How Our Family of 3 Will Fly Free for the Next 2 Years

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Boy playing with toy plane in airplane
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In our household, air travel usually plays the role of sacrificial lamb on our budgeting altar. Most years, we're lucky to get up in the big blue skies once a year for a family gathering or vacation. Yes, the price is probably well worth it to sit in a chair at 30,000 feet and arrive on the other side of the country in mere hours, but that doesn't make a $500 ticket any easier for our budget to swallow.

Thanks to well-timed credit card promotions, that all changes this year. For the next 20 months, our family of three will be flying for free (or very close to it). Here's how we became travel hackers.

It's All About the Points

Southwest Airlines (LUV) offers a frequent traveler program that allows qualified members to bring a companion on any flight flight, free of charge. To obtain this Companion Pass status, a traveler must either fly 100 qualified one-way flights or earn 110,000 points in its loyalty program within a calendar year. After reaching either quota, the status is active through the current year and the entire following calendar year.

We went for points. At the end of last year, Southwest ran a introductory promo for its personal and business cards (with annual fees ranging from $69 to $99) which offered 50,000 points for spending $2,000 in the first three months. I applied for a personal card in November and a business card in January. We put all of our day-to-day expenses on the first card until we crossed the $2,000 hurdle in January, at which point we started using our second card exclusively, always making sure to pay off the balance each month. Remember: No credit card promotion -- no matter how good -- is worth going into debt for.

After fulfilling each card's promotional spending requirements and earning the initial 104,000 points, it took another two months to earn the remaining 6,000 points through regular spending and a few larger reimbursable business expenses. We were awarded Companion Pass status earlier this month. I designated my wife as my companion, which means she can fly free on any flight I book through the end of 2015.

Those 110,000 points we earned to qualify for companion status should cover the cost of at least five round trips for me, plus any additional points we'll earn through regular spending over the next year. Our daughter, now 16 months old, flies free for another eight months as a lap child, after which we'll use points that my wife accrued by getting a card during the promotion.

Other Opportunities

The Southwest promotion associated with opening new credit cards is no longer running, but it does pop back up fairly regularly. And there are plenty of other ways to land free flights. Each airline has its own credit cards and loyalty reward systems. Or if you'd rather not be tied to a specific airline, the Barclaycard (BCS) Arrival World Mastercard and Chase (JPM) Sapphire Preferred also offer great introductory promotions for rewards that can be used toward any travel purchase. The trick is to find promotions that cost little (in the way of annual fees and minimum spends) while netting the largest amount of points or miles. And if the deal includes status upgrades like priority seating, lounge access or companion passes, all the better.

While we're big believers in getting the most out of travel rewards, we'd be remiss if we didn't emphasize two cardinal rules when it comes to credit cards. One: Don't spend more money for the sake of any promotion. Two: Pay off your credit card balance in full every month. Follow those bits of advice, and the sky's the limit -- or whatever cruising altitude your free ticket affords.

Joanna and Johnny are the writing duo behind OurFreakingBudget.com, a personal finance site documenting the joys, pains and realities of living on a budget.


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judyschutzman

Had a friend fly from Detroit to our home in San Francisco several years ago using Southwest. Bragged he saved $93. Took him 14 hours and San Francisco was his 5th stop. We have only flown on Southwest once and once was enough!

May 01 2014 at 4:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to judyschutzman's comment
markrlv

Cannot be true. Southwest does not book 5-stop flights. Go to their web site and put in Detroit to SFO. Show me just one 5-stop flight. Extremely unlikely in IRROPS.

May 15 2014 at 5:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Richard

Used to fly Southwest; got really tired of being herded like so much cattle on to the plane, trying to find an empty seat that wasn't in the middle, going to 2nd tier airports (Midway instead of Ohare; Love instead of Dallas) and saving a lousy 20 bucks on a flight is just not worth the aggravation ... so i use my airline credit card, get free baggage, advanced boarding, preferred seating, and even better, guaranteed seat assignments. Bye Southwest; never again !

April 30 2014 at 1:23 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Richard's comment
markrlv

You might have heard that Southwest no longer does the open call seating. You are assigned a boarding number. Much more organized than most carriers that do the ZONE thing. Note that 2nd tier airports are also smaller and have fewer delays. But, if Midway is not where you want to go, you probably should book on the airline that will take you to O'Hare. I check these things BEFORE I book.

May 15 2014 at 5:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
kate

Don't you have to book travel way in advance if you are using points or miles? And they are holding a 16 month-old on their lap for another 8 months? :o

April 30 2014 at 1:01 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
ggblank1603

Nothing is free

April 30 2014 at 12:24 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
kcarthey

And with my luck, I'll get the third seat in the row and have to hear that kid screeming the entire time of the trips. Or worse, I'll have the seat in front where the brat can get her jollies by kicking the back of it consistantly.

I'd pay premium if airlines had separate sections for kids. I'm sure a lot of adults felt the same way when I was a kid as well.

April 30 2014 at 11:59 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
cmck004

The IRS will be knocking on their door, after this line
"it took another two months to earn the remaining 6,000 points through regular spending and a few larger reimbursable business expenses."

April 30 2014 at 10:59 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
cigary43

There is actual plan as to how you can use these rewards cards to pay for your trips and we've been doing it for years. Starwood is another card ( AMEX) that lets you accrue points for hotel rooms so we combine airline points with hotel points and voila'.....vacations for free and this includes points for rental cars. One has to be diligent to ensure that you pay off your debt but if you do this right....you travel on the CC's dime...this also includes cruises as well.

April 30 2014 at 10:46 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
HiBarbRayAndMeg

Someone mentioned the airlines are broke... Which means this person has been living in a cave.. Most airlines are making record profits while their perspective stocks are hitting new highs. There are many promotional deals on most credit cards, it requires a credit score above 750 to garner these deals. And then you have to spend 1-3 thousand dollars in the first 90 days of receiving card to qualify.

April 30 2014 at 10:43 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
sjk1335

That's great and I can't get a ticket or an upgrade to fly to California with my United miles.

April 30 2014 at 10:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to sjk1335's comment
judyschutzman

You must be waiting until the last minute. Over the past 10 months we have flown from San Francisco to Costa Rica and San Francisco to Lima, Peru using United miles and next week we are flying from SFO to Detroit using United miles. We plan ahead at least 6 months and have NEVER had a problem getting seats using United miles. Plus we use a United credit card so we never have to pay baggage fees.

May 01 2014 at 4:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to judyschutzman's comment
markrlv

The challenge I have had using United Miles is you can never get a seat for the saver price -- only for the standard price in miles. United has devalued their program so many times it isn't funny.

May 15 2014 at 5:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
jpfmtka

Wow! I can't wait to dump my current carrier (who flies worldwide) to enroll in the Southwest program. I'm happy to swap Hawaii for Houston, Barcelona for Boise, and London for Leesburg.

April 29 2014 at 8:08 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to jpfmtka's comment