The Secret to Almost Free Flights by BJ from Busy Finding Time

I’m so excited to have BJ from Busy Finding Time here to tell us his secret to almost free flights! I’m not talking about finding cheap flights, but about working the points system! I also just love his story. Thanks for enlightening us BJ…

In 2009, my first full year of employment, I had 2 weeks of vacation at my engineering job.  At the end of the year, I had 3 unused days of vacation left.  That was the last time I did that!

While traveling for work the next winter, I sat next to a cute girl on a flight… crazy thing is we lived 6 blocks apart. Long story short, that girl became my wife!  That was 7 years ago.  It was the last time Jessica traveled for work and one of about 4 times since that I’ve had to travel.  I often wonder how many times we would’ve passed each other on the street or sat next to each other in a coffee shop if we hadn’t met on that plane!

Our mid-air introduction was foreshadowing to what would become our favorite past time.  We have been traveling as much as we can since.  

5 weeks after we met, we took our first trip – Dallas to visit her friend.  

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Taking a late night ride on the DART in Dallas.  Our first trip together, after knowing each other for just 5 weeks!  It’s not a high quality picture, but to me it’s priceless!

 

Since then, we’ve been taking about 5 trips per year.  We’re so inspired by full-time traveling families like the Wanderlust Crew and the Bucket List family. All we can think about these days is how to see more of this amazing world!!  

One of the most memorable experiences we had as a couple pre-kids was Burning Man outside Reno, NV.  There really is no short story to what Burning Man is, but think Bonaroo meets Arts festival in the middle of the desert.  It’s complete with an expectation to wear a costume (or nothing at all).  The cornerstone of the Burning Man culture is that you are encouraged to bring trinkets to give away and that there is nothing available to buy except ice and coffee.  I apologize to the Burners out there that this is a gross simplification.  The only way to really understand it is to just go!

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Burning Man 2012 in front of the sunken pirate ship.  I still can’t believe they created such a huge structure… and then took it down when the week was over!

 

I must say that our trips were a little more adventurous before our first kid-o was born in 2014.  But, Sebastian did go on 6 trips his first year including 3 stamps in his passport!

Sebastian’s (and now our daughter Ellie’s) favorite vacation days are travel days.  Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had some uncomfortable moments on planes with our kids. But our kids love people watching and love that they get 100% of our attention on travel days. Of course they enjoy the destinations as well.  

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Sebastian and I braving the residual hurricane rain in Los Barilles, Mexico.

 

Travel was a difficult choice for me to make at first.  I am a frugal person at heart.  The first thing I thought of when I heard the word “vacation” was money I had to spend.  

To add to that, Jessica and I had to dig our way out of $125k in student loan debt.  No, we’re not lawyers or doctors.  We both independently chose to pursue Masters degrees from our local, private, and very expensive university.  I still haven’t decided if they were worth it, but who knows what opportunities we will find in the future.  I do know that the debt payments have been difficult at times.  We finally have some light at the end of the tunnel – they should be paid off before the end of 2017!

I think the moment when I really turned the corner on travel was when I figured out how to get the most out of travel reward credit cards.

By far, the best deal that we have come across is the Southwest Companion Pass.  It will let your companion fly (almost) free on any Southwest flight!  Your companion can fly free even if your seat was booked with points.  We’ve taken many many trips where the two of us have both flown free.  In fact, when budgeting for trips we usually don’t include the cost of airfare – it’s usually free!  The caveats are pretty straightforward:

  • The companion does pay taxes and fees.  For domestic flights, it’s usually less than $25. Our companion flight to Aruba was about $65.  
  • The companion can only be changed 3 times over its lifetime.  Eg, Jessica is currently my companion.  When I book my travel (or more realistically when Jessica books my travel 🙂 ) it is a simple few clicks to get her booked on the same flights.  If Sebastian and I were to go on a trip (now that he’s two) I would have to make him my companion.  That’s one change – you have two more.  

