This post is from staff writer Sierra Black. Sierra writes about frugality, sustainable living, and getting her kids to eat kale at Childwild.com.

Travel has always been a priority for me. I love seeing new places, experiencing new cultures, and just getting away from the routines of my daily life. Even more important, my family and close friends are a pretty far-flung crowd. I have loved ones spread from Boston to Buenos Aires. We buy a lot of plane tickets in my family. We buy so many tickets that I should have become savvy about how we buy them much earlier than I did.

For years, I’ve mainly just flown with JetBlue. I use Farecast to see if there’s a better deal available elsewhere. If there’s not a significantly cheaper ticket on that site, I buy my ticket through JetBlue. They generally have low fares and a good frequent-flyer program. This is a pretty simplistic approach. Since I’d never researched it carefully, I didn’t know if I was really getting the best deals on my travel.

Now, my best friend is moving to San Francisco. (Yes, between losing my cat and my health problems and my friend’s move, it’s been a doozy of a month). I’m suddenly looking at traveling a lot more than I already do! Figuring out how to squeeze a few trips a year to the West Coast into my budget is a challenge. Before I overhaul my other spending areas, I wanted to find out if I could get more travel for the same amount I’m already spending. Maybe I can make my existing travel budget take me further — literally.

Maybe. As far as I can tell, there are two essential components to getting the best possible deals on air travel:

  • Finding the lowest fares, and
  • Using rewards travel programs

Both are complex tasks, fraught with potential pitfalls.

Finding Low Fares
Finding the cheapest tickets is a clear starting place. Airlines compete with each other primarily on fares. Who would want to pay more for the same service? Of course you’ll buy the lowest fare you can find, all else being equal. Unfortunately, the golden age of finding cheap fares easily online is coming to an end. The New York Times recently published a fascinating story about how airlines are pulling their fare listings from sites like Orbitz and Expedia. Some carriers, like JetBlue, are using new media like Twitter to advertise their best fares, which they sell only through their own websites.

Tip: To find those sweet JetBlue specials, follow @JetBlueCheeps.

To find the best fares, the New York Times recommends starting with ITA software, a small company that provides the technological background for a number of popular travel sites. You can cover your bases to find deals they may have missed by also checking out meta-sites like Kayak.com and FareCompare.com. Another site the New York Times says is worth checking out is AirfareWatchdog.com, where real people collect information about cheap fares, sometimes catching special deals the bigger, automated sites have missed.

If you care about features other than price, you may want to pay a visit to Hipmunk.com, which uses an “agony index” to help you find the best value on a flight, taking into account not only price but duration and number of stops.

Tip: Here’s more from Get Rich Slowly on how to find great deals on vacation and travel

Using Rewards Travel Programs
Once you’ve found your airfares, there’s the question of how you’ll pay for them. Will you just reach into your wallet for cold hard cash, or try to deploy one of the many “travel rewards” programs out there. I’ve always done the former, and am now starting to explore the latter.

Travel rewards programs aren’t exactly as free as they might at first appear. They seem to come in basically two forms:

  • Frequent-flyer rewards programs run by a particular airline to reward customer loyalty, and
  • Credit-card rewards programs that let you earn miles to be used on any airline.

I mentioned that I’ve used JetBlue’s frequent flyer program. They recently changed it to a points system not unlike the credit card travel rewards program.

In essence, rewards programs award you points for miles traveled or dollars spent. Once you’ve accumulated a certain number of points, you earn either a free flight or a voucher towards a ticket on the airline of your choosing. Most credit card rewards programs are designed with a $1 = 1 point system. Rewards programs can turn your spending into cash. Sort of.In general, travel-related expenses like airfares, hotel stays, car rentals and restaurants earn double points. You can also find even better deals if you hunt around. My bank has a rewards program that will give my husband three points for every dollar he spends with his bank credit card, as a reward for also having a checking account with the same bank.

He’ll need those extra points if he wants to earn a travel reward, because the threshold for getting a $200 airfare voucher is 41,000 points. Even at the triple points rate, we’d have to spend $15,000 to earn one one-way ticket from Boston to San Francisco. JetBlue’s deal with American Express is a little better, offering up to 8 points per dollar spent if I buy my tickets through Jet Blue. Even so, I’d have to spend well over $10,000 to earn a free flight cross country.

At first those numbers seemed prohibitively high. Then I looked at how much my household spends each month on living expenses. If I funneled all that money through one of these rewards credit cards, I’d get two or three reward tickets a year. That’s not as good a return on my “investment” as I was hoping, but doing it through my bank’s program doesn’t cost me a thing. I spend that money anyway; I may as well get the travel coupons!

Getting a rewards credit card is a more complicated proposition. The interest rates are higher than I’m used to: in the mid-teens even for someone with excellent credit. They carry an annual fee of around $40-$50 as well. If I’m going to use a rewards credit card, I need it to really pay for itself.

To make things even more complicated, there’s now a website, Points.com, that lets consumers exchange points from frequent flyer and consumer rewards programs. You can log in for free and swap your JetBlue travel points with points in American Airlines frequent-flyer program or a few other airlines. That expands your options when searching for the lowest fares: you’re less likely to have to choose between taking the very lowest fare and paying a little more for an airline you’re building frequent flyer credit with.

Getting Started with Travel Hacking
I plan to route most of my household expenses through my bank’s existing rewards program, taking advantage of that three-points-per-dollar rate. I decided to try JetBlue’s rewards AmEx deal for my travel purchases because I usually fly with them, and the way they couple the rewards program with their frequent-flyer program makes it likely I’ll get a benefit from it. If I don’t, I’ll cancel the card next year.

The effort I put in to maxing out my travel dollars might bring huge rewards. Hopefully in the form of plane tickets to San Francisco to see my friend and her family. But it will clearly cost me some substantial time and brain power. I’m going to try it for a year, and see if it pays off. My hunch right now is that just traveling on JetBlue and using their rewards program may well be nearly as cost effective, with far fewer hassles.

Tip: For more about cheap travel, check out the brand-new Travel Hacking Cartel, which is designed to help novices learn how to make the most of frequent-flyer miles.

This article is about Tools, Travel