Family Travel Hacking Guide - Frequent Flyer Programs
Award Wallet Family Travel Hacking Guide

Family Travel Hacking Guide 03: Using and Tracking Frequent Flyer Programs

To do: Sign up for three to four frequent flyer programs and enter them into Award Wallet or an equivalent tracker

Frequent flyer programs were originally created by the airlines to incentivize loyalty. They are at the core of travel hacking: if you know how to get the maximum value out of them. Of course, to get value out of them, you first have to sign up, and that’s what this post is about. I promise we’ll get to the good stuff soon.

I was listening to Mark Maron’s WTF podcast this week: an old one where he debriefs his chance to interview President Obama. In it, he says how he wanted to cancel the interview because the President of the United States could only meet during a time when Maron had a vacation scheduled and he was stressed that he would “lose all the points that he had been saving up for this dream vacation!”

Family Travel Hacking Guide - Frequent Flyer Programs
The president probably doesn’t know how to use frequent flyer programs, but you should!

Mark Maron had a common reaction, but it showed a lack of understanding about the strengths of frequent flyer and hotel points. Another common reaction is “I don’t bother signing up for the programs because I can’t get any value out of them.” My goal is for you to be wiser than either of these schools of thought.

It is important to change your paradigm for viewing frequent flyer programs. Frequent flyer programs were made by the airlines to create loyalty from customers, but they do not need to be used that way. In fact, for the average non business traveling family just trying to take a few vacations a year on the cheap, they should not be used that way. Kenny from Miles4More summed it up better than I could:

This was in the wake of American Airlines’ announcement about going fully revenue based, but it is a tweet that could have been said at any time throughout the course of frequent flyer program history.

At this point, some might advise you to sign up for every frequent flyer program out there, but since this guide is being written for beginners with limited time, I’d advise against that. Instead, here are a few suggestions for you as to what programs you should be signing up for to start. As you get deeper and deeper into the game, I’m sure you’ll end up signing up for a lot more when you’re ready and when the time comes (aka when you need it).

0 – Don’t forget your travel goal from the last post

In the last post in the Family Travel Hacking Guide, I had you write out a few destinations you are interested in visiting. A simple visit to Wikipedia can tell you what airlines fly to that location. Make sure you bear that in mind as you think about what frequent flyer programs you are signing up for. In fact, remember to keep that goal in mind every step of the way.

1 – If you fly an airline more than twice a year, sign up for its frequent flyer program

I suggest this not for the reason you might expect. You actually don’t earn that many miles these days flying actual flights (like I said, we’ll get to the fun stuff soon). Still, if you are flying the same airline multiple times a year, it’s usually for a reason (you like it, it has the most convenient times, you find value there), so you might as well sign up for its frequent flyer program if you haven’t already.

2 – If you live in an airline hub, sign up for that airline’s FF program

An airline hub is basically any airport where a certain airline sends a whole lot of flights to. If you live in a city that is a hub, you probably know (Delta is all over Atlanta, AA all over Dallas, United all over Newark, etc.) If you live in a hub the odds are you’ll need to take advantage of that frequent flyer program eventually, so sign up! If you’re not sure, you can find a list of airline hubs here.

Family Travel Hacking Guide - Frequent Flyer Programs
If you live in Seattle, you should definitely sign up for Alaska Airlines’ frequent flyer program

3 – Sign your kids up for frequent flyer programs

While you won’t be earning credit card bonuses for kids, you still should sign them up for frequent flyer programs. It’s easy, they earn miles, and you can even get frequent flyer cards for them (even if you have to print them out) so they can feel like professional flyers!

4 – If you must sign up for multiple programs at once, start with the big ones

If you want to sign up for everything, I’m not going to stop you. I would suggest at least just focusing on the big programs for now: American, Alaska, British Airways, Delta, Southwest, United. Those six programs are not comprehensive, but they are a good starting point and can pretty much get you everywhere you want to go.

5 – Sign up for Award Wallet or an equivalent frequent flyer program tracker!

Once you start signing up for a bunch of frequent flyer programs, you need to start managing passwords, remembering mileage expiration dates, and a whole bunch of other junk. The best way to do that is to sign up for Award Wallet, an online frequent flyer (and more) program tracker that helps you keep track of all that stuff. It can even help you keep track of expiration dates for your miles.

Family Travel Hacking guide - Frequent Flyer Programs
Award Wallet can help you manage all your account numbers and passwords

Honestly, I’ve cooled on Award Wallet a bit, their advertisements have gotten a little annoying, but it still is the best program I’ve found for tracking all this stuff.

Final Thoughts

Taking advantage of the value to be had in frequent flyer programs is the core of travel hacking. Start signing up for programs now to prepare for next steps.

To do: Sign up for three to four frequent flyer programs and enter them into Award Wallet or an equivalent tracker

Family Travel Hacking Guide Index


Set a Travel Goal

Using and Tracking Frequent Flyer Programs

Who to Follow on Social Media

Saving Money on Cash Flights

How to find cheap airfare with airfarewatchdog

Trying to save money using your frequent flyer miles? Which programs to sign up for and the best way to keep track of your miles!

Just an average joe trying to fly his family for less

4 thoughts on “Family Travel Hacking Guide 03: Using and Tracking Frequent Flyer Programs

  1. Joe, this guide is excellent for the beginner, with or without family. I don’t need airline tix for more than two, but knowing how many people, even in my relatively easy position have no idea where to start, I would definitely send them to your guide!

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