How to score free flights and maximize frequent flyer benefits…

Travel has changed tremendously in the past few decades. Since 1987, world travel has tripled, with 1 billion trips a year being taken internationally, and a whopping 3.1 trillion air miles flown in 2012 alone. People are flying more and farther. In 1987, the farthest flight was Sydney to San Francisco (7,417 miles via pan Am), and now, it’s newark to Singapore (9,534 miles via Singapore Airlines).

You’d think that with the surge in oil prices and the ever-increasing fees airlines are tacking on, the cost of air travel would’ve significantly increased in the past few decades. But surprisingly, compared to the 80s, the cost of flying has actually gone down significantly. US domestic tickets are 40 percent lower than they were in 1980. International flights are also down. A New York to Hong Kong flight in 1987 was US$1,509. Now? US$863, a 43 percent decrease.

Still, when you add up all the other factors that a trip entails, getting a break on an airfare is a bonus. No one wants to pay more than they have to for travel. Here are some of my favorite ways to travel more for less:

Be a frequent flyer

I have a friend who always asks for free upgrades every time he flies. He’s not a frequent flyer nor is he signed up for any of the mileage programs. The number of upgrades he’s gotten? Zero. Airlines have a hierarchy of who gets freebies and if you’re not at least a member, your chances are next to zero. While i wouldn’t advocate buying a more expensive ticket simply to accrue miles, you can be smart about it by opening  up branded credit cards, buying from airline partners and even answering surveys. Some cards, especially US-based ones (for those who maintain a US address), have very generous programs where you’ll receive a sign-up bonus as well as a second bonus for spending a certain amount within a pre-set length of time. Do this twice and you’ll easily have enough for a north America to Asia return ticket. Knowledgeable flyers on forums such as Flyertalk speak of “churning”, the term used for the process of opening a credit card, getting the bonus, then closing the card and repeating this every 60 days or so. Some even go so far as to buy coins from the state treasury (using a loophole to count this as a purchase, not as a cash advance) to avoid having to actually spend any money whatsoever. While that’s definitely a gray area for me, it does show that there are lots of ways to accrue miles other than actually flying.

Now that you have miles, how can you best use them? Checking partner airlines is a great way to start. I had 25,000 miles on USAirways about to expire. A quick check on the internet revealed that I could cash them in on Thai Airways, a partner, for a Bangkokto nepal round-trip. So instead of a US$250 US domestic ticket, I was able to secure a US$800 ticket to an amazing destination.

Sign up for Everything

I hate getting junk email. But within that trash is the occasional gem, which is why I sign up for every newsletter from every airline I might possibly fly. Emailed advertisements give you the earliest notification of new routes or sales on a routean airline is trying to promote. I’ve gotten great deals on brand new routes, like phnompenh to Christchurch, New Zealand for less than US$400 or Saigon to Brisbane for an insanely low US$150. To lessen the spam, create a free web-based email account which you use to sign up for newsletters and have it forward to your primary email.

Tips on how to travel around the world on the cheap…

Travelers in Asia should count ourselves fortunate. While the rest of the world is bemoaning a decrease in airline comfort, nasty ancillary fees and poor customer service, 6 of the top 10 Airlines of the Year are from Asia (including Thai Airways, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines). That’s according to the latest rankings from Skytrax, using data gathered from over 18 million customers from over 100 countries.

Asian airlines also swept the top three spots amongst Best Economy Class Airline and three of four for The World’s Best Low-Cost Airlines, with AirAsia taking the number one spot for the fourth consecutive year. Yet while we have a leg up on the rest of the world, setting yourself up for the best deals still requires a bit of effort.

Be Ready to Make Decisions Fast and Early

Deals, whether they be cruises, flights or hotels, often come with tons of restrictions and the window to buy may be extremely small. So, if you want to travel well on a budget, you’ll need to be ready to make quick decisions (and have your traveling partners on speed dial!). I’ve seen amazing deals on airfares but in the 15 minutes it took to confirm the trip with a friend, the session expired and the flights were no longer available. But if you’re fast, deals are to be had. I’m happy to have snapped up free seats to Bangkok twice this year for just over USD70 return, taxes included. At times, you’ll have to make decisions fast and far in advance. The trip I booked to New Zealand (for less than USD400 return) was made eight months in advance, but that just gave me more time to meticulously plan.

Be Flexible

Another way to travel when you have more time than money is to look at alternate routings. For a recent trip to Laos, I was looking at a USD350 fare via Vietnam Airlines with a short layover in Phnom Penh. But with a bit more research, I came up with a USD137 fare, buying two separate tickets through Kuala Lumpur. Yes, I had to kill seven hours, but I was armed with music, movies and my favorite travel pillow, and the USD200 I saved paid for a few luxuries at my destination. On another flight to Africa, I was able to use my frequent flyer miles, except for one leg (Saigon to Hong Kong) where there was no availability. At the time, a one-way flight was close to USD300. Instead, I jumped on a USD70 flight to Macau before taking a cheap ferry directly to the Hong Kong airport. If you’re doing alternate routing, just be careful to factor in all the additional expenses like an overnight stay or money spent at the airport on long layovers.

Check out Social Buying

The US site Groupon started the social buying craze, generating global spinoffs. My favorite site hands down is Travelzoo.com with their legendary weekly Top 20. They even have curated deals specific to Asia. I recently went on a 14 night transatlantic cruise from Barcelona to Miami for USD399. Last year, I picked up an amazing deal for the JW Marriott in Khao Lak, Thailand for USD89 per night, including one of the most amazing breakfast buffets I’ve ever seen (madeto-order Smoothie Station!) and four  massages for the week. While I don’t stay at the Marriott very often, I still registered as a member (as I recommended in last month’s column), which means I found out about a “stay twice, get a free night”  promotion. I broke up my stay into two legs, spending a couple of nights on the gorgeous Similans lands in between, and wound up with a free night to use at any Marriott property, which made an awesome deal into an unbelievable one.

Share your best travel tips with us at travel@oivietnam.com.