You probably hear these stories all the time: “Couple from XYZ traveled to 30 countries for an entire year for less than $10,000 all-inclusive!”, or “so and so traveled around the world for $400 round-trip while flying first class!”
If you asked me what I thought of frequent flyer programs or travel hacking a few year ago, I’d probably tell you I don’t believe in them. In fact, I think the reason why there are so many misconceptions about redeeming free flights (or how frequent flyers like to call it: award flights) probably stems from the fact that this whole concept just sounds too good to be true.
For me, it wasn’t until I had enough points to redeem for flights that I truly started looking into this whole concept of travel hacking and believing that maybe, just maybe, there really is a way I could travel the world without being tied down to the cost.
The truth is, travel hacking is a whole different ball game in itself. What we see from mileage advertisements barely scratches the surface on what you could potentially do. We naturally jump to conclude that mileage rewards are just another marketing gimmick to get us to stay loyal to a single brand (and yes that is in part what we should do, but not for the reasons you think. I will discuss this in a later post), yet we ofttimes miss out on the most fundamental concept of frequent flyer programs – which is the fact that these bonus miles are in fact free.
I was skeptical at first too, but I have learned to see past the impossible and truly find out for myself what redeeming award flights are like.
Since 2014, I have earned over 230,000 miles in reward miles, redeemed about 60,000 of that, and still have more than 150,000 points left in my account (while earning more every day). All of this while working full-time at my day job (with no business travel perks), leisurely collecting points on a day-to-day basis and only going on 2-3 international and domestic trips a year, 1 of which is an awards flight.
Today, I want to take a moment to bust a handful of these frequent flyer myths we all subconsciously make assumptions about and give you a few real-life examples of what you can do to start building your own mileage portfolio.
Myth #1: I have to fly a lot to earn miles.
This was my initial mentality as well, and in fact, my first awards flight was redeemed with mostly miles earned from flying. But what most people don’t know is the abundance of opportunities for you to earn miles on the ground, some of which don’t even require you to leave your house!
To get you start thinking, here are some ways I have utilized to earn free miles:
- Online shopping through airline shopping portals
- Signing up for newsletters from partner retailers
- Taking advantage of credit card sign up bonuses
Myth #2: Most reward miles are not free.
I can see why a lot of people may think that, and it’s because most of the time, in order to attain miles, you have to spend money.
But hold on a second, think about it this way. Unless you truly live independently can sustain yourself completely without anyone or anything, you are going to spend money. You will need to buy food, pay for transportation, shopping, all kinds of things in order to live a comfortable life.
And if you are spending that money anyways, think about all the miles you can get out of it with a little bit of tweaking to your spending habits.
Myth #3: You must have a credit card to collect a lot of points.
This is partly true, it is a well-known fact that credit cards are the best ways to earn miles fast. But if you are like me, and you collect miles at a more leisure pace, credit cards are not required.
To get started with any mileage program, all you have to do is to go through a 3-minute sign-up process online; opt-in to their marketing emails; use your membership card at any of their partner retailers and participating in any bonus mileage promotions. It’s really that simple! Still skeptical? Here are 5 ways you can earn miles without a credit card.
Myth #4: Even if I had enough points to redeem for an international flight, I’d be charged so much tax that it’ll cost me almost a full-priced ticket anyway.
This, young grasshopper, is because you have yet to master what mileage redemptions is all about.
It took me some time to figure this out myself, but the key to reducing your taxes is to understand one of two things. 1) determine the airports that are expensive to fly in and out of, and which ones are cheaper, and 2) how far in advance you are booking.
Airports like LHR (London Heathrow Airport) is one of the most expensive airports in the world and one that most frequent flyers would typically avoid unless you absolutely must go through there, in which case you are probably better off paying for your ticket anyway. Pay especially close attention to layover airports when you book, as they are usually the determining factor between a $600 ticket vs a $100 ticket.
I have also observed that booking a flight more than 9 months ahead usually result in much lower taxes in comparison to booking less than 6 months until departure. If you are in no hurry or under a time crunch, always play around with the dates and see if you can find something cheaper.
Myth #5: I have to be rich and spend a lot to earn enough points.
Again, another myth that people tend to jump to conclusions about. When we look at how many points we need to redeem for an international ticket, most people would typically shy away from the gigantic number and give up without even trying.
