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Hacking flying: free flights, upgrades, lounges

July 19, 2017

Screenshot_20170719-125039In January of this year, I got serious about trying to hack airline travel.  In the past, I just hadn’t traveled enough to warrant putting much energy into it.  Plus, since 9/11 air travel had become a PITA.  This year, I decided to play the game.

Now: skip past lines, relax in amazing lounges, get upgrades to first class, and get free flights.  It completely changes the experience of travel.

Where to start:  Choose an airline.  I chose Delta because it’s one of the top rated airlines (vs United), has the best lounges (by far), and covered the US well (which I wanted).  Hopping from airline to airline is something infrequent travelers do.  Smart semi-frequent travelers choose an airline and stick with them.  It’s worth it.

Next:  Get a credit card that allow you to blow up your status rapidly.  For Delta, I got the Platinum Skymiles card – one of the only ways left to pump status without actually flying.  10k miles for signing up at the airport.  Then I started running my expenses through it.  At $25k in expenses I get 10k in qualifying miles – and at that stage, you’re at a total of 20k status miles – which is only 5k miles away from Silver status, where the free upgrades kick in.  Just off this card alone you can bump an extra status level, plus – a big deal if you consider how many flights that takes.  The spending miles count towards free flights and there are other accelerated perks (look into a comparison of the different cards).  When it comes to annual fees, focus on the net cost.  The fee is $195 a year, but comes with a free companion ticket (worth more than $195 to me).

Next:  Consider the American Express Platinum card.  Buckle up and brace yourself.  The annual fee is $550.  But, again, net cost, grasshopper.  It offers an airline credit of $200, pays for Global entry (which also gets access to the TSA Pre-check line) $100, and offers $200 a year in Uber credit and other Uber perks (VIP, discounts, etc).  There are restrictions, so read the details.  For  me, the first year cost quickly looks like $50 net-ish.  But the signup bonus is usually 60,000 points (~$600), so essentially the two years are free.  No brainer in my book.  Even a minimal amount of annual travel makes this card worth it.  While this card gets you into the famous Centurion lounges, the real perk is getting into Delta lounges for FREE (usually it’s $29-59 per use, and on one long round trip flight I’ll often use 6-8 different clubs).

Next:  find the best lounges to relax in.  Normal lounges are getting over-run.  Delta’s lounges are massively upgraded and have restricted access.  They’ve totally changed how I feel about travel.  They are head and shoulders above other lounges – often with quality, local chef-created food, free alcoholic drinks, free (good) coffee, spacious, uncrowded, space — basically this quiet haven away from the loud craziness that makes travel a frazzeled experience.  It’s a game changer.  And with the right credit card, it’s free.

Clear:  In some airports, TSA pre-check has started to get overrun, too.  Clear gets you escorted to the front of the security line and skip the 5-10 min TSA line and the 15-90 minute normal lines.  And if you know someone who has Clear, it’s only $50 a year right now.  It just totally eliminates lines – which makes me feel so much calmer.

Noise-canceling headphones:  I have bought and tested a variety of types on flights (not just in the store).  I highly recommend the Bose Q25.  The Q25’s have better noise canceling than the “newer” Q35’s.  This is one of my top purchases in 2016.  If you’d like bluetooth (which I also recommend), buy the separate add-on here.  Couldn’t understate how much eliminating all that noise changes the feel in your body of travel.

Wifi:  Gogo in-flight wifi often costs $8-$20 per flight.  If you fly frequently that crap adds up.  I buy packages of 12 off ebay for less than $5 each.

Summary: I used to hate travel.  Having to get there so early to get in the line to check my luggage, then get in the line to get through security.  Sitting in a crowded zoo of a waiting area.  Waiting in a line to get on the plane to compete for a space to put my carryon. Sitting in an uncomfortable, cramped seat.  It’s no wonder I avoided air travel.

Now, I skip the long luggage line, then skip the security line and head to a lounge.   I’ve timed it:  at SeaTac, from stepping out of the Uber to walking into the amazing Delta lounge is ~7 minutes.  Cue quality food, coffee, and drinks in a quiet space – for free.  I skip the boarding lines and walk on the plane, get settled into much more comfortable First class or Comfort+ seat – which I got for free, and relax.  After landing, I am off the plane super fast and walk right to another amazing, relaxing lounge.  It’s feels like a totally different experience.

And most of it came from optimizing the game.

[Credit:  Special thanks to other travel ninjas who taught me despite my sassiness.  Heidi for sharing the AmEx Platinum card benefits after I made fun of her for having a card with a ridiculous annual fee (you were right, net cost and benefits) and Koichi for hounding me to get Clear (also, right)]

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