Fly First Class For Free, and Other Secrets of a Travel Hacker
Every time we walk past first class on the way to our non-reclining middle coach seat in the last row next to the bathroom between two linebackers with body odor and see a child sitting comfortably with hot towelettes and warm cookies, we want to open the emergency exit and jump. While most people -- including us -- believe you need money to fly first class, self-proclaimed travel-hacker Taryn Southern insists that all it takes is a little time and a lot of savvy. Lucky for you, we’ve convinced Taryn to reveal her insider tips on working the system. Without further ado, here’s Taryn:
TS: If you’re an avid traveler like me, flying is a necessary but incredibly frustrating evil. The taxis to the airport, the lines, the delays – it’s enough to give anyone a stomach ulcer, unless you’re flying first class. For free.
Yep, you heard me right – for free. Zero. Zilch. Okay, you might have to spend $2.50 in processing fees but that doesn’t even cover half of that delicious glass of wine they hand you before you even take off. Hi, my name is Taryn Southern, and I’m an amateur travel hacker.
I know what you’re thinking – “travel hacking” sounds like something that could inevitably land you in moral purgatory, airport security limbo, or worse, jail. I only wish it were so exciting. Travel hacking is really just a strategic way of manipulating certain deals, offers, and promos to guarantee you always fly in style and on a dime. Oh, and it makes paying for a coach seat seem ludicrous.
You, too, can become a travel hacker! Here are five steps to get you started:
1. Join a Frequent Flier Program (and stick to it!):
For all business-related travel, join one airline or alliance program that best fits your needs. If you are a frequent international traveler, I recommend sticking with the OneWorld Alliance -- which includes airlines like American, British Airways, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, etc. -- as they seem to have the most reward ticket availability, longest allowed ticket holds, and lower reward redemption tiers than some programs. If you mostly take domestic trips, I now recommend going with Continental or United. Since the merger, you can transfer miles between accounts at no charge and United has a free three-day hold policy. Not to mention they now have a decent amount of last-minute reward travel availability (case in point, I found a last-minute, round trip, non-stop Business flight to Boston over Memorial Day Weekend for 50,000 miles. Not bad.)
I’m certainly not one to encourage you to apply for a dozen credit cards and incur serious credit problems, but if you’re smart and keep your eyes peeled, you can score some great mileage offers to get your mileage account going. British Airways and Chase recently offered up 100,000 miles for new card applicants (that’s enough for two round trip international first class tickets!). Look for cards with a minimum bonus of 30,000 reward points, no annual fees, and concierge services. Other perks could include lounge access, free upgrades, and more. Check out CreditCards.com for current deals or subscribe to my favorite travel hacking blog, ThePointsGuy.com.
3. Make Pals With Your Airlines’ Customer Service Reps:
While the experience of talking to airline customer service is often panic attack-inducing, there are some ways to make your calls less cringe-worthy and, hopefully, worth your while:
- Never use the regular customer service number. Only call the award travel department to reserve/make changes/complain – they are better equipped to handle frequent flier travelers and loyal members.
- Ask the customer service rep how they are doing at the beginning of the call. Be nice. Seriously, how much would it suck to be a customer service rep for an airline? Exactly!
4. Travel On Off-Peak Dates:
If you have some flexibility with your work, travel on non-peak travel days. Do your research and look up flights to a region a week or two before or after their peak days end for the airlines. You’ll still get the best weather and service, but for about half the number of miles to travel during peak times! For example, this past December, I extended my search for tickets to Japan just three days earlier than when I was hoping to leave town. I ended up snagging a $13,000 first class ticket from LA to Tokyo on Japan Airlines for only 30,000 miles – two days later, this would have cost 100,000 miles.
5. Little Things That Make a Big Difference:
It’s not all about miles and traveling first class. If you have no miles, or you’ve run out, you can still travel coach in style – here are some small things that make a big difference:
SEATS: If you have to fly in coach, you might as well snag the best seat! First, check out SeatGuru.com -- this site gives detailed breakdowns of individual seats on each aircraft -- which ones have the most legroom, movable armrests, and electrical outlets, for example. If you’re flying internationally or overnight on a non-full flight, try to grab the middle seat in an empty last row. It’s a risk, but I’ve done this three times and ended up with an entire row to myself! Make sure to call the airlines 24 hours ahead of time, however, to make sure that the flight didn’t fill up and that no one else has reserved a seat next to you.
LOUNGES: While lounges are often only available for business and/or first class passengers, sometimes they accept coach passengers (e.g., Bangkok Airways), or passengers who are gold or platinum members of the airlines (e.g., American Airlines.) If you aren’t so lucky, call the airline a week before your trip and say you would like a guest pass to try out their lounge before purchasing an annual membership. Many airlines will mail you one right away (worth up to $60 in value!)
BAG FEES: If you are traveling in business or first class, usually your check-in bags are free. So, if I only have enough miles for business or first class one way, I always book it for the first leg of the trip and save my boarding pass. When I check in for my return flight, I simply show them the first leg was a business or first-class ticket, and they always waive baggage fees on the way home.
So there you have it -- five easy tips to get you from travel slacker to travel hacker. If you’re still craving more, you can follow me on Twitter and subscribe to my blog to check out my Travel Hacking series. Happy Hacking!
Editor's note: You can also catch Taryn on StyleHaul as the host of The Broke Girl's Guide to Online Flash Sales, our weekly rundown of the best upcoming sales on sites like Gilt, Rue La La, and HauteLook. New episodes air every Monday!
May 13, 2013 - 10:34 AM