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How to go anywhere you want without paying for it: the not-so-secret way to travel without breaking the bank

My hair stylist is always asking “where are you going THIS time” because almost every time I come in for a color, I am probably going somewhere. Next week, I’m going to Las Vegas, LA and then Boston. The only reason I’m not going somewhere in February is because I will be house-sitting for Ward and June for an entire flipping month while they are in Hawaii (to my chagrin, I found them a great deal on a two-bedroom two-bath condo with an ocean view for way less than they usually pay for their little hotel room in a resort, so they said “Oh you should come out for a week!” but when they realized that they’d be shooting themselves in the foot to have to find another dog and house sitter, rescinded the offer. Wuh wuh waaaaah!). March is a short trip to Madison and then Weetacon, which is exhausting and requires two weeks of quiet time with minimal movement to recover. I’m tentatively planning a trip to SF in April, Chicago in June and SOMEWHERE in August/September time frame, sprinkled with a few jaunts to Boston throughout.

Now, some of that is for my new job (which I love so very much, by the way! I think about it in sing-songy terms! I am definitely enjoying the new employer honeymoon), but most of it is personal travel to either see friends or just have something to look forward to.

But trust me when I tell you this: I’m not lucky. I’m not rich. In fact, I spend less in one year’s worth of traveling than most people spend on a week’s camping trip. And I’m going to tell you how I do it. Let’s tackle the most obvious expense: air fare.

Here’s how you get around it… just don’t pay for it.

I know, right? Get it for free! Easy peasy. No, seriously, I do fly for free the majority of the time, and it’s as simple as playing the frequent flier miles game. Lots of people don’t have frequent flier accounts because they say they don’t fly enough in a year to make a difference. Oh you sweet, innocent people! The airlines set up a teeny tiny little barrier called “expiring frequent flier miles” and you bought into it! That’s exactly what they wanted you to believe! The biggest secret about frequent flier miles there is? You don’t have to fly frequently to make big bank in frequent flier miles. In fact, you don’t even have to fly at all!

You know those television shows who show people buying thousands of dollars of groceries, but because they have quadrupled a mountain of coupons, they only end up paying four cents? Playing the frequent flier game is a bit like that, only without clipping coupons (most of the time) but oddly enough, it does usually involve a shopping cart.

Oh, let’s give an example: Jincy loves the cat treats made by Greenies. Normally, I snag them at Petco when I’m there picking up cat and dog food, but this week, I was looking up the price of bodywash on Drugstore.com (because sometimes I feel unreasonably chaffed about the price of Dove’s Body Wash… I mean, it’s drugstore body wash, why is it eight bucks for the big bottle?) and found her cat treats there, for less than they cost at the bricks and mortar store (well, not very hard, as Petco is apparently run by DeBeers). I also snagged some dishwasher detergent, because I always forget it. Simple little things that you would typically pick up in a local store, certainly NOT splurging or buying something out of the ordinary. Then, by simply logging into Delta’s Skymiles Shopping thingy and THEN clicking back over to Drugstore.com, they’ll give me 6 miles for every dollar I spend. Voila, my avoidance of an errand earned 1/50th of a free plane ticket. Of course, I put the purchase (and all purchases, especially stuff like gas and groceries) on a mileage-earning credit card which earns a mile for every dollar on top of that.

Ok, 1/50th of an airline ticket doesn’t get you very far, but it all adds up. I sent my grandmother flowers for her birthday and earned 4300 miles. I had a rental car for a work trip and earned 858 miles. I bought cheap Old Navy performance fleece for Christmas presents and earned 857 miles. My pair of Clarks pumps from Zappos earned me 700 miles. Last week, I ordered four pairs of tights from the matronly fat lady store (loves me some matronly fat lady store tights, let me tell you!) and earned 184 points. My Netflix account gave me 3000 miles. When I put in a Sephora order, I earn miles. When I shop at Target, I earn miles. When we bought the furnace for our house, I put it on a miles card and got thousands of free miles for it. When we bought our washing machine, I bought it through Home Depot’s website and earned two miles for every dollar for doing it that way (we still picked it up at our local store) and another mile per dollar from the credit card company. Same thing with The Avenue, Torrid, Lane Bryant, Nordstrom, Kate Spade, Coach, you name it, basically every online retailer except Amazon will give you airline miles for buying stuff that you would have bought anyway.

Also, when I travel for work or wherever, most of the major hotels are hooked into some kind of frequent flier mile program. You may have to sign up for Hilton Honors or Marriott Rewards or Starwood Points, whatever, but chances are pretty good that you’ll score some miles while you sleep. Ditto with car rentals via pretty much every major car rental joint that ever was.

So, those are the Intro to Miles gimmicks, but if you’re really excited by all of this gaming the system, you can move onto the next level of FF nut jobbery: the obscure crap. For instance, I’ve gotten 500 frequent flier miles off of a four dollar package of swiss cheese fondue. I got 500 miles off of a case of Nestle water. For awhile, Yoplait was giving away 50 miles for typing in the code off of your yogurt lid. Pepsi was giving away 100 miles for certain bottle top codes. And before you roll your eyes, let me tell you about this one guy who happened to be at the store one day and noticed that they were were selling packages of Healthy Choice pudding that offered 500 frequent flier miles on American Airlines. Again, 500 miles is not big whoop, right? Except that he got an idea and bought every pudding he could get, donated them to all to a food bank (minus the frequent flier codes) and for basically a little over three thousand dollars, he got over a million frequent flier miles (enough for 31 round trip tickets to Europe), lifetime elite status on American (which gives him priority boardng and a very high likelihood of getting bumped to first class) and on top of that, he got an $800 deduction on his income taxes for the donation.

