How To Fly With A Bike For Free, In Business Class, For The Price Of An Economy Ticket

Yes, you read that correctly. It is possible to upgrade an economy flight ticket for free to business class, and get free bicycle carriage into the bargain. Pretty good, right?

This lunacy is a classic example of travel hacking. I’ve been experimenting with its various techniques for the last year or so, and I’d like to share what I’ve learned – specifically, I’d like to share how best to put these techniques to use in the context of cycle touring.

What Is Travel Hacking?

Put simply, travel hacking is the art & science of getting for free (or cheap) what would normally be a significant travel expense – flights and hotel rooms being the most common.

It’s usually done by carefully exploiting promotional offers made by credit card companies in partnership with major airlines and hotel chains.

These offers are designed, of course, to sucker the spender into the shackles of debt. Played correctly, however, travel hacking is a particularly satisfying form of consumer revenge, and a money-saving one at that.

Let me give you an example.

A Basic Example Of Travel Hacking

Last year I signed up for a British Airways credit card. I have no debts (other than a student loan) and thus a good credit record, so acceptance was a breeze.

The sign-up bonus at the time required that I spend a fairly meagre £750 on the card within 3 months – about the cost of a new low-end touring bike.

Having done so by moving all of my spending to the card until the target was reached, then paying it off in full, I received 15,000 ‘Avios’ points with British Airways’ frequent flyer network, the Executive Club. (I didn’t actually get on a plane at all.)

Then I cut the card it in half and closed the account, 15,000 airmiles richer at no cost whatsoever.

15,000 such airmiles, it turns out, can be redeemed for two flights on pretty much any Western European route flown by BA – for example, Munich, from where Tenny and I returned after our last cycling adventure on the continent this summer. Not just that, but it covered two business class flights.

Why waste the points on business class? There’s a very good reason. There’s the extra legroom, edible meals, queue-jumping at all points in the boarding process, and access to swanky business lounges (full of free booze & food) at the airports, where you may loaf for hours while grinning smugly at people in smart suits who’re wondering who let you in.

But the real bonus for the cycle tourist is the doubled hold luggage allowance. Since British Airways don’t charge extra for bicycle as part of your luggage allowance, that meant both our bikes and all our touring gear flew home from Munich with us for free as well.

So that few minutes time spent signing up for and administrating the credit card is saving us a couple of hundred pounds on return flights for our tour, and getting us upgraded into the bargain.

I’m sure you’ll agree that’s a pretty good trade-off. Particularly if, like me, you glean a disproportionate amount of pleasure from circumventing the ‘system’.

Getting Started With Travel Hacking

Relatively speaking, ours was a very puny beginners’ attempt at travel hacking.

But it’s a hobby for a surprising number of people, who sign up for several cards a year, claim the bonuses, and employ various other hacks to receive hundreds of thousands of airmiles while not actually flying anywhere.

US residents in particular have it made. The signup incentives are so ludicrous that there are even professional guides* available to help folk make sense of it all.

But the possibilities are growing for those of us based in the UK to game the system in the same way. This is particularly true if you’re a couple and you’ve both got significant purchases coming up (touring bikes and gear, for example), as it doubles your ability to meet these signup bonus criteria.

Deals change frequently, but the best such hack currently available in the UK is on the American Express Preferred Rewards Gold card, whose signup bonus alone (20,000 points) is enough for a free return flight to Istanbul.

Simply use the card to buy your touring gear (by spending £2,000 within three months), pay it off in full (it’s a charge card, so you have to anyway), cancel the card (to avoid the £125 annual fee from the second year onwards), and enjoy your free flights. Job’s a good ‘un!

Here’s the signup link. Play it sensibly and you’ll be well rewarded.

Further Reading

So there’s my quick intro to travel hacking – a.k.a. getting free flights thrown in with your new touring gear.

There’s a whole subculture of travel hackers out there, and if you’ve got the time and resources to make it a regular hobby, it won’t take long to rack up the requisite points for free or heavily discounted flights much further afield.

If you’re in the UK, the best and most up-to-date ‘travel hacking’ resource I’ve found is HeadForPoints.com. In the USA, CardsForTravel.com is a good place to start.

Of course, with multiple cards on the go, this quickly becomes game of shifting money around, which can get a bit complex if you’re not on the ball. So if you’re financially illiterate, it’s probably best to steer clear. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

15 Responses to “How To Fly With A Bike For Free, In Business Class, For The Price Of An Economy Ticket”

  1. Martin from Twisting Spokes

    Really Tom do you believe that this is a sustainable way to travel? Find this very unrelated to bicycle touring. I Normally enjoy reading you articles and i respect you for these but this not so much.
    Hope to see some good adventures coming along.

    All the best
    Martin

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      No, I never claimed this was sustainable. But flying with a bike is an inevitable part of most overseas cycle tours. This experiment is about helping with that.

