I flew first class to New York City this weekend for free. Here’s how you can too:
For anyone interested in traveling around the world on the cheap, one of the most important steps is figuring out how to utilize frequent flyer miles and credit card points. When airlines, banks or hotels offer complimentary loyalty points, it makes no sense not to take advantage of it.
At the most basic, this means signing up for an airline’s frequent flyer program before you fly. Over time the points will add up, and can be used for free travel. For hardcore points and mile earners, this means taking advantage of co-branded credit cards, signup bonuses, double miles promotions and more. With a little bit of dedication and planning, you too can be flying jetting around the world in first class, without paying a dime.
This weekend’s excursion was my first time to the Big Apple. One of my best friends just moved to New York a few months ago, and I was eager to visit him and explore his new city. Transcontinental flights can be notoriously expensive, especially at the last minute, so I began to plan this excursion well in advance.
When looking for a flight, my first step is to use Google Flights to search for the cheapest dates. With a flexible schedule, I can see which weekend is the cheapest and go then, for the best deal.
In this case, the cheapest airlines was Alaska Air, which is my preferred airline, anyways. A win-win!
To make the booking, I did not pay cash and book through Google Flights or on Alaska’s website, but instead logged into my Chase Bank account. As a Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholder, I am able to redeem my points directly for travel, at a rate of 1.5 cents per point. In this case, a round-trip economy ticket would cost $238, already a pretty good deal for a nonstop flight. But by using Chase Ultimate Rewards points, I paid $0.00, instead choosing to redeem 15,867 points.
Of course, you might be wondering how I ended up in Alaska’s excellent First Class, if I only booked an economy ticket. This is the other side to airline loyalty programs. Apart from simply earning miles, frequent travelers are able to earn preferred status, making them eligible for complimentary upgrades. Because of my frequent travel, I managed to earn MVP status with Alaska for 2018, thus making me eligible for an upgrade.
Upgrades are not automatic - they only occur if there are unsold seats in First Class. And at that point, it becomes a tiered system, where the most frequent flyers get priority. Though I do have MVP status, I’m very close to the bottom of the totem pole. But that also is usually a self-solving problem. Planes that are nearly full are also the most expensive. Since I always book the cheapest tickets (and therefore the ones with the most unsold seats), I inherently have the highest chance of getting upgraded. Since reaching MVP status with Alaska 6 months ago, I haven’t flown in economy once, despite booking exclusively economy tickets.
So how can you do it too?
Use points and miles to earn free air travel. The Chase Sapphire Reserve has a steep annual fee, but offers 50,000 bonus miles as a signup bonus. (For what it’s worth, I think the annual fee is absolutely worth it, but we’ll cover that another time). If you use them like I did, that would be 3 round-trip flights to New York from the west coast.
You could also consider the less expensive Chase Sapphire Preferred card. This has the same 50,000 mile signup bonus, and has the annual fee waived during the first year.
Achieving elite status with a given airline is a little bit more challenging, and requires careful planning to make it worthwhile. With Alaska, MVP status is reached with 25,000 miles flown in a year. It’s no exaggeration to say that this is a lot of flying. But it’s totally achievable for a lot of travelers, and the benefits are fantastic.
Just to demonstrate the length of various routes to show how achievable it is, a round-trip flight between the United States and Australia or New Zealand will earn you about 16,000, putting you already most of the way there. I transcontinental route, such as Portland to New York City, will earn you about 5,000 round-trip, and a coastal route, such as Seattle to San Diego, will earn you about 2,000. With one of each of those trips in a given year, you would accumulate 23,000 miles, putting you very near MVP status.
In my case, I earned it by taking two long-haul trips in a year, one to Europe and Israel, and the other to Bali and Thailand. These two trips, combined with a couple of more local flights (such as to California) earned me enough miles for MVP status. And by crossing the threshold in 2017, I get to enjoy the benefits for all of 2018, while I try to accumulate another 25,000.
This year I’ve already flown two trips, one to Dallas, Texas, and this one to New York. Those two alone have netted me over 8,000 miles, which means I’m about 1/3 of my way to 25,000 for the year, with 10 months to go. With upcoming trips to Orange County, Las Vegas and Europe, it should be no problem to reach my 25,000 mile goal.
As a college student with no real job and no income, it’s hard to imagine I’d be flying across the country in First Class for free. But with a little bit of planning, and a little bit of luck, I made it happen. And you can too.
Do you have a similar success story to share? Send it to email@example.com, and we might feature it on the website!