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How to fly for free (well, almost)

Everyone earns at least a few air miles when they take a flight. Learn how to use them intelligently

travel Updated: May 16, 2011 10:20 IST

There is no such thing as a free flight. Unless of course you jump off a cliff or a tall building and fly from there for a few seconds before you land with a crash.

Now that we've put the morbidity behind us, here is the good news. For a fairly regular traveller, air miles (or hotel award points or credit card points) can go a long way in saving on ticket prices or upgrading to a premium class. Air miles also work for you by getting you discounts on car rentals or magazine subscriptions. They could get you special rates at hotels and special talktime rates on a preferred cellular network.

So while you can't get from Rajabhai Tower, Mumbai, to Big Ben, London, without spending any money, what you could do with your booty of air miles is obtain a 'free ticket' and only pay approximately R23,000 in surcharges and taxes instead of the full fare of approximately R46,000. Here's how to make the most of your miles.

In the Air
Sign up for a privilege membership programme even if you don't fly a lot. Remember that whenever you do fly, you accumulate miles. It's like putting loose change in a jar - over a period of time it amounts to a significant value.

You can sign up for the privilege programme of however many airlines you want. It's free and doesn't come with any obligation. After you become a member, read the info pack carefully. There is a wealth of information that can apprise you of how you could earn miles while shopping or eating or at the movies or even talking on the phone.

If you travel a lot on work between major metros, instruct your travel desk to always try and book you on your preferred airline. Remember that airline loyalty is an advantage because instead of having miles scattered across airlines, you can accumulate them for your preferred airline. Sometimes, it is worth sticking to your preferred airline even if the ticket is a little more expensive. It could mean significant savings in the future when you redeem your miles.

If your preferred airline doesn't fly a certain route, try to fly an airline that partners with yours to still earn miles.

On The Ground
There are many ways to earn air miles without even stepping onto an airplane:

Credit cards:
Credit cards that have partnerships with airlines give you miles for money spent - for e.g., 2 to 4 miles for every R100 spent on the card. So get a credit card that is co-branded with your airline. You'll be surprised at how many miles you'll accumulate every month.

Besides, the partnership also gives you perks like extra baggage allowance, lounge access and upgrade and discount vouchers. But remember that these come with an expiry date. If you can't use them, gift them to someone. Sometimes, when you buy tickets from the airline using your card, you get bonus miles too.

Most airlines have a tie-up with one or more chains and staying at these hotels can earn you miles. Sometimes, if you are a member with the hotel's privilege programme, you might be able to change hotel points into miles.

Mobile networks:
Minutes spent talking on the phone could add up to a air miles if an understanding exists between the cellular operator and airline.

Stores and restaurants sometimes have tie-ups with airlines and spending money at these means earning miles. Of course, you can't let your choice of airline decide where you stay, what you eat, or where you shop, but it is smart to carry your airline privilege card with you always so you can flash it and earn miles.

Also, don't send promotional emails from your airline to the spam folder - there are often superb offers available.

Spending Air Miles
Once again, study what your privilege programme offers. You will be amazed at how much more you can redeem from your miles other than flights.

While redeeming miles for a flight, find out how much a flight will cost you in money or miles. Sometimes, it could make better sense to buy a ticket and earn miles on a short haul flight even if you have enough miles to redeem it.

You can just pay the basic fare in miles, taxes need hard cash. So use your miles when the savings are significant.

You need to plan ahead to redeem tickets. Most flights have a certain quota for award tickets, and during peak season these get snapped up. Also remember that when your miles are about to expire, so are the miles of other members so there is a crazy rush to book tickets then.

You can also use your miles to upgrade yourself into business or first. And you can also redeem an economy ticket, pay an extra cash amount and upgrade yourself to business.

So with the holidays coming up, take time to sift through and organise your miles, and you'll be amazed at how much you'll be able to save in the coming months.

Managing Miles
Here's a mind-boggling stat: There are nearly 300 million airline frequent flyer members worldwide with a combined booty of approximately 10 trillion outstanding miles. These are valued at about $570 billion. The GDP of Switzerland is about $350 billion.

Most of these miles disintegrate into nothingness when they expire. It's one of those clauses that airlines include to encourage you to redeem miles.

Generally, people have more than one frequent flyer programme. or your family members may have individual accounts with airlines. So, trying to keep track of miles and expiry dates can be hard.

But there's a simpler solution - online services that offer to track your miles and points from other programmes. While you'll have to first enter the login and passwords of every privilege programme you are a member of, once you do this, you'll have all your balances consolidated on one interface and be able to see the amount of points you have, and when they are going to expire.

One of the better online services is AwardWallet (, a semi-free site that lets you enter as many accounts as you want but shows the expiration dates for only three if you want to use it for free. Should you decide to pay, the beauty is that you can decide how much (or how little) you want to pay.