If you've read a few of my posts, or looked at some of my photos you might get the impression that I travel a fair bit. And I won't deny it; my butt was in airplane seats last year for the equivalent of 4+ trips around the globe. And yeah, I get some benefits for flying that much - I spent probably 16,000 miles in first or business class, which is a lot more than I paid for. :)
Let's say you're not like me. You're... sane. You don't set foot on four different continents in under three weeks. You don't think it weird to stay home for more than 3 weeks at a time. Airline employees don't greet you with hugs. Most (though not all) of my contacts fall into this "sane" category.
But on the other hand... maybe you're a little envious of the perks. Maybe the idea of flying across the country in first class for little more reason than a birthday party appeals to you.
The good news is, you can get "free" flights - you pay only the taxes and fees, which for a round-trip within the United States are about $10! - without even flying. And I'm going to explain exactly how. I'm using Northwest Airlines as an example, because I fly Northwest and its partners (like Continental, KLM, Air France, Alitalia, China Southern, Hawaiian Airlines, Kenya Airways) most of the time... but you can do all this on just about any airline that goes where you want to go, or has partners that do.
Get yourself a frequent flyer account already! This shouldn't take more than 5 minutes, and costs you absolutely nothing. You're going to use it to accumulate miles (which might be called credits, or points, or whatever.) Actually, you should get a minimum of three accounts - one on a carrier in each of the three major global alliances. In my case, Northwest is in the SkyTeam alliance, but I also have accounts with American (in Oneworld) and United (in StarAlliance) - and I have a fourth account with Hawaiian Airlines, since I do live in Hawaii sometimes.
Why three or more accounts? Well, there have been, and will be, times where for whatever reason, I can't fly Northwest, or anyone else in SkyTeam. I probably wind up flying United or other StarAlliance airlines at least once every year, and the same goes for American and its Oneworld partners. By having one account for each alliance, I can ensure that miles are being squirrelled away somewhere every time I take a flight. Sure, they add up slower in those other accounts... but they do add up.
Of course, if you're somewhere other than the United States, your choices will differ. For example, in Nairobi, you'd probably opt for KLM or Kenyan to collect your SkyTeam miles, SouthAfrican for StarAlliance, and British Airways for Oneworld.
For best results, you're going to need to have a favorite airline (or alliance). That way, you can direct most of your miles to one place, and have them pile up faster. Please be smart about this and pick an airline that goes places you want to go, or has partners that do! There are other factors you can consider - I chose Northwest partly because of the benefits its frequent flyer program provides. But then, I am a frequent flyer, and if you're trying to earn free flights without flying, it's safe to say you're probably not.
If your favorite airline isn't allied or partnered with others worldwide, you can either find one that is, or content yourself with having a geographically limited range. For example, if you prefer Southwest or ATA, you're basically limited to flying within the United States, since they only partner with each other.
Look at your airline's web site to see what opportunities you have to earn miles at no cost. Last year, I earned 300 miles for little customer-education quizzes on Northwest's web site, 500 miles for taking surveys online, and 1,000 miles for receiving email notifications from Northwest (like a monthly statement of my account, among other things).
Learn about what non-air partners your airline offers. In my case, Northwest has partner deals with somewhere over 100 companies including four different car-rental chains and more hotels than I can even count. If I do business with any of them, ta-da, more miles accumulate in my account.
If you can get something for the same price from a partner or a non-partner, go with the partner. And if you can get it for the same price from the same place, but get miles by going through a "mall" set up by the airline, do that. I know, this is a no-brainer, but I have to remind myself to do this sometimes! Spend exactly the same, but get miles, good deal.
Get a mileage credit card from your favorite airline, and use it to buy the things you'd use any other credit card to buy. You'll probably get anywhere up to about 15,000 miles just for signing up and using the card once, and most cards will give you at least a mile per dollar spent. Ultimately, just using a mileage credit card to buy the things you already buy with a credit card is probably the easiest way to earn miles without flying, and will earn you the most. And if you're buying things from companies that are partnered with your airline, you'll get more miles piled on top of that - sometimes as many as ten miles per dollar spent.
If I want to fly round-trip from Philadelphia to Portland, Oregon on Northwest (why? I don't know!) later this year, I'd probably spend about $500-$600. But if I have 25,000 miles in my account (which I could earn entirely through non-flying activities), I can get the same ticket for an airfare of zero dollars, paying only the taxes and fees of $10. Same ticket, same flights, same seats. (If I saved up more miles, I could even get a first-class seat... for the same $10!)
If I had remembered to check the partner listings I mentioned above (I didn't), I would have known that I could sign up to earn miles when I stayed at the Best Western in Guangzhou twice last month, and instead of just earning about 135 miles for the actual cost of the stays, would have earned an extra 500 miles.
If I decided to buy a new computer next month, I could spend $600 at the Apple Store using my Northwest credit card, and earn 600 miles... but if I went through the "mall" I mentioned above, I'd get an extra 2 miles per dollar spent, for a total of 1800 miles.
So... doing the same things I (or you) always do... but just being a little more aware of exactly how those things are being done, using a certain card, shopping carefully... can really pay off.