Free Trip Plan: Seattle to SFO for 4

Now that I figured out my San Francisco to Australia trip, but am still obsessed with miles, I’ve taken to offering to plan free trips for my friends. If you have an itinerary you’d like to get for free, email me at carrielynnkirby AT gmail.com. Here is my first trip plan for a friend:

I have a friend who wants to take a family trip to the San Francisco Bay Area this summer. This plan would work for anyone who wants four free domestic round trip tickets, as long as you take action before March 30.

I’m assuming that my friend has no miles so far in any airline or system, so that she’s starting fresh. Also, she doesn’t have any credit cards for any travel rewards programs.

Here’s what I told her to do:

1) Apply for the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express* for yourself, and once you have it, send your husband an invite-a-friend email and get him a separate account. Through March 30, this card is offering 35,000 points for signing up and spending $3,000 in the first three months, 10,000 more than they usually give. Plus, by inviting your husband, you’ll get a 5,000-point bonus.

Starwood is the Sheraton rewards program. Why start with a hotel card when the goal is to get airplane tickets? Because Starwood points not only transfer 1:1 to a number of airlines, but they give you a bonus 5,000 miles if you transfer 20,000 all at one time.

2) Check out the list of Starwood’s airline partners and figure out which ones would be potential carriers for your trip. Because you’re in Seattle, I’m guessing the best options are Alaska Airlines, Virgin Airlines, American Airlines and maybe Hawaiian.

3) Browse those airlines’ web sites to see if there are award seats available for the flights you want, and note how many miles the airlines charge for those flights. How can you find that out? Usually, by signing up for a loyalty account with the airline, then, if available, selecting “use miles” when searching for flights. Since I have an American AAdvantage account, I searched for Seattle-Oakland flights there, and American partner Alaskan came up as having plenty of Economy award seats available for the standard 25,000 American miles roundtrip.

4) By now your new Starwood AmEx cards should have arrived. Charge at least $5,000 on your husband’s, and at least $3,000 on yours, as quickly as you can (so you can get those seats booked asap).

I know I said that you are required to spend only $3,000 to get the bonus, but here’s why you should spend a little more on your husband’s card: Remember how I said you would get a 5,000 mile bonus every time you transfer 20,000 miles at a time? If he spends $3,000 on the card, he’ll get 38,000 points (the 35,000-point bonus plus 3,000 points for his spending). That’s not quite enough to qualify for two 5,000-point transfer bonuses. To get the most for his points, he should really put $5,000 on his card, so then he’ll have a round 40,000 points to transfer to the airline account, and he’ll end up with 50,000 miles. The reason you only need to spend $3,000 on your own card? Because you’ll have that 5,000-point referral bonus from signing up your husband. Once you’ve spent $3,000, you’ll have the 35,000-point bonus + your 5,000-mile referral bonus + 3,000 points for your spending. You’ll have slightly more than what you need for this trip.

What will you spend all that money on? First of all, think of any big-ticket expenses coming up. If you are getting quotes from contractors to do home repairs, find out if they charge a fee for paying with a credit card, and if they do, ask them to waive it as a condition of signing the contract. Is it time to sign up for the next session of your kids’ classes? Can you prepay for summer camp? Next, shift all your everyday spending to the new cards. Between groceries, gas and utility bills, many families will charge $3,000 or $5,000 in a month or two. To speed up the process, consider buying gift cards to your grocery store or other places where you regularly shop.

5) Once you and your husband both have at least 40,000 miles in your Starwood accounts, consolidate them into one account so that you can book your whole trip on one reservation. Starwood allows free transfers between household accounts. To do this, log into one of your Starwood accounts (which you will have created during the process of applying for the Starwood Amex), click “redeem Starpoints,” then choose “more options,” then “Pass the Starpoints, please.” Then click “transfer Starpoints,” and enter the membership number of the other spouse’s account. The site will ask you how many Starpoints you want to transfer. Transfer at least 40,000 Starwood points into the other person’s account, so that you now have one Starwood account with at least 80,000 points in it.

6) As soon as those points arrive in your account (it usually takes a few days), put the tickets you want on hold with your airline. American, for instance, allows 5-day holds on reward seats, and you don’t have to have enough miles in your account to start the hold. Doing this before you transfer the miles ensures that the seats will be there for you once the miles are in your airline account. If it turns out the seats you want aren’t available, try different dates if you’re flexible at all. If that fails, consider one of Starwood’s other airline partners.

7) Transfer 60,000 points to your airline account. Why 60,000? Because the maximum number of points you can transfer per day is 79,999, and you need to transfer your points in 20,000-mile bundles to maximize your transfer bonuses. So, today transfer 60,000 points, and tomorrow you can transfer the remaining 20,000.

8) In a few days, you should have 100,000 miles in your airline account — the 80,000 points you transferred, plus four 5,000-mile transfer bonuses. Go ahead and use those miles to book four roundtrip tickets!

How fast do you have to get this done?

Well, I don’t actually know how many award seats your airline has available, and how fast those will go. I would advise trying to get the $8,000 spend I recommend done in the first billing cycle of the credit card, just to be safe. For me, this card put the points in my SPG account as soon as the billing cycle ended, and then it will take a few more days to first transfer them all into one spouse’s account, and then to transfer them to an airline account.

Worst case scenario is that by the time you have enough miles, your airline doesn’t have any miles seats available. In that case, you can either a) keep checking, because airlines can make more award seats available at any time or b) get your tickets in another way, like by paying cash and saving these points for another trip, or  book your ticket with SPG Flights (which charges 20,000 miles for a ticket that costs $250-$280, and is not limited to award seats.

One thing I don’t think you should worry about is that waiting a month or two to accumulate these miles will make it too late to get a good price on buying a ticket for cash, in case your miles plan falls through. It’s now late March, and your trip is not until August. You should have all these miles by June 1 if not sooner. As long as you book six weeks in advance, you should be able to get a decent price for your trip if you end up having to pay cash.

* This is my affiliate link, so I’ll get 5,000 points if you sign up through it. Thank you!