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Free flight challenge: Earn, burn, and fly in a pinch

With several airlines currently in bankruptcy or in serious financial trouble, we’ve heard from many of you who are concerned about losing your miles due to liquidation. But it’s hard to give up on the miles game when the lure of a free flight is so strong.

As our answer, we’ve come up with the “free flight challenge.” The concept is simple: We put an airline to the test to see how quickly you can earn enough miles for a free flight. Then, you can apply our strategies to earn thousands of miles, redeem an award, and fly for free all within a few months. Or, if you have a few orphan miles in one airline, you can use our tips to help you quickly top off your account and gain an award ticket. In this way, you’ll shorten your time frame so even if the airline in question is experiencing financial woes, you’ll have earned and burned your miles before it’s too late.

US Airways

US Airways may seem like it’s on the road back into bankruptcy, but it’s not there yet. In the meantime, you can take advantage of its “GoFares” promotion to earn triple miles on flights to and from Washington, D.C., and Philadephia and snag low fares. US Airways also offers an off-peak domestic award for 20,000 miles (normally 25,000) for travel between September 15 and February 28. For our challenge, we combined these promotions to show you how to get a free flight with only one trip. Here’s our sample strategy:

  • Flight: Book your US Airways GoFares ticket online for a round-trip flight between Las Vegas and Washington, D.C. You’ll earn 3,000 miles for booking your ticket online for the first time, and triple miles for the GoFares flight. Round-trip travel between Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., earns approximately 4,200 miles, so triple that for 12,600 miles. Total flight miles: 15,600 miles
  • E-Statements: Sign up for E-Statements from US Airways for an easy 1,000 miles. Total e-mail miles: 1,000 miles
  • Online check-in: The first time you use US Airways’ online flight check-in, you’ll earn 1,000 miles. Total check-in miles: 1,000 miles
  • Hotel rewards: Book the hotel stay for your trip through Dividend Miles Hotels. Through the end of September, you’ll earn 10 miles per dollar spent on hotel charges. Spend at least $240 for your accommodations: Total miles: 2,400 miles

Now, with one trip and four easy steps, you’ve racked up 20,000 miles. Once your miles post, you can travel anywhere within North America between September 15 and February 28 for free. And, as the lowest GoFare between Vegas and D.C. starts at $198 round-trip, you won’t have spent more than $500 to get that free ticket.

Do your own challenge

Our test works well for a new US Airways flyer flying from Vegas, but your itinerary and flying habits may be different. Still, you can employ the general principles we used to conduct your own challenge:

  • Take advantage of promotions: If you want to earn miles fast, you either have to fly very far or very often, or make average trips pay big. Use the Mile Finder to look for bonus mile offers that will net you extra miles for your flight.
  • Take advantage of sales: Plan your trips around airline sales so you spend the least amount of money for the greatest number of miles. You can find the latest deals on’s Air homepage.
  • Look for free miles: Signup bonuses are the best way to pick up extra miles for free. If you haven’t joined your airline’s frequent flyer programs or signed up for their promotional e-mails, do so. Occasionally, you can pick up 500 or 1,000 miles for your minimal effort.
  • When in doubt, go shopping: When you’re just a few miles short of an award, see if you can earn miles for activities you’re planning on doing anyway, such as online shopping, talking on the phone, or staying in a hotel. Mileage malls and hotel and car rental partners allow you to earn extra miles without incurring an extra cost.

Just keep in mind that for some activities, miles can take up to six to eight weeks to post to your account, occasionally longer. Always check the terms and conditions of the mile offers you intend to use to make sure your miles will get to you before you need to book your award ticket.

So, when you begin to worry that your miles will disappear before you have enough of them for an award seat, challenge yourself to find creative ways to earn 20,000 or 25,000 miles quickly. With a little travel savvy, you’ll realize just how easy it can be to boost your mileage account.

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