I booked 23 flights in 2019. The total cost of every single one of those flights combined was $1,667.35. That’s an average of $72.49 per flight.
Those flights included long hauls like New York City to London, Cairo to Nairobi, and Ho Chi Minh City to Lombok, just to name a few. Those 23 flights brought me to and around ten countries throughout the course of the year. Here’s how I worked the system to save every penny I could.
Flight No. 1 & 2
January 16 & 23 – jetBlue – New York City to Burlington, Vermont return
Wow, splurge. What a way to start the year. I was in New York City at the start of 2019 and needed to get back to my parents house as I was going up to Montreal to freeze my tits off with a friend. Unfortunately, small airports like Burlington are often quite expensive to get in and out of, but it’s the easiest way to get to my parents house so bite the bullet I must. Regardless, I put these flights on my jetBlue credit card – a MasterCard through Barclays – and got 3X points on each dollar spent. So this one is a quick 348 points.
Flight No. 3
January 26 – China Eastern – New York City to Shanghai to Mandalay
$123.55 + 35.000 miles
Just taking a quick peak at a New York City to Mandalay flight on the same date in 2020 Skyscanner is showing prices starting at $598. I paid 1/5th of that price and had just one layover, the lowest cost flight currently advertised has two. The 35,000 miles I used were from my gold Delta American Express which I had gotten the year previous and immediately gotten the sign up bonus on. Typically, I expect to spend about 60,000 miles on a round trip, so this was a bit over for one-way, but it was a long journey I was making.
Flight No. 4
January 31 – AirAsia – Mandalay to Bangkok
If you’ve been following along here for a while, you may know I made some silly judgements and jumped ship on Myanmar before I’d even landed. So, as a result, this flight was booked pretty last minute. AirAsia is generally a pretty cheap airline, and paying over $100 for this rather short one-way flight isn’t something I’d recommend doing. But alas, I did it.
Flight No. 5
February 6 – VietJet – Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City
Short hops around Asia (and Europe for that matter) are better to simply be paid for in cash. It’s unlikely that the western airlines with rewards programs are flying the shorter routes, and if they are, the amount you’ll pay in miles is not comparable to the low cash prices offered. Vietjet only flies to 23 destinations outside of Vietnam, which are around Asia and Australia. Vietjet does not have any credit card offers nor any partner airlines.
Flight No. 6 & 7
February 25 & February 28 – Jetstar – Ho Chi Minh City to Don Hoi return
Any flights under or around $100 I wouldn’t consider booking on points. So this one I was happy to pay cash for. Jetstar is though a member of the Oneworld alliance so I could have booked with my American Airlines points had I wanted to.
Flight No. 8
March 6 – AirAsia – Ho Chi Minh City to Kuala Lumpur to Lombok
Though I said above that AirAsia is a pretty cheap airline, here I am again paying over $100 for a flight. But, I feel o.k. about this one as it’s a decent distance with a stopover. And without any alliance program I didn’t have any points to look at spending anyways. While I might have been able to get on another airline, this price was doable for me and felt appropriate for the journey.
Flight No. 9
March 22 – AirAsia – Padang to Kuala Lumpur
When I was going through my emails to write down all the flights I’d taken this past year, I found this one and I could not figure out what it was. I knew I had not gone to Kuala Lumpur (well, I have – the photo above is me there – but that was 2016, not this past year) so, did I plan to go there and end up changing my plans? I didn’t think so but then why had I bought the flight? And finally it dawned on me, this was a throw away flight. I bought it for the purposes of entering Indonesia. In Ho Chi Minh City the flight attendants wouldn’t let me board the above flight because I didn’t have a departing flight from the country. And while you can easily get out of Indonesia by land, they don’t care. I have previously signed waivers saying that I won’t hold the airline liable if I get denied at the border, but the AirAsia ladies wouldn’t let me do that. I’d previously searched the cheapest flights in case this exact thing happened, so I was prepared and bought this on my phone in the airport. I told them that I was not going to take the flight, but they didn’t care. At immigration they did ask me for a departing flight and I had this to show them. When the immigration office asked me how I was getting from where I was landing – Lombok – to Padang, quite a distance and something tourists don’t generally do, I told him my friend had the plans and I was meeting up with him. They let me in. So, a throw away flight.
