn airline miles that exceeded the cost of the product. I nailed it, earning 475,000 miles without setting foot on one of their aircraft. I spent $3,000 which was partially offset by the $3,000 tax deduction I received by donating the product to charity. The miles were ultimately redeemed for about $15,000 worth of international business class airline tickets. This is an example of the types of promotions that come and go every few months, but are not widely known. In fact, many people in the community are reluctant to publicize their most creative exploits for fear that mass participation will cause the company to suspend the offer.

7. Stay Legit
The first time you find out that you can travel for free, it is easy to get overly excited about all the loyalty program offers and promotions. Your enthusiasm may tempt you to cross the line when it comes to the terms of an offer. All of the examples I have provided are completely legal and the vast majority of promotions are a win-win for both you and the companies that offer them.

On occasion, you will find loopholes that you can take advantage of that while legal, may be exploiting the program rules in ways the company never anticipated. Inevitably, some people will violate the terms of an offer, placing all of their accumulated points or miles in jeopardy. Before laying out your hard-earned money in an attempt to earn points and miles, read all the terms and conditions thoroughly to ensure that you are at least complying with the word, if not the spirit of the offer. Save a written copy of any offer in the event that the company is reluctant to fulfill its own terms – in which case you may need some tips to beat out customer service strategies.

Final Word

For decades, travel companies have been using loyalty programs to encourage the repeat business of frequent travelers. These programs have been tremendously profitable for the companies that operate them. At the same time, a dedicated minority of travelers have made a hobby out of working the system that these companies have created in order to earn free or highly discounted travel. If you have the time and dedication to follow the steps I have outlined, you can find some incredible ways to travel the world for less money then you could have imagined.

Are you a frugal traveler? What are some of your best tricks to earn free travel using airline and hotel rewards programs?

Jason Steele is one of the nation's leading experts in credit cards and travel rewards since 2008. Jason is also the founder and producer of CardCon, which is The Conference for Credit Card Media. Jason lives in Denver, Colorado where he enjoys bicycling, snowboarding and piloting small airplanes.