To really dig into travel hacking, you’ll want to understand how alliances and frequent flyer miles work.
An airline alliance refers to airline partners. When two airlines are in the same alliance, you can use the miles from one airline to book a flight on the other. For example, if I have miles with United Airways, I can book a ticket to Europe with Lufthansa, using my United Miles. However, I must book by calling United Airlines, not Lufthansa. This also means that if you pay for a ticket on Lufthansa, you can earn miles that accrue in your United Account. The goal is to centralize all your miles into a single milage account for each alliance. There are three alliances:
You’ll want to create an account at one airline in each alliance, and centralize there. Here are my recommendations for which airlines to create an account:
Once you have the mileage accounts set up, make sure that you credit miles into the correct alliance account whenever you fly. Some notable exceptions that don’t have alliances are JetBlue and Southwest Airlines. If you fly with these airlines, you can’t credit them into one of the alliance accounts.
This part can be confusing…what are miles? How do you redeem them? How do they work? Frequent flyer miles are accrued for flying on an airline. Usually, you earn one mile for every mile you fly. But with travel hacking, flying won’t be the primary way that you earn miles. Flying isn’t the only way to earn miles, however.
You can also earn miles by acting on promotions, or spending money using an airline credit card. Generally, you’ll earn one mile per dollar spent. Once you have enough miles in your account, you can redeem miles by going to your airline’s website, or calling their help desk. I recommend you call in, because only by calling can you search partner airlines as well. One major question is “How many miles does it take to fly somewhere?”
For your resource kit, here are links to all the award charts.
Let’s take a look at the American Award Chart and see what it means.
This chart is a complex beast, but we’ll break it down: flights originating or ending in North America are marked with a red box. As you can see, the cost in miles is based on your origination region and destination region. It doesn’t matter which airport or city. This means that it costs the same number of miles to fly to a capital city or a difficult, hidden airport. So, if you look at the column that’s highlighted, you’ll see the costs to fly from anywhere in the USA to any other region in the world. Here are some sample economy class one way itineraries.
For 30,000 miles round-trip, you can head all the way to Peru or Colombia. These tickets often cost over $1,000. But with miles, it costs almost the same as flying to another American city. Pretty amazing? So, depending on where you want to go, all you have to do is earn enough miles to book that ticket.
Now comes the part that should be the easiest, but often isn’t–redeeming your miles for tickets. When you’re ready to book the ticket, I recommend you call the airline alliance directly. Have your ideal itinerary in mind, with a few back-up plans or alternate routes if you’re that flexible. If you absolutely have to get from Los Angeles to Paris on the weekend of your birthday, it may be more difficult to book. But if you’re willing to fly in or out of different airports, take a long layover in London, or travel in the middle of the week, it will be that much easier to book the free ticket.
When you call the airline alliance, they’ll check partner airlines, as well as the original airline you request. (When you try to book on the website, there’s much less availability for award seats.) For your records, here are the phone numbers to book award tickets:
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