Unless you've been blessed with an all-expenses-paid trip, flying business or even first class might seem like an unattainable privilege. But buying a first-class ticket doesn't have to put a dent in your wallet--in fact, with a little bit of know-how, flying in luxury can turn out to be as inexpensive as coach.
As part of their mission to bring travel literacy to the general public, Ari Charlestein and Howie Rappaport launched the Travel Education Network, a program in which travel experts across the country teach everyday travelers how to "hack" the often overwhelming airline points system. The pair recently shared some of their tips at the New York Times Travel Show.
Charlestein and Rappaport aren't exactly your everyday travelers. In an average year, Charlestein earns 500,000 airline miles by traveling roughly 120,000 miles and staying in hotels roughly 70 nights out of the year. Rappaport uses extra miles from signup bonuses on his more than 20 active credit cards to travel first class without the usual expenses. But the duo promise you can do the same without sacrificing your day job (or your credit score).
Use credit card rewards like a pro
"If you want to fly business class or first class and stay in fancy suites for pennies on the dollar, while getting the absolute maximum value out of your travel points, you should never redeem your Chase rewards, your American Express membership rewards, or Citibank points for anything other than redeeming your points with hotel partners and airline partners," Rappaport says. "Ingrain that in your mind."
Credit card rewards programs offer a quick and easy way to earn hundreds of thousands of miles that can be used at the airline of your choice. For instance, American Express Membership Rewards points can be used at Delta Airlines as well as All Nippon Airways in Japan, El Al Airlines in Israel, and Iberia Airlines in Spain. Citi Thank You rewards points can be used at Thai, Etihad, Malaysian, Garuda Indonesia, and Qatar airlines. Chase Ultimate Rewards points can be redeemed for miles at United, Southwest Airlines, British Airways, and Singapore Airlines.
According to Charlestein, one of the best credit card deals out there is Southwest Airlines' Companion Pass, which gifts travelers who earn 110,000 Rapid Rewards points within one calendar year unlimited free flights (excluding taxes) for the following two years. It may seem like a daunting task to accumulate 110,000 points in just one year, but Charlestein achieved this feat simply by signing up for a competing rewards program: Marriott's flight and hotel packages helped Charlestein earn 120,000 Southwest points. Sound worthwhile? He and Rappaport hold classes to teach you how to do all the dirty work.
Learn what the airlines don't want you to know
Many airlines use a system of mileage reciprocity, whereby participants can earn and redeem miles from dozens of airline partners. For example, a flier with 50,000 United Airlines miles can redeem those miles on any of 25 other airlines partnered with Star Alliance, the largest of the three airline alliances. Oneworld alliance, which includes American Airlines and US Airways, and SkyTeam alliance, which includes Delta Airlines, together encompass the other 37 major airlines.
For example, if you want to fly from New York City to Toronto, Charlestein estimates that a round-trip, first-class ticket will cost you roughly $400. Generally, American Airlines is going to charge you 25,000 miles for that flight. However, by choosing to fly with British Airways (which partners with American Airlines under the Oneworld alliance) that same flight on the same aircraft will cost just 9,000 miles.
Similarly, 140,000 miles accumulated through U.S. carriers like Delta Airlines can be redeemed through European carriers like Air France for just 60,000 miles. "You need to diversify your points portfolio and not be afraid to collect miles in a non-U.S.-based program," Rappaport says. "The choice is yours, but I can't give you a single reason why I'd spend twice the miles for the same exact flight."
But while travelers can redeem these points at any participating airline within the alliance, they can't easily be redeemed with a different alliance. So a traveler with 50,000 United Airlines miles might run into trouble while trying to redeem those points with Delta Airlines.
"Not all points and miles are created equal," Charlestein notes. "If you have American miles, they're not worth the same as AMEX membership rewards. If you have United miles, they're not the same as your American miles."
Redeeming points across alliances can be done, says Charlestein, by using an airline transfer partner like Starwood Preferred Guest, which, with a little elbow grease, can redeem miles with virtually all 62 airline programs.
Don't throw out that spammy email promotion
To emphasize the significance of promotions, Charlestein shared a personal anecdote in which a cheap five-night stay at a Holiday Inn turned into a luxurious vacation in Europe.
According to Charlestein, InterContinental Hotels Group (owner of Holiday Inn, Staybridge Suites, and InterContinental, among others) had a promotion last quarter whereby travelers filled out a survey in exchange for two free nights at any IHG property around the world. The promotion required travelers to 1) stay five nights at a Holiday Inn, 2) book one of them through the app, 3) fill out a 10-question survey, and 4) book one of the nights over a Saturday night to include the hotel's breakfast rate.
After racking up four free nights while speaking at an event held at a Holiday Inn, Charlestein downloaded the app and booked one night at another nearby Holiday Inn for a total of $139. Two months later, he received an email saying, "Your two free nights are awaiting you." Now Charlestein and his wife are heading to Rome, where they'll be staying in an InterContinental a stone's throw away from the Spanish Steps--a retail value of more than €400 per night, all for just $139.
"For the 10 seconds it takes you to sign up for the promo, in the event you do stay there, you've just earned yourself double points," Rappaport added.