Sunday, August 2, 2009

Saving on travel, part 3

Airline tickets "purchased" using frequent flyer miles are a good way to keep travel expenses down. Unfortunately, if you don't fly very often, it's going to take a long time to build up the miles.

We go to China a lot, and that's about 13,000 miles roundtrip, so two trips is enough for a free ticket in the continental United States. But we just let our miles accumulate. A couple of reasons for this. One is that you need a lot of miles for a frequent flyer ticket to Europe or Asia. A second reason is that if the cheap seats are filled (where we usually sit -- hey! those first-class passengers aren't going to get there any sooner than we will), airlines upgrade those passengers with the most frequent flyer miles. This happened to us two years ago, when we were upgraded from the cheapest economy to business class between Munich and Chicago. Wow! Business class is the way to go, if you've got the bucks. Unfortunately, we don't.

We cashed in some frequent flyer miles when we went to London in May. United normally wants 55,000 miles for a ticket to Europe, but was having a "sale" for 40,000 miles to certain European cities. You do have to pay taxes and fees on frequent flyer tickets; this worked out to $112 for each of us. Taxes and fees depend on where you're going. We had considered going to Beijing, and that would have cost each of us $40.

I've been told by many friends that it's extremely difficult to use frequent flyer miles for tickets. For some reason I've never had this problem, and we got our first choice of dates for these tickets.

What's good about frequent flyer miles is there are many ways you get rack up the miles without setting foot on an airplane. Some of my friends have credit cards affiliated with the airlines, and charge even very small amounts just to get the miles. They pay the credit card bills every month, so it doesn't cost them anything to do it this way. Spend some time on your airline's frequent flyer program looking at ways you can earn miles.

I like online shopping as one way to earn miles. For example, if there's something I'm going to buy locally, I'll check the price at the store, and then order it through the airline's shopping mall. If I pick up the item at the store, then there are usually no shipping charges. One added benefit is that online store prices are sometimes cheaper. We also subscribe to magazines through the online malls; generally, you get 12 miles for every $1 spent, which compares favorably to the 1-2 miles for every $1 with other merchants.

I also earn miles on Northwest by taking surveys. Yeah, I know you're thinking of all those come-ons that say you can earn big bucks by taking surveys; you take the survey and nothing happens. I do surveys through They pay in e-currency which is redeemable for items such as magazines and airline miles.

I also earn miles by doing grocery shopping at Safeway, which credits my United account with 125 miles for every $250 I spend.

Granted the number of miles earned is small, but they're just enough to keep my frequent flyer account active. Each time I earn a few miles, it extends the expiration date of my miles. Over the years, I've probably lost 50,000 miles in various frequent flyer plans because I didn't use or add miles to them.

(Note: the above photo was taken in Birmingham in the West Midlands where we spent a week of our trip.)

Check out Parents Guide to Beijing: a kid-friendly city

If you're going to Beijing, with or without your children, you'll enjoy my eguide, Parents Guide to Beijing. It's filled with tips and things to do that will appeal to all ages.

For more information about travel in China, please check out my website or email me with your questions.

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