Ever seen those articles that claim you can use points and air miles to fly for free? It’s known as travel hacking and I’ve been doing it for years. In this post, I’ll share my tips for how to do it yourself. At the end, I’ve included what happened the year I really focused on collecting points for free travel – the points I collected and the trips it got me. Since I’m a UK resident, this is about travel hacking in the UK.
What is travel hacking?
Travel hacking means using air miles, points and other loyalty schemes to get free or discounted travel, which can include flights, hotels or travel extras like car hire. Often these points are collected by using a promotional credit card that offers a large number of air mile points as a sign-up bonus. However, you can also collect points from other schemes including supermarkets. As with air miles, you can turn those points into flights, hotel stays or other travel-related activities such as days out, railcards, airport parking and ferries.
Can you really travel for free?
“Fly for free!” It’s a catchy headline but is it really possible to use travel hacking to fly for free? The short answer is it depends. In the UK you cannot fly for free because there are always taxes and fees. However, with some fees as low as 50p for a flight to Europe it’s as close as you can get to free travel.
If you decide to collect and spend points on other travel experiences like hotel stays, it is possible to spend your points and book travel for free.
5 Best schemes for collecting travel points in the UK
When we think of travel hacking, air miles credit cards spring to mind but there are many ways in the UK to collect points for free or discounted travel.
1. Air miles credit cards
I’ve got a few sections below dedicated to air miles credit cards because these often give you a large number of bonus points when you sign up. You can then use those points for discounted flights or other travel experiences. Air miles credit cards can be from a bank like Barclaycard or directly from an airline like British Airways.
2. Direct with British Airways Avios scheme
As well as collecting air miles via a credit card, you can join an airline’s air miles scheme directly. Avios is the British Airways points scheme. You can collect points by flying with British Airways, by signing up to a BA air miles credit card or by collecting points with a partner e.g. Sainsbury’s Nectar points can be used with British Airways. Avios used to be a wonderful scheme letting you use points across the BA One World Group as well as many additional travel services. It’s not as good as it was, but it’s still got the best range of flight destinations. And you’re not restricted to spending your points on flights. You can use your Avios points towards hotels and car hire.
3. Direct with Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
Similar to Avios, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club is an airline-specific scheme. You can usually sign up for a points-collecting credit card for Virgin, to get a lump of bonus points. In addition, you can collect points by taking flights or shopping with Virgin partners (e.g. Tesco Clubcard). You can then spend your points on flights, holidays and hotels. Virgin has an online retail portal where you can earn points when you buy from various brands from Nike to Calvin Klein.
4. Tesco Clubcard and Sainsbury’s Nectar points
Supermarket loyalty schemes are a big travel hacking opportunity in the UK. Both Tesco Clubcard and Sainsbury’s Nectar have very generous points schemes. First off, you can collect points in a whole range of ways beyond your supermarket shop. You can usually collect with various partners like Halfords, Argos, Evri, Ebay and Esso. Both supermarkets also have credit cards which let you collect extra points. Then, when you’re stacked up with points, you have an extensive choice for spending them – from flights to hotels to holidays and days out.
Quick guide: Tesco partners with Virgin Atlantic and Hotels.com. Sainsbury’s partners with British Airways and Booking.com. Both partner with Eurostar. Tesco has more ways to spend on travel but fewer partners for collecting points. Sainsbury’s has fewer ways to spend but more partners for collecting.
5. Other airline air miles schemes
Every time you fly with an airline you can usually collect points. Over time, these points add up and can be traded towards flights. You can sign up to any air miles scheme in the world. I have joined schemes for British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Hawaiian Airlines (I got free checked luggage), Air Asia, Emirates, United Airlines and many more. It costs nothing and airlines that are part of an alliance often let you spend points across the group. For example, if you collect points with Emirates, you can spend them on Easyjet flights (even though I have fallen out with Easyjet since they denied me boarding one time because they wrongly claimed my passport had expired). You have nothing to lose. Collect on every flight.
