Frequent flier miles and a practically free trip around the world

May 18, 2012

The two male lions in the brush, their manes unkempt and their stomachs empty, awakened slowly as twilight descended upon the South African sky. The elder of the two, the pride’s leader, barked to his lionesses in the distance, signaling that it was time to hunt. His breath floated through the chilly air as his roar reverberated through the rails of our Jeep.

I’ve always been fascinated by lions. They’re what drew me to the Madikwe Game Reserve, 8,000 miles from my home in Northwest Washington. Watching documentaries and seeing the animals in zoos hadn’t lessened my awe at experiencing them in the wild. As I sat a mere 25 feet from the beasts, I thought about how this passion of mine was being fed by another: The chance to see these regal animals so close was possible because of my love of frequent flier miles.

Frequent flier miles tips: How to amass travel rewards quickly

Yes, I’m a frequent flier mile junkie. Lots of people tell me that my love for miles is really an obsession, and they may be right. I’m a recreational traveler who rarely flies for work. But I collect miles whenever and however I can, viewing the pursuit as a game, one that involves spending the least and acquiring the most miles possible. I spend somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000 annually on air travel, usually taking 15 domestic trips and a few international ones, and I try to earn more than 100,000 frequent flier miles each year.

The South African safari was part of a 32-day, seven-country, five-continent tour that I took two summers ago for my 30th birthday. The 17 flights had a retail value of more than $7,000, but I paid for them with 160,000 frequent flier miles that I’d collected over two years by taking lots of weekend trips, using airline credit cards and making mileage runs — flights taken solely to chalk up miles. The only out-of-pocket cash expenses for the flights were taxes and processing fees, which totaled — are you ready? — about $300.

Watch as a male lion and his brother (not pictured), the leaders of their pride, wake up at dusk at the Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa. Their roaring informs the lionesses that it is time to wake up and hunt. (Jon Wile/The Washington Post)
Miles mania

Modern frequent flier programs started in the early 1980s and have evolved into separate divisions within each major airline. Collecting miles is free and comes with numerous rewards beyond the free flights often dangled before consumers. Nowadays, you can redeem miles for merchandise and magazine subscriptions, donate them to friends or charities, or cash them in for money on PayPal. Consumer Reports and frequent flier sites put the value of a single mile at between one and two cents, although redeeming them for cash often nets less than a penny per mile, and only certain airlines offer that option.

I joined Continental’s OnePass program in November 1998, when I was 18 and a freshman at Kent State University in Ohio. I set up tabs on my e-mail account that tracked the cheapest fares to three dozen U.S. cities. My best friend, Brian, and I went anywhere we could for cheap — mostly quick trips that didn’t interfere with college or working at the local paper.

Brian taught me about miles, planes, flying routes and airports. The most valuable lesson he taught me is one I pass along today: Have one frequent flier account and fly only airlines that feed that account. For me, that was Continental, because one of the airline’s hubs was Cleveland, less than an hour from where I was attending school. Continental — now United after the two airlines completed a merger this year — is a member of the Star Alliance network, the world’s largest airline alliance, which includes US Airways, Air Canada, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and 20 other carriers that all feed my mileage account. I’ve never flown American or JetBlue. I scoff at Southwest. Since I signed on with Continental, I can count the number of flights I’ve taken on non-partner airlines on my hands.

When I moved to Washington seven years ago, my flying and mileage-hoarding escalated. I was flying to Cleveland so much to see friends and family that I earned Silver Elite status, which offered me bonus miles and free domestic first-class upgrades when available. I became hooked on status after sitting “up front” for the first time on a return flight from Las Vegas. Tracking my elite status and miles flown became a daily habit as I tried to figure out exactly how many miles I needed to retain my status. I also began picking routes based less on the time of departure or arrival and more on first-class cabin size, avoiding Boeing 737-500s and looking for the 737-800s and 737-900s, which offered far more first-class seating, thus increasing my chances for an upgrade.

Continental’s elite fliers are rewarded with bonus miles along with the standard miles that all fliers receive. Last year I earned Gold status by flying just over 50,000 miles (elite status can also be earned based on the number of flights you take), but because of Continental credit cards and elite status bonuses, I banked almost 130,000 miles. The credit cards, which carry an annual fee of $95 each and have bonuses attached as well, got me about half those miles. The cost for a free round-trip domestic ticket? That starts at 20,000 miles; Europe can be had for 60,000. You can’t, however, earn miles or get an upgrade when traveling on a reward ticket. Often, when I redeem miles, I’ll use miles to “buy” my travel companion’s flight and then ask him or her to split the cost of my ticket so that I can still earn miles while redeeming them.

I know that the financial bust was terrible for a lot of people, but for me, it made 2009 my best mileage-earning year as airlines offered discounted fares and huge mileage bonuses. Bargain fares to Ireland ($450) and Buenos Aires ($700) — my first two international trips — coupled with airline credit cards helped me earn about 150,000 miles. It was also the first year I made Platinum Elite, the pinnacle of Continental’s status system. Every time I flew domestically, I was sitting up front while earning 125 percent mileage bonuses, helping my stockpile of miles soar to new heights.

To help secure status at the end of a year, I often partake in a mileage run. An extreme example of this idea was two years ago, when I flew to Las Vegas in the late morning, stayed long enough to bet on and watch “Monday Night Football,” then took a red-eye back to Washington. The ticket cost me just under $300, but I sat in first class both ways, earned almost 10,000 miles after status bonuses and secured my Gold Status for another year.

The world at hand

My around-the-world trip started with Brian — a National Basketball Association reporter who takes nearly 100 flights per year — asking where I wanted to go for my 30th birthday. My answer was Sydney; his suggestion was Dubai. We couldn’t have been farther apart. Which led to me ask, “Why not go around the world?” Between our respective mileage stockpiles and Brian’s collection of hotel points (enough for 20 free nights), we quickly realized that we could be world travelers for almost nothing.

After doing some research, we discovered that the Star Alliance was offering a new around-the-world coach ticket for 160,000 miles (it has since been raised to 180,000 miles). Travel had to be continuous in one direction (east or west), could include up to six stopovers and had to be completed within a year of departure. Our complex itinerary — with stops in Berlin; Johannesburg; Phuket, Thailand; Sydney; Christchurch, New Zealand; and Las Vegas — took an hour to book over the phone with a special Star Alliance agent. We took a side trip to Amsterdam from Germany, on a separate ticket, to add a seventh stop just for a little more fun.

Our elite status with Star Alliance granted us access to airport lounges, which offered free appetizers, complimentary WiFi and comfortable seating to relax in. WiFi was especially important, so that we could Skype with relatives back home for nearly nothing.

We visited Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, snorkeled off the coast of the Phi Phi Islands in Thailand, toured the Sydney Opera House, cruised through the fjords of southern New Zealand and, of course, saw those magnificent African lions.

Of course, the trip bankrupted my mileage account, but don’t worry — I’ve already got 200,000 miles saved up again. Now all I need is a Star Alliance carrier to start service to Antarctica so that I can begin plotting my next big adventure.

Frequent flier miles tips: How to amass travel rewards quickly

Wile is a senior news designer for The Washington Post.

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