The art of saving money on travel can be endlessly complex. Maximizing Miles & Points is one way to expand your range of travel possibilities without spending a lot of money, but there will always be times when you need to pay cash for a flight as well, whether that’s because you don’t have enough miles, you’re keeping your miles for a better use in mind, or there’s no availability on your desired dates.
When that happens, there are quite a few techniques that can help you reduce the cost of your airfare, often by upwards of 30–40% if you combine a few of these tricks together. This post will list some of the techniques I personally try to use every time I need to shell out a sum of money for flights, so keep it handy for the next time you pay for flights to see if there’s a way you can score some additional savings.
1. Redeem Miles One Way and Pay Cash the Other
When travelling within North America, round-trip fares are often very close to being the sum of two one-way fares. So when fares happen to be higher than usual, it can often be the result of the one-way fare in a single direction being unusually high, with the fare in the opposite direction being quite reasonable.
For example, if there’s a major event taking place in your destination near the date of your arrival, then the outbound flight will likely be very expensive. If you’re returning home a while after the event ends, the return flight will probably be priced more fairly.
So instead of searching for A–B round-trip, search for A–B one-way and B–A one-way separately. If one direction seems artificially inflated, try redeeming miles for that one-way segment instead. You’ll be saving a significant chunk of money and thereby getting a good value for your miles as well.
Of course, it may be challenging to find availability since the expensive flight will presumably be highly sought-after, but it’s always worth a look. Also, note that this trick doesn’t work nearly as well on long-haul international routes to other continents, since the one-way fares tend to be priced much higher than round-trip fares on those routes.
2. Alternative Airports and Positioning Flights
Whenever you’re searching for airfare, always make sure to take a look at all the nearby alternative airports that might be feasible to incorporate into your travel plans.
The most obvious candidates are cities where there are multiple airports. If you’re flying to Toronto, check the fares on Billy Bishop Airport (YTZ) in addition to Pearson (YYZ). New York JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark; Tokyo Narita and Haneda; London Heathrow, Gatwick, City, etc.
But beyond multiple airports within the same city, the further you expand your search radius in terms of both departure and arrival airports, the more options you open up. For Canadians, driving south of the border to US airports like Seattle, Spokane, Fargo, Buffalo, or Syracuse might result in cheaper airfare that more than justifies the added time and expenses incurred.
Similarly, if you live in one of the smaller Canadian cities but would like to take advantage of one of the frequent fare sales out of Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver, it can be easier to accomplish than you might think. From Winnipeg, for example, a short-haul positioning flight to Toronto is only 15,000 Aeroplan miles round-trip, and from there you can book any number of cheap deals that are always popping up to Europe, Asia, or South America.
Similarly, if the fares flying into a certain city in Europe are high, there are always a good handful of alternatives within a reasonable radius which you could consider flying into as well, after which you’d either drive, take the train, or take a separate flight to your intended destination.
A few more examples that come to mind include Buenos Aires and Montevideo (take the ferry for a scenic ride), Kuala Lumpur and Singapore (or any other pairs of places in South East Asia, where cheap budget airfare is commonplace), and Hong Kong and Shenzhen (you can now get a 5-day visa on arrival at Shenzhen to make the border crossing a smooth affair).
3. Try Out Different Combinations of Flights
Let’s say you live in Toronto and would like to visit Los Angeles and San Francisco as part of a wider California trip. There are many possibilities of how you can book your flights, and you should spend some time playing around with the combinations to see which one would be the most cost-effective.
For example, you could book the whole thing as a multi-stop flight that would come to $648:
But notice that breaking up the trip into a Toronto–Los Angeles / San Francisco–Toronto open-jaw ($536), plus a separate one-way flight from LA to San Fran ($66), results in a lower total fare of $602:
If you don’t care about which order you visit the cities, you should play around with that as well. In our case, putting San Francisco before LA in our open-jaw ($515), plus a one-way flight to fill the gap ($66), clocks in at an even lower $581:
In general, open-jaws are priced quite favourably and very close to “regular” round-trips, so combining an open-jaw with a cheap short-haul one-way is one of my favourite ways to book a trip to two or more destinations in one go.
