DeLambert, who runs the blog Delta Points, is an extreme mileager -- someone who has made a full-time hobby out of gaming the travel rewards system. Some of his tactics aren't likely to appeal to the average consumer. For instance, DeLambert takes "mileage runs," trips taken solely for the purpose of scoring more miles and, more importantly, maintaining his elite status. That's how you increase your chances of being upgraded to business class, he says.
Still, there are some strategies less-frequent fliers can utilize if they want to take a trip primarily on points or miles.
Devising a game plan
First and foremost, "you need to plan in advance," says Scott Mackenzie, founder of Hack My Trip, because traveling for free requires a certain amount of strategizing. Here's why:
Frequent fliers generally use travel loyalty and credit card rewards programs in tandem to minimize the cost of travel. Travel loyalty programs generally award customers points or miles every time they fly a particular airline or stay at a sponsoring hotel. Credit card rewards programs, of course, generate points on purchases.
Figuring cost per mile
|Cost for flight:||$300|
|Cost per mile:||6 cents|
|Cost for flight:||$300|
|Miles needed for "free" flight:||25,000|
|Cost per mile:||1.2 cents|
Savvy travelers can score a free vacation by using, for example, airline loyalty miles to fund a flight and credit card rewards points to pay for hotel rooms. But that's not the only redemption option out there.
To bolster offerings, credit card issuers, hotels and airlines often partner with one another. This creates opportunities to pool points or miles. For example, airlines generally offer high redemption rates of around "1 to 3 cents per mile" when you book an award ticket through their loyalty program, says Ed Perkins, contributing editor for Smarter Travel. But their inventory is limited and it takes time to accumulate miles -- especially when you don't travel often -- so it may be a good idea to transfer your credit card rewards to a partnering airline rewards program to snag a deal on a plane ticket.
It takes time, however, to figure out your preferred program's often-complex terms and conditions and to calculate what redemption options are most worthwhile. (Points can be worth more or less depending on where you are looking to apply them.)
The travel loyalty game "is as simple or as complicated as you want to make it," says Tim Winship, editor and publisher of FrequentFlier.com. "If you are willing to invest a significant amount of time and energy in keeping up with what the programs are doing and how they interrelate … you can certainly squeeze more value out (of them)."