How To Guide For Your First Free Flight


Thank goodness for family. Once word got out that I was the reward credit card guru, I have been getting some great questions from them.

How To Snag That First Flight

The latest question comes from my brother in law. A couple years ago, he started a consulting job that has him flying to a different destination every other week. At my suggestion, he wisely signed up for a reward credit card from the airline he flies the most, United. While regular readers know of my intense dislike of everything United, this really was the only choice for him. Almost all of his travel is from Colorado to small cities in neighboring states, many of which have little other service from Denver. While both Frontier and Southwest have hubs in Denver, neither will earn him mileage towards and overseas award ticket.

Where To Start

That said, I cautioned him that there are some very significant problems with United and their Mileage Plus program. For one, United doesn’t even fly to his destination in the middle east. I explained to him that United is the member of the Star Alliance, a one of three major global airline alliances. He would seemingly be in luck that United does not serve his destination, as their service stinks, and he can get there by several other Star Alliance partners. By far the best connection and service out of Denver would be with Lufthansa.

Nothing Is As Simple As It Seems

The problem with getting a partner award with United, is a little thing known as Starnet blocking. It turns out that United cares so little about it’s customers, that it actively blocks them from claiming award seats available on its partners via it’s reservations program, StarNet. Like the evil computer system SkyNet, Starnet is intent on destroying your dreams of a partner award ticket. (Interestingly, it seems United’s employee intranet is actually named SkyNet! Coincidence?) For example, an award seat on Lufthansa might be available to members of every other Star Alliance partner, such as US Airways, yet calling United only results in frustration. Think of it like Santa tackling you when you try to open your presents.

The only way I know to get around Starnet blocking is by being very flexible and booking your ticket way in advance, preferably when they are entered into their computer system 11 months before the travel date.

Why Bother With United?

Since he signed up for the Chase United Gold Card, he received a generous sign up bonus, and started charging his travel to that card. He now has 50,000 miles in United’s MileagePlus program. The award seat he wants, an economy class ticket to the middle east, is a mere 75,000 miles. Once I heard that, I realized it would be rather pointless to start accruing miles into another system, especially since he will have almost no opportunity to travel with another international carrier.

With 50,000 MileagePlus miles already, I quickly realized that he could also get the United Mileage Plus business card, which has a sign up bonus of 21,000 miles. He would be very close in no time. Unfortunately, he would prefer not to get an additional credit card at this time.

Plan B

I then told him he needs to focus on accumulating as much mileage as possible on every business trip. Start by visiting United’s Mileage Plus partner page. I recommended that he go through each one and figure out if any of their services can be used on each trip. Make sure to work in the Mileage Plus Dining program to each of your meals. You have to eat somewhere, you might as well earn mileage. It is also important to regularly look at any major promotions. Be sure to sign up for the promotion and to confirm your registration, otherwise it doesn’t count.

Getting That Ticket

As he is approaching the magical 75,000 mile mark necessary for his award, he should start looking into flights. Unfortunately, he will have to call United in order to book an international partner flight. He should start by asking specifically for the flights he wants by number. With United, their reservations agents can be a mixed bag. I often hear misleading and contradictory information, especially from their poorly trained representatives at their overseas call centers. If they won’t help you, simply hang up and try again. Often, you know that they are not helping you when you ask a complicated question, and they instantly give you a simple answer. Are there any flight awards available for return in the month of October or November on any other Star Alliance carriers, No. I learned that if they claim to actually be looking for an award seat for less than two seconds, they really just want you to get off of the phone. That is the time to either hang up or ask for a supervisor. They have a terrible system, but none of that matters when you are getting a free ticket to the other side of the world an a quality carrier, one other than United.

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One Response to “How To Guide For Your First Free Flight”

  1. Ken Says:

    After he gets this desired international ticket, he should abandon United’s FF program. Stop using and paying an annual fee for United’s Chase card. Get a USAirways account, and credit card with its 25,000 mileage bonus. Then, every United flight he takes, he can credit it to USAir’s program. USAir apparently does not do Starnet blocking, so he can book USAir reward tickets on any Star Alliance partner where seats are available. He would never actually have to fly USAir.

    (Also, if he choses this option and wants to get rid of the United credit card’s annual fee, have him call to cancel and ask for a no-annual-fee United card. Chase seems to have one, but that card only offers half as many FF miles. That way, he can retain a United card, which probably has a good credit limit, and he can keep his utilization low.)

    This option also would work for BMI (another Star partner) instead of USAir, but with Lufthansa buying BMI, it’s unclear what the future of the FF programs are. BMI has frequently had some great FF mileage bonuses just for joining the program.

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