Basically, if you’re spending money on something, chances are very good that you can figure out a way to make your purchase earn miles. You don’t even have to spend money on stuff: I’ve gotten 500 miles just for answering a survey, another 300 for signing up for the airline’s e-Fares (and then dumping it a month later, but still got to keep the miles).

Then there are people who do what I consider to be above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to frequent flier miles. They will do things like jump on a super cheap fare to somewhere they don’t want to go with a turnaround on the same day, just to earn the miles (or segments for status). They will purposely take flights that have multiple legs and increased distance, connecting through, say, Dallas and then Chicago instead of taking the nonstop. I don’t do that kind of crap, mostly because I actually don’t enjoy the act of flying very much. It’s a means to an end, and all I care about is getting where you need to go. Also, after a few hours in a plane, I start getting fidgety.

Now, here’s the biggest key to all of this: every time your frequent flier mile account earns or subtracts miles, it stays current. It doesn’t matter if it’s from buying a sweater from Land’s End (usually 4 miles per dollar but sometimes 6) or from having your butt crunched in a coach airline seat: your account is active, which means that as long as you keep earning miles, your account is still active and your accumulated miles will not expire. Now if only they drew interest (alas, haven’t figured that one out yet). And of course, frequent flier miles are like money. You can use your miles to pay for rental cars and hotel rooms too. This means one thing: free travel!

In just 6 years, I have earned over half a million frequent flier miles on American playing this little game. That’s 20 free round trip coach tickets in the US. That’s some great power if you love to travel. Not only does that allow me the freedom to fly first class if I want to or look at a Stars concert in San Francisco and say “screw it, I’m going”, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have the freedom to visit my far-flung friends or buy them tickets so that they can join me on trips or come and visit. When a friend’s grandmother in Japan passed away and he could only afford his mom’s plane ticket, I was able to help him out. All of this opportunity, just for thinking “Can I earn miles by doing this?” before 80% of my transactions.

You’ll notice that in my example, I mentioned earning miles on my Delta account: that’s because I have absolutely had it with American. They used to have extra leg room on all planes, but then they’ve quietly taken it away, and I hate connecting in O’Hell and constantly having my flights delayed or canceled whenever there’s a little weather (or sometimes for no real reason at all). Believe me, I’m not happy about finally making it over the halfway hump toward earning lifetime Gold Elite status on American and then mostly giving it up. Ah well. (Delta structures its program differently and your butt actually has to be in a seat in order to earn toward elite status. You still get the miles, just not the pretty title and the free upgrades.)

My hairdresser calls me lucky. If she only knew that I was earning a hundred miles, just sitting there getting my hair did.

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10 Comments

  1. Lisa-marie wrote:

    That’s pretty darn awesome!

    Saturday, January 8, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink
  2. Allyson wrote:

    WOW! Just WOW! I’m sort of in super awe of you and your brilliance.

    I HAVE often wondered how you were able to travel so much. Thanks for filling us in on this.

    Saturday, January 8, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Permalink
  3. mommylap wrote:

    Somehow reading this awesome entry made me suddenly miss Elastic Waist very,very much. Oh yeah, because I loved reading your writing every day. Muchly.

    Saturday, January 8, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Permalink
  4. Nicole wrote:

    You should mention that tickets bought with miles generally require you to pay the airport taxes with cash. I generally use my airmiles flying international so the airline taxes are more than the actual ticket in most cases, which is a bummer. Still 50% off is better than full price.
    Now that I have two children who are also flying international a few times a year, I do need to start being a bit more frugal so I loved this post. You have absolutely convinced me to start paying more attention to my frequent flyer miles. We might be able to seriously upgrade our family next year if I but all your advice to work. Bali, here we come. Thanks!

    Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 1:02 am | Permalink
  5. WendyBix wrote:

    Nicole, yes, the international flights do require taxes (the domestic do NOT), and it’s pricey. The Japan ticket I mentioned ended up being an extra $150 on top of the $100 “last minute booking” fee, but to your point, it’s a lot cheaper than the usual $1000 ticket to Japan.

    In general, btw, I find paying for the coach and then upgrading with the miles to no longer be worth the miles. Sometime in the past two years, most airlines changed the rules about upgrading with miles and now charge a fee to do it that is pretty pricey, so not only are you paying for your coach ticket and using 20K or more miles, you also have to fork out another $250 now! Considering that a first class ticket is usually $500-800 more than the coach ticket in the first place, no thank you, I’d much rather just use 50K and get the entire ticket for the $10 booking fee.

    Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 7:33 am | Permalink
  6. She has super powers… Yo.

    Monday, January 10, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  7. Gretchen wrote:

    I’m not on twitter, so I’m putting a twitter comment here where you may never see it – check out Marsh Hawk for bird ID.

    Friday, January 28, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink
  8. Jessi wrote:

    Which airline do you recommend most for FF goodness, Wendy? A starter airline, if you will.

    Wednesday, February 2, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink
  9. dorrie wrote:

    Oh sweet goddess of all things fabulous, when are you going to post again?

    Thursday, February 3, 2011 at 9:33 am | Permalink
  10. CalamityJane wrote:

    Great Post! I was wondering how the Boy and I were getting to Vegas next year.. now I know. Thank you kindly!

    Saturday, February 5, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

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