A master at leveraging airline miles and credit card points to elevate travel experiences, Ben Schlappig flies an average of 400,000 miles a year. That’s more than 16 times around the globe, primarily in international first and business class.
At 14, Schlappig spotted a flyer from United, which was running a promotion that offered 5,000 extra miles for every segment flown, with a maximum of 50,000 bonus miles. “I did the math and convinced my parents that allowing their youngest child to fly back and forth across the country all summer was not only a great idea, but would mean our next trip to Europe would be in Lufthansa First Class,” he explains. “They went for it, and a few months later I was a 14-year-old with top-tier airline elite status, and had spent almost the entire summer in airports.”
Schlappig has flown more than four million miles and visited more than fifty countries on six continents since, full-time travel blogging at One Mile at a Time. In 2014, he estimates he spent an average of five hours a day in the air. Here, he shares his best travel hacks for the not-so-frequent flyer.
1. Leverage airline miles by calculating cost per mile.
It’s hard to assign an absolute value to miles and points, because there are many different types. Airline miles and hotel points are rebates with set earning rates and redemption values offered by specific brands in exchange for loyalty. Fixed-value points can be redeemed towards a specific dollar amount of travel, typically one to two cents per point. And flexible currency with transferable rewards allow you to transfer points directly to airline or hotel partners, providing the opportunity to search for award availability across alliances prior to committing to a certain mileage currency.
For this reason, it’s best to assess your travel objectives. For example, fixed-value points won’t get you far if you’re travelling internationally or in premium cabins, as you’ll need too many of them. But they are a great option for domestic economy travel, where it can be difficult to redeem airline miles.
“Most people redeem their miles for domestic economy awards at 25,000 miles for a round-trip ticket,” says Schlappig. “That’s great, and many people find good value there. However, I cringe when I see people redeeming 50,000 miles for a domestic economy ticket that would otherwise cost maybe $500. That means you’re only getting one cent per mile, which isn’t great. I’d much prefer to exchange those 50,000 miles for a one-way business class ticket to Asia or South America, which would otherwise cost thousands of dollars.”
Side note: Nearly every program allows mixing carriers. “Some programs may have different charts for partners than for travel on their own airline, but leveraging partnerships is one of the best ways to use miles,” Schlappig says. “Many of the airline websites will default to showing awards involving multiple carriers if that is the best option.”
2. Earn more from everyday spending.
Fun fact: Many frequent flyer programs are run entirely separately from their airlines (such as Air Canada Aeroplan). In other cases, they are huge profit centers, many of which sell miles directly, earn revenue off of their co-branded credit card agreements and are profitable even in years when the actual airline isn’t.
How can you benefit? By signing up for some of these credit cards and cashing in! Southwest, for example, frequently offers a 50,000-point signup bonus on their co-branded cards. In order to earn 50,000 miles flying Southwest ‘Wanna Get Away’ fares, you’d have to spend more than $8,000 on airfare.
“In most cases, miles don’t expire as long as you have activity in the account,” Schlappig notes. “So purchasing something through a shopping portal, earning miles in a promotion, using a cobranded credit card and flying all reset the expiration date.” He doesn’t make any purchases without considering the mileage earning implications.
“As a very first step, it’s important to sign up for loyalty programs and keep track of what points you have,” Schlappig writes on his blog. “I like to use AwardWallet to track my balances and keep points from expiring—it’s a free service (though you can also pay for more features), and keeps track of all your account numbers and passwords, which makes this all much more painless.”
Next, ensure that you earn more than one point for every dollar spent, in order to maximize your spending. “I often purchase Starbucks gift cards at my local office supply store, as I earn 5 (points per dollar) at office supply stores using my Ink Plus® Business Credit Card or Ink Bold® Business Charge Card, versus just two points per dollar on my Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card,” he writes. “If you shop online, many banks and airlines offer shopping portals for cardholders that will grant you more than one point per dollar when you ‘click through…’ Given how many retailers offer free shipping, or the ability to make a purchase online and pick it up in the store, this is a no-brainer way to rack up thousands more points per year.” You should also register your cards with dining programs, he says, which can earn you bonus miles just for eating out.
3. Choose the best credit cards for travel.
“You really can’t go wrong with having a flexible card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa Card, Citi ThankYou Premier Card, or Amex EveryDay Preferred Credit Card,” Schlappig says. “They offer great purchase protection, bonus categories, flexible redemptions and more.”
Schlappig earns about a million miles a year through credit cards, about half of which come from taking advantage of promotions and maximizing his everyday spending, earning him anywhere from 2 to 5 points per dollar. The other half comes from just signing up and spending a minimal amount on each card.
Contrary to popular belief, having a lot of cards and using them actually improves your credit. “I find most people don’t understand credit scores,” he says. “I have dozens of credit cards, and my credit score is over 800. If you are fiscally responsible and pay your bills in full every month you can get a lot of benefits from putting your spending on rewards cards.”
4. Purchase one-way midweek tickets on the best airfare sites.
“Holidays and school breaks are always going to be popular times to travel, and thus will be more expensive,” Schlappig says. “Traveling midweek and Saturdays will be cheapest. It’s supply and demand. Skyscanner is great [for finding flights], and I also like Google Flights. TheFlightDeal is great for finding out about airfare sales as well. I like the interfaces, particularly the option to look at multiple destinations or a range of dates.”
Also, if you don’t have enough miles for a round-trip ticket, think one-way. “For domestic revenue tickets there’s no reason to not book two one-ways, as they’ll generally be the same price. For award tickets it can certainly make sense to book one-ways, especially if you don’t have enough miles in a single program for a round-trip.”
And, if you do have a layover, make the most of it at the best international airports. “I like to get work done on layovers so will almost always head right to the lounge to work,” Schlappig says. “I like the Singapore Changi, Hong Kong, and Munich airports that are easy to navigate and have nice amenities.” Long layovers are also an opportunity for a bonus destination: “In many cases it’s reasonable to go into the city, so that’s always worth exploring.”
Photo by Barry Holmes