Come Fly With Me: How to Save on Flights

Back before Kathryn worked at rewardStyle, she was a consultant at ThoughtWorks. If you aren’t aware, consultants travel most of the time, so her work week was Monday-Thursday traveling, Friday-Sunday at home. In the two years she worked as a consultant she racked up a lot of points and, more importantly, a lot of knowledge about how to get the most bang for your buck when you fly. Today I (Summer) am going to pick her brain about the best ways to save on flights. (Stay tuned for a post on lodging!)

Q: What is your favorite tip for saving money when flying?

A: Sign up for travel rewards accounts on every airline! It’s free to sign up, and you keep your points as long as there is activity on your account every 2 or so years (but that varies on different airlines). Always book your flight directly on the airline’s website, while you are logged into your rewards account.

Then, pick one airline that you can fly with consistently, and always book flights on that airline. Look at the airlines that fly out of your closest airport, and pretend to book a couple of “example trips” about 2 months out to places you frequently travel or would like to go. From that, try to find out which airline is generally the most affordable and has the most direct flights to the places you want to go—that’s where you should establish your loyalty.

Always strive to book your flight on that airline, even if other airlines might be cheaper for individual flights. My general rule is to always book a flight on my airline unless it’s about $100 cheaper on another airline. When you rack up points that you can spend on more flights, that extra fare you paid back in November pays you back! Airlines want you to be loyal to them, and they reward you for it.

Q: Where did you establish your loyalty and why?

A: I established my loyalty on Southwest Airlines for a couple of reasons:

  1. I really appreciate their flexibility. On Southwest, you can always change your flight for free (you just pay the fare difference, OR even get money back if your new flight is cheaper) and when you cancel a flight, you always keep the money that you paid as flight credits, to be applied to a future flight. This sort of flexibility REALLY came in handy for me when I was traveling for work weekly, but sometimes I needed to change my schedule for various reasons. It was SO easy to change on Southwest.
  2. Their prices (for the airport I fly from/the places I fly to) are generally cheaper than competitors. I appreciate that booking the cost of two one-way flights is the exact same price as booking the round-trip flight of the same dates/destinations—I frequently would fly to my client location on Sunday, and then fly to a different place on the weekend, so most of my flights were booked as one-way flights.
  3. I love their open seating policies, no bag fees, and customer service.
  4. The Dallas Love Field airport is closer to my house than DFW airport. When I was doing this commute every week, cutting down airport travel time was so important.
  5. I wanted to earn a companion pass for traveling for fun!

Q: What exactly is a Companion Pass?

A: In my opinion, the Companion Pass is the best frequent flyer benefit in the U.S. It’s a reward that is unique to Southwest. It allows someone to travel with you, whenever you fly on Southwest, for free (you have to pay airport fees for the booking, which amounts to $5.60 one way). My husband flew with me for free on 9 separate one-way flights in 2019, and we already have 5 booked for 2020. To obtain a companion pass, you have to earn 125,000 rapid rewards points in a calendar year. Once you earn it, you can use your companion pass for the entire rest of the calendar you are in, through the entire next calendar year (e.g. if you earned it March 20, 2020, you could use your companion pass from March 21, 2020 through December 31, 2021.) You can only have 1 companion at a time, but you can change your companion up to 3 times in a calendar year.

Q: What is the fastest way to get a Companion Pass?

A: The fastest way to earn it is to get the Southwest Rapid Rewards Chase credit card. They currently have a sign-up bonus of 75,000 points that count towards your companion pass that you earn if you spend $5,000 within the first 6 months of your account opening. Those 5,000 points from the money you spend count as well, so then you have 80,000 qualifying RR points. From there, you just need 45,000 more points that you can earn in a number of ways:

  1. Put big purchases on your credit card! If you are planning a wedding, renovating your house, making a big furniture purchase, put it all on the card to get those points.
  2. Book all of your travel with this credit card. This includes hotels and car rentals too. The credit card will give you 2x points on all Southwest purchases that you make, and 2x points on its hotel and car rental partners.
  3. Fly on Southwest! Any flight you take on Southwest earns between 6x to 12x points on the dollar amount spent, depending on the fare class you purchase. That’s in addition to the 2x points from your credit card spend. For instance, if you buy a Wanna Get Away flight for $200, that means you get 200*2 = 400 points from your credit card spend, and 200*6 = 1200 points once you take the flight. That’s 1600 points from one flight! Check out this page on the Southwest website to calculate the points you might earn from different fare classes.

There are 3 different levels of the Southwest credit card, each with different annual fees and benefits. You can check out this page to compare and contract the 3 cards. All 3 of them currently give the 75,000 bonus point sign up bonus!

