If you’re like most people, flying is a hassle. There’s baggage fees, security check-ins, cramped seating on the plane and that annoying person in front of you who reclines his seat all the way back so that it takes up your personal space.
But for Scott Keyes, a travel guide expert, he often bypasses these hassles by flying 10,000 or more miles, getting first class, two free checked bags, priority check-in at security and early boarding — all for free. His flight and hotels are covered entirely by airline miles and credit card points, although he pays roughly $250 a year for the benefits that come from one airline’s “status challenge” service program.
So how does Keyes, who wrote the ebooks “How To Find Cheap Flights: Practical Tips The Airlines Don’t Want You To Know” and “How To Fly For Free: Practical Tips The Airlines Don’t Want You To Know,” do it?
Find the cheapest ticket available and pay using your frequent flyer miles.
You need to know what a ticket usually costs so you can get a good deal by researching various travel sites, just as you need to know how much a car is worth when buying one. Many travelers don’t do the legwork and end up paying full fares. Once you’ve settled on a ticket, use frequent flyer miles to pay for your ticket if you have enough.
Become a Gold or Platinum member with airlines to avoid add-ons, get perks and seat upgrades.
Upgrade to elite flyer status or “status challenge,” as Scott put it in his books. What you may not know is that these perks are not just for flyers who take several vacations a year or frequently travel for business. Through American Airlines you only need to fly 25,000 miles a year to become a “Gold” member, which means you get rid of the hassles before boarding, get early boarding, free seat upgrades and standby fees waived. This program is where cost comes into play; you need to pay $250 to register, but the countless perks are worth the price. Similarly, if you ride US Airways and fly 15,000 miles in three months, you get the same service plus 50% bonus miles, but it will cost you less at $200 to register.
To upgrade to business or first class, use your “status challenge” or your frequent flier programs, and don’t forget to check for more programs offered by your credit cards. Many offer upgrades, lounge passes, priority boarding and in-flight amenities. If none of these work, Keyes says:
“Ask the gate agent if she can offer you a first-class seat on the next flight—or even a direct flight instead of one with a layover.”
Get bumped to get a better seat.
In 2012, airlines gave Keyes around $2,000 in free flights because he deliberately chose to get bumped.
Listen to the agent at your waiting area asking for volunteers to be bumped to the next or later flight. By giving up your seat, you can gain perks. Some airlines will offer you a voucher, a seat in first class, and if you have a layover, they can also give you a direct flight. When you use frequent flyer miles to book a flight, you can actually earn frequent flyer miles when you use a voucher to pay. Keyes says:
“I was once given a $500 voucher and a confirmed seat on the next flight — an hour and a half later. In other words, I earned $333 an hour. Another time, I was bumped off one flight for $500, put on a flight a few hours later and bumped off that for an additional $400.”
The trick is to listen to the reps at the counter announcing the bumps. Airlines will typically start out offering around $250 and then ratchet up the offer by $50 every five minutes or so until they get enough volunteers, Keyes says. He typically jumps at the first offer, but he warns travelers that they should ask whether they will get the final offer rather than the initial one to get more money. The key to actually making money for giving up your seat is by getting over your shyness about haggling, and speaking up and asking.
Involuntary bumping and how to get a free hotel room
If an airline bumps you without you volunteering, know your rights. According to TravelSense.org, airlines must pay you an amount equal up to $200 of your one-way fare, with a $650 maximum if you fly between one and two hours later than your original flight time. If it’s more than two hours later (or 400 hours internationally), the airline must double your money back, with $400 on a one-way fare and $1,300 maximum.
Since airlines don’t want to pay out large fines, this is where you get leverage and can ask for upgrades. You can confirm a first-class seat, ask the airline to rebook you onto another airline, or even ask them to give you a hotel room and meal voucher if you have an overnight stay.
So the next time you need a flight, do some research, change your airline status cards and arrive early and sit in your boarding area to listen for volunteer-based bumps — if done right, you might fly for free just like Keyes.