Before kids, I used to get lots of free airplane tickets for getting bumped. I traveled off season, which was cheaper. Now that I have kids, paying for travel for four is tough, especially since my husband doesn’t like getting bumped (“I want to get home NOW!”) and we travel during school breaks. Given how expensive travel is, especially to the Orlando parks, I’m excited to welcome Summer Hull to Jersey Kids today. She is launching an ebook called Frequent Flyer Toolkits, including one called Orlando for Nearly Free. She has been running MommyPoints.com, a popular blog that helps travelers navigate the frequent flyer type point programs to make travel more affordable.
I first dabbled in the miles-and-points hobby as a cash-strapped grad student at New York University. I racked up frequent flyer miles flying back and forth to visit friends and family in Houston. Then, after graduation, while my friends could only muster up the money for a drive to the shore, I was able to use miles and points to take my boyfriend at the time to Hawaii. After that, I was hooked. I didn’t have as much travel occur naturally after grad school, so I had to find ways to earn miles outside of flying.
I kept learning more about how to earn and leverage loyalty currency and eventually my husband got sick of hearing me talk about it all the time! He encouraged me to start a blog and that’s how MommyPoints.com was born in 2011. Since that time I’ve shared tons of tips and strategies that can help just about anyone earn miles they can redeem for a nearly free flight (you still pay tax on award flights) and hotel stay.
What kind of freebies do you talk about in your ebook in terms of traveling for free?
The books teach you how to use frequent flyer miles, hotel points, and bank points. The fact is, using loyalty currency can drastically reduce your costs on all sorts of travel-related expenses. Frequent flyer miles can be redeemed for nearly free flights. All you’ll pay for, in the case of a ticket to Orlando, is the tax (which is $5.60 per flight segment per person).
You can use hotel points to redeem free stays in Orlando—even right on Walt Disney World property! Many hotel chains—like Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, Starwood—offer cash and points options that can really help stretch your budget. These programs let you pay for a room with some points and some cash. For example, you can spend 10,000 Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints for one night at the Walt Disney World Swan or Dolphin right on Walt Disney World property (between the BoardWalk and Yacht Club with easy access to Epcot’s World Showcase entrance and Disney’s Hollywood Studios), or you can pay 5,000 points plus $75 per night.
For families, you can often use points to upgrade from a standard hotel room to a suite or a room that comes with access to the concierge lounge (free drinks, snacks, and concierge-style services). As long as you pay a minimum of the Hyatt Daily Rate for a deluxe room at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, you can use 3,000 points per night to upgrade to Regency Club accommodations or 6,000 points per night to upgrade to a suite.
Bank points—like Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Citi ThankYou Rewards—can be transferred to a variety of airline and hotel programs. Bank points give you the flexibility to book nearly free flights and hotel stays—even if you aren’t collecting miles and points in those programs.
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Beyond flights and hotel stays, there are other perks you can take advantage when using your miles and points. For example, if you book certain award flights—usually international business or first class tickets—you are often entitled to enter the airline lounge at the airport. A good lounge can be an oasis in an otherwise busy and chaotic airport. You’ll have a comfortable place to wait before take-off or during connections, a clean bathroom (sometimes complete with shower facilities), and access to drinks, snacks, and sometimes even whole meals. Daily entry fees to airport lounges can run $25 to $50 per person.
First- and business-class award flights also usually include one free checked bag. People who carry the airline’s co-branded credit also often get free checked bags, so that’s also a nice savings these days when airlines are charging for everything from checked bags to onboard meals to wifi.
How do you get started with choosing the best point programs?
Choose your loyalty programs with your goal in mind. If your dream is to take your family to Orlando, you want to make sure that you are saving miles and points that can be redeemed for flights to and hotel stays in that area.
Frequent Flyer Toolkits make it a point to tell you exactly which airlines fly to your dream destination and which programs have hotels and resorts in the area. The ebooks also tell readers about airline alliances and partnerships—and this is a big key to successfully leveraging your frequent flyer miles. Did you know that if you have American Airlines AAdvantage miles you can actually use them to book award flights on other airlines? You can use those miles on any OneWorld partner airline (like British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, and other carriers) as well as standalone partners like Alaska Airlines, Air Tahiti Nui, Hawaiian Airlines, and more. That’s why I often suggest that travelers determine which flights work best for their dream trip and then work backwards from there to see what type of miles or points you can use to redeem that specific route.
What’s the best way to track them?
Every program will have an online statement that you can reference to keep track of your miles and points. You can also use a free service like Award Wallet so you can log into one site and see your balances for many programs all on one screen. Services like AwardWallet.com show you the miles and points that are already in your account. If you want to track currency that is owed to you (for taking a flight, staying in a hotel, doing business with a partner, shopping through a program’s online portal, etc.), use an Excel spreadsheet or the Frequent Flyer Toolkits miles-and-points tracker, which we give away for free to anyone who subscribes to our email list (along with three other complimentary resources to help jump-start your trip-planning).
I’m worried about getting overwhelmed with emails and this being a huge time suck. How do you avoid that?
