How I Flew for Free: Miles to the Rescue for a Family Emergency

Nov 20, 2018

Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This may influence which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own. Here is a list of our partners and here's how we make money.

Tom Broucksou reached into his rewards trove to get from Oregon to South Carolina so he could be with his father when he got out of the hospital. Here’s how he did it.

The cardholder

Name: Tom Broucksou Age: 42 Occupation: Writer, Editor, Researcher Home: Portland, Oregon Credit cards/loyalty programs: Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card

The trip

Route: Portland International Airport to Greenville–Spartanburg International Airport Dates of travel: June 6-13, 2018 Airline: Delta Air Lines Class of service: Economy

Q: Did you visit a lounge at the airport:

A: Yes, security was quick at Portland so I visited the Alaska Lounge using my Priority Pass membership via my Chase Sapphire Reserve®. I figured I might as well kill some time with a snack and some free Wi-Fi. It's kind of a small lounge, and I noticed when I left that they weren't accepting any more Priority Pass customers, so I was glad I got in when I did.

Q: Did you travel alone or with someone?

A: Alone. It was a last-minute trip to visit my parents, and my wife couldn't get the time off on short notice.

My father had just gotten out of the hospital, and I wanted to check in and help around the house. Using miles for last-minute trips can definitely save some cash if you can be flexible with your dates.

» Learn more: Find the best travel credit card for you

The card/loyalty program

Q: What card did you use to get a free trip?

Q: How long were you a cardholder at that time?

A: Five months

Q: How long were you planning this trip?

A: It was an unexpected trip, so I wasn't saving up for it. I was lucky enough to have recently signed up for the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card because I was offered a promotional welcome offer of 60,000 miles. (Current offer: Earn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Terms Apply.)

Q: What's your favorite perk of this card or program?

A: While the welcome offer was the best perk and the reason I got the card, I do appreciate the free checked bag. I don't check bags every time I fly, but it's a nice option for longer trips or if I want to bring (or take home) something that you can't carry on, like a bottle of wine or jam. We make our own home brews and jams, so I like to give them to relatives when I visit.


Q: Did you take advantage of promotions while earning points for this trip?

A: No.

Q: How did you book?

A: Delta’s website. I checked a variety of carriers and aggregator sites, but not a lot of airlines fly into Greenville. It's not very big and my options were limited. Plus, I had a stash of SkyMiles I just earned thanks to the welcome offer.

Q: How many miles did this cost?

A: 26,000 miles.

Q: Did you book in conjunction with a promotion or deal?

A: No.

Q: Any surprises or hassles?

A: None. It was a painless experience.

What's your next travel rewards goal?

A: My wife and I are planning a trip to Scotland. We haven't finalized the details yet, but I know we'll be visiting some distilleries! Between the two of us, we've stockpiled quite a few Chase Ultimate Rewards® points with our Chase Sapphire Reserve® and our Chase Freedom® card. We easily have enough for business-class tickets. Though we might tough it out in economy so we can save some points for a trip to Japan. Yes, we're already planning another trip after Scotland.

Photo by Tom Broucksou. 

How flexibility can yield more travel rewards

If you can be flexible, your opportunities to earn more rewards may multiply.

  • Apply for a travel credit card that offers a higher rewards rate, even if it’s from an issuer you don’t have an account with.

  • Split your spending across well-chosen credit cards to maximize earning. Pair a flat-rate 2% cash-back credit card with a card from a different issuer that offers 6% back on groceries. Using the latter at the supermarket and the former everywhere else could lift your overall rewards earnings. Take advantage of shopping portals, rotating bonus categories, and seasonal and limited-time offers.

  • Research the best redemption options. By taking a little more time or being flexible when cashing in your rewards, you might find a deal that gets you 5 cents out of each mile, instead of just 1 cent.

  • Seek out guidance from those who have done it before. Check out NerdWallet’s Travel Community for personalized advice through a community of experts.

Get more smart money moves – straight to your inbox
Sign up and we’ll send you Nerdy articles about the money topics that matter most to you along with other ways to help you get more from your money.