Think you can't afford a spin in a private jet — jacuzzi included — or a night at a lavish, five-star hotel? Think again.
A dedicated group of frequent fliers (or "aero-sexuals") have mastered the fine art of scoring travel freebies. They share their top tips on getting that free ride.
1. Go gold
Robert Burgess has redeemed over 10 million airline miles and hotel points. He runs the website Head for Points, and specializes in racking up British Airway and Avios points.
His tip for the newbie? Get an American Express Gold card, which is free for the first year and comes with a sign-up bonus of 20,000 points — enough to travel from New York to Paris free of charge, or even business class from London to Moscow. And no, you don't need to rack up debt to benefit from the deal.
"If you cancel the card and wait six months, you can reapply to get another 20,000 points," he confides. "You can keep on doing it. American Express has never stopped the offer."Many supermarkets offer specials on certain products that convert into points for Amex users, he adds. Burgess has earned trips by carefully selecting wines and printer cartridges. Any goods he doesn't want to keep, he sells them on.
Luckily for travelers, banks aren't going to be ditching miles programs anytime soon.
"Banks spend billions of dollars on miles for airline use as an incentive, and the reason is that the credit card market is saturated, so it is a struggle to make consumers get a new card. The best way is these incentives," notes Daraius Dubash, co-founder of Million Mile Secrets.
2. Support the underdog
Underpopulated flights are the "outsize value sweet spot," according to Burgess. One of the best bets right now, he says, is flying on European routes via Qatar Airways or Emirates Airlines, both of which recently expanded into the continent and are operating under capacity on those routes.
"Qatar fly two 787s out of Copenhagen (to Qatar) a day. There is not that much demand there for the business class seats, so you can get them for £700 (US$1,086), which is nothing compared to the cost from London."
3. Keep your origins open
Ben Schlapping's One Mile at a Time blog has become the frequent flier bible. The 25-year-old Seattleite has traveled five million miles in the last decade, often spending several days in a row airborne amassing points.
He favors premium cabin travel, which he says offers greater value-for-point conversion. If you have flexibility over where you're traveling from, you can get better deals on first- and business-class seats. Flights that pass through Colombo, Sri Lanka, for example, are particularly cheap.
"If you're looking for discounted premium cabin tickets, then some cities will be less expensive to depart from," he says.
4. Join reward schemes. Lots of them.
Schlapping also belongs to several rewards schemes, and prefers programs that allow you to transfer points easily.
"I like keeping the bulk of my points in transferable currencies. American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou points, and Starwood Preferred Guest all transfer to multiple programs, so it's easier to get points where I need them when I see a good redemption opportunity," he says.
5. Spend a little, get a lot
Matt Kepnes runs travel hack blog Nomadic Matt. He doesn't mind dropping a little cash on an airline-branded credit card — a fee that usually runs between US$60 and US$100 yearly. In the long run, it can actually save you cash.
"You get priority boarding, free bags and a lounge pass which can you can use at thousands of airports," he notes. Plus, it makes traveling more comfortable.
"With priority screening, security never takes more than 15 minutes."Monica Stott, who writes the Travel Hack blog, says that she thinks it's worth spending US$30 to buy a day pass at an airport lounge.
"The lounges have great food, wifi, magazines and newspapers, games rooms for kids, beauticians, showers and comfortable places to relax until your flight. It's much nicer than waiting in the main terminal and I'd usually spend that much on food, drinks and magazines anyway," she says.
6. Stay alert and organized
While rewards come easily, unwary hackers can be caught out by hidden fees, fuel surcharges, and frequent changes to reward schemes. Not to mention filling out applications for multiple credit cards comes with the risk of big debt.
"The greatest risk is not paying your credit card balance in full," says Dubash. "The high interest rates are never worth the airline miles."