Beginners' Guide to Travel Hacking
Beginners' Guide to Travel Hacking

For most people, frequent travelers are filthy rich people with lots of time and cash to spare and visit every country in the world. If you are an avid traveler, one of the most common questions that you are likely to get goes something like: “how the heck are you able to afford so much travel”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Travel is quite cheap if you are savvy enough and understand the secret world of travel hacking. It is cheap if you know where to look and unearth those unbelievable travel deals. Can you imagine travelling across the world from San Francisco to Bangkok or Tokyo for as a little as $100?

We are here to dispel that notion that you have to be millionaire in order to afford travel with this beginner’s guide to travel hacking. Please keep in mind that affording cheap travel and accommodation is more than just about scoring those delicious deals. You have to learn some simple travel hacks that are eventually going to cut down your cost of travel. For example, you have to get rid of that mad impulse towards rugged consumerism and start being a conscientious shopper and spender. In other words, you have to learn to be a little more frugal. If you are already  frugal in your lifestyle, that skill, it is a skill, is easily transferable to the travel arena and it is going to make managing your travel costs a lot easier.

Lifestyle Design: Setting Your “Dreamlines”

Another technique that many travelers use to meet impossible travel budget targets is Lifestyle Costing, a technique popularized by Tim Ferris, the lifestyle design evangelist who is a darling with many digital nomads and world travelers. It is as simple as this: a massive financial target can easily be simplified by dividing it into total daily incomes if you have a timeline for the attainment of your financial goals, which makes the target a little more realistic. If you are planning to raise $3000 to travel the world, for example, start by setting a realistic timeline over which you plan to raise the cash. Divide your target by this timeline to get a total daily income that you will need to set aside to hit your goal. In many cases, it will be so low that you will be able to realize it without sacrificing too much.

The complexities aside, let us get back to travel hacking. If you are a beginner with a low to medium income or living from pay check to pay check but still wants to travel and see all those exotic locations around the world, you will have to learn to plunge head on into this little secretive society of extreme travel hacking.

With travel hacking you can score dirt cheap airfares to virtually any destination
With travel hacking you can score dirt cheap airfares to virtually any destination

I have booked a flight to Tokyo for $37!

“I am flying to Bangkok for $20”; “I have booked a flight to Tokyo for $37” or “I am flying to Dubai for $25”! It is almost surreal. Sounds like travelers from a bygone era? Probably the golden age of aviation in the 1950s and 60s? No! Welcome to 21st century 2016 travel hacking. Believe it or not, these consummate penny pinchers are able to score such kinds of deals today flying the world’s leading airlines? How do they do it? First, let us do away with the jargon.

What is Travel Hacking, You Ask?

It is one of the most common buzz words of the modern twenty first century traveler, particularly that footloose but often broke globetrotter called The Millennial. Travel hacking can be defined in multiple ways:-

  • It is a savvy way to travel as far as you can while spending the least amount of money. How about that flight from New York to Auckland, New Zealand for $36?
  • Travel hacking can also be achieved through the clever use of various perks, upgrades and rewards in order to cut down your cost of travel as much as is reasonably possible without getting chased away from the plane or your hotel. These are generally perks that ordinary travelers who play by the rules take miles and years to earn or are completely oblivious of.
  • Finally, travel hacking can also be a way of travel in which you get most out of your travel while spending as little as possible.

Travel hacking is a perfectly legal way to score the most outstanding deals. All you need is to be armed with the right information on where to score the best deals, perks and upgrades. Your tools of trade will include your credit cards and loyalty or reward program memberships. You will use the existing bonus structures and perks within the hotels, airlines and credit card companies and make the most of the perks that they offer so as to save on your travel.

What kind of person needs to learn travel hacking?

Basically, any person who wants to score the most amazing travel deals in the world. Or to stick to the definition, anyone who wants to travel as far away as possible while basically paying peanuts. With skilled travel hacking, a few dollars are going to take you very far.

If you fall into any of these categories, we would highly recommend this beginner’s travel hacking guide for you:-

  • You have been saving your money for months or years but the amount just doesn’t appear to be enough to finance your travel goals. With travel hacking, it could just be enough!
  • You have read countless of online articles and listened to countless of podcasts on travel hacking but there is just isn’t anything solid that you can take away and apply for your own benefit. Most people who claim to be “travel hacking” will mostly be boasting about the dirt cheap travel deals that they score and will divulge very little on how they actually do it.
  • You are having a hard time racking up the miles and rewards from hotels and airlines that you can subsequently use in your travel hacking.

Is Travel Hacking Difficult?

Travel hacking might seem like a fancy name, the kind people like throwing around conversations and some people may even find the “hacking” part a little bit daunting but this practice is far less complex than it sounds.

If you are an avid couponing enthusiast, then you will definitely hack the travel game. It is just about learning where to collect those free flights, free flight upgrades and hotel accommodations.

If you are going to be a serious travel hacker, you need to master the various resources that you will use in your hobby or travel shopping. Mostly, you will be relying on the promotional offers by the airlines, hotels and credit cards and tracking these meticulously so that those amazing deals do not slip through.

You will have to subscribe to the various promotional emails of the travel providers that matter to you so that you do not fail to maximize on the countless deals and promotions offered by the providers. The holiday season is particularly a good time to maximize on the deals and rewards. However, if you have mastered the game, you will realize that these deals and rewards are available throughout the year.

