We often hear stories in which wily travellers wangle first class travel at a fraction of the cost, but usually that means taking out a load of credit cards and spending a fortune to earn points.
But few of us actually have the time, patience, or ability to do this – so is it still possible to fly at the front of the plane without so much as owning a credit card?
Yes, according to professional flight hacker Gilbert Ott, based in New York, who shares his tricks with MailOnline Travel – everything from buying air miles cheaply without actually flying anywhere, to missing flights on purpose.
Professional flight hacker Gilbert Ott (pictured), based in New York, shares his tricks with MailOnline Travel – everything from buying air miles cheaply without actually flying anywhere, to missing flights on purpose to save money
Buy points, don’t earn them
‘Paying for tickets in loyalty points is often cheaper than with actual money, andd there are two ways to amass points: by spending money on credit cards, or flying with a certain airline,’ explains Mr Ott, the man behind the blog God Save The Points.
‘But there’s a third way – and that’s to just buy them directly from the carrier. Every few months, airlines sell off their points in promotional sales which mean you can purchase air miles without actually flying anywhere. You can then use them to book trips in upper class for significantly less.’
For example, a deal with United Airlines at the moment means you can fly from Hong Kong to Sydney in first class, sipping Dom Perignon using just 40,000 miles – which you can purchase for £839. Booking the traditional way, it would cost £4,689.
Earlier this year, a similar deal with Alaska Airlines meant you could fly from the US to Australia in first class for only £1,185 – a trip which should cost £8,000. In economy, it’s £800.
Every few months, airlines sell off their points in promotional sales which mean you can ‘buy’ frequent flyer points without actually flying anywhere,’ explains Mr Ott. ‘You can then use them to book trips in upper class for a fraction of the cost, since paying in loyalty points is often cheaper than with actual money’
The trick simply meant buying points from Alaska – which has a little-known but very generous frequent flier program – then applying them to a Qantas flight, one of its partners.
Booking a first class flight from the US to Australia directly with Qantas using miles would require 144,000 of them.
But booking through Alaska only costs you 70,000 for the same journey – and they’d put you on a Qantas plane anyway, thanks to their partnership.
Purchasing the 70,000 miles you’d need from Alaska costs £1,185 – so there’s your first class plane ticket.
Set price trackers
‘Many flash sales or crazy promotional fares like this expire within hours’, Mr Ott says.
‘But you can set alerts for them for free using Google Flights or Kayak, so if there’s a sudden drop on a route you’re interested in, you’ll be the first to know about it.
‘And don’t be afraid to set trackers for premium or business class too, since sometimes premium or business class seats will randomly be cheaper than economy ones, especially over peak summer travel periods.’
‘Many flash sales or crazy promotional fares like this expire within hours’, Mr Ott says. ‘But you can set alerts for them for free using Google Flights or Kayak, so if there’s a sudden drop on a route you’re interested in, you’ll be the first to know about it’
Additionally, follow deal sites and travel blogs manned by people who trawl the web day-in, day-out to find bizarre deals.
‘Our site, and others like Secret Flying, highlight deals you won’t find unless you’re looking hard. For example, we recently found a round-trip business class deal from Amsterdam to Tokyo on Qatar Airways for for £560.
‘That deal lasted three hours.’
Download airline apps
‘Airlines offer flash upgrades all the time now,’ Mr Ottt reveals. ‘Even with dirt-cheap economy tickets, many carriers now offer them to passengers who use their website or mobile app to check on their booking.
‘Upgrades are first come first serve though, so don’t miss out by rocking up to the airport, when they’re likely already gone.’
‘Miss’ your last flight on purpose
Known as ‘hidden city ticketing’, the trick works by booking a flight to a destination where your intended city is a layover, rather than the final stop.
By not taking this last leg of the flight, you can fly from London to Los Angeles, for example, in premium economy for £515 return – when a standard economy flight booked the traditional way costs £539.
‘Hidden city ticketing is an opportunity to save money on flight prices by booking travel via a city you don’t want to visit – which for whatever reason is pricing out cheaper than the place you do really want to visit,’ Mr Ott explains.
Example: Booking a flight from London to LAX in economy class with Air New Zealand costs £539 in economy class (left). However, flying from Sweden to LAX with British Airways in Premium Economy costs only £486 (right) – and stops over in London on its way back
All you’d need to do for the plan to work is get yourself from London to Stockholm one-way, which only costs £29 with Monarch
Last year, Mr Ott (pictured) wangled a flight from Boston to Washington in a $23million private jet for free using vouchers and promo codes
For example, booking a flight from London to LA with Air New Zealand costs around £539 in economy class.
However, flying from Sweden to LAX with British Airways in premium economy costs only £486. You just need to find a cheap one-way flight to get you from London to Sweden – they go for around £29 with Monarch airways – bringing the total to £515.
The return flight stops at London Heathrow for a layover before its final leg back to Sweden – this being the flight you would miss intentionally.
If you are booking to fly business class, the savings multiply even more. Flying from London to Rio in business class cost around £2,000. But if you get yourself to Brussels and fly from there instead, it costs only £1,200.
The one thing you must do is restrict your luggage to carry-on only. If you do check in a bag, it’ll end up at the city you didn’t want to go to.
Becoming an elite frequent flyer means free perks like lounge access, upgrades, free drinks and so forth.
‘Gaining this status usually requires a lot of year-round travel,’ Mr Ott says. ‘But many airlines will offer people limited time “status challenges”, where they can complete only a fraction of the usually required flying time, to earn the same status.
‘For example, American Airlines normally requires you to accrue 100,000 miles before granting you top-tier elite status. But if you take their status challenge, flying 25,000 miles in three months, it’s yours. For someone with a big trip coming up, this is totally doable.’
Becoming an elite frequent flyer means free perks and upgrades, and many airlines will offer people limited time ‘status challenges’, where they can complete only a fraction of the usually required flying time, to earn the same status
Use lucrative referral programs
RocketMiles and Kaligo, both hotel booking sites, give you 1,000 airline miles or more for referring friends to their platform.
Getting ten friends, therefore, to book the same hotel they would anyway, would earn you 10,000 miles – enough for a short haul return anywhere in Europe, or a one-way in the US.
Up your chances of an upgrade
Booking yourself onto oversold flights, Mr Ott says, is the only practical tactic that works, since when airlines overfill their economy section, it’s their prerogative to win back favour – and if that means an upgrade, so be it.
‘This has worked for me quite a few times, on quite a few different airlines around the world, and for the traveller without miles or status, it really is one of their only hopes,’ he states.
‘The good thing with oversold flights is that at the very least, you’re owed compensation, which can make for a free future trip.’
He points out that his best triumphs using this trick in the past have been during peak travel periods when airlines are frantically selling more tickets than they have seats.
So how to find out which overburdened flights to target? Mr Ott advices using a site like ExpertFlyer.com, which lets you see how many seats are left on any flight you search.
This infographic, complied by MagicFreebiesUK, outlines other ways you can score air miles without actually taking flight