15 Tips for Boosting Your Travel Points
With a bit of practice, you can easily get into the points-pursuing mindset. It can become pleasantly addictive, with a trip at the end of it. Here are my tips for upping your travel hacking points.
1. Start with an air miles credit card
The fastest way to get a big boost of points is to get an air miles credit card. As well as a sign-up bonus, you collect points whenever you shop using your credit card.
2. Get a supermarket credit card
If you don’t want to go down the air miles credit card route, consider a credit card with Tesco or Sainsbury’s. You can then collect credit card points in addition to the usual shopping points, all of which can be used towards travel.
3. Shop with points partners
Once you’ve picked your schemes – Avios, Virgin, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, all of them (!) – check to see where you can collect points. Virgin Atlantic, for example, has a shopping portal on its website. The supermarkets also offer a great range of ways to collect points; you can collect points on everything from your mobile phone bill to petrol to wine.
4. Look out for bonus points when you shop
Whether it’s an extra 20 points on your spinach at Sainsbury’s or 20,000 points when you buy a promotional case of wine or change your mobile contract, keep an eye out for deals that boost your points.
5. Double the value of your points at Tesco
You have to love the fact that Tesco Clubcard points have 2x the value when you spend them on reward partners like British Airways (rather than spend them in-store on your shopping).
6. Renew your insurance with a supermarket bank
Both Tesco and Sainsbury’s offer insurance products from home to car to pet to travel, check whether there are any points deals on offer. But beware of false economies if the insurance isn’t competitively priced.
7. Move all your spending to your points credit card
If you’ve got more than one bank card, get into the habit of using your points card every time. Just remember to pay it off each month to avoid paying interest.
8. Offer to shop for family and friends
Mum buying a new TV? Brother getting a new Macbook? Offer to pay and get your family and friends to transfer the money to you. You collect points. They get their new product.
9. Get a household account to collect points
If there is a chance for you and your partner to collect points on the same scheme e.g. Tesco Clubcard, combine your accounts and double your points collection.
10. Share and transfer miles
If you have friends or family who travel a lot but who don’t care about travel hacking, ask if they are prepared to share or gift their points to you rather than let them expire. Tell them it can be your birthday/Christmas gift.
11. Claim missing points
From air miles to shopping, don’t let any points go unclaimed.
12. Travel but stay loyal
One of the fastest ways to collect travel points is to travel. Collect points on flights, ferries, holidays, hotel stays and car hire. But don’t scatter your points collecting around. Pick your preferred travel brands and websites and stick with them where sensible. That way you can collect points quicker rather than having fewer points spread across Avis, Budget, Expedia and Booking.com.
13. Buy airline points
Airlines will let you buy points. This is useful if you’re just a bit short of what you need to take a reward flight. Do the maths but this can be a good deal. A few times a year, airlines offer boosted points giving you 1.5x to 2x the points when you buy them during the deal period.
14. Take surveys
Some schemes e.g. Virgin and Sainsbury’s will give you points if you take surveys. Read the privacy rules before you hand over your data and ensure you don’t share any personal information you’re uncomfortable sharing.
15. Beware false economies
Don’t shop outside your usual spending just to earn flyer miles. Wouldn’t it be better to just use that extra money directly on travel?
Top tip: if you truly want to maximise your travel hacking, choose a scheme e.g. Virgin Atlantic and get an airline credit card for the bonus points and/or the associated supermarket credit card for collecting everyday points (e.g. Tesco credit card). Then do your shopping at that supermarket (using your points collecting credit card), and shop with every partner you can e.g. Tesco petrol, Tesco insurance, etc. You can set up a similar system for collecting points with British Airways and Sainsbury’s.
15 Tips for choosing an air miles credit card
When you’re comparing the air miles credit card deals, here are my tips for things to think about.
1. Have a travel goal
Do you want a lump sum of air miles after a large minimum spend or free companion flights or business class upgrades? Do you have a preferred airline? Are you looking for luxury travel or cheap flights? Do you want to travel long-haul (higher fees) or take multiple Europe trips (lower fees)?
