How I travel on the cheap

So many of you often wonder how you can travel on the cheap-side as a graduate student.  To be fair graduate students make more than the average american so we’re not exactly poor, contrary to what many students will tell you and how people are depicted in movies.  Anyway, I fly on American Airlines and I am an Executive Platinum (EXP), which means I fly 100,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) every year.   Now EQMs are different than actual flow miles, although there is a strong correlation.  In principle, you will get 1 EQM per flown mile.  For example a flight for LAX-ORD is listed as 1,745 miles.  In this example you would get 1,745 EQM one-way (o/w).  Recently, American Airlines has had a promotion whereby you can fly LAX-ORD and get Double Elite Qualifying Miles (DEQM).  Now for our example instead of 1,745 EQM o/w you would get 3,490 EQM o/w.   So in fact I don’t actually have to fly 100,000 miles each year, I just have to take advantage of certain promotions.  Fortunately my family and friends live in Chicago and fortunately Virgin America has been trying to fight American Airlines on this route, so fares have been reasonably cheap.  Now most people in the game will consider the cost of their flight by a ratio known as cost per mile or CPM.  This ratio is measured by Elite Qualifying Mile andnot Redeemable Miles (RDMs). 

RDMs are different per person because AA in particular will give 1 RDM per flown mile to standard members.  A 25% bonus for Gold members, and a 100% bonus for platinum and executive platinum members.  This is on top of a 500-mile minimum for elites (Gold, Plat and EXP).  So a flight from ORD-MKE, which is only 67 miles, will net 67 for an AAdvantage member, 625 for a gold and 1,000 for a PLT or EXP, again these are RDMs, which can be redeemed for award travel. 

So in the case of flying from LAX-ORD, if I found a fare for 239.40 all-inclusive (a/i), I wouldn’t be too thrilled.  It’s a cheap fare, but only if I wanted/needed to see people.  The CPM on this flight would be 6.9 CPM.  Now, if I took advantage of the AAdvantage DEQM promotion, this actually ends up only being 3.4 CPM.  As you can see, these promotions really help the elites re-qualify.  Now, let’s make this a little more fun.  Entertainment books typically have coupons in their leaflets and the book only costs between $10-$35 dollars.  In each book there is an online code for $10 off a $100 flight, $20 off a $150 flight and $30 off a $200 flight.  As you can see this is a very valuable coupon on top of the 1,000s of other coupons the book has.

So let’s re-work this to:

$239.40 – $32.65 = $206.75

It’s $32.65 because the coupon actually takes off the base fare and subsequently reduced the tax.

Now, the gem of them all!  Costco sells American Airlines Gift cards for 10% off (269.99 for a $300 gift card).  Even better, is that Plastic Jungle, which is near and dear to my heart, sells costco gift cards at 2% off.  On top of that if you purchase through a shopping rewards portal like Top CashBack, you’ll get 4% back on your purchase.  So if you buy a $100 Costco Gift card from Plastic Jungle you’ll pay:

$98 – 3.92 (4% Topcashback) – 0.98 (1% credit card) – 1.96 (2% Executive club membership) = 91.14, which is 91% off Costco!  Even if you don’t buy AA gift cards!

Now, I mentioned that the Executive club membership at costco gives you 2% back, this is a great deal if you are a volume buyer.  The cost is $110 annually, but as you can see, lots of costco purchases can and will add up and they include gift cards.

Alright so after our math our AA gift cards come out to: $246 for a $300 gift card meaning 82% off a flight!

So back to our LAX-ORD example: 

239.4 – 32.65 (entertainment book coupon) – 37.22 (AA gift card) = $169.54 (4.9 cpm or 2.4 cpm with DEQM).  As you can see we knocked off nearly 30% off our flight for a little bit of work.  But if we’re only paying 2.4 cpm we can get to our 100,000 EQM by only paying $2400.  Of course if you’ve already flown the required miles for the year, this is just a great way to save on cash!

On a recent flight I was able to apply all of these discounts to go from a $340 LAX-JFK round trip for my Rock n Roll New York 10K to $235.62.  Now some of you might scoff at how much work this involves (clicking through a cash rewards portal, receiving gift cards in the mail, and buying a ticket online), but all in all it saved me about $100 and I don’t know about you, most of this was done sitting at my computer, with the exception of the costco trip.  All in all, well worth my time and not very difficult.  Happy distractions!

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1 Response to How I travel on the cheap

  1. Pingback: Day 3: Why I’m all smiles! | Grad School Distractions

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