      Reply
      • Paul vanPeenen

        Oh, this is very sustainable and a useful tool for travellers. And I think completely relevant to cycle touring.
        We’ve been doing it for years and accumulated more than half a million points with our Air Canada, a member of Star Alliance and thus you can use your points on any of the partner airlines. This is helpful as not all airlines are created equal in regards to travelling with your bicycle. We’ve just flown home biz class from Quito after 16 months on the road. Total cost: $170 for two. Would have cost $2800 if we purchased the flights.
        We also took an “open jaw” flight biz class during our trip from Istanbul to Oman, spent a month cycling there, and then flew from Oman to Barcelona. A flight that would have cost about $2,300 per person. Total cost for us: $120.
        If you’re willing to do a bit of research and use the credit card(s) wisely, i.e. don’t carry a balance, EVER, this is a great way to accumulate points to be used for otherwise expensive travel.
        I’ve travelled in Canada’s Arctic a fair bit and flights north are into the thousands of dollars per person. But it’s only 25K points for a long-haul flight anywhere in North America, including the remotest airports in the Arctic.

        Reply
        • Tom Allen

          Thanks, Paul, for recounting your own first-hand experience here. Sounds like you’ve done extremely well from travel hacking!

          US/Canada readers would do well to check out the Frequent Flyer Master ebook at Unconventional Guides – as well as it being much easier to accumulate points, the guide is written specifically for residents of these countries. It comes with one free flight guaranteed, which says a lot about its effectiveness!

          Reply
          • Paul vanPeenen

            Thanks, Tom. The one thing I forgot to mention is that not all airlines are created equally. In the Star Alliance Group, for instance, many of the partners will fly the same route and operate these routes for each other. But some airlines, like Air Canada where I’m accumulating points, charges a fuel surcharge on their international routes and so do Lufthansa, ANA, Asiana, Thai, Austrian, LOT, TAP Portugal and Adria. But United, US Airways, Singapore, Turkish and many other airlines in Star Alliance do not charge this fuel surcharge.
            The fuel surcharge can cost quite a bit. On our flight from Istanbul to Muscat and on to Barcelona, we flew with Turkish Airlines and Egypt Air who do not have the fuel surcharge. When I first started looking for that flight trying to book with Lufthansa the surcharge was nearly $500. So, it pays off to put in a bit of time and look at different airlines.
            Air Canada’s Aeroplan web site allows for online booking of award flights and provides many of the options available, although it seems not all. Sometimes it’s best to phone and talk to a staff member when booking.
            Good luck travel hacking! And thanks for the book recommendation.

        • Martin from Twisting Spokes

          Hi paul vanPeenen,

          Please explain how you see this as a sustainable way to travel?

          I find it naive to think that travel hacking is sustainable, it is just a carrot to make people use more money. Great that you got some cheap flights. But you believe in a system where everybody is travel hacking their way around the world. So who covers the cost of the ticket which you did not pay?

          Reply
          • Paul vanPeenen

            Hi Martin,

            Airlines makes a huge pile of money from their loyalty programs. In Air Canada’s case, it’s the most profitable part of their operation. This is because of partnerships with other travel service providers and retailers.
            We accumulate points when we fly with purchased tickets and on our credit card, which we use for all of our everyday expenditures, including bill payments. You would be amazed how quickly the points rack up. Then we use the points for expensive flights.
            Airlines are vying for your business and this is one way for them to try and keep you as a customer.
            If I can get cheap flights in a system created by the airlines to retain customer loyalty, then, yes I believe it’s sustainable. It works for us to be able to get some otherwise expensive flights in return for money we would spend in our daily lives regardless. It’s not for everyone as it takes some discipline.

          • Chris Forsyth

            Martin, I think I get your point, but I sense that you are framing it as though travel hacking is a closed system (zero sum game) — which would be unsustainable. It’s not, though, for any number of reasons: many (most?) travelers are not hacking being the most obvious, but also as Paul points out, frequent flier miles aren’t even a closed system within the airline industry. So you have to expand your conception of the relevant system to include revenue from credit card fees charged to merchants, which means a portion of the revenue to support the travel hacker comes from retail revenue throughout the economy. And so forth. Essentially travel hacking is just a tiny fraction of a much larger economic system.

    • itsgoa

      hi tom,I liked your article very much..thanks for sharing it.

      Reply
  2. ferruccio

    hi tom,
    I found your article really interesting. being financially illiterate I will heed your advice and steer clear of it.
    yeah, perhaps a bit unrelated to cycle touring, but I didn’t mind that one single bit.
    thank you

    Reply
  3. Ballan

    Be careful of “evergreen” clauses for those cards. They often renew automatically and charge an annual fee.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Yes, and the card I’ve mentioned is one of them. Set a calendar reminder to cancel before the first year is up, if that’s your plan. Lots of potential hurdles; you have to be really on the ball to make this work!

      Reply
      • Paul vanPeenen

        I called my bank to cancel the card as the renewal was coming up ($120 annually) Talked to a lovely woman who said they would wave the fee if I please keep the card. I said: “Sure. Thank you!” FREE card for a year! You just never know what you’ll get if you ask for it. Maybe I was just lucky but banks hate losing customers.

        Reply
  4. Mike Parnell

    Hi Tom enjoyed reading this one. Credit cards thrive on making money by people getting in dept with them by tactics we all know and wont get into now on here, but i regrettably! have experience with this in my younger dummer years!, but as far as i’m concerned if there is a way to take advantage of them!, then go for it!, this is very useful and great information i my opinion. Keep up the good work Tom.

    Cheers Mike.

    Reply

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