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BY PETER SCHROEDER
“I’d love to go to Alaska for the 2012 Conference in Fairbanks — but I can’t afford the airfare,” some OWAA members have remarked.
It’s true that airfare to Alaska can be expensive, sometimes more than the cost of attending the conference itself. But if you plan ahead, you can get one or two roundtrip tickets to Alaska for free — through airline frequent flier programs. It’s easy and anyone with a decent credit rating can do it. Here’s how it works, based on current airline programs.
STEP NO. 1
Three national carriers have regular air service to Fairbanks from the Lower 48: Delta Airlines, American Airlines and Alaska Airlines. Like all major U.S. airlines, these carriers have frequent flyer programs that award free flights when a sufficient number of points or miles have been earned. Join the frequent flyer program for each of the major carriers above that also serves your home airport. All the programs are free to join; call or log on: Delta Airlines SkyMiles program (www.delta.com, 800-528-4800); American Airlines AAdvantage program (www.aa.com, 800-433-7300); Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan (www.alaskaair.com, 800-ALASKAAIR, 800-252-7522). Simply by joining its frequent flier program (you don’t even have to apply for a credit card), Alaska Airlines will award you 500 bonus miles.
To earn a free coach ticket on any frequent flyer program, you must have 25,000 points. The airlines want you to earn points by flying their routes and accumulating one point for every mile flown. Forget this approach, because it takes years to earn a ticket. There are better and faster ways to earn the points you need.
STEP NO. 2
Apply for the airlines’ credit cards. You’re well on your way to a free seat just by acquiring the card.
→ Alaska Airlines
Alaska Airlines requires 25,000 Award Miles for a round-trip ticket from any U.S. city it serves to Fairbanks (although the amount can rise to 40,000 based on seat availability and seasonality). By applying and being approved for its Signature Visa Card, Alaska Airlines awards 25,000 miles— enough for a free round-trip ticket to Fairbanks. In addition, you can apply for the Alaska Airlines Business Visa Card. After the first purchase with the Business card, the cardholder earns 20,000 miles — nearly enough for another free ticket. Put a few more purchases on your card — a new laptop, camera, or monthly expenses such as cable TV or phone bills — and you’ll soon earn that additional 5,000 miles. With either credit card, you’ll also receive a $99 companion ticket to use for a second person when you purchase a coach ticket. The annual fee for each credit card is $75. If you don’t have enough miles for an award ticket, you can use a combination of award points and payment.
→ Delta Air Lines
Delta Air Lines offers three mileage plans that require 25,000, 32,500, or 40,000 award miles for a round trip ticket to Fairbanks. By applying for the Gold Delta Skymiles American Express card and making the first purchase, you’ll receive 20,000 miles. An additional 5,000 miles is put into the account for adding two additional cardholders, such as a spouse or child, on the same account. The annual $95 fee is waived the first year. (You can cancel the card after the first year and avoid paying any fee.)
You’ll receive a $99 Domestic Economy Class Companion Certificate each year when you renew your card. By spending $15,000 or more during the calendar year, you’ll be awarded 5,000 bonus miles, and if in that same calendar year your eligible spending is $25,000 or more, you will be awarded an additional 5,000 bonus miles. You can also get the Delta small business credit card that offers sign-up benefits similar to its personal American Express card.
→ American Airlines
American Airlines offers both a personal and a business Visa card. For each card, you’ll receive 40,000 miles after making $1,000 in purchases within the first four months. The $85 annual fee for the personal card and the $75 annual fee for the business card are both waived in the first year. After you become a card member, you’ll receive a two-for-one Companion Certificate for domestic round-trip travel when coach fare valued at $299 or more per passenger is purchased with your card.
In addition to its Visa credit cards, American Airlines also offers an American Express card that awards you 30,000 miles, enough for a domestic flight, after you make $750 in purchases within the first four months of card membership. The $50 annual fee is waived for the first year. You’ll also receive a Companion Certificate with the same benefits as offered with its Visa card.
STEP NO. 3
You have several alternatives to increase the rate at which you earn points. The easiest technique is to sign up for a second credit card under your own name. It’s legal and ethical. You can use one card for personal expenses and the other for your business. With the doubling of the signup bonus, you immediately have your free ticket to Fairbanks with enough extra points to work toward a second ticket. If your guest or spouse does the same, you’ve got two free tickets. You can also apply for a third credit card, which you can use when you’re on business for your employer or for expenses for your kids or for any another application that you want to keep separate from your other finances.
STEP NO. 4
Use your credit card extensively. Charge everything … everything. We’re almost a cashless society, and there’s practically no reason to carry cash at all. Use your card for even small purchases such as cups of coffee, incidentals at the drug store, or items at the convenience shop. That five-dollar purchase may qualify for double or even triple miles. It all adds up.
Put all your monthly bills on the credit card — telephone, electricity, garbage, water, Internet, cable TV, telephone. I do. Not only will you get frequent-flyer points each month; you’ll save time and postage by not writing a dozen checks. You can pay all your credit cards online and you’ve got a perfect record-keeping system.
STEP NO. 5
You can even go further with the credit card to earn award points. Most long-distance telephone companies have cooperative arrangements with the airlines whereby they award five points for every dollar spent. You also get additional points if you make purchases from FedEx, the Gap, flowers.
com and many other merchants.
In addition, each airline credit card offers bonus points. Every so often you’ll receive notice that a particular credit card offers double miles when used at service stations, grocery stores, and the post office. In the past, American Airlines’ MasterCard has offered 1.5 points for every dollar spent during a three-month period. When you purchase airfare with the airline’s credit card, you get double or sometimes triple points. Even if you apply for only one card, and start making normal purchases with it, you should have no problem earning the remaining miles to fly to Fairbanks.
STEP NO. 6
Two caveats: First, don’t carry balances on your cards. The astronomical interest rates will eat you alive. If you can’t pay off the balances each month, keep the credit card safely put away at home.
Second, just because you have the required number of frequent flyer miles, you’re not assured of getting a free ticket. The number of frequent flier seats is limited. It’s best to book early or be flexible with your dates of travel, arriving or departing a few days before or after the OWAA conference. If the award tickets to Fairbanks are all taken, check out awards to other airports such as Anchorage and arrange ground transportation to the conference.
Remember — This isn’t a one-way street in your favor. The airlines wouldn’t be making these offers if they didn’t benefit by selling award tickets to the banks that offer the credit cards. The banks, in turn, profit from the annual fees and the few percentage points they make on every credit card transaction you make. It’s a win-win-win game.
Finally, what are you going to do with the money you’ve saved by earning a free award ticket? Spend it on the OWAA conference silent raffle, of course!♦
–Peter Schroeder is a freelance writer and photographer. He specializes in recreational boating, cruising under sail, scuba diving, snow skiing, and worldwide adventure travel. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.