x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Hone travel hacking to a fine art for free flights and upgrades

The Practical Traveller Chris Guillebeau on how to see the world on a budget and in style.

I step out of the bathtub and prepare to enter the world of air travel. It doesn't take long: after dressing, I walk directly out into a private airport terminal in Frankfurt, Germany. It's lunchtime, so I sit down at a table for one laid out in china and white linens. "A drink, sir?" a server asks. I take a look at the extensive menu before wandering over to the buffet for starters.

I read the international newspapers and end the meal with espresso and chocolate mousse. After finishing, I simply get up and walk away -there is no bill. I sit down in a cubicle to work on my e-mails for the next hour, and after the catch-up session I'm summoned by a driver.

We complete a security check (very brief and completely private), then step out onto the tarmac on a crisp October day. A Mercedes Benz is waiting and I take a seat up front. When the driver drops me at the Lufthansa Airbus jet a few minutes later, I walk up the steps and the purser immediately shuts the door behind me. I'm the only passenger in the first-class cabin and the last one they were waiting for. We take off toward the west and head for Almaty, Kazakhstan - the latest destination on my quest to visit every country in the world.

How is this possible? There are two ways to travel in style. Option 1: spend up to US$14,000 (Dh51,425) on a first-class ticket. Option 2: acquire Frequent Flyer miles - you don't even have to step on a plane to get them - and redeem them for the flight. In this case, I had purchased the miles from US Airways, a Star Alliance carrier that partners with Lufthansa, for a mere $1,375 (Dh5,050). In other cases, similar trips have been completely free, thanks to credit-card bonuses or other incentives.

I've been travelling for 10 years, and after I decided to travel to the word's 193 countries, I knew I'd need some help. I still fly on plenty of economy flights, but I've made it an additional mission to sit in the front on the world's nicest airlines.

It all started with a simple upgrade on a night flight to Paris many years ago. When I approached the check-in counter for my connecting flight, the agent frowned. "It looks like there's a mechanical issue, and we've had to shift around your flights," he said, tapping furiously at the keyboard. "But there's good news. We've upgraded your long-haul flight to Charles de Gaulle airport."

On that first experience in business class, I discovered a new world of travel. Menus were handed out along with amenity kits of various toiletries. A flight attendant came by with drinks. The hours flew by - literally. Stepping off the plane refreshed, I knew it would be hard to go back to the toils of "peasant class".

I began studying how to use the system to my advantage. Thus began my introduction to the art of travel hacking: seeing the world on a budget, and often seeing it in style - all thanks to miles and points. Last year I earned more than a million Frequent Flyer miles and hotel points, the vast majority through promotions and bonuses - not flying. I then put them to good use for trips like the Lufthansa flight to Kazakhstan, Thai Airways flights to Chiang Mai, and even round-the-world trips that contain up to 16 segments.

The first step is to ensure you're a member of at least one mileage programme, and thus eligible to earn miles and points. You can join most programmes for free on the airline's website. Ensure you provide your account number with every reservation and at check-in; over time, you'll likely earn enough miles for a free flight or two.

The next step is to learn how to take it further, through registration bonuses, credit cards, mistake fares, elite status matches, and more. Each of these areas deserve columns of their own, so we'll take a look at them once in a while in the future.

It takes a bit of work: not every date is available, and once you have the reservation, it can be difficult to make changes. But a small effort can generate great rewards, like my first-class trip to Kazakhstan via Frankfurt.

You can also benefit from upgraded hotel stays. The night before my Lufthansa trip began, I checked into a Sheraton hotel near the Frankfurt train station. Upon reaching the elite check-in desk, the clerk looked up my reservation and smiled. "Thanks for giving us so much of your business," she said, as the system registered my VIP Platinum status.

The funny thing was that I stay in Sheraton hotels only a few times a year - but because of a complimentary "status match" from another programme, each time I'm given VIP treatment with free upgrades, breakfast, and internet access. When the clerk thanked me for my business, I thanked her for all the free breakfasts. The world awaits your arrival as a travel hacker - and the first-class lounge in Frankfurt is calling.

Chris Guillebeau, 33, is on a five-year mission to visit every country in the world. He is currently on number 161. Next week: a 36-hour bus ride through East Africa.