Flight No. 10
April 3 – Qatar Airways + Royal Jordanian – Bali to Doha to Amman to Cairo
$17.50 + 25,000 miles
This one was an absolute score. Bali to Cairo, as the crow flies is over 6,000 miles. It’s a trek. And as I mentioned earlier, I consider 60,000 miles to be a standard return trip, so 25,000 miles for a one-way is quite decent. On top of that, only $17.50 in fees is remarkably low. Often, even with large chunks of miles you can expect to pay around $100 in fees. And, the cherry on top, both Qatar and Royal Jordanian are extremely comfortable airlines which serve good food, have high quality customer service, and don’t nit pick things like hand baggage. I booked these on American Airlines miles which is part of the Oneworld alliance. It was a long trip, but a comfortable one.
Flight No. 11
April 19 – Egypt Air – Cairo to Nairobi
$45.60 + 30,000 miles
When a friend proposed going to Kenya, I knew I had to do it. Lions have always been a bucket list item. But the flight was going to be deadly. And then I realized I had miles to spend. So he paid full price, and I sat in the seat next to him for $45.60. I’m not mad about it. I used United points for this one, earned from my United credit card.
Flight No. 12
May 3 – Kenya Airways – Mombasa to Nairobi
This was an easy cash purchase. I was going with friends, the price was low, and the flight was short. Kenya Airways is a member of the SkyTeam Alliance which is made up of 19 member airlines. They do not though offer any credit card deals.
Flight No. 13
May 4 – Swiss Air – Nairobi to Zurich to New York City
$82.83 + 40,000 miles
Another long flight for a hell of a price – plus a good chunk of miles. I booked with United miles off a credit card I got a sign up bonus on. Gotta’ love those alliances that fly all over the world!
Flight No. 14 & 15
June 5 & 10 – Frontier Airlines – Burlington to Denver return
Ugh U.S. domestic flights are so damned expensive. This was my biggest spend of the year, in fact it was the only flight over $200 – but it was worth it to hang with a friend in Denver, plus I was shocked that there was even a direct flight from Burlington (turns out it’s seasonal). Since that flight was on Frontier, which has no alliances, I wasn’t able to even consider using miles on this one.
Flight No. 16
June 26 – Jetblue – Burlington to New York City
$5.60 + 5,500 miles
Love that flight that’s as cheap (cheaper?) as a Starbucks muffin. Or coffee I guess? These short flights can vary massively in price, so I always aim to be flexible with my dates and that’s how I end up spending close to nothing to fly. I constantly use my Jetblue card for small purchases and since there’s no annual fee I can just leave it in my wallet, so when I go to book something I have points just waiting there for me.
Flight No. 17
August 11 – United – New York City to Burlington
As great as it is to pay less than $6 for a flight makes it even more painful to pay this much for the exact same route in reverse. If I was more of a forward planner I probably could have booked that last flight as a round trip on Jetblue but alas, I am not.
Flight No. 18
August 25 – Jetblue – Burlington to New York City
And sometimes I can’t be flexible. I was on my way to England so had to bite the bullet and pay more than I wanted to. Ah well.
Flight No. 19 & 20
August 26 & December – United & Swiss Air – New York City to Washington to London and return
$0.00 + 38,843 points
Ok, phew. Feeling better about all of those over $100 spends back and forth between New York and Burlington after this one. This is the first time I booked on a non-airlines credit card points in 2019. When I signed up for my M.A. I knew I had to pay a large deposit, and since I didn’t have a UK bank account yet I’d be paying some sort of fee with money crossing borders so it may as well be a credit card fee, and with such a large payment I’d immediately get the sign up bonus. So this one was immediately free on a Chase sapphire preferred.
Flight No. 21 & 22
September 26 & 29 – Ryanair – London to Shannon return
Oh Ryanair. No miles, no credit cards, no partner airlines. Because of course. You’ve got to stay on it watching those prices, not bring lots of baggage, and not care where you sit. But Ireland is always worth it.
Flight No. 23
December 28 – Virgin Atlantic – Boston to London
$5.60 + 25,000 miles
O.K. I did have to transfer a few miles from my mom’s account to make this one work, so that means I paid more like $50. But that was still better than paying for a transatlantic flight in cash. This one was on Delta miles, accrued from the credit card and earlier flights. And mom.
And that’s my 23 booked flights. Obviously, getting on and off planes happened more often, with transfers, which is one of my my tips for booking….
