Imagine flying around the world for free, turning a small amount of frequent flyer points into endless flights, all while paying a pittance in taxes and fees. It sounds too good to be true – in fact, it sounds like a scam – but it happened to me. While you are reading this, I’ll be on the other side of the world and it’s all thanks to a bit of research and a lot of patience!
Every airline frequent flyer program comes with a lot of fine print, the kind of dull, dry legalese that most of us, admittedly, never read. I can’t remember what motivated my husband and I to study it in depth (our idea of a hot date night, perhaps) but I do remember the outcome. We realized by selecting Australia as our destination, we could cash in 80,000 points each, as opposed to the usual 200,000 or more needed for a round the world ticket. As Australia is about halfway around the world from our home in Ottawa, the Star Alliance didn’t care if we went there one way and came back another. And thus our goals of circumnavigation were complete!
Of course, we didn’t want to just see Australia – we wanted to see the whole world! Once again, the fine print came to our rescue. Trips based on points allow for two stopovers of unlimited time. By now, our heads were spinning! As we researched potential flight routes, the possibilities seemed endless. Los Angeles, Tokyo, Auckland, Frankfurt were all very tempting stopover destinations.
And, thanks to the fine print, we had one more treat in store for us. In addition to our main destination and our two stopovers, we were also entitled to unlimited layovers whenever the plane touched down. As long our connecting flight departed in 24 hours or less, it didn’t count as a stopover. While normally I despise layovers, wanting nothing more than to make my connection and get on my way, in this instance I’ve never wanted them more. What a great way to break up long flights and see the world at the same time!
After much discussion back and forth, we settled on the following route: Ottawa to New York (layover) to Brussels (5 day stopover) to Istanbul (layover) to Bangkok (1 week stopover) to Singapore (layover) to Sydney (our main destination) to San Francisco (layover) and finally back home. That’s 8 flights, 8 different destinations, all for one set of frequent flyer points. Not too shabby!
While it was great to have so many flights covered for free through our frequent flyer points, we still had to face taxes and fees. These costs can vary wildly between different airlines and different airports. Before narrowing down our choice of layovers and stopovers, we looked at what destinations carried the lowest airport fees, and then selected flights based on the taxes levied by the airline. Our hard work certainly paid off! We only incurred $350 each in taxes, a darn good deal for 8 flights around the world.
I found FlyerTalk.com to be an invaluable planning resource. There is a huge community of points-passionate people out there; folks who make George Clooney’s character from Up In the Air seem like an amateur. It took months of silently hanging out on the chat boards to understand their language, codes, and tips but it was time well spent. When it came time to finally make the booking, we were so well informed we were teaching the booking agent a thing or two.
Here are my top 5 tips to make your frequent flyer program work for you:
1) You’ll get the best bang for your buck when you cash points in for longer flights and business class flights. Short flights, hotels, and merchandise offer poor value.
2) Read the fine print. Learn how it can help you; learn how it can hurt you.
3) Turn to others who have more experience than you to guide the way. Thank you, Flyer Talk!
4) Taxes and fees matter and, with a bit of flexibility, you can avoid most of them.
5) Keep an open mind. While Brussels fit perfectly in our flight plan, we were hoping to land in Paris. Guess what, it’s just a short train ride away!