2. Use a credit card comparison site
To make life easier, head to a credit card comparison site to choose your air miles credit card. The best and most trustworthy UK websites for comparing UK air miles credit cards are Money Saving Expert, Money and Money Supermarket. However, Money and Money Supermarket want a lot of personal details to give you a quote. Sigh. Money Saving Expert is the one I use as you don’t have to fill in any info, and it’s well-researched and up-to-date, which is important as credit card bonus offers change regularly.
3. Can you meet the minimum spend in time?
Bonus points always have a minimum spend in a set period e.g. £3,000 in 3 months. Work out which spending you’re going to transfer to your card to achieve it. It’s especially good to sign up when you have some big bills coming up like a kitchen extension.
4. Compare annual fees
Some cards, particularly the “Premium” and “Platinum” versions come with an annual fee. British Airways has one that costs a painful £250 a year and Barclays has one card that costs £20 a month (they both have other cards with lower fees). My fee was £50 for the year but I would have paid nearly £500 to buy 30,000 points so it was worth the cost. I cancelled my credit card before a second annual fee became due.
5. Check the eligibility criteria and your credit rating
All credit cards have basic eligibility rules. These are typically a minimum age of 18, a minimum income and permanent UK residence. Check the details before you apply. Some of the comparison websites link to the criteria so you can check them easily.
Also check your credit rating, a score that can determine how likely you are to get accepted for a credit card. Experian is an expert in credit ratings. Experian has a summary of what your credit score means and you can also check your score for free. This is the service I use and it doesn’t cost anything.
6. Compare interest rates
Air miles credit card interest rates can be eye-watering. Last time I checked, Amex Gold charged 88.8% and the British Airways Amex Premium was 113.1%. Yes, you read that right! I believe loan sharks aren’t much more expensive (but only offer hospital points). Some cards are as ‘low’ as 30%. Ideally, you will be paying off your card each month so it won’t matter. But do keep an eye on interest rates just in case you forget to pay one month.
7. Know your repayment date
While you want to collect points, you don’t want to pay interest. Find out your repayment date and settle your bill in advance to make sure your payment clears on time. If there is a small chance you won’t remember, set up a direct debit to pay the whole lot each month.
8. Understand when you will get your points
If you’re planning to use your points for a specific trip, check the fine print to understand how and when you will get your points. I had to wait 30 days for mine to be credited to my account after I hit the minimum spend. It meant I missed out on using them on the trip I wanted.
9. Check if you can use vouchers together
I had planned to use both my bonus points and free companion flight together but ‘cannot be used in conjunction with any other offer’ was the small print that squashed my plan. Of course, I only found this out when I tried to use my vouchers.
10. Are there other spending conditions?
I was also tied into using the Avios website to book a hotel when I spent some of my points. I knew this in advance and was ok with it. The important thing is to know the rules before you sign up.
11. Check bonus points expiry dates
My flyer miles and partner flight came with an expiry date of 1 year. Make sure you understand when your points expire and, importantly, book well ahead. Airlines allocate a limited number of ‘points’ flights each route/flight and when they’re booked, they’re booked.
12. Know the air miles scheme you’re getting into
It’s easy to get distracted by the sparkle of free points. However, make sure you understand which air mile scheme you’re getting into and what is on offer. Avios (British Airways) and Virgin Atlantic are the two main UK schemes. But they each offer additional ways to spend your points like hotels, Eurostar, airport lounges and airport parking.
13. Plan your route
Before you sign up, make sure you understand where your airline goes. If you’re planning a backpacking trip to Colombia with your flyer miles, there’s little point signing up for a scheme with an airline that doesn’t go there.
14. Understand the points per spend reward
As well as working towards your target spend (£3,000 in my case) to gain your bonus points (30,000 flyer miles and a free companion flight), most schemes let you collect points when you spend on your card. I got 1.5 points for every £1 on my Amex and 1 point for every £5 spent on my Mastercard. In a year, I collected around 30,000 extra points. Each scheme is different so check the rate. Most comparison websites show the rate so you can compare it easily.
