When people learn that I travel the world for free, they want to know how I do it and how they can too. My first response is to find out where they want to go before recommending a particular tactic or strategy. And while some people have the time and inclination to travel to the furthest reaches of the planet, many others are more focused on domestic travel opportunities.
The benefits and challenges of domestic award travel
Traveling for free within the United States is easier than foreign travel in some ways but much more difficult in others. Obviously the distances are shorter than overseas destinations and the miles required are fewer, but there are some drawbacks.
For starters, Americans earn a tremendous amount of points and miles and they tend to spend them close to home. This means that domestic award seats are often harder to find than international ones. Another challenge is finding value in short-haul award flights. There is no point in spending 25,000 miles on a domestic award if you are only taking a short flight that costs $200. In contrast, 50,000 miles is usually all that is necessary for a coach award to Europe that may cost $1,000 to $2,000.
Maximizing domestic awards
Fortunately, there are a few advanced tricks to find award value in domestic flights. First, consider Southwest Airline’s Rapid Rewards, JetBlue, and Virgin America’s programs. Since their systems tie award redemptions to the current sales price of their flights, inexpensive flights require fewer points. For example, Southwest Rapid Rewards points are worth 1.8 cents towards their lowest fare class, earning a companion pass doubles that value on both paid and award flights.
Another system that is distance based is the British Airway’s Avios program. Obviously, they do not operate any domestic flights, but they are a partner with American Airlines. Only 9,000 Avios points are necessary for round trip flights between cities less than 650 miles apart. Flights of 651-1,151 miles are 15,000 points roundtrip, and 1,152-2,000 mile journeys require only 20,000 points round trip. When British Airways offered its Chase credit card with a 100,000 point sign up bonus, those points alone were worth enough for eleven round trips between destinations within 650 miles of each other such as Atlanta and Chicago, or Miami and Grand Cayman.
Another great aspect about this strategy is that American is renowned for having the best domestic award availability of all the major carriers. In fact, when redeeming awards on American Airlines using British Airways points, their system often shows nine award seats available even on smaller region jets.
A bonus factor that makes this already solid strategy even better is that both British Airways and Southwest are transfer partners within Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program. Consequently, every time a cardholder uses Chase Sapphire Preferred ® card (which currently offers a $400 sign up bonus), Ink Bold, Ink Plus, J.P. Morgan Select, or Palladium cards, they are potentially earning Southwest or American Airlines awards at a great rate. In fact, even points earned from the standard Sapphire or Freedoms card can be transferred to miles if the cardholder also holds one of the other Ultimate Rewards cards mentioned.
Thus by having multiple cards and carefully planning how I earn and spend airline miles, I can travel the country (and world) for free based solely on the benefits of my credit cards.