Abusing Frequent Flyer Programs for Fun and Profit
I've threatened to do this post for a while, and, well, bags are pretty much packed and we're down into the double digits for when I leave... so....
OK, here's the thing. Yeah, I did manage to get some neat things (trip around the world as a way to go to Wave Gotik Treffen
) out of judicious application of a surprisingly small amount of money. That being said, there are people at this who know a lot more than I do. So go read them.http://boardingarea.com/blogs/viewfromthewing/http://boardingarea.com/blogs/onemileatatime/http://boardingarea.com/blogs/loyaltytraveler/http://boardingarea.com/blogs/thewanderingaramean/
So now it's time to explain what I did.
Airlines make more profit selling frequent flyer miles than flying airplanes. To quote Dave Barry: I am not making this up. The deal is they sell miles to banks, car rental agencies, FTD... and even to people. It's kind of like being able to make your own pseudo-currency. Now, while this does pose some problems for you and me, the end recipients of the pseudo-currency (inflation as airlines re-enact Gresham's law
over and over again, arbitrary rules and capacity restrictions to cheat you out of the "value" of your pseudo-currency, and so on), where there is currency, there is... arbitrage
. And this, in the end, is what I ended up doing- using various opportunities to leverage the cost of coach tickets to Europe in June (so, $1,200 or so) into what would normally be many thousands of dollars in tickets in international business/first class...around the world.
That being said, I am a piker compared to this guy, known as "Pudding Guy"
, and other people mentioned in that article. Or these fine folks
. And some of the deals I did don't actually exist any more, much like how you can't turn $240 worth of puddin'
into first class to Paris any more. That's fine. There's always more. And I share the word (just ask the friends who ended up enjoying free Vegas with me on a fine December weekend, thanks to expedia.ca). So consider this more an illustration of what is possible (and some of what I describe still is).
One of the airlines that really aggressively pushes their frequent flyer miles is US Airways
. Last year, I happened to fly me and my daughter on them by accident because, well, our flight home from Phoenix on Alaska Airlines was overbooked, so I said "great, fly us home from Chicago in first class, oh and give us some airline funny money", and signed her up for an account (I had one from back when US Airways was America West, and still flying to Las Vegas). So, US Airways regularly does promotions where if you share miles between accounts (which costs about a penny a mile), they will give you MORE miles. In this case it was a 100% bonus. So, in essence, you get to buy miles at a penny a mile (and some promos I have taken advantage of give you miles for much much less- .4, yes, point-four cents per mile, which would mean if you could buy miles for that cheap, a business class trip to Europe could cost less than $500). They were also offering bonuses for transferring hotel points, car rentals, etc. etc.
So, I bounced some miles between my daughter's account and mine, getting bonuses along the way, along with seeding the accounts with transfers, a few car rentals, and so on, and the miles that were already in there... and when the dust settled, I ended up with 120,000 miles and change.
So, you might be thinking "How can you fly around the world on US Airways? They don't fly over the Pacific." You're right, they don't. But Star Alliance
, the airline alliance
US Airways belongs to, does. Star Alliance airlines pretty much go everywhere. So, naturally, you can redeem US Airways miles for flights on Star Alliance partners. Here's the chart
. If you look, you will find a first class redemption to Hong Kong from the United States is 120,000 miles (at the time I wrote this). So 120,000 miles and $150 in taxes later...
OK, so now you're going "But that's Hong Kong. Treffen is in Leipzig. Aren't you about 6,000 miles away in the wrong direction?" Well, as one of the blogs I linked to above puts it
(emphasis added):I’ve never had a problem booking awards from the US to Asia via the Pacific or by the Atlantic, and never had a problem transiting one ocean in each direction. Some folks believe this constitutes a ’round the world’ award and should be priced more expensively but that’s not correct — as long as you conform to stopover rules of a regular award, and don’t stop in extra destinations, it’s just a regular award.
So, by "stopover rules", what the author means is that you have to stop over in a Star Alliance hub for an airline that's part of your itinerary (though US Airways enforces that rule inconsistently at best- people have snagged stopovers in places like Paris). Gee, Lufthansa is in Star Alliance. Lufthansa has hubs in Germany. And it turns out that Frankfurt is closer to Seattle than Hong Kong, thus making it a legitimate stopover en route as long as you don't care about the extra distance traveled to get there going around the world (look this up on a map if you don't believe me
). So that gets us to Frankfurt. I can handle cheap Air Berlin flights+train tickets from here. Hint: use Rail and Fly
When I realized all of that last year, there could have been people blinded by the intensity of the light bulb going off over my head, because the other realization I made was the lovely people at the soon-to-be-United, now Continental
had two debit cards I could pick up for frequent flyer miles: Chase (25,000 miles) and Key Bank (4,000), plus I could earn a bonus that made it 30,000 miles, and Key Bank would also give me a $150 bonus for opening the checking account that would pay for both debit cards and leave me with money left over... that I could use to fly somewhere far away. And I was already flying somewhere far away. So why not add somewhere else? (The Chase deal is gone, sadly, a victim of banks withdrawing those deals now that Congress is cracking down on the usury that's merchant credit card fees.)
Oh, look, how about that. Hong Kong is in North Asia for US Airways, but in the wacky world of airline geography, it's in South Asia for Continental (unlike the rest of China). And if we look at a handy chart
, an award in South Asia is 30,000 miles for business class (through June 15 of this year, as I write this). And includes a stopover. Oh, look, Bali. Hmm, and Bangkok. And (at the time, not any more, sadly), oh, look, Continental and Emirates
are partners, meaning my flight back to Hong Kong from Bangkok is going to have a bar
. Well, I guess my work here is done. Oh, and the ticket cost me $38 in taxes. Which meant I still had money left from the $150 from the last paragraph.
I've also used other tricks to keep the hotel costs down to $1000 US (which is pretty amazing for a 3 week trip that includes a week in Europe), like Hilton Point Stretcher
to get a room in Bangkok, and Starwood Cash and Points
to get rooms elsewhere (Macau, Frankfurt) at favorable prices. I spent a lot of time on TripAdvisor.com, Wotif
and Booking.com. I think the one I'm proudest of is getting the room for Treffen for €185. For five days. Yeah, I'm not close to the center of town, but the money I have saved can cover a LOT of cab fare. Plus walking is good for me, my doctor says.
So, that is how I did this. And the fact is that while the deals out there today aren't the same as the ones I used, and won't be the same as the ones out there tomorrow, you can do it too. The links I've scattered around this piece should give you some starting places for your own trips of a lifetime. I hope you can use them.
In the end, my trip looks like this:
And that will be what I am doing for three weeks.