Do you read about “amazing” airfare deals and roll your eyes? The truth is that anyone with the ability to move quickly and be flexible can nab international or domestic flights on the cheap.
I’ve signed up for a dozen email blasts from various travel sites, bloggers, and airlines. The ones that I pay attention to have subject lines like “Buy miles for $X and get Z additional miles.” With this strategy, the airline essentially enables you to buy miles with cash and receive bonus miles for free. You can then use those miles to book international or domestic flights.
Although my most recent buy was a $7,500 international business class flight — which cost me less than $1,000 — this method works for economy seats, too. Here’s how to use this tactic to find major deals on your next flight.
How I got a $7,500 flight for $900
When you use miles to book a flight, it’s important to capitalize on airline alliances whenever possible. The three major groups include Star Alliance, Oneworld, and SkyTeam. Within each alliance, multiple airlines partner up and agree to offer some shared perks and flexible miles.
Say, for example, that you have United miles to spend. Because United is a member of the Star Alliance, you can use those miles to book flights on another Star Alliance carrier — such as Lufthansa — via United’s reservation system.
However, there’s an important caveat to accruing and using points within airline alliances: Just because airline X is a member of a certain alliance doesn’t mean that you can use airline X’s miles for any partner airline on any flight. Each airline offers a limited number of seats to some alliance partners.
And how do you know which partners offer seats on which flights? Although there are paid services that can help you find these special deals, if you don’t subscribe to a service, you frankly have to search, search, and search some more.
How I searched for (and found) a killer deal
Recently, I was looking for flights from eastern Europe to Los Angeles and remembered a friend who flew in Swiss Air Lines’ exceptional business class. Hoping to nab a good deal, that’s where I started my search.
There are 27 airlines in the Star Alliance. For Swiss seats from Europe to the U.S., I could have searched on the Swiss website, United Airlines website, or any of the other members. But through a lot of reading, I knew that Avianca typically offers many Star Alliance flights for fewer points and lower taxes.
I also knew that Avianca was offering a mileage bonus at the time. I could buy 1,000 Avianca LifeMiles but receive a total of 2,450 miles — a 145% bonus.
Maybe I could find a Swiss flight from Budapest to LA on Avianca’s website for a good deal? The site enables you to “Smart Search” for any partner availability or choose a specific carrier to fly. I searched both ways, but alas, no luck.
So what’s an inventive travel hunter to do? Change the search parameters. I couldn’t find great flights from Budapest to LA, but maybe I’d have more luck searching routes to and from other cities. I researched where Swiss flies in Europe that’s convenient to Budapest and which major markets it serves in U.S. I made a list of acceptable airport pairs and started plugging away.
What I found after changing the parameters
Within four minutes of searching on Avianca’s website, I found a Swiss business-class seat from Zurich to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport for 63,000 Avianca LifeMiles, plus $53 in taxes.
In another window, I toggled to the ”Buy Miles” section of the Avianca website and took advantage of the special mileage promotion. I could purchase 63,700 Avianca LifeMiles for $858.
I then checked the flight’s cash price on Google Flights, which totaled $7,549. That sealed the deal for me! I jumped on this booking and nabbed a $7,549 flight for just $858, plus taxes.
How does that deal compare to other partner airlines? I could have purchased the exact same seat with United for 70,000 miles and $52 in taxes, or on Singapore Airlines for 72,000 miles and over $200 in taxes.
The lowest cost was Air Canada, at 55,000 miles and $45 in taxes. However, I wanted to take advantage of the Avianca’s mileage sale so that was the option I chose.
How to take advantage of similar deals in the future
Just because you have miles with a certain airline doesn’t mean you have to fly with that carrier. You can look for flights within an airline’s alliance and use your points there. Most importantly, you can also take advantage of mileage sales to buy miles in a program that you like and parlay them into a very good return on investment.
Does this work for economy tickets?
Yes, this strategy works just as smoothly for coach as it does for business and first class, pending availability. However, the return on investment may not be as high for economy tickets.
How do you find out about these sales?
You can register with airlines to receive emails with their latest promotions. Or, you can visit a travel aggregator site which updates multiple times a day with new travel deals and news. Your inbox may be fuller, but if you look carefully, you can find a nugget of gold. Happy hunting!
A word of warning
Be cautious of buying points speculatively; it may not be wise to buy 100,000 miles today with plans to use them at some vague point in future. Airline miles can be devalued at any time, so it generally doesn’t make sense to buy and hold miles — unless you enjoy the gamble and can sustain a loss should something go amiss.
Using a credit card to earn airline miles
There are plenty of great credit cards to earn or redeem airline miles. However, there are few best practices when using credit cards to book discounted travel.
- Never carry a balance on your credit cards to buy or earn miles. Pay the card off every month — no amount of points is worth paying a high APR.
- If you’re going to buy miles, consider purchasing them with a new credit card to hit the minimum spend requirement and earn the sign-up bonus.
- Use the best travel credit card that earns you bonus points. The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, for example, offers 5X points on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®; 3X points on dining, select streaming services, and eligible online grocery purchases; 2X points on all other travel purchases, and 1X points per $1 on all other eligible purchases.
International or domestic flights can be yours on the cheap if you’re willing to sift through email and sale notices. But pounce quickly; if you see a good deal, book it right away. These offers typically don’t last.
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Earn 25,000 online bonus points after you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of account opening - that can be a $250 statement credit toward travel purchases
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