The Credit Cards
jetBlue – Barclays
jetBlue credit cards run though Barclays. There are two offers currently available.
I have the base level card which does not have an annual fee (I hate paying annual fees). The sign up bonus is 10,000 points after a simple spend of $1,000 in the first 90 days after signing up. After that you’ll get 3X points on all jetBlue purchases, 2X points at grocery stores and restaurants, and 1X on all other purchases. I like this one because without an annual fee I can leave it in my wallet using it only occasionally, not think about it, and when I go to book a flight back to my parents points are there waiting for me.
**This is a card I currently have.
The jetBlue plus card has a $99 annual fee which is not waived the first year like many others. The sign-up spend is the same $1,000 as the basic above, but with the plus you’ll also need to pay your annual fee upfront, all of which earns you a total of 40,000 miles. From then on you’ll get 6X points on jetBlue purchases – double the basic rewards, and the same 2X points at grocery stores and restaurants, and 1X on all other purchases as above. The Plus card also gives you an automatic 5,000 points on each card anniversary as well as a free checked bag for yourself and up to three others on the same booking.
Delta – American Express
Delta is known as one of the top airlines in terms of customer appreciation and quality of services. It is very often the airline that frequent fliers choose to be loyal to due to its many perks.
Currently, Delta flies to all six continents and service airports in 60 different countries. And where Delta does not go, its alliance members likely will. Delta is a part of the Sky Team which incorporates 19 airlines. So when you book using your Delta miles you can search on a single platform, see flights across all of those partner airlines, and seamlessly book without spending extra dollars or miles.
Currently Delta runs its cards through American Express and has four levels.
The blue Delta card is the only one which comes with no annual fee. It comes with a sign-up bonus of 10,000 miles after $500 spent in the first three months of having the card. The card gives you 2X points on Delta purchases and at restaurants in the U.S. and 1X points on all other purchases.
The gold Delta card is what I had. It comes with one of those tricky little perks that I love – no annual fee for the first year. After that the fee is $95. However, you can cancel your card before the fee kicks in and all miles you accumulated stick with you in your Delta account. This one comes with a sign-up bonus that gets you 30,000 miles after spending $1,000 within the first three months of having the card. I easily succeeded at that and then quickly was able to start booking flights. You’ll also get one free checked bag on all Delta flights booked with the card. Each Delta purchase gets you 2X points and everywhere else you’ll get 1X points.
**I have had this card but no longer do.
The platinum comes with a lot of perks as well as a decently sized annual fee. Currently, that fee is $195, but if you apply after the end of January 2020 that will go up to $250. However, after $1,000 of spending in the first three months of having the card you’ll get 35,000 miles as well as 5,000 medallion qualification miles (MQM). I have to be honest here, I am not a person who cares or even understands what medallion qualification miles are, but there are people who care deeply for their status not only for upgrades but also to boast to their friends about. If that’s you, go at it girl. There are other perks on this card, like an annual companion pass, free checked luggage, and 2X points when spending on Delta.
The reserve is the top of the tier for Delta Amex. Its annual fee is currently at $450, going up at the end of January to $550. With a spend of $3,000 in the first three months you’ll get 40,000 miles automatically as well as 10,000 MQM. Other perks include access to lounges, an annual companion pass, concierge services, free checked bags, and 2X miles on Delta purchases.
AirAsia – HongLeong Bank
I know absolutely nothing about the AirAsia credit cards except for some simple information I’ve looked up for the purpose of this post. I have never applied for, nor used any of them. Backed by a foreign bank, they are not something I plan to go after, but if you live in a part of the world where AirAsia is a common airline to be flying, they might be worth looking into.
The gold card lists that it has a welcome as well as quarterly gift but I can’t seem to find what those are. Purchases earn you 6X points everywhere and there is no annual fee the first year, though information on what the fee is after that is not readily available.
With the same perks as the gold card above, the platinum also offers priority check-in and free in-flight wifi. None of those perks appeal to me even the tiniest bit, but to each their own.
Jetstar – Macquarie Bank
Jetstar is owned by Qantas, so while it is a budget airline, you can be sure it is of quality and that it’s reliable. They fly to nine countries which are concentrated around the Pacific. And, as a part of Qantas, Jetstar belongs to the Oneworld alliance so flights can be booked through all 13 member airlines.
