How I am flying for free to SE Asia
Recently, my partner and I decided we wanted to plan a trip to Southeast Asia and I decided we were just not going to pay for plane tickets. Two free flights? To one of the farthest places possible (from Atlanta, anyways)? Am I crazy? Possibly, but probably for other reasons. But when your concept of time is measured by how close you are to your next trip, stretching your dollars means stretching the miles you can travel. So I started researching.
The first step to procuring these two coveted tickets to exotic lands actually happened about two years ago when I signed up for a gold Delta Amex card. It came with a 60,000 mile sign-up bonus and, at the time, I was working for Delta and was flying around standby, so I was able to hold onto them. I will also note here that for 3 years I didn't earn any miles from flying because you can't earn Skymiles as an employee flying gratis. Anyways, step one - get a gold Delta Amex card and receive the 60,000 bonus point reward after you spend $1000 in 3 months (careful, this is pretty much the maximum sign-up bonus and it is not always offered...this is a targeted offer and might be worth a phone call to see if you qualify). Of course, sign up for a Skymiles account to get these points if you don't already have one.
Step two is pay your bills with your Amex card to spend the $1000 in 3 months necessary to earn the award. I literally put all our utility bills, groceries and pet supplies on the card and offered to pay restaurant tabs when my friends had cash. I would come home and immediately transfer the money from my bank to the credit card so I didn't carry a balance or spend my real money elsewhere (credit cards are really just Monopoly money, right?).
Step three was to figure out where exactly I wanted to go and what the low or "saver" mileage brackets were on those flights. This has gotten far simpler than when I did this for a friend a few years ago. Both Delta and United have pretty simple booking interfaces that can search flexible dates so you can view what dates will take the least miles at a glance. I did some Googling to find what countries near to where I wanted to go had better mileage deals (there are charts around the interwebs kind people make to summarize this and some airlines provide it too). I did some extra work and figured out how much budget airlines cost in cash to get me to where I actually wanted to go from where the cheaper mileage destinations were and did the math to make my decision (keeping in mind I wanted at least $0.013 per mile for my Skymiles and $0.015 for United, as The Points Guy advises).
Step four - find a good mileage deal and book it. Just do it, especially on Delta as they are more limited and the good mileage bracket deals don't last forever. Search for one-way flights to find best options. I didn't have enough miles for my return but one way flights are (on Delta and United) exactly half of a round trip flight (unlike when you pay with cash!). United seems to have better award availability at saver mileages than Delta and I had six months before travel, so I felt pretty safe here. I also did my research and knew United and their Star Alliance partners had a solid presence in the locations I wanted to travel from/to.
Step five - earn more miles because even if Southeast Asia is awesome, I still love my kitties and want to come home. I did my research and found the Chase Sapphire card has some of the best mileage value for travel. The sign-up bonus was 50,000 but you have to spend $4000 in 3 months. Luckily, this was around Christmas time so I just did all the bills plus Christmas presents and also put my friend's flight (worth double points), who is going with us, on the card. Basically, same as step two here. Use this link to sign up, and I will get even more bonus miles!
Step six - add a second account user to your Chase Sapphire card, and have them purchase something with their new card - boom they got a credit card without even an inquiry hit to their credit and you just earned another 5,000 points!
Step seven - apply for the Delta Platinum Amex upgrade with 10,000 bonus miles and 10,000 MQMs (we will save the MQM value discussion for another day...) after spending $1000 in 3 months. OK, this wasn't the best offer as I think you can possibly open a new account and earn a 60,000 award offer, but that's paying for two annual fees (gold is $95 and the platinum is $195). I decided to just do the upgrade.
Step eight - spend some more money... I got in the habit of putting bills on my cards so I continued to do this. My partner had a dentist bill, we put home repairs and a vet visit on the card earning another 5,000 miles ($1 = 1 mile). Sign up for Delta's dining program connected to the Delta Amex card that allows you to earn up to 3,500 miles eating (and paying with your Amex card) at 3 of several pretty decent restaurant options that were all within 5 miles of me. Also, check out this list and see if you currently do business with any of their dining, retail and specialty partners. I get double miles for paying my Georgia Power bill!
Step nine - enter your flyer number every single flight you ever fly on business, pleasure, etc. no matter who pays for the ticket. If you don't have a frequent flyer account for the airline, sign-up. You never know when you will use it.
Step ten - transfer points from other eligible accounts. I had 5,000 Starwood points I transferred over at no cost to my Skymiles account (1=1). Seriously, always sign up for the membership points programs! Most major hotel chains have these and do your research for cross-over programs with airline partners.
Another word of advise is to use Credit Karma to stay on top of your numbers (debt ratio, credit pings, payments due, etc.). Using this credit management system and my new cards, I actually managed to increase my credit score a decent amount!
Alright... so there you have it. Roughly $2500 in flights for free with just a little research and finagling finances!
**Please note, I am no financial or credit expert... just someone who really, really likes to travel and has personally done these things to book award travel. Use my advice with your own common sense and caution.