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Friday, November 12, 2010

The Holy Grail of Free Travel - Free flights

Since I started this series of blogs, the overwhelming question I've been asked is about flying for free. It is the subject that raises the most questions and unfortunately seems to have the fewest answers.

I am currently researching the courier angle on free flights because it is not something I've done personally and in fact I've never even met one person who has actually physically done it themselves. It seems like a bit of a mythical beast or perhaps and more likely a closed shop for those in the know - a bit like those wonderful surf breaks that take of bit of effort to get to and are never ever spoken about in public, let alone blogged about. I'm getting closer to the magic circle of courier flights and will post all I can find out once I've got the information first hand.

There are a few internet flight Gurus which if you are passionate about your free travel, you've probably already stumbled across. The Frequent Flyer Master is one and in general they all offer very similar advice - advice that you have to pay for as it is sold as book. I guess the bonus of the Frequent Flyer Master is that if you buy that guide, sign up to their affiliate program and then convince others to buy it as well, through your own blog or website you only need two other people to buy it, to get your own investment back. As we are committed to free as our guiding principle, this blog and the link above are not part of the affiliate program.

The Frequent flyer method almost never gets you free flights. Their are annual fees for most frequent flyer programs and the rapid accumulation of points strategies usually mean signing up to credit cards or other programs which also have annual fees, to accelerate your points gained. It can be cheap but not free. We have a credit card that is associated with an airline. We use the card for all our purchases every month and accumulate points but rarely if ever buy goods or services we wouldn't normally purchase just to get extra points. We end up with a free short return flight each every couple of years at the cost of $75 per year in membership fees. So $150 for 4 flights (2 return flights). Flying on a budget airline over the same route with a bit of planning would really only cost $50 - $100 more. All in all it is a bit of a scam.

There is one other strategy to fly for free that gets a lot less airplay. I've timed this post so that those who are flying back home for Thanksgiving can give this a try in the next week or so. This strategy works on the premise that almost all airlines overbook their (domestic) flights when they can because they know in general there will be a no show rate of around 2-3% for every flight. For a plane the has 200 seats, an airline will sell about 206 seats if it can. I mention Thanksgiving because it is the weekend where the most flights are likely to be full and because I've successfully done this myself on the Thanksgiving weekend.

By now you will most likely have already bought your flight home (or you will be paying a lot of money if you haven't.) What you need to do is to turn up at least two hours before your flight and check in as normal. It works best if you are only taking carry on luggage. Once checked in, head to your departure gate , go the counter and say that should the plane be overbooked you'd be happy to look at other options and give them your name. On Thanksgiving weekend you have probably got a 60-75% chance of being paged and asked if you can switch flights. This is where the negotiation begins. They will have a maximum number they can go to in terms of compensation and your job is to get as close as you can to that amount. In my case I was flying from NYC to St. Paul. To switch flights and wait 2 and a half more hours in the airport for the next flight I got $350 in credits for a future flight (the initial offer was $200), upgrade to business on that flight and coupons for a meal in the airport. My initial return flight cost $140. I therefore had $210 of totally free flights to use. I did this twice in the year and ended up with $400 in free flights which I used on a free flight to Guatemala and return flight from Costa Rica which I teamed with a free Way to San Jose trip that I sorted out using the method described in the original post of this blog.

Airlines are greedy. They pay agents next to no commission and they almost never give anything away for free. However you can use their greed against them by following the above and then you too can fly for free!

Happy Free Flying.


  1. Wow thats such a good idea. I don't know why I didn't think of that- if I was ever asked to be bumped I would take it, but I never thought of just asking for it. My new go-to strategy! Thanks :)

    (I'll be sharing this tip on my blog too. Here's a link I think you might like, it is a list I've accumulated of the best resources for free travel:

  2. I'll be sure to link to this post too. Just FYI. :)

  3. Thanks for the comment and link Jacqueline. Good luck with your free flights on the next holiday weekend!

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