First of all, sign up for a free email address at Google or Yahoo or a similar service. Then, use that address when you subscribe to the mailing lists of all your loyalty programs. You want to get those newsletters because they often announce special promotions that can net you more miles and points for doing very little (say, “liking” a hotel property on Facebook). Just be sure to log into this email account once a week or once a month to review the messages and see if there is anything worth taking note of.
You can put as much or as little time into this hobby as you wish. If you’re time strapped—and who isn’t these days—just scan your emails once a month, check your balances with AwardWallet or a similar service, and read some blog posts from your favorite miles and points blogger.
When do you decide to use cash versus miles?
This is always a hotly debated topic: cash or miles? Everyone has to put their own value on their stash of frequent flyer miles. How you value them will depend on your travel goals. Are you trying to plan a luxurious getaway to Bali (first-class flights and a luxury resort) or are you more interested in getting your family of four cross-country to grandma and grandpa’s house twice a year? Some people will tell you that it’s a waste to use miles on a relatively inexpensive domestic airline ticket. However, if that redemption allows you to see friends and family that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise, go for it. That all being said, you are generally not maximizing valuable miles if you redeem them at or near one cent per mile.
It’s so hard to cash in airline miles when traveling during school vacations. Do you have any tips?
Plan ahead. Most airlines start releasing award availability about 11 months before the departure date. Start checking as soon as you can and keep checking. (One of the free resources we give away to Frequent Flyer Toolkits newsletter subscribers is an award flight-planning calendar. Just type in your preferred departure date and the Excel worksheet will show you the date you can begin your search for a variety of different airlines.)
Be flexible. You might love that nonstop flight but you may need to accept a connection. Check award availability often. Airlines use an advanced algorithm to dole out award availability and that availability can change moment to moment. That’s why it’s important to keep checking. When seats do pop up, snag them! Don’t waffle because someone else may beat you to it.
I also recommend considering some programs that are not tied to limited availability such as Southwest Rapid Rewards or JetBlue.
Disney World so rarely seems to offer deals. Where do I find them—and when?
A trip to Orlando, Florida’s theme park capital, can get expensive fast. It’s important to watch for airfare sales, which can happen at any time throughout the year. Sign up for your target airline’s email newsletter and you can also set up automated fare alerts at Airfarewatchdog and FareCompare. I also strongly suggest that you watch @theflightdeal and @airfarewatchdog on Twitter, as they have a good track record of sharing airfare deals to Orlando.
One of your other big expenditures will be theme park tickets. Two Orlando-area Walmarts actually sell discounted admission to the parks. Head to either 3250 Vineland Road or 4444 West Vine Street to see your options. To buy tickets before you get to Orlando, see if your local AAA (American Automobile Association) sells discounted Disney passes. Not all offices do, so you’ll need to inquire. Finally, check out MouseSavers.com, which keeps tabs on the best deals in the Orlando area and research Undercover Tourist, a ticket broker that sells tickets to Walt Disney World, Universal Studios Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando, and Legoland Florida.
What does your ebook have in it that would be helpful to me?
Each Frequent Flyer Toolkit includes…
• detailed information about airline, hotel, and bank-sponsored loyalty programs
• how to earn miles by flying, using reward-earning credit cards, shopping, dining, and participating in partner promotion
• instructions for setting travel goals
• an explanation of airline alliances and their value
• advice for determining the best flight options to your destination (and a thorough list of all airlines flying to that place)
• step-by-step instructions with screenshots that show you how to book a frequent flyer award ticket on all of the airlines that fly to your dream destination
• a hotel program primer along with all a detailed list of hotels and resorts to consider at your destination
• examples of how some travelers have gotten to this destination for nearly free
• and a Resources guide at the back of the book
Some toolkits, like Orlando for Nearly Free and Hawaii for Nearly Free, also include a bonus chapter about car rentals.
What’s your favorite part of the Frequent Flyer Toolkits series?
I love the cheat sheets that are included at the end of each chapter. These worksheets step you through the entire process of planning a vacation to this destination using miles and points. Filling in the worksheets will help you select the best loyalty programs, know how many mile and points you need for the trip, understand rewards-earning credit cards, outline the basic details of your trip (dates, airports, trip duration, travel companions, airline and hotel options, etc.), how to book an airline award over the phone, and so much more.
You can sign up for the Frequent Flyer Toolkits email list to receive four free resources to help you earn and redeem your next nearly free flight or hotel stay. You’ll receive The Mommy Points Beginner’s Guide to Earning Nearly Free Travel, a podcast about the best flight redemption values available today, a miles-and-points tracker, and an award flight-planning calendar. Sign up now!
Thank you to Summer Hull for joining us. Summer is one of America’s foremost experts when it comes to planning affordable family vacations with frequent flyer miles and hotel loyalty points. She is the author of the Frequent Flyer Toolkits series. These ebooks—like Hawaii for Nearly Free, Orlando for Nearly Free, and Paris for Nearly Free—help travelers plan an inexpensive vacation to a specific destination.