Probably the single most expensive purchase the would-be backpacker has to make is a plane ticket to Europe. For shorter backpacking trips, this can be well over a quarter of the overall cost.
There are a number of strategies for finding cheap airfare, many of which are covered in our flights section. However, the most reliable way to spend the least amount of money on your flight is to book it with frequent flier miles. Booking with miles can save you hundreds, if not more.
How much cheaper is it?
Since you’re using miles, you’re only paying the taxes on the flight, which can result in tickets for under $100.
Take this sample scenario, we picked a random airport in the US and Europe (Denver – Dublin) and calculated the cost of using miles versus cash for a ~2 month round-trip ticket.
Just checking online prices, we found tickets available for about $1,000.
Clearly, prices will vary based on time of year, and the airports you choose, but this should give you an idea of how an expensive ticket can be relatively cheap with miles.
One of the main benefits of using frequent flyer miles, is that the cost in miles is much less sensitive to fluctuations in market prices. While there’s some correlation between a ticket cost in dollars and the amount of miles it requires, mileage prices generally stay pretty constant.
Which can mean that a ticket that’s very expensive due to limited seat availability, might be available using miles for the basic mileage rate.
Now let’s take a look at using miles to purchase the same flight. With the same dates and cities, we found a ticket that costs under $100 in taxes for the cost of 60,000 frequent flier miles.
Ok, yes, that is a lot of miles. Unless you’re a business traveler, it’s unlikely to build up that many miles within a reasonable time frame by just taking flights.
However, there are a number of techniques to obtaining a sizable flyer mile balance. If you’re willing to put in a little legwork ahead of time, you can get 50,000 – 100,000 miles without paying too much money. In fact, there are entire communities online devoted to the art and science of accumulating frequent flyer miles.
The most basic and easiest tactic is to apply for airline credit cards with substantial flyer mile bonuses. Most airlines have deals with credit card companies that will provide 50k+ miles for signing up for their credit card and meeting a minimum spending requirement.
Generally, these cards have an annual fee, but in most cases this is waved for the first year. The basic strategy is to sign up for a card, meet the spending requirement to get the miles and then cancel the card before you have to pay an annual fee.
Obviously, this requires some planning and organization to make sure you’re able to meet the spending requirement and don’t get charged an annual fee, but it does work. In about a 10 month period, I personally accumulated over 200,000 miles between a couple different airlines using this method.
If you’re interested in different ways to gain miles for cheap, take a look at Flyertalk’s Credit Card forum, or some frequent flier blogs like View from the Wing, Million Mile Secrets, or The Points Guy for ideas on which programs to sign up for, how to generate spending, and how to redeem your miles effectively.