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The Trip Takes Us gang has enjoyed lots of free travel as a result of having a healthy balance of frequent flier miles and hotel and credit card points. Today we are starting a series of posts for beginners to de-mystify the process and help YOU get on your way to earning free travel.
Step 1: Pick a frequent flier program
It’s time for some self-examination! By completing the exercise below, you will ensure that your efforts to earn miles and points are focused on the right airlines. Let’s get started:
- List your airports
Write the down the airports to which you have reasonable, convenient access.
For example, living in the D.C. area, I can easily travel from Washington Reagan National Airport (DCA), Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), or Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI).
DCA is the most convenient for me, as it is walking distance from my house, followed by IAD, then BWI.
- Determine which airlines best serve those airports
Look at the website of the airports you listed or simply Google “largest carrier at [insert airport code]” to determine which airlines have strong service our of those locations.
For the airports in our example, this plays out as follows:
DCA: American Airlines (carrying half the airport’s capacity)
IAD: United Airlines (hub)
BWI: Southwest (hub)
For simplicity, when starting out, consider only the major U.S. carriers (such as American, United, Delta, Alaska, Southwest, JetBlue, and Hawaiian). Don’t worry though. Through airline alliances you will be able to fly on almost all the international carriers (more on that down the road).
There are also ultra low cost carriers (ULCCs) like Allegiant, Frontier, Spirit, etc. but I find them unpleasant to fly and, if I am going to be able to fly for free, I want to do it on a reasonably comfortable, full-service flight on an airline with lots of international partners.
- Consider your preferred destinations
You now have an idea of the airlines that serve your area, but do they fly where you want to go?
Here you can Google your destination airport; the website will have a list of airlines that serve the airport. Or, alternatively, you can look at the route maps of the airlines you identified above.
In our case, we frequently fly to Manchester, NH, Savannah, GA, and various destinations in Canada to visit friends and family. We also travel internationally frequently, but rarely to the same destination twice.
So, looking at our repeat destinations:
Manchester: American has direct flights from DCA, and Southwest does from BWI.
Savannah: United has a direct flight from IAD.
Canada: Air Canada has flights to Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto from both DCA and IAD.
- Know your airline alliances
There are three global airline alliances. These magical agreements allow members of one frequent flier program to redeem miles for travel on any of the other airlines in the alliance.
Star Alliance: This is the largest of the three, with 27 airlines including from our example above both United and Air Canada.
Oneworld: This alliance includes American Airways.
SkyTeam: You will find Delta in this 19-airline alliance.
Note: Southwest Airlines does not participate in any airline alliances. Alaska also is not a member of any of the alliances, but does have codeshare agreements with airlines in all three.
Why is this important? In looking at the three alliances, I see that both United and Air Canada, for example, participate in Star Alliance. That means that I can book award travel on Air Canada with United Mileage Plus points, and vice versa. Therefore, I should NOT try to accumulate miles in both programs. Since United has a hub near me, it makes more sense for me to accumulate miles in their program and to simply redeem them on Air Canada when I choose to travel to our beloved “great white north.”
- Make your pick(s)
Having done the analysis above, it is now time for you to pick a frequent flier program or programs. Based on the amount I travel, and the airports and airlines I use, I focus my efforts on American, United and Southwest.
Do not spread yourself too thin by having a few points in lots of different programs. If you want to actually be able to redeem them for travel, you will be better served by having lots of points in just a few different programs (or even only one program when you are starting out).
Which one(s) did you pick?
Your next step:
You have some homework now! After you complete this quick analysis of your personal situation, I want you to:
- Sign up for that airline’s frequent flier program (you can do this online, and it’s free). If you are already a member, I want you to locate your frequent flier number and store it somewhere handy on your phone or computer.
- Set up online access to that frequent flier program (simply create (or retrieve) your username and password and store that information alongside your frequent flier number.
See? That wasn’t hard! You just took the first step towards free travel.
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