Travel Hacking Math

Travel Hacking is the means of getting travel components, such as hotels, car rentals, and airfare, for practically free. Earning miles and sign-up bonuses is only one half of the equation; using them is the other half.

It sure would be neat if there was some way to go back and figure out how many free flights we’ve earned through the years. We earned lots of miles using our credit cards when we built a house. I can remember using miles to fly my husband to Alaska to go fishing, as well as to Portland when his Mother was ill. We used miles for free flights to Kauai – TWICE. And I remember a free car rental in Los Angeles. I’m sure there’s been more, but it is really awesome to get something for free!

Presently we have the following airline co-branded credit cards: American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines. We also each have a Chase Ultimate Rewards credit card which earns points that can be transferred to several different airline and hotel partners or travel can be booked on their Travel Portal. In my post The Cost of Travel: San Antonio I wrote about transferring the points for a stay at the Hyatt.

The cards all have annual fees, but I will close an account (or have it rolled over into a card without an annual fee so it doesn’t affect your credit score) when the expense outweighs the benefits, but you no longer earn miles or points. Due to Covid, and limited travel opportunities, I closed our United Airlines cards.

We put as much of spending on credit cards in order to earn points/miles. Chase Ultimate Rewards card gives bonus points for Travel Expenses so we use that card to charge airline tickets, AirBnBs and hotels. It is important to always pay off the full balance each month.

Use Them or Lose Them

You may remember I blogged about some soon-to-expire Southwest Airlines Travel Funds in The Cost of Travel: San Antonio.

Travel funds are not to be confused with miles. Southwest Airlines tickets may be changed or canceled without fees, but not refunded. Instead, Travel Funds are issued which expire after 12 months. My problem occurred when I had to cancel some tickets that I had purchased with travel funds and cash. When I canceled the reservation, the new funds were added to the original travel fund’s original expiration date. I was extremely irritated because a fresh infusion of cash in January was expiring in May!

Southwest Airlines states that expired travel fund accounts can be reinstated at the cost of $100 each. We each had $125 in travel funds and that scenario would leave only $25 each in future travel funds!

I looked for an opportunity to turn “lemons into lemonade.”

Instead of letting them expire, I used some of the funds to book one-way flights to Sacramento, but the return flights either didn’t fit my schedule or cost too much, so I left $57 in unused travel funds to expire on 5/28/2021.

I booked return flights on Alaska Airlines and opened an Alaska Airlines (Bank of America’s) co-branded credit card. After spending $3000 in 3 months they issued 30,000 bonus miles, a $200 statement credit, and benefits such as a $99 Companion Fare and waived baggage fees.

Due to the eventual $200 statement credit, I figure the return tickets from Sacramento basically cost nothing!

The Math Behind Travel Hacking

On the original credit card purchase in January 2021 for Southwest flights I earned 895 Southwest Airlines mileage points (2x points for Southwest purchases). When the plans changed we used the travel funds to fly to San Antonio instead of Mexico but there were some leftover travel funds that were set to expire.

If we had let them expire I would not have earned 500 miles for the flight to Sacramento.

Southwest Miles: 895+500 = 1395 (Merrill’s account) and 500 (Steve’s account)

With the $194.80 purchase of two flights with the Alaska Airlines credit card I earned 195 miles because they reward one point per dollar on all purchases plus an additional 390 points because they reward two points per dollar on Alaska Airlines purchases. We also each earned 500 miles for the flight home from Sacramento.

Alaska Airline Miles: 195+390+500+30,000 = 31,085 (Merrill’s account) and 500 (Steve’s account)

The irony in this time of Covid-19 is that restaurants are required to leave open tables in-between parties whereas the airlines squeeze bodies into every available seat causing passengers to sit closer to complete strangers than they sit next to their friends!

