Many people think that frequent flyer program is only for business people who have to travel weekly for work, or for rich people who spend lots of money on first class flights. I used to think that as well, until I actually started traveling a lot.
Travel is by no means “cheap” but it does not have to be expensive either. I’ve never spent more than $1000 for a business class flight, and if I’m traveling intra-Europe or intra-Asia, I routinely take hoppers for less than $100. This means a random weekend can turn into a spontaneous weekend trip.
I always say if you are not part of a frequent flyer program, you are missing out on free money. Sure it is sometimes annoying to rack up enough miles to nab a first class flight on a top airline, but with a little planning it’s not that difficult. Treat miles like cashback and that $500 flight may really only cost you $350!
Cody and I have been frequent flyers for a few years now and our current favorite frequent flyer program is the Miles+Bonus one by Aegean Airlines. This is part of the Star Alliance network, which is the largest in the world. Now, if you haven’t heard of Aegean Airlines that’s totally okay! They are a regional airport that only services Europe. However, the miles you earn on Aegean are just as good as those on United, or Lufthansa, or any other *A carrier.
The best part, is that it is the easiest program in my opinion to reach status. That means it takes the least effort to reach start alliance gold which grants you access to any Star Alliance lounge provided you are flying on a member carrier. This is perfect when I end up having a 3+ hour layover and can relax and recharge in comfortable chairs along with all the free food and drinks I want.
The program only needs 24,000 miles plus 4 flights on Aegean Airlines or Olympic Airlines. As most any round trip to a Greek island will require 4 flights anyways, that’s pretty easy to get done.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, it can be annoying trying to save up enough miles to get a first class flight, but it is not difficult at all to use miles to upgrade an already purchased ticket. I only do this in Asia as Europe and America have a pretty dismal business class product (just a blocked middle seat) and because a seat upgrade is only 15,000 miles. That means you can take a flight from Seoul to Singapore on Singapore Airlines (an almost 7 hour flight) in their fantastic business class product for the price of an economy ticket an 15,000 miles.
Note: While you can do this on Air China, their product is not good, so I would not waste money or miles flying their product.
Now that I’ve told you how I like to spend my miles, I’m going to tell you how I earn them.
While the common deciding factor when choosing a flight comes down to price, I like to look at the perks as well. These include lounge access if there is a layover, free extra baggage, as well as miles earned. As I treat miles as cash back, you can pick a valuation. The standard rate is 1.3 cents a mile, but as we only use miles for upgrades on intra-Asia travel on flag carriers, we value them at 5 cents.
When you fly full fare economy you should try to get 100% miles back. This means a flight from Istanbul to San Francisco can get you 6750 miles one way, on a round trip 13,500. Using these miles for upgrades in Asia gives a value of $675. Therefore as long as the price of the ticket is less than $675 it is a good deal.
Now I’m sure a lot of expert frequent flyers will say that I’ve greatly simplified the situation, and they would be right. However, this is just an example of how to earn miles. I’ll provide a real example now:
In 2017 I got a business class (C) flight from Athens, Greece to Beijing, China on EgyptAir (not great but still worth it). The flight cost $870 one way which is already extremely cheap for Business class. There was a 15 hour layover in Cairo in which the airline gave me a hotel for the night (let’s assume $75 value, as I was able to see the city) and because it was business class I got 200% miles back with a minimum of 1000 miles per leg. So for Athens to Cairo I got ~1,376 miles, and from Cairo to Beijing I got ~9,400.
Note: Currently business class on EgyptAir only credits 150% miles and no minimum miles per leg.
If we value those miles at 5 cents each, I earned: 10,776*0.5=$538.80 cash back.
A few months after that flight I wanted to take a trip from Beijing to Singapore. A discount airline would have cost around $250 not including baggage and most likely including a layover. Instead I booked Singapore Airlines for $370 direct and used 15,000 miles to upgrade to Business class. A business class flight on Singapore Airlines from Beijing to Singapore runs about $1250, meaning my miles were actually valued at 5.87 cents! Even better.
I understand that many people will find this an unnecessary amount of work, and it does take a bit of research to best optimize all your dollars spent, but if you travel more than once a year, I think it’s worth learning a little about the flying strategies with frequent flyer programs. I’m not even going to get into the credit card stuff that Americans can do because that’s another can of worms.
Disclosure: I’m also a member of Alaska Airlines frequent flyer program. We don’t credit any flights to them, but sometimes we find good hotel deals and can get miles credited to their program from RocketMiles. That got me a First class ticket SFO-NRT-GNP which was really nice. Unfortunately Alaska no longer allows the stopover in Asia on their rewards tickets anymore…such a shame.