If you don’t travel that often or are still in the “dreaming” stage of your adventures, you may be tempted to write off the idea of earning Frequent Flyer Miles or striving for mileage awards.

Watch out — if you do that, you may also be writing off the real possibility of a free flight sometime in your future. Even independent travelers who are not loyal to any particular airline can benefit from a careful mileage-earning strategy.

Sign up for mileage programs now, not later

With the idea of free flying in mind, here are seven tactics you can use to get closer to that no-cost flight to the destination of your choice.

  • Sign up for mileage programs now, not later. Don’t wait until you start flying a lot to join a Frequent Flyer program. Join right away, and you can start gaining miles even without flying.

    Further, sign up for a program whenever you fly a new airline, even if you don’t expect to fly that airline again. You may be able to use the miles for something else, and you may be given slightly better treatment just for being a member.

  • Book flights on the airline’s website, not a third-party site. Yes, you should shop around first! with Kayak and any other online search engine you prefer! but when it comes time to book, do it directly on the airline’s site. You’ll usually earn extra miles for doing so, and in the event of a disruption in your schedule, the airline may subtly offer you more support than it does to other passengers.
  • Join the email newsletter of the program(s) you’re a member of. Most of the time, you can quickly scan the weekly mailing and see if anything applies to you. Once in a while, it will be worth your attention, and you’ll be glad you spent the time.
  • Take advantage of free bonuses
  • Take advantage of free bonuses. From surveys to additional email signups, there are lots of free miles to be found in any given month. I earn at least 30,000 miles a year from spending a few minutes each week looking around for the latest promotions. True, it can be slow-going at times, but when the time comes to cash in the miles for a flight, I realize it’s worth it.
  • In addition to the free, “regular” bonuses, look for extra-special bonuses. From time to time, a big opportunity to earn a lot of miles comes up. For example, last month Delta offered a 20,000 mile bonus to anyone who scheduled and completed a 30-minute appointment at a downtown office. The appointment? Well, it was for a hair-loss consultation. Yes, really. I dutifully went in for the uneventful appointment, and now have 20,000 extra miles as a result.
  • Avoid expiration dates by maintaining some kind of activity every year. Nothing’s worse than working hard at earning miles for years, only to see them expire before you can use them. Thankfully, there’s an easy way around it, because most programs simply require that you have some kind of activity every 18 months (or sometimes even every two or three years). Even if you manually transfer 100 miles in, your total balance will be extended another 18 months or whatever the airline’s expiration period is.
  • Carefully consider an airline-sponsored credit card. The last thing I want to do is advise anyone to go into debt, so if you’re not into credit cards or don’t spend much money, this strategy probably isn’t for you. But if you are out of school and use credit responsibly, an airline-sponsored card can seriously help you rack up the mileage. Even better, many of them offer a big bonus (as much as 25,000 miles, or enough for a free domestic flight) just for signing up.

    Here are links to a few that I recommend:

    If you live in the U.K. or elsewhere, there are cards available to you too! but you’ll need to do your own research. And by the way, none of the above are affiliate links — those are the cards I personally use and recommend to my friends.

Which program should you join?

frequent flyer
This is the biggest question for most travelers new to the Frequent Flyer game. My answer is to join several. Naturally, you may want to sign up for the program run by the airline you fly most often, but you should also think carefully about which program meets your own travel needs.

Because many programs allow you to earn and redeem on multiple airlines, the best program for you may not be in your home country. For example, even while I was living in West Africa for several years, I still did most of my mileage earning on U.S. carriers. As a general rule, U.S. carriers like American and Delta tend to have somewhat more generous Frequent Flyer opportunities for travelers than European or Asian airlines do.

(Conversely, I prefer to fly on Asian airlines, because they almost always have better service! which shows that the best airlines and the best Frequent Flyer programs are not always the same.)

In short, remember that there’s no penalty for joining a program and never using it! so it’s always to your advantage to sign up if there’s any chance you’ll benefit from it.

The rewards

I’ve used my mileage awards to fly in the famed Upper Class cabin on Virgin Atlantic, to get back and forth between Europe and the U.S. several times, to get to Mongolia from Japan, and to go to Hawaii! just to name the “greatest hits.” I’ve also used several other, more typical redemptions to travel within the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

Even if you can’t do all of those things right now, don’t get discouraged — if you get started sooner rather than later, you can achieve one of these goals — or even better, one of your own travel goals.

The miles are out there waiting for you, and there’s a free flight at the end of them somewhere. If you have any specific questions, please post them in the comments section and I’ll try to reply whenever I get internet access from my current location — these days, it could be anywhere.

Good luck!

Editor’s note: Chris has just touched on some of his strategies for cheaper flying. You can get 10% off his ebook, the Unconventional Guide to Discount Airfare, by using the coupon code “indietravel“. We reviewed it several weeks ago.

Your thoughts on "On your way to a free flight"

  • Hello-Another option is to convert to cash your orphan miles from your loyalty programs at www.loyaltymatch.com and use the cash to top up your preferred frequent flier program to help you get free flights quicker. I am president of LoyaltyMatch and we are helping travelers from over 50 countries fly free quicker! Cheers, Brad Ball

    on September 18, 2008 at 4:54 am Reply
  • We just took our first flight with Malaysia Air. By signing up for their frequent flyer programme online, we each earned an extra 10,000 miles. Not a bad start to the "Enrich" collection.

    on September 17, 2008 at 8:01 pm Reply
  • Those tips were amazing, and I'm not just saying that- I have seriously never heard of or thought of a lot of them.

    on September 18, 2008 at 10:41 am Reply
  • I am an AA advantage member, and it drives me crazy now that they have revised their miles rules. I'd have to fly for years to get the kind of miles needed to actually fly anywhere decent on them. Christine from AlmostFearless.com is giving hers away since she is frustrated by the rules

    on September 25, 2008 at 10:57 pm Reply
  • I've heard AA's really bad. Never used them, but the almost fearless competition is worth checking out if you'd like some points. Thinking of free flights, I've just seen the easyJet MasterCard gives you a free easyJet flight worth up to 40 quid if you spend 250 in the first three months...plus they have points bonuses. Great for credit card users in the UK.

    on September 26, 2008 at 6:38 pm Reply
  • Hi all, thanks for the feedback. FYI, AA is not necessarily that bad -- I tend to think that frustration like that is more a reflection of the industry in general, since most airlines have tightened the restrictions on awards flights over the past couple of years. AA is one of the larger carriers in North America, so people tend to focus their frustration on them. For what it's worth, I've earned nearly 100k AA miles so far this year and don't usually have a problem redeeming them (although it does require some research and phoning, of course). Service-wise, AA is not so great at all... but that's a different story. Good luck!

    on September 27, 2008 at 12:36 am Reply
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