The truth is, and this goes hand-in-hand- with #2 above, if you are spending money anyways, just utilize your reward card with it. Don’t feel that you have to make significant adjustments in your life to earn points, just spend as how you’ve always spent, show your mileage membership card or rewards credit card to earn points on your spendings, and utilize those big purchases (such as home renovations, bill payments, and international trips) to your advantage.
Myth #6: Airlines are constantly increasing their reward redemption, I am already too late to the game.
In the contrary, a lot of airlines are either staying at the same redemption level or decreasing reward levels to something that’s more reasonable.
One of the things I find a lot of people struggle with understanding is the idea of airlines wanting your business, that they actually want to reward you for giving them said business. At the end of the day, these mileage programs are created with their airline’s profit goals in mind. There is no monetary investment in the airline in giving out these points, but to the consumer points are money, and a lot of people actually book exclusively with one or two airlines because of these mileage programs. A seasoned frequent flyer would know exactly what to do to get the biggest bang for the buck when it comes to redeeming flights and earning points, while the average traveler wouldn’t know of these trade secrets without thorough research.
Myth #7: Researching for mileage promotions take a lot of time and I don’t have time for that.
There is no denying that learning to travel hack properly involves a steep learning curve. There is a lot of logistics and theory behind how the systems work and how to get the most out of every mile and every trip.
Personally, I think at the end of the day, it all comes down to how serious you are about saving money and how much time you want to invest in yourself to get more out of your travels in the long run.
Myth #8: The number of award seats are so limited that even if I have the points I won’t be able to find anything to redeem.
A lot of people get discouraged when they try to redeem their dream trip and the search returns zero results. What? No flights available?
A good rule of thumb is always to plan ahead. Most airlines release their award seats up to 365 days in advance, so the sooner you redeem that ticket the better. I almost never recommend booking last minute because it’s so risky, but I have seen people finding award flights up to 3 weeks before departure, likely because the flight had a lot of empty seats.
Another way to increase your chances of booking that award flight is to be more flexible with your dates. If your initial travel segment doesn’t work, try a different segment or fly into a nearby airport instead.
Here’s a bonus tip: call the airline directly to book! Come up with a list of flights that you know for a fact definitely has room (ie. you searched on the airline site beforehand to find that out), give them to the airline representative on the other end. Sometimes a flight that may not show up on the rewards site can still be booked if you go through a live representative.
Myth #9: Surely if it was that easy, airlines would have thought of ways to prevent people from redeeming free flights left and right?
Contrary to common belief, not a lot of people actually knows a whole lot about mileage programs. I mean, ask yourself, how much did you know about travel hacking before this post? The fact is only a small percentage of people who collects points actually ends up redeeming them, and an even smaller percentage redeems for something that’s totally worthwhile (like the examples I mentioned at the beginning of this post). A lot of people actually end up letting their points expire without knowing, or redeeming for average flights when they could’ve redeemed for something more.
Airlines know this, and even with the truckload of information out there that teaches people how to travel smart, most people just don’t know.
Myth #10: I am not from the US and it will take me years to redeem for a single ticket.
Hey, I am not from the US either! Although the States is well-known for its abundance of ways to earn miles with the best bonuses, there are just as many ways to earn points in your home country. Start by signing up with your domestic airline’s mileage reward program and subscribe to their newsletter.
You can also sign up for email services out there who sends the latest mileage deals to your inbox directly.
And here is a bonus myth: Travel hacking is illegal.
Yes, people do think this, and I cannot even begin to stress how “illegal” it is to even think this way! Don’t let the name fool you. In fact, I wouldn’t even consider travel hacking as hacking, but more along the lines of maximizing mileage earning and redemptions.
Something I want to be clear about is that we, as consumers, travelers, frequent flyers, and good ol’ citizens, are not stealing money from the airlines by qualifying for a well-deserved award flight.
We are simply using what we know about how the mileage systems work to legitimately earn more miles and redeem for better rewards. If you are still skeptical, refer back to my answer in #6 about airlines and mileage programs.
So what’s the catch? The learning curve to master travel hacking is steep. You need to allocate ample amounts of time just to get yourself familiarized with oodles of information out there on mileage programs, alliances, redemptions, ratios, and all that jazz.
That’s why I created a couple spreadsheets to help you keep track of your reward accounts. Enter your information below and get them straight to your inbox!