The cards, which are through the Australian Macquarie Bank, have two levels. I’ve never used them but wouldn’t hesitate to apply if I still lived in that part of the world.
The card has varying annual fees dependent on which program you are a member of – Qantas or Jetstar. If you’re not already a member of one of the programs you’ll need to pay a $30 annual membership fee on top of the cards annual fee. The card fees however don’t go above $69. So the highest annual rate you could be looking at is only $99 – which is also reduced in your first membership year. The membership fee is quickly made up for with a $200 Jetstar voucher, however when comparing with other credit cards listed above, that’s not an impressive margin. Of course, you can keep earning points on purchases, though the amount depends again on if you are a Jetstar or Qantas member, but either way there is a cap to your annual rewards.
The platinum Jetstar card comes with the same $200 voucher but has higher annual membership fees, capping at $169 after your first year – compared to $99 above. The main difference here is that the caps on your points earnings are higher, however they do still exist.
American Airlines – Citi
American Airlines is part of the Oneworld alliance, and as such points or miles earned through it can be used on all 13 partner airlines. However, American itself flies to 55 countries all around the world including North and South America, Asia, Europe, and Australia.
This lowest level of card offers 10,000 miles plus a $50 statement credit when you pend $500 in the first three months of having the card. This card has no annual fee, ever, and gets you 2X points on American spends as well as at grocery stores. You’ll get 1X points everywhere else.
The next tier up, the platinum select gives you 50,000 bonus miles after spending $2,500 within the first three months of opening the card. There is a $99 annual fee, but it’s waived for the first year after opening. You’ll get 2X points at gas stations and grocery stores as well as any American flight purchases. Then you get 1X points everywhere else. You’ll also get a free checked bag for yourself as well as up to 4 others (booked on the card) on domestic American flights.
**I have had this card but no longer do.
$5,000 in purchases on the executive card within the first 90 days gets you 50,000 miles. From there you’ll earn 2X miles on American purchases and 1X miles everywhere else. The card also gives you a credit to apply for TSA precheck, a free domestic checked bag for yourself and up to 8 others, plus an Admirals Club – the American Airlines lounge – membership. There is a $450 fee on this card which kicks into effect immediately.
This card is targeted at business owners, but currently is running a pretty great limited time offer which waives the $99 annual fee for the first year and gives you 70,000 miles after spending $4,000 in the first four months of account opening. From there on you’ll start earning 2X points at gas stations, on car rentals, American flights, and a few utility services plus 1X points everywhere else.
United – Chase
We all hate United, and it’s fair. But their miles can be used beyond just their own rubbish airline. As a member of the star alliance, you can use United miles on any of the 26 partner airlines, like I did for my Egypt Air flight from Cairo to Nairobi. And, if you can deal with United’s quite crappy customer service, their planes will get you to almost 200 destinations in 75 countries around the world.
Their card program is run through Chase and offers two levels.
The explorer card gives you 40,000 bonus miles when you spend $2,000 in three months. Then, if you spend $8,000 more in the following three months (or $10,000 total in the first six months combined) you’ll get an additional 25,000 miles. So sign up here if you’ve got big purchases coming your way. You’ll get 2X miles on hotel and restaurant spends as well as on United purchases, plus 1X miles everywhere else. The card also gives you a free checked bag, priority boarding (I’ve never understood why that’s something people want, but here it is), plus two United club passes each year.
**I have had this card but no longer do.
The club card offers a 50,000 mile sign up bonus after you spend $3,000 in the first three months. There is a $450 annual fee which is never waived. You’ll earn 2X miles on United purchases and 1.5 miles everywhere else. Other perks include unlimited club access with United and other star alliance members, as well as two free checked bags on all flights.
Frontier Airlines – Barclays
Keep in mind that Frontier does not have any alliances, so miles you earn with them will need to be used with them. So, if you live somewhere that Frontier flies from, this could be a good card to choose, otherwise it probably isn’t.
There is only one current offer for a Frontier card. With a $500 spend in the first 90 days plus the annual fee (never waived) of $79, you’ll get 40,000 miles. From there you earn 5X points on money you spend with Frontier, 3X at restaurants and 1X everywhere else. You do have to continue making purchases at least once every 6 months otherwise miles expire.