15. Remember AMEX isn’t accepted everywhere
AMEX (American Express) is an American credit card and due to high fees for retailers, many shops don’t accept it. That can impact your points collection. However, I was able to use my AMEX around 90% of the time.
10 Tips for spending your points on travel
It’s a great thing to have a virtual wallet full of points to book a trip. Here are my tips for when it comes to redeeming your air miles and travel points.
1. Do early research on availability
When you’re looking to spend your air miles, start to regularly check the availability of the reward flights (or hotels or car hire) you want.
2. Book months ahead
Most air mile schemes allocate a set number of reward seats per flight. To give you an idea, BA offers 8 seats on European economy flights. If you’re looking at a popular destination at a popular time of year with only a few flights per week, then you’re probably going to need to book your reward flights months in advance, especially if you’re travelling outside low-season. For example, to get a London to LA flight, the next reward seats were booked 3.5 months ahead during summer. I’ve never had the same issue with hotel bookings when I was using points.
3. Be flexible
We all know that being flexible on dates, routes, times and destinations (as well as avoiding dynamic pricing!) is the best way to get cheap flights or travel. Why not let the whim of what’s on offer decide where and when you go?
4. Do the maths on long-haul flights
Unfortunately, long-haul flights often aren’t the best way to use points because of the high taxes and fuel fees. A couple of examples:
Flying to Los Angeles with BA from London
Cost: 50,000 air miles + £387.11 in taxes
Cost without air miles: £589.11
Saving by using air miles = £202
Flying to Bangkok with BA from London
Cost: 60,000 air miles + £381.11 in taxes
Cost without air miles: £666.11
Saving by using air miles = £285
5. Book Europe flights for the lowest fees
Typically, you can get a better range of reward flights with far lower fees if you travel to Europe. For example, with BA you can pay just 50p in fees and 16,500 points to travel from London to Geneva. Keep this in mind when you decide which scheme to collect points with. If you opt for Virgin Atlantic, most flights will be long-haul.
6. Use points plus cash
Not got enough points to book your flight? Consider adding cash. For example, for a BA return economy flight from London to Paris it’s just 9,500 points and £35 in cash. This is a good deal since it costs around £200 to buy 10,000 Avios points.
7. Consider using points for a flight upgrade
Turning left into Business class or even heading to Premium economy is a sweet way to use your points. Again, do the maths. Some airlines only let you upgrade one class. That means you’ll have to buy a Premium ticket to be able to upgrade to Business.
8. Use points for hotels
One of the simplest ways to use your points is by booking hotels. I’ve done this very successfully and it’s the essence of free travel because there are no fees to pay. Last year I booked a lovely 4-star hotel with a pool in Greece for £0. And since there are far more hotel options than reward flights, it can be the easiest way to use your points. I usually go through Tesco because I get 2x the voucher value (and shop there regularly).
9. Use points for travel extras
From holidays to airport parking, lounge access, ferries and car hire, there are many travel costs when booking a trip. And using your points to buy something other than flights can be a great way to spend them. You won’t face the airline taxes and fees and there really is a good range of travel extras to choose from.
10. Don’t make any booking mistakes
It’s difficult enough to make changes to your travels if you make a mistake using cash. But if you make a mistake using points or vouchers, you’re at real risk of losing the lot. I know this because I booked the wrong date for my Greece hotel and it was only down to my pleading (and 1 hour on the phone) that the lady agreed to reissue my points so I could re-book. When they’re spent, they’re spent. Beware!
My travel hacking experience
Starting in January, I dedicated a whole year to collecting points. Here’s how it went.
My credit card deal
The best deal at the time was Lloyds Premier Avios Credit Card (no longer available). It offered:
- collecting points: an AMEX that offered 1.5 points per £1 spent and a Mastercard that offered 1 points per £5 spent.
- bonus points: 30,000 bonus points if I spent £3,000 within 3 months.
- free partner flight up to 25,000 points if I spent £15,000 within 12 months.
