We spend a LOT of time researching to get the best value for our money as much as possible because we definitely do not have any amount of disposable travel cash.
This is not necessarily to say that we are “budget” backpackers. Though we love a good deal, we’ve pretty much moved on from hostels at this point in life.
That being said, we do a lot of hustling for cheap/free airfare and lodging. Between miles from my work travel and credit card reward points, we try to hold off on spending our own money for travel when we can.
For example, we just booked a trip to Zihuatanejo, Mexico and didn’t pay a dime.
How did we do it? No, it wasn’t with my miles from work. I’ll give you a rundown of my best advice for booking cheap (and convenient) flights and walk through how we scored this trip for free.
Get the Chase Sapphire Reserve, duh!
We used the least-kept-secret in the travel credit card world – the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card.
The sign-on bonus was insane. If you spent $4,000 in the first 3 months, you received 100,000 points to spend on travel through Chase Rewards program (or a number of participating partners). These points can go towards airfare, hotels, rental cars, and activities.
To put that 100,000 point bonus in perspective, Ruth and I booked our flights to Europe last year for 120,000 United miles (which Chase points can cover through a 1:1 ratio). So that’s two roundtrip tickets to Europe for a little over the amount of the sign-on bonus.
We also booked seven of our nights at hotels through Chase Rewards for 88,000 points.
We’re talking about up to a few thousand dollars of rewards here!
If you are smart, you can make those points go even further.
Back to our trip. We decided we’d love to spend some time in Mexico this summer and stretch our Memorial Day weekend out by a couple of days.
I had my 100,000 Chase Sapphire Reserve points in the bank, and they were burning a hole in my pocket (do people still use that expression?).
Disclaimer: The Reserve sign up bonus has dropped down to 50,000 points, but in my opinion, still ABSOLUTELY worth it (and more than you’ll get with any other card). There are a ton of travel perks that come with the card, too, like $300 travel credit, GlobalEntry or TSA PreCheck reimbursement, insurance, etc. etc. etc.
Sort by travel time: Time is money!
Now that you have your points and are ready to spend, start with Kayak or Google Flights to get an idea of flight times, airlines, and general costs.
If your dates are flexible by a few days, both search engines let you toggle your departure and arrival days to get lowest prices possible.
We searched using flexible dates, and the top results had ridiculously long travel times.
We were planning a long Memorial Day weekend plus 2 days of PTO, so travel time was very valuable in this instance (but it always seems valuable to us).
Here are the first results we got from Google Flights:
These flights just didn’t make sense for our timeframe and budget, but the key to flight shopping is to do your research. That first “best” option is a 24 hour travel time! That wasn’t going to work.
Consider alternate airports and hubs
We noticed that several of the flights routed through Los Angeles, so next we searched as LAX as our outbound airport, rather than San Francisco or San Jose.
We know there are regular and frequent Southwest Airlines flights from the bay area to LAX that we could leverage if we found a better flight option in LAX.
Sure enough, this approach worked wonders. The obvious choice was a nonstop Alaska Airlines flight to Zihuatanejo for $476. Of course, we were really trying to use points for this trip, so we immediately went over to the Alaska website to research how many Alaska points were needed.
Turned out, these $476 flights would cost 100,000 points to get us both there and back. Not ideal.
Shop your points around: You may get a better deal directly with Chase
Our last option was to see if these flights were available through Chase Ultimate Rewards internal booking system.
Boom. The same flights that cost 100,000 points directly from Alaska cost only 56,000 Chase points!
Okay, I know – a lot of math happening so let me break this down:
Google “Best” Flight Non-direct SFO → ZIH
- Round Trip Travel Time: 48 hours (ouch!)
- Total Cost: $918
Alaska Flight Direct LAX → ZIH (on Chase site) + Southwest Flights San Jose → LAX
- Round Trip Travel Time: 13 hours (hallelujah!)
- Total Cost: 20,000 (Southwest via Chase) + 56,000 (Alaska via Chase) = 76,000 points
There is truly nothing better than booking a trip for free while keeping as many of those precious Chase Sapphire Reserve points to spend elsewhere.
We’d love to hear from you. What are your best tips or tricks you have for booking the best flights?