The sapphire preferred has a $95 annual fee from day one. But with a spend of $4,000 in the first three months of signing up for the card you’ll get 60,000 miles towards travel. Points are 1X per dollar except for on travel and dining where you’ll earn 2X points.
**This is a card I currently have.
While the annual fee is significantly more on the sapphire reserve, $450, the rewards are quite high as well. The sign up reward though is in fact lower, a $4,000 spend gets you 50,000 points. But you’ll also receive an annual $300 travel credit plus 3X points on spends on travel and dining.
I’m kind of in a fight with Capital One after using them for my checking accounts for years and them, with no warning, changing all of my accounts and getting rid of all the benefits that had me there in the first place. But, technically their credit cards are separate. So while I got rid of my checking account I still have a credit card. Currently they offer two tiers of travel rewards cards.
At the lower end of the options, the venture one card has no annual fee ever and offers 1.25 miles on every dollar spent everywhere. A sign up bonus gives you 20,000 miles after spending $1,000 in the first three months after opening the card.
The venture card offers a sign up bonus of 50,000 miles after a $3,000 spend in the first three months. You’ll have the $95 annual fee waived the first year and always get 2X miles on every single dollar you spend.
**This is a card I currently have
I have so often been shocked when I’ve heard prices people are paying for their flights. But I understand this isn’t something everyone things about compulsively, so here are some tips to getting the best deals – from someone who does think about it compulsively, both in terms of actually booking, and how to use your miles and points to help keep the dollars in your own wallet.
Let flights dictate your dates
Not the other way around. I get this is a tricky one for you Americans with like 0.001 vacation days. And that sucks, but the political problems in America are for another time. And just know, most countries don’t have access to the same credit card schemes we do. Anyways, back to my point, as much as you can, be flexible with dates. And search that way, if leaving a day earlier and coming back a day later is $300 cheaper, you can spend $150 per night on a beautiful accommodation and get two extra days away! And the difference in dates is very often that much, if not more.
Like I mentioned with dates. But there are other ways to be flexible. Another is layovers. I know it’s pretty lame if you have the aforementioned 0.001 vacation days to spend half of one of those waiting in an airport, but maybe it ultimately means having the wiggle room in the vacation budget to get a nicer hotel room or rent a car or buy a super fancy souvenir. Then is it worth it?
Other ways to be flexible can include which airport you use, many major cities have multiples, often cheaper flights go to less convenient locations. But likely the difference in flights is significantly more than getting a car into the city from the farther away one.
And, while it may seem shocking, consider being flexible with your destination. You might end up somewhere really bloody marvelous cause the flights were cheap. That’s how I ended up in Toulouse, France once upon a time and it’s one of the best cities I’ve been to.
Don’t be afraid to cancel cards
You can always, always cancel a credit card. If you’ve gotten your sign up bonus and are going to have to pay an annual fee the following year, you can cancel and retain your miles. Plus, if you call to say you want to cancel the company may very well offer you some incentive to stay on. Whether that be a chunk of miles, another annual fee waived, or something else, give them a call and see what they say before deciding.
Always pay your bills
Come on, you’re an adult. I don’t know why anyone is in debt for anything but a house or an education. If you don’t have money to go on a vacation, you don’t get to go on a vacation, it’s that simple. So, use credit cards to rack up miles. And then pay them off dammit. In fill and on time. And o.k. sometimes we forget, so if that happens, call. Likely if by the time you call you’ve fully paid your card and previously have no late payments they’ll wave the fee and let you move on. Phew. Also, if you don’t pay bills on time, you’ll most likely lose any points you earned during that billing cycle. So be an adult.
Know the prices
I love skyscanning. Yes, it’s a verb. So if you’re thinking about going somewhere next year, start looking at flights now, get an idea of what the range is. That way, when you are finally ready to book you know how much you should be paying. When you’re looking, look both at cash buys and mile buys.
Plan new credit cards around big spends
Like I mentioned above, when I knew I had to pay a large grad school deposit, I went and get a new credit card so I’d get the sign up bonus. That’s far from the only time I’ve done that. Often times the holidays are an expensive time of year, so also a great time to get a new card. New baby? New house? New business? Get a new credit card.
O.K. that was a mouthful. But hopefully it’ll help you. Good luck out there – get swiping!
Did you sign up for a card or book an awesome flight with impressive miles? Got any tips I didn’t mention? Let me know in the comments!
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