June 26, 2012 -- The heat of summer is officially here, but if you're left cold by the thought of using frequent flyer miles to book a vacation, listen up! I've been on the consumer beat for 15 years, so I can be a bit jaded and blasé. I feel like I've heard –or given!—every money-saving tip on the planet. But if your goal is to travel AROUND the planet, I just learned some new tips and tricks that will save you big time.
I learned these strategies from Brian Kelly, the Bankrate.com "Points Guy." In a past life, Brian was a recruiter for a high-flying investment bank. He jetted around the world racking up 125,000 frequent flyer miles a year. Using those points to extravagant advantage became a game for him. He took one swanky personal trip that landed him in a first class seat right behind Madonna! For free! He stayed at some of the finest resorts in the world –for the price of a coach class ticket and a hostel.
Now Brian is sharing his knowledge so that you, too, can be a high flying traveler living the high life! By the way, it's not necessary to travel tens of thousands of miles for work to save tens of thousands of dollars on vacations. Brian no longer has that 125,000-mile-a-year job, so he's found other ways to rack up free travel points –and you can too.
Here's some of my favorite advice from Brian Kelly, The Points Guy:
1. Multiple-partner rewards cards work best. Contrary to popular opinion, single airline credit cards are not the best deal out there. Kelly says fixed value points cards aren't either. Those are the cards that let you book travel on your own and then reimburse you with points later. Rather, Kelly says, the real bonanza is cards that give you transferable points that can be used with multiple airlines and hotels. He gives American Express Membership Rewards points as an example. Amex has partnered with dozens of airlines and hotels and all you do is transfer your Amex points over to those other programs. It's ultra flexible because you can pay for the entire ticket or room with Amex points, or just use them to supplement any points you have built up with the airline or hotel itself. One footnote from yours truly, since not all retailers accept American Express, it's a good idea to also carry a Visa or Mastercard-branded credit card, so that if your Amex is rejected, you still have a way of earning points on your purchase.
Other credit card companies may offer similar programs. You can compare different rewards cards at credit.com and lowcards.com. The key is to choose a program with airline, hotel and other partners that you use."
2. Airline websites mislead! I actually knew the tip above, but this one was a stunner. Everybody thinks it's impossible to book awards flights because the airlines designate so few seats for freebies. But Kelly has discovered that if the airline you want to fly says there's no availability, you can often find the free seat by checking its partner airline's website instead! So, for example, go to United.com to book US Airways rewards, because they are partners, and you might get a very different answer. Kelly explains further in this blog.
3. Alliance Partners are golden. Kelly says one of the best ways to use frequent flyer miles is to understand and take advantage of the relationships between alliance partners and non-alliance partners. For example, you can book Etihad, the luxurious airline of the United Arab Emirates, using American Airlines miles, and there's often availability even though Etihad isn't in American's OneWorld alliance. On the other hand, if you looked up awards deals to the Middle East on AmericanAirlines.com, you'd find availability on British Airways. BA IS a OneWorld partner, but Kelly says, in this example, its flights cost you more miles and fees for a route that's often less direct. This is one of Kelly's more complicated concepts, but the savings are huge, and he himself explains it best, so read more here.
4. Layovers can be a GOOD thing. Say you've always wanted to go to Asia and Australia. Since they're on the other side of the globe, those are pricey tickets. BUT you can get two for the price of one by going to both on the same trip. For example, many airlines –such as US Airways-- will let you stop over for several days in Asia on the way to Australia. All this on a free award ticket! And get this: Kelly points out that a business class trip to Australia is 110,000 miles, while to Asia it's 120,000 miles, so you're actually getting two trips for less than the price of one! I'm proud to say that even though I'm not known as "The Points Gal," I did this once years ago. My husband and I wanted to go to Hong Kong and Thailand. We learned we could book a trip to Thailand with a stopover of as long as a month in Hong Kong –for no extra money or points!
5. Buying miles can be a good deal. Many airlines now let you combine miles and cash for trips. People like to grumble that there's no such thing as a free trip anymore, but consider this: Kelly has done the math and that 110,000-mile trip to Australia could cost as little as $2,275.50 if you combine cash and points. By contrast, a regular cash ticket would cost well over $6,000.
6. Upgrades are not the best use of miles.* There's long been an attitude that the best use of points is for upgrades –probably because booking actual tickets for points can seem challenging. However, Kelly says it's mostly a myth these days because many airlines now charge huge fees on business or first class tickets upgraded with points. However, like any good airline advertisement, this tip contains an important asterisk* in it. Kelly says one airline, British Airways, is an exception. Apparently, BA offers generous upgrade opportunities that are inexpensive whether you're paying with cash or points.