How to Fly for Free (Almost)
“It’ll take years to earn enough miles for a flight!”
“Why should I bother carrying around all those cards?”
“Travel hacking? Is that even legal?”
These are just a few things I’ve heard about collecting reward miles. I found myself having a few conversations on Twitter recently that got me thinking about sharing what I’ve learned. Sharing is caring and one thing I care about is helping people get out there and see the world without bankrupting themselves. It wasn’t all that long ago that I was a points n00b, just showing my Air Miles card when I bought groceries, using my non-rewards debit and earning a sad few points here and there. But then I discovered travel and travel hacking and now I’m a convert.
So what the hell is ‘travel hacking’? It’s the art of taking advantage of deals in order to collect a large number of reward miles in order to travel for free or for just the taxes and fees. And yes, it’s legal. I’m still new to it but even just by scratching the surface I’ve managed to book a round the world flight for $1100 (which is a sweet deal when your home base is St. John’s) and I regularly save $650 on flights home to New Brunswick. Travel hacking has been good to me. Although it’s more useful to Americans, the Travel Hacking Cartel is a great resource to get you started. There are still some good deals for Canadians and you can sign up for a two week trial for just $1.
Why Bother Collecting Miles? It’ll Take Years!
Why bother? To save money of course! As for it taking years, if you’re like I used to be, only earning a couple miles here and there, then yes, it will take you ages to build up enough for even the shortest of hauls. But it doesn’t have to be like that. For instance, in the last 12 months I’ve earned 4,153 Air Miles. That’s enough for five short-haul flights or one return ticket to South America. In that year, I’ve also earned 94,411 Aeroplan miles. That got me around the world with enough left over for a trip to Toronto.
In Canada you’ll still have to pay taxes and fees, which are stupidly high but at least you’re going to get a hefty discount. For example, a regular flight from YYT to YSJ is $800 (which is itself, ridiculous but that’s another story) but by redeeming 713 Air Miles, I can get home for $150. Totally worth it.
One key with point collecting is not to spread yourself too thin. Choose one of two points programs and concentrate your earnings there. I chose Air Miles as my main program since travel is my main objective and they have more partners near me than Aeroplan does. I collect at the grocery store, drugstore, on home renos and my car insurance. If you get accounts with 4 or 5 programs you’ll have a hard time earning enough with any one to go anywhere. Focus grasshopper.
Credit Cards are a Big Deal
One of the best ways to earn a lot of miles fast is by signing up for credit cards. In the last year well over half of the points I accumulated were from signing up for and using credit cards. You want to be careful here but if your credit is good and you can manage your money, it’s a good option. My two favourite cards are the AmEx Gold Rewards and the BMO Air Miles World MasterCard. If you’re looking to score a lot of Aeroplan points quickly the AmEx Aeroplan Plus Platinum card is fantastic, but for a price ($499). I earned 50,000 points right away and it also got me a few perks like Maple Leaf Lounge access, but with its high annual fee I can’t justify keeping it for a second year, even if I am spoiled by the lounge access.
With the AmEx Gold Rewards you earn double points for all travel, gas, grocery and drugstore purchases and one point for every other dollar spent on the card. It has an annual fee of $150 which is waived for the first year. Points can instantly be converted 1:1 for Aeroplan or you can transfer them into a number of other rewards programs and this flexibility is the main thing I like about the card.
When you redeem your Air Miles for a flight and use the BMO Air Miles card you automatically get a 25% discount on the points needed for the flight, which is why I like this card. You earn 1 Air Mile for every $15 you spend on the card and it has an annual fee of $99.
There are a ton of travel cards so I highly suggest a visit to the Canadian points guru, Rewards Canada, for more information on picking the right one (or two or three) for you.
Tip: if you’re going to apply for multiple cards, do it on the same day so that the small ding your credit score will take from each credit check won’t affect your overall applications.
BIG NOTE: Only take advantage of credit card deals if you can pay off your balance every month. If you start paying interest you’ll quickly counteract any savings you might have earned.
Watch for Partner Deals
You’re going to have to be aware of who your local program partners are and check flyers for bonus deals. Example: Sobey’s recently had a deal where you got 95 Air Miles when you spent $200 on gift cards. I shop there anyway since it’s convenient so I picked myself up a gift card and earned some bonus miles by essentially just pre-paying for groceries. I also watch Lawton’s flyers for Air Miles specials and can sometimes earn over 100 miles by stocking up on things I use anyway. I like red wine but I’m not overly picky I must admit so when I go to the liquor store to pick up a bottle or two I first look to see which wines have bonus miles that week. If I’m going to buy something online I always check first to see if that store is a member of either programs shopping portal. That way I can earn extra miles. Be careful though to not buy things that you don’t need or regularly use just for the miles. You don’t want to counteract the savings.
How to Avoid Expiring Points
A lot of programs have expiry dates on points. For Air Miles you’ll have 5 years from the time you earn a point to spend it. With Aeroplan it’s 7 years. They have another catch though – your entire account will expire if you have no transactions for a year. To avoid losing your Aeroplan balance you can make a purchase through their shopping portal that will earn at least one mile. I’d suggest a song or app through iTunes or a $0.99 book from Kobo. As for how to avoid losing those 5 or 7 year old miles I’ve only got one solution…travel! Miles are for spending and that’s why you’re building up your balance anyway, isn’t it?
Did you know about Aeroplan’s stopovers? If you’re travelling on a rewards ticket within Canada or between Canada and the States, you can make one stopover. If you’re travelling internationally between two continents you can make two stopovers. They won’t cost you extra miles (just the extra taxes/fees) and can let you get more travel for your buck. I took advantage this fall and had a 5 day stopover in Croatia on my way to South Korea and a 3 day stopover in Japan on my way home. There are a fair number of restrictions but it’s worth looking into more if you’re planning a trip.
It’s also worth noting that Aeroplan miles are not for Air Canada alone. You can use your miles to book a seat with any member of the Star Alliance, though you’ll have to book your ticket through an Aeroplan agent (online or by phone). This gives you access to 27 airlines!
Air Miles will sometimes have sales on certain routes which means you can stretch those miles even further. For instance, right now some WestJet flights to the States are discounted by up to 40%. Generally you can’t combine these sales with the BMO Gold discount. It will cost you more miles to fly during the high season so if you’re flexible, try to book your flights during the low seasons.
In a perfect world you’ll want to save your miles for high value flights but if you only take shorter flights for long weekend trips then use those bad boys rather than let them collect dust or expire.
Have I Convinced You?
I hope I’ve inspired you to take rewards program a little more seriously and see the benefits you can get from them without a ton of work. Before you know it, you’ll be flying the friendly skies without emptying your wallet.
Have any questions about these programs? Do you collect miles? I love sharing what I know so that more people can travel.