How I fly from Houston to Sao Paulo for free 

 December 3, 2020

By  Wilson

I’m always bragging to my friends about getting upgraded to first class on domestic and international flights.

And then there are friends who are genuinely curious about how I do it. So I decided to write a public blog post on this.

One time I got upgraded on a flight to Houston from São Paulo, Brazil (using United reward miles), so I didn’t have to pay a dime for the upgrade.

Flight Information

Flight back in United Polaris First Class from São Paulo to Houston

People always ask me how I have the money to drop $2000+ on domestic or international first class flights all the time.

Well, I actually don’t.

I almost exclusively fly United (member of Star Alliance) and I have Gold status. (Last year I had Platinum, but I think getting Gold is more than sufficient to cover the most important Star Alliance benefits that I will go over below.)

How I fly from Houston to Sao Paulo for free

The Worst Kept Frequent Flyer Secret: Stick to One Airline

I have friends who are hashtag, Team Delta (focus cities: Atlanta, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Seattle), or Team American Airlines (focus cities: Dallas, Charlotte, Phoenix) and there’s nothing wrong with that.

For me, I lived in Houston for 2 years and San Francisco for another 2. Those two cities are heavy United hubs. From the day I moved to Houston, I knew I needed to stick with United.

Because I stuck with one airline from the very beginning and have accumulated miles and points, I receive the following benefits:

  • Automatically placed on list for free upgrades to first class, which would include free alcohol on domestic or international flights.
  • Free Star Alliance lounge access including United Clubs at every major international airport in the world.
  • At least two free check-in bags.

Copa Airlines (member of Star Alliances) lounge in Bogotá International Airport.

And for those reasons, I typically refuse to fly a non-Star Alliance airline.

How Does the Math Check Out?

Here is the United Explorer credit card that got me started.

For reference: a good deal on a one-way domestic flight in a United economy class can cost you 12,000 miles + ~$60 on booking fees. A one-way international long-haul flight in economy class can cost you 25,000 miles + ~$75 on booking fees. A one-way international long-haul flight can cost you 50,000 miles on First Class.

I wrote my version of the benefits of the United Explorer credit card in the table below:

  • When you sign up, you usually get 30,000 or 50,000 miles to start
  • For every $1 spent at restaurants, hotels, and travel fees, you earn 2 miles (1 mile on other purchases)
  • No foreign transaction fees (whereas my Wells Fargo credit card used to charge me 3%)
  • 2 free United Club passes per year (but, honestly – if you get to Gold Status and you fly internationally, this becomes an automatic benefit)
  • Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check fee credit – up to $100

I’m going to be very transparent and note that the process of receiving all of these fantastic benefits will not be placed into effect overnight. Any frequent flyer will tell you that it will take time to accumulate miles – so if you’re a business traveler or if you travel a lot for personal reasons, you will get status in a few months.

Business Class Price List

Look! 30,000 miles from San Francisco to Paris? 60,000 miles to fly on Business class? Not bad 🙂

Which Should I Buy? $400 United Flight vs. $300 Non-United Flight

This is the dilemma I run into – and I believe this is the dilemma that all frequent flyers should take into heavy consideration.

My big searching website is kayak.com. I always make sure I’m not completely overpaying for a United flight.

I personally made up a 30% rule for myself on this dilemma: I take 30% of the United flight. If the cost difference between the non-United flight and the United flight is less than 30% of the United flight, then I’ll stick with the United flight.

In this case: 30% of $400 United flight = $120. If I have to pay more than $120 to cover the difference just to stick with United, I usually take the loss and try to accumulate points another day. In this example, $120 > $100, so I would buy the $400 United flight.

Camera View on United Flight

Everybody’s situation is obviously different. But (I think) I’ve discovered something that feeds my desire to travel more for less.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Hi, my name is Wilson, founder of WFH Nomad. I was born and raised in the US, and I boast engineering and business degrees from top programs in the US. I work a normal, WFH job for a great company in America. I am extremely passionate about traveling and my job in the Tech industry, and the best part of the WFH Nomad concept is that I can do both at the same time.

I have traveled to over 47 different countries in my lifetime and I look forward to continue this lifestyle for the foreseeable future. Thanks for visiting the website!

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