Over the past decade, my friends and I have been fortunate enough to score a plethora of free international plane tickets through airline rewards programs and credit card points. Each ticket has been worth anywhere from $1,200 to $4,500, and I have benefited from at least one free ticket each year. Free airline tickets and hotel are available to anyone who knows how to find them. They key to accessing these benefits is to understand how airline rewards programs, affiliate airlines, and credit card points work.In 2006 I sold all of my belongings, purchased a one-way ticket out of the country for $1,200 using a United Explorer Card and left the country with literally $500 in my pocket and no money in the bank. Over the next two years, I traveled the world, sometimes purchasing plane tickets, but most often using airline points for free air travel. This two-year journey opened my eyes to loyalty programs and changed the way I travel forever. I have easily received over $20,000 worth of free benefits by learning the rules of traveling via frequent flier points and credit card rewards.
To kick off this series of travel posts I wanted to provide you with some examples of how easy it is to travel the world for free by utilizing travel reward programs. Before we get started I need to explain a few important terms in the world of travel hacking: connections, stopovers, and open jaws.
Connections are brief layovers while transitioning between flights and are less than 4 hours for domestic travel and less than 24 hours for international travel.
Stopovers are connections where the delay between flights are greater than 4 hours for domestic travel and more than 24 hours for international travel
An open jaw is a round-trip ticket where you continue your journey through a different airport from where you arrived at. Open jaw’s must be within the same geographic region (North America, South America, South East Asia, etc.), and the distance between airports needs to be shorter than the total distance of the flown segments. Most open jaw tickets purchased with airline mileage must be booked over the phone, as online websites are not creative enough to show these options.
There are three types of open jaws:
Type 1: Travel from City A to City B, travel around by foot, train, auto, boat or other airline, and then return to City A via City C. Example: Los Angeles to Bali then Bangkok back to Los Angeles.
Type 2: Travel from City A to City B, then from City B to City C. Example: Los Angeles to London then London to San Francisco.
Type 3: Travel from City A to City B, travel on foot, train, auto, boat or other airline to City C then fly back to City B from City C. Example: Los Angeles to Tokyo then Hong Kong to Los Angeles.
Type 4: Travel from City A to City B, travel by other means to City C and then from City C to City D. This scenario is considered a double open jaw. Example: Los Angeles to Bali then Tokyo to San Francisco.
In 2006, the United Explorer Card offered a 30,000 point signing bonus when you spent $1,000 within the first three months. They still offer this signing bonus today, and if you have a good credit score you will be approved immediately.
I was looking to move to the Federated States of Micronesia to live with a friend and surf, however, round trip tickets to the islands were $1,800 and I was only able to raise a total of $1,700 after selling my few worldly possessions at that point in time (bicycle, skateboard, old text books,used computer, and camping gear). I was able to purchase a one-way ticket for $1,200 and keep the remaining money to hold me over for four months in case I could not find a job. I purchased the ticket using the credit card and immediately scored the 30,000 point bonus, plus 2x points per dollar spent to purchase the tickets for an additional 2,400 points and an additional 12,800 points for the distance of the flight. So upon arriving in Micronesia I had already racked up 45,200 frequent flier points. Luckily I was able to find a job the at local high school teaching English for $10,000 a year on an island where cost of living averaged only $2,000 a year.
The main reason I chose to move to Micronesia is because I learned that the South Pacific, South East Asia and Australia offered the most bang for your frequent flier mileage when it came to reward travel. The cost for a round-trip ticket from any country within these regions was only 25,000 points, compared to 40,000 points to fly between states in the U.S. and 60,000 points to fly between North America and South America. In addition, there were many cheap local flights between countries in South East Asia which allowed me to utilize open jaws to maximize my travel by delaying layovers for a day or two in other countries that I wanted to visit without having to pay additional fees or points.
My first frequent flier trip was a two-month vacation to Bali with a two-day stopover in Guam on the way out and two days on the way back. After spending 25,000 points on the ticket I was left with a balance of 20,2000 points. While in Guam I volunteered to do maintenance work at a missionary school in exchange for a place to sleep. While helping out at the school, one of the guys on the maintenance crew offered to transfer 9,000 of frequent flier points to me that he had accrued and had no intention of using. This brought my balance up to 29,200 points.
After returning to Micronesia and working for four months, my friend and I decided to choose a random destination to spend the summer. We spun a globe and our finger landed on India. We began researching airline routes across the different airline partners of United’s affiliate network. Although United’s website did not provide options for travel between Micronesia and India, we were able to work out our own route by piggy backing off of affiliate partner routes. We called the airline and built our own custom route. For 25,000 points each we were able to purchase round-trip tickets from Micronesia to Mumbai, India via a 2-day stopover in Guam on the way out and 2-days on the way back, a 22-hour connection in Hong Kong on the way out and an 18-hour connection on the way back.
Once we landed in Mumbai we spent two days exploring the city then utilized the knowledge from The Man in Seat 61 to travel by train to New Deli, Varanasi, Agra, and Bodhgaya over the next month and a half for less than $150. We then took several buses to Pokhara, Nepal, hiked the Annapurna Circuit, and explored Kathmandu.
I then came home to the U.S. for 3 weeks to visit my family by purchasing a ticket from Kathmandu to Deli to Mumbai for $84, and from Mumbai to Moscow with a 24 our stopover on the way to Los Angeles for $1,000 via United’s affiliated partner at the time, Aeroflot. This $1,000 round-trip flight was half the price of what it cost to fly from Micronesia to the the U.S. and awarded me another 26,000 frequent flier points for another free vacation upon my return to the South Pacific. The only annoying part of this trip was that it took me about 6 days to return home to Micronesia as I had to travel from Los Angeles to Moscow, stay for 24 hours, Moscow to Mumbai stay for 26 hours, Mumbai to Hong Kong and stay for 18 hours, Hong Kong to Guam stay for 36 hours, and then finally return to my home, but who cares when you don’t have to be anywhere in a hurry! With the points gained from coming home to see my family, I was able to book another free trip to Australia for 2 months, and so the cycle has continued year after year.
It has been almost 11 years since I started using airline award programs. Living in the United States again, requires more points to travel, but by using credit cards such as the Chase United Explorer and Chase Sapphire Reserve, I have still been able to score at lease one free international ticket each year. Bali, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Peru, Belize Brazil, the world is our playground! Anyone can easily learn the rules of the frequent flier game and learn to travel for little to no cost!
Readers, do you utilize frequent flier program to score free vacations?
What has been your most rewarding frequent flier vacation?
What rewards programs do you subscribe to?