Q: What if Southwest doesn’t fly where I’m going or I’m not a big fan of theirs?

A: Southwest is in a lot of “smaller” airports but not their larger counterparts in big cities, e.g. they’re at Dallas Love Field, but not DFW airport in Dallas. In Chicago, they’re at Midway, but not O’Hare. If there is a smaller airport in your city that is convenient for you, check to see if Southwest flies there.

If not, forget Southwest! Establish loyalty with an airline that regularly flies out of the airport that is the most convenient to you and to the places you want to go. A huge bummer about Southwest is that their only international flight are to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. If international flights are important to you, establish your loyalty with an airline like American or United that flies to the international locations you want to visit. If you live in Atlanta, your airline of choice might likely be Delta, since that’s their big hub. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, maybe it’s Alaska Air. Every airline has a hub (except Southwest—they operate off of a different model) so check out if your city is a hub for any airline, because that might be the airline you want to look into first.

Once you have established loyalty with an airline, look into the airline partner credit cards for your specific airline, and consider getting one of those. They have different levels of benefits and annual fees, but almost all of them have a sign up bonus that gives you a lot of points once you reach a certain spending threshold in your first couple of months with the card. If you’re getting a new credit card, prioritize getting a card with a large sign-up bonus, because you’ll get to keep those points to spend on flights down the line!

Here are some links to the rewards credit cards offered by major airlines:

  • Southwest: 75,000 sign-up bonus points, 3 different credit card tiers ranging from $69 to $149 annual fee
  • American: between 10,000 and 65,000 sign-up bonus points, 4 different credit card tiers with annual fees ranging from $0 to $450
  • United: between 60,000 to 75,000 sign-up bonus points, 3 different credit card tiers ranging from $0 to $450 annual fee
  • Delta: between 35,000 to 50,000 sign-up bonus points, 3 different credit card tiers ranging from $95 to $450 annual fee
  • Alaska Air: 40,000 sign-up bonus points, 1 credit card with an annual fee of $99

Q: What if I want to/have to take the cheapest flight? Can I still save money?

A: Absolutely! You can check places like Skyscanner or Google Flights to find the cheapest flight, and you can even set up a reminder on Google Flights to email you when it’s time to book, or send you alerts when the price drops for a flight you are interested in.

Always always book directly on the airlines website, not through places like Expedia or Kayak. Those websites insert a middleman into you airline booking that you don’t need—sometimes it’s harder to get customer service support when you have an issue if you booked through a third party. Airlines want you to book directly with them, so a lot of the time, the points that you earn after booking with one of those third party sites don’t count.

You can have a rewards account with every airline, it’s easy and free to sign up. You might earn points more slowly on each account than if you were only flying with one airline, but that’s okay! You always want to earn those points for any flight you take.

If you still want a credit card to earn travel points on, I would suggest staying away from credit cards from specific airlines, and instead look at credit cards from banks with which you can redeem your points at any airline (or hotel, car rental, or other rewards). That way, you’re still earning points for booking your flights, but it doesn’t have to be redeemed on one specific airline.

Q: What are airline points? What can I do with them?

A: Airline points (also called miles in certain programs) are a reward system that airlines use to incentivize people to choose their airline. You can redeem airline points for free flights—how many points it takes to get a free flight depends on the airline, but you can get flights for as little as ~12,000 points on Southwest. For another example, in 2018 my husband and I got round trip flights from Dallas to Edinburgh for 40,000 points each on American Airlines. Redemption amount varies by airline and by time of year. You can earn points by flying on a given airline, spending on a credit card that rewards points for spending on that card, or other various activities or offers given by the airline. Points earned by flying also contribute towards your status on a given airline.

Q: What if I don’t travel very often? What is the best way for me to establish loyalty/save money without my points expiring before I can use them?

A: If you’re not flying often enough for establishing loyalty to reap you any benefit, then don’t worry about trying to establish loyalty. One thing you can do is get a credit card that gives you generic points that can be used on any airline. Some of these credit cards award you double points for things other than travel—think grocery shopping, gas, restaurants, other every day purchases that you’re already making. You can put your monthly expenses on those credit cards to earn travel points that you can use later without traveling to do so.

Personally, I put every expense or purchase on a credit card and pay it off every month. That way, I am earning points every time I spend money (except when there is a credit card transaction fee, in which case I use my debit card).

Q: Is it worth it to buy points from an airline?

A: Generally, not really. If you have a travel credit card, it’s easy enough to earn points with that. However, the only times I’d suggest buying points from an airline is if your points are about to expire from not being used—each airline has a different policy, but they usually expire if you’ve gone 2 years without any account activity. Check out your specific airline’s policy for full details. Airline points are worth between 2.5 to 3.5 cents per point, generally. Sometimes, airlines have a promotion on points at a major discount—if the points per dollar reward is higher than 3.5 cents, it might be worth it to you. Only purchase points from the airline directly, because it’s against most airlines’ terms and conditions to buy/sell points from anyone else.

