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How to fly first class (almost) for free

Do you know what’s the worst? Fly to another continent in a seat that doesn’t recline and there’s so little legroom you can rest your chin on your knees. I made countless flights like this until I decided to quit cold turkey.

In fact, you can do it too – it’s actually not that hard. The simple fact is that if you’re flying across the ocean, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t sit on a seat that lays perfectly flat and transitions into a bed.

The magic lies in the miles from the airlines. If you know how to travel, you can fly first class. often. I’ve done this more times than I can count. Here are three tips on how I can do it.

Required knowledge to book (almost) free flights

The world of premium travel is huge and hard to describe in one post. But here are a few pointers that can point you in the right direction if you decide to shoot your cannonball down this life-changing rabbit hole.

Learn the intricacies of transfer partners

Source: Giphy.com

Multiple credit card rewards can be transferred to different airlines. If you’re not sure which air miles to collect to reach your specific goals, it’s best to earn these flexible currencies instead, which will give you the freedom to choose later.

Here is a short list of points that can be transferred:

  • Amex Membership Rewards – You can transfer these points to 18 airlines including Delta, ANA, Avianca and Etihad.
  • Chasing Ultimate Rewards® – You can transfer these points to 11 airlines including United Airlines, Southwest, Air Canada and Emirates.
  • Citi Thank you points – You can transfer these points to 14 airlines including JetBlue, Singapore Airlines, Turkish Airlines and Air France.
  • Capital One Mile – You can transfer these points to 15 airlines, including Singapore Airlines, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Air Canada Aeroplan.

Read more: How to fly free (and faster) with Chase Ultimate Rewards®

Pro tip: Marriott points are also transferable to airlines and this path more partners than any other transferable currency. The problem is that you will only get a 3:1 gear ratio. It’s not very good. However, if you transfer your points in increments of 60,000, you will receive a bonus of 5,000 air miles. In other words, 60,000 Marriott points = 25,000 miles.

Book flights with partner airlines

The fact that you earn miles in the currency of a particular airline does not mean that you are obligated to fly with that airline for your miles. You can also use these miles to fly with this airline’s partners.

For example, American Airlines does not fly to South Africa. But you can still use American Airlines miles to get there because American Airlines has two partners that fly to South Africa: British Airways and Qatar Airways. When you go to the American Airlines website to book tickets, the website automatically offers to book those airlines with AA miles.

Read more: How to choose the Travel Rewards program

Keep in mind that different airlines charge different prices for award flights.

This is perhaps the most difficult and important detail in the frequent booking of first class seats.

A gif of a person trying to figure out math equations with numbers flashing in front of him.

Source: Giphy.com

Each airline has a unique way of determining the cost of award seats. There is no specific cost for air miles. One airline may charge twice as many miles as another airline for the same itinerary.

Here are some examples:

  • ANA and British Airways – You will be charged based on the distance you fly.
  • Southwest and JetBlue – You will be charged according to the value of the ticket in cash.
  • Delta and United Airlines – You will be charged based on what the airline sees fit to charge that day.
  • Cathay Pacific and Air Canada Aeroplan– You will be modified based on the geographic location of your origin and destination (although Aeroplan also takes into account the distance you fly).

Sounds confusing, I know, but that’s only because is. But if you have the patience to learn the nuances of these programs, you will get a ticket for a free trip.

Read more: How credit card miles work and which ones are better

3 Easy Ways to Fly First Class Regularly

There are a few key strategies I use to always fly ahead of the plane for (nearly) free. I say “almost” because you will always have to pay taxes and airfare, resulting in at least $5.60 one way.

The strategies below are easy to implement. And they will help you earn thousands of dollars in miles and points.

Watch out for credit card signup bonuses

Credit card welcome offers are the fastest way to earn valuable air miles and bank points.

Over the past couple of years, we have seen countless offers of 100,000 points or more on travel credit cards such as Chase Sapphire Preferred®, The Platinum Card from American Express, and Capital One Venture X.

If a valuable credit card signup bonus comes up, jump on it. My husband and I have opened over 35 credit cards for the two of us because we’re slamming on big deals. And in this way we have earned several million miles and points. Because of this, we typically save over $30,000 a year in travel costs.

Read more: Top Travel Rewards Credit Cards

Monitoring bonuses for transfers

Whether you’re accumulating Amex Points, Chase Points, Citi ThankYou Points or Capital One Miles, look for time-limited transfer bonuses. They happen often – and they can help you increase your rewards significantly.

For example, British Airways recently offered a 40% bonus on the transfer of Amex membership rewards. I transferred 122,000 Amex points to British Airways and received 170,800 British Airways Avios. I used these points for two business class reclining seats (called Qsuites) on a Qatar Airways flight to the Maldives next year. I saved 48,000 points while waiting for the points to be converted during the transfer bonus.

These places are easily worth $10,000 in cash. So it was a great use of 122,000 Amex points.

Read more: Should I buy Amex cards?

Use your rewards almost exclusively for “Sweet Spots” airlines

There are some wild sweet spots that can net you tens of thousands of dollars in savings if you’re willing to book them. I often let these cute places guide my travels. For example:

  • Fly Emirates First Class between New York (JFK) and Milan (Italy) for 85,000 Emirates miles one way. This flight costs at least $7,000.
  • Fly Singapore Airlines First Class between New York (JFK) and Frankfurt, Germany, a distance of 86,000 Singapore Airlines miles.
  • Fly first class from the West Coast to Japan, the 110,000 miles round trip of Virgin Atlantic. This trip can usually cost $22,000.

There are many more wonderful routes in a variety of interesting areas. If you just google “best award flight destinations” you’ll get a lot of funny and helpful answers.

The biggest hurdle to this strategy is that you often have to fly to a specific airport to catch the flight with the best orientation – they rarely exist at your local small town airport. I like to use southwest miles for this purpose.

bottom line

If you’re a regular traveler, you probably won’t be able to book first class award tickets every time. But if you travel moderately (maybe three or four times a year), you shouldn’t have a problem keeping the air miles you need for super fun (and super expensive) recumbents around the world with three strategies:

  • Open credit cards to earn their big signup bonuses whenever you can.
  • Take advantage of transfer bonuses to increase your accumulated points and miles.
  • Let the deals dictate your journey. If you stick to amazing “sweet spots” and other random sales, you’ll get the most bang for your mile.

Again, I make over $30,000 a year with these strategies. If you take the time it takes to explore this hobby, no destination will be closed to you – no matter your budget.

Featured Image: Nina Lischuk/Shutterstock.com

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