More Travel Hacking

Spokane-Cancun: We flew on 9/28/21 to Cancun, Mexico on Southwest Airlines. We purchased one ticket for $179.42 and booked the second using 9628 Southwest miles and $35.32 in taxes. We earned mileage paying by Southwest credit card and for the mileage flown on that flight. No mileage is earned when redeeming miles for flights. Total cash outlay for flight to Mexico: $214.74 (for two, not each.)

We needed to fly home from Mexico so I looked at many different options. With layovers one can spend all day getting home. We decided to break up the trip in order to visit my Mom in Tucson. We flew non-stop to Phoenix and then a few days later flew non-stop to Spokane.

Mexico City-Phoenix: We each used 22,500 American Airlines miles (plus $78.56 in taxes each) to fly Business Class on the non-stop flight from Mexico City to Phoenix. It was only a 3 hour flight, but we did get to use the airport lounge and save money because we got lots of free food and drinks. Total cash outlay for flight from Mexico: $157.12 (for two.)

Phoenix-Spokane: I booked non-stop flights from Phoenix to Spokane on Southwest using 14,206 Southwest miles plus $11.60 in taxes. One account didn’t have enough miles but I was able to transfer 2K Chase Ultimate Rewards points to that Southwest account. Total cash expense: $11.60.

Rental Car in Phoenix: I booked a Hertz rental car on the Chase Ultimate Rewards platform and paid for the five day rental of $497.30 not with cash, but by redeeming 39,784 Chase Ultimate Reward points. Total cash disbursement: $0 (not including fuel.)

We used Chase Ultimate Rewards to cover the cost of our rental car in Arizona.

Total Expense for flights to and from Mexico: $383.46 (Less than $200 each for round-trip tickets.)

We had roomy Business Class seats plus a hot meal on our short flight to Phoenix from Mexico City.

What’s In Your Wallet?

We have miles in our Southwest, United, Alaska accounts and points in our Chase Ultimate Rewards just begging to be used!

The BIG question is: In the year 2022 where will they take us?

But wait, there’s more!

The question above was how I intended on ending this post, but then we booked another trip using our miles.

So now the question is: Where Do You Think We’re Jetting to Next?

Want a Few Hints?

To Get There: We used 55,000 American Airlines miles plus $95.55 for two tickets.

To Get Home: We used 40,000 United Airlines miles plus $114 for two tickets with some preferred seating.

Total cash disbursement for two round-trip tickets: $209.55

It’s snowy and cold in Spokane so we want to find a place to snowboard. J/K! We want to “snowbird” this winter in a warmer climate.

A Few More Hints?

Yep! We’re making another Run for the Border…to Mexico!`

We have planned another 2 month stay in Mexico to explore two Mexican states on the Yucatan Peninsula. See the black circle? We will fly into Mérida, and stay 5 weeks in the capital of the state of Yucatan, before visiting Campeche, the capital of the state of Campeche where we can watch the sun set on the beach (it’s faces West!) We plan to return to the state of Quintana Roo (pronounced ROW) to revisit some old favorites such as Playa del Carmen and maybe some “new-to-us” places before flying out of Cancún.

Why Mérida?

Everyone says that Mérida is a real gem and Yucatecan food is especially good and unique. Lots of expats live in Mérida and it is considered to be the second SAFEST city after Quebec! And we want to stay put in one location for one month and not go, go, go.

BUT, (yes, there’s a but, and it’s a big one) Mérida is blazing hot and humid most of the year. I think January-February might be the best time of year to visit.

Then there’s Campeche which some have called “the best undiscovered Mexican city.”

If everything goes according to plan, next week we will Meet You in the Morning from Mérida, México. I hope you’ll want to come along.

Want to learn more about how to get some travel funds?

I invite you to read the following posts about my efforts at Travel Hacking: Almost-Free Airfare, Spain – On a Whim!, There’s Been a Change of Plans, Cost of Travel: Manhattan and Cruise, The Colorful Riviera Maya of Mexico.

The Points Guy has a recurring post, regularly updated with new information and offers. — Read on

Use credit cards wisely. Pay off the full balance each month. There is NO benefit earning points or miles if you carry a balance and pay high interest rates.

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