Q: Are there other travel cards that you like?

A: I personally own the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which gives generic “Ultimate Rewards” points that I can redeem or convert on almost any airline. This card has a high annual fee ($95) but has a 60,000 point sign-up bonus offer right now, which is worth approximately $750 when redeemed for travel. I also own the Citi AAdvantage MileUp card, which I only have because I downgraded from the Citi Prestige, a card with a very high annual fee. (Pro tip: if you don’t want a credit card anymore because of the annual fee, you can always call your card company and downgrade it to a card with no annual fee! Cancelling a card dings your credit score.) I like my MileUp card because I get 2x points on groceries and American Airlines flights (which I typically fly when I’m traveling internationally).

Summer has a Bank of America Travel Rewards card. This card has no annual fee (a necessity for a broke grad student) and no foreign transaction fees (very important for international travel). This card earns 1.5 points for every dollar, which you can use as a statement credit toward travel expenses such as flights, Ubers (even Ubereats!), rental cars, etc.

There are so many different travel credit cards you can choose from, and I’d recommend a website like Doctor of Credit or Nerdwallet to find in-depth reviews or do comparisons for each card you might be interested in.

Q: How should I spend my credit card points if I have a general travel card?

A: You will almost always get the most value out of your credit card points if you redeem them for travel, primarily flights or hotel. Transferring your points to cash typically yields a return of 1 cent per point, whereas if you redeem your points for travel, that can be anything from 1.5 to 3.5 cents per point. You can also transfer your generic credit card points to most travel reward programs 1:1, depending on the credit card/airlines/hotels in question.

Q: How far out should I book my flight?

A: Ah, the controversy. Some people say exactly 54 days in advance. Some say it depends on the season, and give a very exact number for each season. Maybe it depends on what the phase of the Moon is on the Saturday before the day you want to fly and what zodiac is rising and what you ate for breakfast two Mondays ago. I’ll never know.

This is my general rule: if I’m flying Southwest, I book as far in advance as possible. The beauty about Southwest is that if the flight drops in price, I can modify my original booking and get the original amount paid back as a flight credit. If I’m flying on any major holiday or three-day weekend, I’ll book as soon as possible, because those prices tend to only go up. If I’m flying a non-three day weekend on an airline that isn’t Southwest, I’ll generally book two months in advance. Supposedly the cheapest days to book airfare are Tuesday and Wednesday, but I’m not positive how true that is.

A cool thing you can do is track a flight via Google Flights, and then you’ll get an email when the price for the flight you’re interested in significantly drops.

Q: What about international flights?

A (Summer will take this one since it is her specialty): As Kat mentioned, establishing loyalty is super important. Just like with domestic travel, figure out if the place you want to go to often has a hub and fly with that airline. For example, if you fly to Amsterdam a lot, always fly KLM.

Also, get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees! Those add up so quickly when you’re traveling. You don’t want to be carrying around a ton of currency, so being able to use your credit card is pretty imperative.

You could also fly to a cheaper airport nearby and take a domestic flight or train once you get there (disclaimer: domestic flights have tighter baggage restrictions, so check on this when booking). I go to Edinburgh for research, but I usually fly into London or Amsterdam and then take short flight over. Last time I went, I flew into Glasgow and took a train over to Edinburgh. This approach can also work for domestic travel; flying into a farther airport and renting a car to drive where you want to go can save you $$$!

Q: Is TSA PreCheck really worth it?

A: In my opinion, ABSOLUTELY. What’s even more worth it is Global Entry, which is only $15 more than PreCheck, and allows you to enter customs when coming back from an international trip much quicker than everyone else. Global Entry comes with TSA PreCheck, and is valid for 5 years. With PreCheck, you get to skip taking off your shoes and taking our your laptop and liquids when you go through security. Plus, the TSA PreCheck line is almost always shorter and faster than normal security!

A lot of travel credit cards will pay for your Global entry or TSA PreCheck enrollment fee in the form of a statement credit, so if you’re shopping for a new travel card, it might be worth it for you to consider that benefit in your search.

DISCLAIMER: While traveling, rewards, points, getting the bang for my buck, etc. is my absolute jam, I am by no means an expert and I encourage you to do your own research before making any financial decisions. I would love for you to use my advice as a jumping off point for you in your quest to find the best way for you to travel—so please take my advice with a grain of salt! I love sharing my knowledge and experiences from traveling weekly for two years, and am always happy to answer any questions you might have.

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