The way to get the Companion Pass is to get 110,000 Southwest Rapid Reward points in one calendar year.  You don’t need to spend $110,000.  You could, but there’s a better way.  The simple trick is to get two Southwest credit cards:

  • Wait until the personal Southwest credit card offers the 50,000 point sign up bonus, then apply.  The standard bonus is 25,000.  It’s worth waiting a month or two until it goes back up.  
  • Also apply for a second credit card.  Southwest offers another personal card, but they have a business card, too.  Either card will work, but I think people have a better chance of being approved if one is business and one is personal.  Don’t have a business?  Don’t worry!  You do not need an official business.  You just need to honestly say that you are trying to make some money on an activity you are already doing.  For me, we were rehabbing our home.  I honestly intend to make some money off of those efforts.  Also, who knows, I might try to continue remodeling as a side job in the future.  Probably not, but who knows.
  • Spend $2k on each card to get the sign up bonus within the 3 months.
  • After that, you just need to spend an additional $6k to get the Companion Pass!

Correct timing can really boost the value the Companion Pass offers!  The pass is valid for the remainder of the year that you achieve 110,000 points PLUS the next year.  The best time to apply for the cards is about Dec.  Be sure not to hit the $2k spending limit for either card on Christmas shopping but be ready to start spending come Jan 1.  Depending on your monthly expenses, you can reach 110k points by Mar or so.  You’ll then have the Companion Pass for the rest of that year plus the next!

Just one note on timing: the sign up bonus will be credited to your Rapid Rewards account when the billing cycle closes after you hit the $2k in spending.  

The credit cards will have either a $69 or $99 per year annual fee, but that is a drop in the bucket compared to the benefits.

Not only will you have the pass, but you’ll have 110,000 rewards points.  A typical domestic flight can cost about 20k points.  You’ll have a little more than 5 trips for a couple (or throw in a lap child in with the deal 🙂 ) for free!  Plus, by the time you use those trips you’ll have acquired more points to buy more reward flights with a free companion.  See how great this is??

We are on our second round of Companion Passes.  Jessica accidentally got it when we made a lot of one-time purchases while doing a major home remodel.  When that one was nearing its end, we were desperate to find a way to get it again!  Fortunately, the internet had the solution that I laid out above.

I really look forward to using our points to go to Cuba now that Southwest flies there!  In the meantime, we’ll have to settle with our only currently scheduled trip, San Pedro, Belize.

Besides the Companion Pass, the next best deal just ended in Jan: the Chase Sapphire Reserve.  It boasts a 100k sign up bonus (worth at least $1,500), $300 per year travel reimbursement, TSA Precheck or Global Entry cost reimbursement, and worldwide airport lounge access.  It does come at a cost, though, with its $450 annual fee.  I rationalize it by considering it as really a $150/year fee because they are going to give me $300 because we are guaranteed to spend that much on travel in a year.

I won’t go on too much about this card because it is no longer offered.  I’ll be on the lookout for the next time a credit card company takes this approach, though.  Chase took their entire marketing budget and poured it into the sign up bonus.  The word of mouth campaign took off from there.  I thought it was too good to be true, so I put off applying.  I did squeak in just in time, though.  By the time I told Jessica to apply because it was so great, they had already ended the offer.  Oh well.

The next best travel card in my book is the Chase Sapphire with its 50,000 points (worth at least $625) sign up bonus.  The annual fee is waived for the first year and $95 ongoing.  This is good, but stay focused on the Companion Pass!

The Companion Pass is the primary way that we make travel affordable.  To get the rest of the way, I’ve written a post on how to save money in your day to day life in order to save enough for the rest of the travel expenses.  (<—– hyperlink: http://busyfindingtime.com/tips-and-tricks/best-ways-save-money-dream-vacations/)

Hopefully, some of this is new information to you and some of you go seek out the Chase Southwest cards to get the Companion Pass.  You will be happy you did.  I know I was.

Just to ease anyone’s concerns, we are not affiliated with Chase or Southwest in any way.  These are our honest opinions.  Hope you enjoyed!

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From our recent trip to San Pedro, Belize. I highly recommend the destination. So much so, that we’ll be back in April.

 

Written by BJ Butler from Busy Finding Time  Our website was inspired by our pursuits of home remodeling, gardening, child rearing, travel, and 2 full time jobs to pay for it all.  Come explore on Instagram where we have ventured: @BusyFindingTime

Thanks BJ! I just love the story of how you and Jessica met! That was such great information. I think I’m off to sign up for my Southwest card ASAP!

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Wanderlust Crew