Keep in mind that if you have more than two destinations planned, you'll have many more possibilities to play with. Also, if any one of these journeys can be booked with miles instead of cash, you should take a look there as well to see if it’d make more sense that way.
4. Buy Points At a Discount
This one works best if you regularly pay for business class flights and are hunting for a deal. Frequent flyer programs often allow you to buy miles at a significant discount or bonus compared to the usual rates, and these promotions can be leveraged to unlock some pretty big savings on premium class travel.
For example, let’s say you needed to book a one-way business class flight from Vancouver to South Africa. You’d do well to find a flight for $3,000, and that’s on a rather mediocre Egyptair business class product. To make the long journey in a higher-rated airline would cost you even more.
Well, what if you instead bought Alaska miles with a 50% bonus (which they’re currently offering until May 19, 2019, and is usually available quite a few times a year)? Alaska only charges you 62,500 miles to fly in Cathay Pacific business class from Canada to Africa, and with the 50% bonus, you can pick up those miles for US$1,241.63, or about $1,672.
You’d get to fly on one of the best-rated airlines in the world at a huge savings of almost 50%, and on top of that you get a free stopover in Hong Kong as well!
Of course, availability is key here, and you’ll want to make sure there’s available seats on your desired flights before pulling the trigger on a large points purchase like this.
Also note that many of these types of points-purchase transactions are processed through the US-based Points.com service, which levies additional GST/HST on Canadian residents. Therefore, it’d be optimal to use your US credit cards and US billing address to make the purchase.
5. Companion Vouchers
I wrote about companion vouchers a few weeks back, with the WestJet RBC World Elite MasterCard and the MBNA Alaska Airlines MasterCard representing the two major players in the Canadian scene. The general idea behind companion vouchers is that they are best used towards expensive flights that thereby maximize the value of the voucher, but these must be flights that you would’ve otherwise taken anyway.
Don’t go out of your way to book expensive flights just to maximize the nominal “value”; instead, treat the voucher as a powerful way to reduce the cost of any trips you were already planning to take. For more discussion on the WestJet and Alaska Airlines companion fares, check out my recent article on the subject.
6. Maximize Points Earned on the Purchase
Flights can often be some fairly large transactions, so you’ll want to think carefully about which payment methods you use for the transaction, since the points you earn as a result can go some way towards offsetting your out-of-pocket cost or helping you build towards your next mileage redemption.
In terms of Canadian credit cards, the Amex Gold Rewards Card and Amex Platinum Card both offer 2 Membership Rewards per dollar spent on travel, which is a respectable return. Another contender would be the HSBC World Elite MasterCard, whose 6 HSBC Rewards points per dollar spent on travel is essentially equivalent to 3% cash back. Which of these you prefer will depend on how confident you are of redeeming your MR points for a value of over 1.5 cents per point, which I’d say should be very much doable.
Another option is to purchase airline gift cards at grocery stores to take advantage of the Cobalt Card’s 5 MR Select points per dollar spent, but in doing so you’ll be giving up any travel insurance benefits that you get from putting the purchase on your credit card directly.
Lastly, if you hold the US-issued Amex Platinum Card, that’s probably going to be the winner, since you’ll earn an incredible 5 US MR points per dollar spent on airfare with that card.
7. Airline-Specific Discounts
Don’t forget to check for deals and discounts on the specific airline you’re booking with. With Air Canada alone, for example, there are a handful of discounts that usually come around once or twice a year.
There’s the Masterpass promotion, which in its latest iteration (in October 2018) gave you a credit of $50 or $150 for completing a single booking using Masterpass.
Then there’s stuff like the 15% discount for Amex Platinum cardholders, who are given a specific promo code that allows them to save 15% on Air Canada flights. The cardholder doesn’t have to be the traveller, though, so if you know many Platinum cardholders who aren’t using their codes, you can use their discounts to score savings on multiple trips.
