By Brad Beckstrom
I recently wrote about creating a frequent flyer points machine, using everyday expenses, including healthcare and utilities, to rack up 2X, 3X, 4X frequent-flier points. As a follow-up, I wanted to provide an update on the latest tools I’ve found for spending those points.
Once you’ve figured out how to earn points twice as fast, the real benefit kicks in by spending fewer points, making them go twice as far. Anyone can do this by finding the cheapest days to travel combined with fare deals from your local airport. If you can find the lowest fare, then you can spend your points more efficiently and get the specific flight you want by using your points through your credit card providers travel service. (I use Chase Sapphire Ultimate Rewards for an added 20% points bonus on booking.)
I found the key to doing this is having the exact flight you want to book at hand when you call to apply points to the total price. You don’t want to depend on the agent to find you the best fare, and you certainly don’t want deal with airlines directly which often charge you for the privilege to book. Airlines also like to drastically limit the frequent-flier seats available, unless of course you’re willing to cough up more money or double points.
So how to do it?
Let’s say you want to get out to Denver for some holiday season skiing in December. Denver, ski season, holidays that’s got big bucks written all over it, right? Here’s how I found a $58 December round-trip fare. After you do the basic set up, it’s only three steps.
- Start macro, big picture. Sign up for a good quality email newsletter that won’t spam you. The best of these newsletters gives you a quick daily overview of the best flight deals out there. It’s helpful to see which airlines are running short term specials and they also catch smaller airlines like Wow and Norwegian Air that sometimes don’t pop up on the big search engines. They also find quick one-day features from Virgin, Jet Blue, Southwest or Frontier, etc. that are often hard to search without some notice. If you don’t like emails, you can follow these specials via RSS feed. I like The Flight Deal and Airfare Watchdog. Important note: I like the Flight Deal newsletter better because it includes links directly to the Airfare Matrix search engine. See step 6.
- Get organized. Decide how many days you would like to stay. For example in Denver, is it over a long weekend? Will you be combining some work with the trip? Put these dates as a placeholder on a calendar that you can move around. Do this at least 30 days, ideally 90 days, in advance. Planners will always have a better travel experience than those looking for last-second deals, especially if you’re buying for two or more travelers.
- Learn some new names. For both airlines and airports. For example,if you’re planning a trip to Europe, your choice of departure or destination airport can often save you $500 or $600 per ticket. Check out Norwegian Air or Wow Airlines as examples. Keep an eye out for specials from these airlines and you could be jetting off to Copenhagen for $159. Don’t have time? Don’t worry, these airports/airlines often pop-up in the newsletters.
- Set up a simple weekly price alert on Kayak.com. Be sure to select “flexible” so you see some fares that are available a few days earlier or a few days later. This will catch some of the best prices out there but not all. This is primarily because kayak saved searches and alerts are generally to one destination.
- Now that you set up some automated searches via newsletter and Kayak, set aside a few minutes a week to quickly scan these alerts. Prices will vary widely, sometimes dropping $200 or $300 in a day depending on your destination. Keep your eye out for these variations. Sit back and let the search engines do their job, but be ready to pounce when you see a special. Something great like a $69 flight to the Caribbean may change your ski plans altogether.
- Pounce on that fare. How do you pounce? Let’s use that Denver flight example. A $58 round-trip flight special from Frontier Airlines popped up on both The Flight Deal and Airfare Watchdog. It’s time to enter the Matrix. The Airfare Matrix is a kick ass calendar search that includes many discount airlines and is linked to Google Flights. As soon as I saw that flight, I put the info into the Airfare Matrix to get the big picture of when that flight is available. This tool gives you a multi-month view and also shows you how the length of your stay can impact your ticket price. Once you like what you see, you can link directly to the flight details or see the fare on Google Flights.
- Give these exact details to your credit card points booking agent. I’ve done this successfully with Bank of America Visa World Points, Chase, and American Express using points to pay for deeply discounted fares. At $58 round-trip, you may not even need to bother with the points, I’ve spent more than that on airport parking.
See flight detail – time to Pounce. The airfare matrix even gives you a full fare breakdown including carrier codes, discount codes. Check that fare out! The folks on the other end of the line will likely need some of those codes to find it. Unless they figured out the Matrix.
If you don’t need this much detail, you can get some of this data by doing your pounce search on Google Flights directly. Make sure you click on the submenus under the calendars (while entering your flight dates) that’s where you’ll see some options for fare price graphs and date details. Check out that drop first week in December. Time to pounce.
Let’s do the math.
Option 1 Flight to Denver in December, basic frequent-flier seats not available, special frequent-flier seats 40,000 to 60,000 points economy class. Don’t do it. Got lucky and found a 25,000 point domestic seat? Don’t do it. Need more than one seat? Agent chuckles? Can’t do it.
Option 2 Enter the airline matrix, lockdown $58 fare. Use credit card points program to pay for trip. 580 points. But wait, I earned these points at 2X, so my effective points are 290. That’s a 98% discount from the best frequent flyer programs are able to offer. And I’m not even including the 20% points boost I got by booking a flight through Chase Ultimate Rewards. That would be bragging.
By the time you read this, most of the fares I see today will be gone. Don’t worry, once you set up a few of the simple tracking tools I mentioned here, you won’t miss much.