My Guide – Which Flights to Earn Miles, Earn Status, & Burn Miles

Being a travel and aviation nerd—and writing about it—means I receive multiple questions about how I get to travel the way I do. These range from those that are puzzled (“why are you flying so much?”) to friends that ask for assistance (“can you help me book a trip to Spain?”) or wild, inaccurate assumptions (“are you like Ben Campbell from 21?”). I am sure fellow travel nerds would agree, there are no quick answers. So I figured I would write about the kinds of trips that I take, why I take them, and how you could do the same.

Trips I Take to Earn Miles

I was in Beijing this weekend on a mistake fare. It was $462 for a roundtrip ticket in Business Class (well…really after my American Express Platinum card credit, only $62), and I will earn around 45,000 redeemable American Airlines miles.

Mistake fares are tricky, because all of the following has to happen in order for someone to travel on a mistake fare:

  • The airline or a travel agency has to make a mistake
  • Someone has to find that mistake
  • The person who found the mistake has to share it with the world
  • You have to find out about the mistake fare in time to book
  • The airline has to not catch it too soon
  • You have to be flexible enough to travel on the dates the fare is available
  • You have to possess or obtain any necessary documentations (e.g. for some, a Chinese visa)
  • The airline has to honor the fare (which is getting rarer)

Airlines are investing big to catch these mistake fares before they happen. The DOT, which had a rule requiring airlines to honor all ticketed fares, is backing down because people are booking lots of mistake fares, something the rule wasn’t intended to protect. All of this means mistake fares are getting harder and harder to come by.

Of course, this is not to say that they aren’t possible. Websites like The Flight Deal cover a lot of good fares and the frequent flier community still posts some deals on FlyerTalk, you just have to know where to look. …and if you do find something, don’t wait!

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Trips I Take to Earn Status

Elite status is important to me for three major reasons:

Bonus on the earning side. Remember when I mentioned I am earning ~45,000 American miles for my trip to Beijing? Well, that is only true because I am an Executive Platinum flier with American. The amount would be reduced by about half if I were just a regular member. Needless to say, 20,000 miles are super valuable, since they translate to at least $200 in value, even if you use an extremely conservative valuation of 1 cent per mile.

Benefits on the burning side. As an Executive Platinum with American, I have access to a special phone number that gets me connected with a representative much quicker, which is helpful when I need to book a ticket over the phone. Additionally, there is no penalty to cancel or change any ticket booked with miles, up to the day of departure. This is useful because often there are great award seats that I want to snatch up, but later may choose to alter the route if something even better comes up.

Assistance during IRROPs. Irregular operations are not necessarily an airlines’ fault (e.g. bad weather), but they are annoying and do affect travelers. Having status puts you ahead on the waitlist for a flight, gets you a special line with an agent that can rebook your flight quickly, etc.

Precisely because elite status is so important to me, I try to meet the flying requirements every year. For Executive Platinum with American that is 100,000 miles a year. I fly enough to usually get close, but sometimes I am a few thousand miles behind in December. That’s when I book trips that aren’t necessary mistake fares that I would fly for the miles, but cheap enough that I am willing to take them just to hit the 100,000 mark.

Now, trips I take to earn miles are by definition also trips I take to earn status—it’s just the intention of the trip that’s different. Sometimes, though, trips fulfill both so well, with routings so beautiful, that I book a ton of them. For example, over Thanksgiving, I found a ~$70 fare from Philadelphia to Las Vegas roundtrip, with a same-day turnaround, and I booked and traveled on 7 of these trips in one month.

Trips I Take to Burn Miles

These are of course my favorite trips.

If you think about it, airline miles are really just another currency. But the big catch is that with a few exceptions, they expire, and the value of the currency can change drastically overnight. This is why I try not to hoard points and miles—I earn them, and I burn them. There is no point (pun intended) in having 1,000,000 miles in your account, only to find them close to worthless after a devaluation.

Trips I take to burn miles are the most fun. I get to pick the destination (instead of letting the mistake or cheap fare dictate where I go), I get to pick the airline, and I get to experience things that I wouldn’t be able to afford without points and miles.

Caviar on Cathay Pacific? 67,500 American miles…instead of a $20,000 ticket.

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Lobster on a Thai Airways 747? Burn United miles, or spend $1,000 on a First Class ticket.

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A relaxing shower in the cabanas of Cathay Pacific’s The Wing Lounge? A First Class ticket, even when redeemed with miles, gives you free access.

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Some people shell out $15,000 for a shower on an Emirates A380 (which is a thing for some reason), but I did it with 90,000 Alaska miles.

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There is no free lunch and I don’t believe travel—in any way—can be completely free. All of this requires tons of planning and research, and unless you choose to buy points outright, they are not trips you can plan overnight.

Airlines are changing redemption rates and rules, banks are changing how sign-up bonuses of credit cards can be earned, and of course, as planes get fuller, award seat availability is changing.

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