The points I collected
I hit the £3,000 and £15,000 spending requirements which meant I got the bonus points and free partner flight. Both had an expiry date of 12 months. In addition, I collected over 31,000 air miles from my day-to-day spending on my credit cards.
The flights I took for my points
Within 12 months, I traded my points for:
2 one-way economy class flights from London to Cancun with BA. This cost:
- 25,000 of my collected points.
- I redeemed the free partner flight voucher to take a friend with me.
- £461.38 in cash (£230.69 per person)
I booked a one-way ticket to Cancun in Mexico’s Yucatan state because I was travelling on a longer trip. If I’d bought two return tickets, it would have cost 50,000 in collected points (which I didn’t have) and £736 in taxes (£367 per person). My friend had to buy a separate return flight to the UK after her holiday but she was happy as she was able to get a cheap price.
2 return business-class flights to Amsterdam. This cost:
- 36,000 points (9,000 per one-way ticket). For this, I used the 30,000 bonus points and 6,000 collected points.
- £100 in cash (£50 per person) in fees for the return flight.
- £194.50 in cash for 2 nights in a 4-star hotel (the scheme terms meant that I had to book a minimum 2-night hotel stay alongside my flight booking).
Learn from my mistakes
Like most things we do for the first time, there were things I definitely could have done better. These are the mistakes I made:
Overestimating how quickly I’d receive my points: My goal was to use my points to go to Tokyo. However, despite hitting my minimum spend threshold in time, my points took 30 days to be allocated to my account. And not in time for my Spring trip to Japan. Consequently, I didn’t get to use my points until a year later.
Not reading the small print about using points and vouchers on the same trip: Flying Business Class to Amsterdam from London wasn’t the best use of points. The flight is under 1 hour and there are lots of low-cost airlines that could have got me there just as cheaply. But, I hadn’t read the small print closely enough. I wasn’t allowed to use my bonus points and free partner flight voucher on the same trip. I only realised this when I tried to book the Mexico flight.
Booking too close to expiry dates: It worked out better to use the free partner flight voucher on the Mexico trip. But since the bonus points were about to expire, I had to cram in the extra trip to Amsterdam to use them. I upgraded to Business Class to get the most benefit from bonus points. Two return Economy Class flights to Amsterdam would have used only 18,000 points (no refund on the unused points). I did have to spend an extra 6,000 of my collected points to book the Business Class tickets, but that felt like a better deal than letting 12,000 points expire. I drank enough free Champagne on the flight to take the sting out of my mistake.
Not maximising my points collection: I could have collected a lot more points had I been in the UK more. As it was, I was travelling for more than 7 months and my cards had large international fees which meant I didn’t use them very often.
Travelling long haul: Had I taken multiple short trips to Europe and used some of the points for hotels, I’d have gotten much more value from my points. And I’d have paid far less in cash.
Is travel hacking worth it?
Is it all worthwhile? It will depend on your circumstances. For me, it is. For you? Here are the main pros and cons.
- Supermarket schemes are a low-risk, easy way to collect points without much behaviour change – you’re shopping anyway.
- While flights may not be free, using the points for hotels and other extras can be free.
- European flight routes can offer amazing value.
- Often you’re travelling with nicer airlines which is an all-round better experience.
- If you’re able to outsmart the air miles credit cards – follow the rules and pay it off monthly, you get a big stack of points for your everyday spending.
- Any points towards travel are better than paying full price.
- Points can help reduce some of the cost in a ‘stuck’ travel moment, like that time I missed my flight or had to do an emergency repatriation back from Costa Rica.
- You can’t fly for free.
- Your points expire so you need a plan to use them in time.
- It can take a lot of effort and dedication to maximise your points and spending.
- It can lead to false economies – spending more than you might to get points.
- There are some great, cheap flight and hotel deals around outside the points schemes (though fewer in recent years).
- You have to be more organised with dates because of flight availability restrictions.
There you have it, my guide to travel hacking in the UK. Have you done it? Are you going to give it a try? Drop any comments or questions below.