Thursday, November 16, 2017

Maximizing travel rewards & hacks

As a special request from a reader, I thought I'd share my top tips on maximizing travel rewards. There are actually a ton of resources & detailed blogs about this online, and I'm definitely not an expert, so take this as my own experience based on our travel needs.

Here's some background:

  • I travel for work. All international travel. My preferred airline (well, not really, but based on flight schedules) is United. I have status on United, and typically take 6-8 international trips/year. I'll end this year with Platinum status, but normally just have Gold. Singapore really pushed me over the edge given distance. :-) 
  • United doesn't fly my normal personal travel route. (San Jose to Portland). This makes a big difference in how I use my United points.
  • We travel a lot for personal trips, mostly to see my family. Flights to Portland range from about $150 (bought way in advance, and at non-peak pricing, flexible days) to $400. 
As a fun exercise, I went through & added up all of our personal travel for 2017 (including flights we bought for others). Here's how it nets out:

  • Trip to Hawaii - x2 tickets
  • Parents visit in August - x2 tickets
  • Aunt's wedding  - x4 tickets
  • Relay trip  - x1 ticket
  • Our family trip to the coast over the 4th of July - x4 tickets
  • Dropping the kids off at my parents house in June - x1 ticket (the kids tickets are factored into the 4th of July trip)
  • Parents visit in April - x2 tickets
  • Sister's trip to visit - x1 ticket
  • Trip to Las Vegas - x2 tickets

Grand total of 19 round trip flights purchased. All but the Las Vegas flights were purchased via our preferred personal airline (Alaska Air). 

Here's how we've maximized mileage & overall airline rewards:
  • Getting creative with my United miles. Unfortunately, United is not a partner with Alaska, nor will they allow me to transfer my miles to Alaska. I've had to go the roundabout way. Transfer from United -> Marriott -> Alaska. Not great from an overall point conversion rate, but it works & allows me to use miles for personal travel.
  • Price matching. Alaska has an amazing policy that allows you to price match at any time. Say you book a flight for $250, and the flight later drops to $225. All you need to do is verify your confirmation number on Alaska's flight, and they will automatically check to see if you have the current lowest rate. If not, they will deposit the difference in your "Alaska wallet", which you can then apply to a future flight. I tend to run all of my existing confirmation codes through the price matcher about once a week (Tuesdays or Thursdays have the lowest average price). Over the past year, I've earned $603.05 back in price matching funds. Some credits have been as low as $3, with the highest being $78.20! It's a lot of money, when you run the numbers.
  • Call when something goes wrong. For the most part, Alaska is amazing & I rarely have a reason to call them. However, when something changes in your schedule (more than 2 hour time switch, extensive delays, etc), they normally give you a customer care credit. When you book far in advance like I typically do, major flight schedule changes are most common. I always call & request a credit for this. The credit is multiplied by the number of guests in your party. So, if it's a $50 credit and you have 4 people, you get a total of $200 in credit for future travel.
  • Get the kids signed up for a frequent flier program. Both of our boys have their own accounts, and are most of the way to a free flight. Given we fly really short legs, this has taken nearly four years. But, it's better than nothing! M has his own account, of course. 
  • Consider your preferred airline credit card. Alaska has a Visa card, and when Costco got rid of their Amex alliance, we moved all of our primary spend to the Alaska card. Benefits: mileage for every dollar, a companion fare, and free checked bags. We utilize all of the benefits, and accrue mileage faster through our regular spend. 

In terms of non-flight related savings, we don't book a lot of hotels. But, if I did, I would use some of my many hotel points accrued through work trips to offset the costs. As it turns out, this year our only hotel booking was in Hawaii, and we found a great deal at Costco. Given we have no hotel plans for 2018 either, I will likely transfer as many points as possible to Alaska to convert to mileage, and have redeemed the rest for gift cards for the holidays. I've redeemed points for $730 worth of gift cards so far. Woohoo!

Our 2018 travel budget is $7,000, and I'd like to offset as much of the flight expenses as possible. Currently, we have 269K miles available, plus one companion fare. Given where we our right now, my goal is to get to 390K miles in 2018. 

Happy to answer questions if you want more details about anything. Please share any tips you have about travel hacks as well. 


  1. I am sure you already do this but you could also join mileage plan dining for eating out, likely many options in your area:

  2. We just don't travel by air enough so are constantly just trying to find the lowest options. Over $550 for son's flight though-so helping him pay for it because he can't afford that. You deserve the extra perks with your work schedule and travel requirements-good for you being creative.