Discounted airline gift cards fall in this category as well. Every now and then, a retailer like Sobeys or Safeway will put on their Air Canada gift cards for 10% off, so you can pick up, say, a $500 gift card for only $450. If you routinely spend money on Air Canada, it can be very worthwhile to stockpile a few of these gift cards when these promotions come around.
Even something like WestJet’s member appreciation offers, where they put 50 WestJet Dollars into your account for the weekend and you have only two days to redeem them, can provide some unexpected savings if you use them right.
8. Fixed-Value Points & Travel Credits
While the business class redemptions and luxury potential of programs like Aeroplan and Alaska Mileage Plan might attract most of the spotlight, fixed-value programs like CIBC Aventura, Scotia Rewards, and TD Rewards can be equally important if only a fraction as glamorous, and I’m a big believer in keeping a healthy balance of fixed-value points around at all times.
That’s because they’re one of the best ways to deal with situations in which you have to pay cash for a flight: simply proceed with the transaction, and then use your fixed-value points to wipe the charge off your bill and ensure you spend as little of your own money as possible.
The $120 travel credits on the CIBC Aventura Visa Infinite or the CIBC Aventura Visa card for Business, as well as the $100 Travel Enhancement Credit on the HSBC World Elite MasterCard, work in the same way to reduce your out-of-pocket costs. Pick up a few extra cards like these whenever you can, especially when their offers are most lucrative, because you just never know when they might come in handy.
9. Hidden City Ticketing
Lastly, a few slightly more black-hat tips that I’ve previously discussed in my “Airline Secrets” series. First up, hidden city ticketing, which is the practice of booking a series of flights to a point beyond your actual intended destination, to unlock a lower fare than what you’d pay if you flew to the destination itself.
Essentially, thanks to the intricacies of the airline pricing models, it’s not uncommon to see A–B–C priced lower than A–B, thus opening up the opportunity for savvy B–bound travellers to book A–B–C and get off in the middle.
You can use a website like Skiplagged to help you search for potential hidden city opportunities – I almost always hop on this website when I’m looking to book flights, just to see if there are any “creative” routing possibilities that I may have missed.
Keep in mind, though, that the savings from hidden city ticketing come with the trade-offs of flying one-way only, not being able to check bags, and enduring the risk of getting re-routed to a place you never intended to go in the case of flight delays or cancellations. For a full discussion of hidden city ticketing and its associated risks and rewards, check out my full article on the subject.
10. Fuel Dumping
It’s top-secret. It’s underhanded. It’s genius.
It’s “fuel dumping”, the practice of manipulating airline fare calculation systems in such a way that drops the fuel surcharge from the fare calculations entirely, resulting in significant savings of 75% or more on economy and business class airfare.
You know how airlines sometimes publish fares by mistake, and everyone scrambles to book them before they’re gone? Well, you can think of fuel dumping as sort of deliberately confusing the airline and forcing them to offer you their mistake fares on your own.
The most common method is to take a simple round-trip flight and book it on the same ticket with a “3X” or “third strike” at the end – a separate, unrelated flight on a different airline that confuses the ticketing system and causes it to drop the fuel surcharge on the original ticket. Check out my full article on the subject for a more in-depth discussion of the techniques.
Like I mentioned in that article, though, the knowledge of which specific flights actually function successfully as 3Xs is generally a very closely-kept secret by those in the know, so you must be truly dedicated to the fuel dumping craft if you wish to succeed. And for good reason: if they found out about a specific trick, the airlines would shut it down quicker than any manufactured spending method that ever lived!
While travelling on points might carry with it a greater sense of adventure and accomplishment, it’s well worth paying attention to the many ways to save money on revenue travel as well, and I’ve developed many techniques over the years to reduce my out-of-pocket costs when booking flights with cash. Between optimizing your routings, itineraries, and payment methods, I hope you’re able to use some of these tips to stretch your travel budget even further.