May 05, 2006

Four free flights to Zurich: How I did it

For the past few weeks, I’ve been a woman on a mission: use my family's motley but massive assortment of frequent flier miles and other reward points to score free plane tickets for all four of us to an international destination – any international destination.

A family caucus produced the only limits by which I was bound: no ultra-long plane rides; no more than one plane change; no longer than two weeks gone.

Our miles and points have built to epic levels over the past few years because I’ve found it either impossible or impossibly frustrating to trade them for plane tickets, and free seats are the only reward I care about. I'm not interested in magazine subscriptions, trendy electronic gadgetry, Williams-Sonoma kitchen clutter or first-class upgrades. I want plane tickets.

Blackout dates; unavailable destinations; expired miles; reward program changes; one free seat if we buy the other three; tickets available, but at double the miles; confines of the school vacation calendar; the unfair advantage enjoyed by a telephone reservation agent with availability data you can’t see and he or she won’t share – all these have conspired to keep us from being rewarded by our reward programs.

We had so many miles in the bank I started to think we should address them in our wills and estate plan. We’d surely be dead before they were used. Maybe the kids could get a free trip to the Greek islands after we were gone. We might even get the last laugh and finagle the whole family foursome onboard if the kids packed our ashes in their carry-ons (to prevent our remains from spending eternity on the island of lost luggage) to cast them into the Aegean Sea (at Santorini, please).

This time, I resolved not to give up until I had four free tickets to somewhere good (or just somewhere not too bad). I checked the coffee supply, hunkered down, and prepared to fight the good fight.

I scored four tickets to Zurich .

A key to my success was a nifty tool I found on one of the pages of Continental Airlines’ OnePass site: reward availability calendars. I searched Continental because we could transfer American Express Membership Rewards points into our Continental accounts. Worth a look.

On the Continental reward pages, when you type in a destination, you see monthly calendars that show what types of reward seats are available for each date. I typed in every major European city, specified four passengers, then looked at the June through September calendars that popped up for each. I used Newark, Continental’s hub -- lots of flights going in and out -- and an easy four-hour drive from our house, as the start point. I then made a list, by city, of all available reward dates. My four-page list showed summertime seats available for flights between Newark and Milan, Amsterdam, Brussels, Dublin, London and Zurich.

Stay with me now... I then combined the available dates into depart/return itineraries of no fewer than 10 days and no more than 14 (remember the family caucus). Then, eliminating all the date combinations that didn’t work with our summer schedule, I narrowed the list down, took what was left and prioritized the destinations. I put Zurich on top because we could use it as a jumping-off point for a road trip to the Swiss and French Alps and Lake Geneva, places we haven’t been.

I invested about four days in this process. The airlines don’t make it easy. But the online calendars, coupled with persistence, flexibility and pots of coffee on my end, yielded $4,300 worth of free tickets to Switzerland.

Enough to allow a guilt-free splurge on Swiss chocolate and cheese. And maybe an antique cowbell for the windowsill.