Earning Free Flights for Beginners

With airfares skyrocketing and many airlines seemingly in the red, you might wonder if the concept of 100% free flights is simply a fairy tale. Airlines can fly empty or half empty planes and still manage to stay profitable so the concept of free or very cheap flights is not entirely inconceivable. The trick is to know how to discover and “earn” these free flights. You could do it in multiple ways:-

Joining the airline frequent flyer programs: If you are going to be successful in your travel hacking, you must sign up for all the important frequent flyer programs offered by the various leading airlines. The advantage for the modern traveller is that these are nowadays bundled into many travel products. So your earning of airline miles doesn’t end at buying an airline ticket. You could collect airline miles or rewards across a spectrum of travel products that you will utilize in the leg of your journey. You could alight from your flight and book a preferred taxi that is affiliated with your airline’s frequent flyer programs. That means you will be earning some miles on your taxi ride to your hotel. Then you could stay in a hotel whose rewards programs is affiliated with your airline’s frequent flyer program and earn some miles or reward points for the duration of your stay using a co-branded credit card. And the chain goes on and on….at the end of the day, you will be accruing miles in every leg of your journey across the world.

The key is to check the airline’s and hotel’s websites in order to see some of the rewards and promos which are available for your destination. If you have signed up to the airline’s newsletter or special offers page, they will occasionally send you a list of businesses in your destination cities that they are affiliated with. These could range from hotels to spas, restaurants, taxis, duty free shops and many others.

Here are some of the rewards programs for leading airlines in the US and the world:-

AAdvantage:

AAdvantage Credit Card
AAdvantage Credit Card

This is the rewards program for American Airlines and US Airways.  There are over 1000 partners globally where you can earn loyalty points in more than 1000 destinations globally. Rewards cover flights, vacation rentals, car hire, retail outlets and upgrades among others. Check website here https://www.aa.com/i18n/aadvantage-program/aadvantage-program.jsp?anchorEvent=false&from=Nav

Southwest Rapid Rewards:

Southwest Rapid Rewards Card
Southwest Rapid Rewards Card

If you are planning to rack up lots of miles, there is no better place to do it than with Southwest Airlines. While a lot of airlines will obfuscate their rewards or miles redemption policies, Southwest has a very transparent and easy to understand miles redemption policy which will give you an easy time when it is time to redeem your miles.

 

Delta Sky Miles:

Delta Skymiles Card
Delta Skymiles Card

With an extensive network within and outside the US, Delta is another perfect place to rack up your miles. The airline also has major hubs across many US cities so you won’t have an excuse not to earn extra miles when flying. Unlike Southwest airlines, Delta has a miles award chart that is slightly more complicated so you need to take your time to understand what your miles are really worth.

British Airways Avios:

British Airways Credit Card
British Airways Credit Card

The Avios program by BA is an excellent option for international travel. BA has an extensive network across Europe, the Americas, Africa, the Middle East and the Far East so if you are a globetrotter, don’t forget to sign up for the BA Avios program. Because BA is a partner airline in oneworld airline alliance, you will also be able to earn miles with other partner airlines in the alliance including US Airways and American Airlines.

United MileagePlus Explorer Card:

United MileagePlus® Explorer card
United MileagePlus® Explorer card

The United MileagePlus Explorer Card offers plenty of travel benefits including priority boarding and a free first checked bag. Additionally, you will be able to score miles with this card from every purchase. You will earn 30,000 bonus miles after you have spent $1,000 within the first three months after you have opened your account. For every dollar spent on buying United tickets, you will earn 2 miles and for every other purchase, you will earn 1 mile for every $1 spent. There is a fee waiver for the first year and then you will pay an annual fee of $95 afterwards.

Tracking Your Miles: The challenge for the frequent traveler who uses numerous airlines and has signed up for a multitude airline reward programs is tracking all the miles and knowing when to redeem and maximize on them. You need superhuman memory to keep track of all the airline miles that you are earning if you are a road warrior. However, we live in the age of apps and you can bet there is a neat tool out there that you can use to track all your miles in one place. That tool is called Award Wallet.

Be a Repeat Customer: Don’t just flip airlines like a pancake. It is important to choose your airline and stay loyal. That is the only way through which you are going to maximize on your award miles otherwise you will spread them out thinly across too many reward programs that they will be practically worthless in spite of your frequent travels. There is a reason why they are called loyalty programs and earning enough miles to qualify for free travel is always a painstaking affair. You will have a better chance of success if you concentrate your mile acquisition across a few airlines.

Collecting Credit Card Travel Rewards: Travel hacking is often a multi-pronged approach. One angle that we have already discussed is using the airlines’ own frequent flyer programs. However, to maximize on your travel hacking, you must also learn to play the credit card game and here, you will focus on the credit card travel rewards.

Just like airlines, credit cards often offer certain perks so as to attract and retain customers. These rewards can take many forms including in the form of miles of free flights that you can redeem with affiliated airlines. The advantage with this mode of mile accumulation is that you don’t have to sit on a plane for hundreds of hours in order to amass your miles. There will be sign up bonuses but you can also earn credit travel rewards in multiple other ways:-

Be fiscally responsible: Credit card companies will reward you with miles for responsible spending. That means paying all your credit card debts on time on a monthly basis. It might be tempting to get a new credit card after maxing out the previous one and when you still have outstanding debt but this could be the beginning of a debt spiral. Spend conservatively and clear your debts in time and you will earn a few flights from your credit card travel rewards.

Fulfill the minimum spending requirements: While it is fiscally responsible to be frugal, don’t overdo it such that you don’t meet the minimum spending requirements set by the credit card companies. That is the only way through which you are going to earn travel rewards from your credit card company.

Examples of Credit Card Travel Rewards

Here is a look at some of the best credit card travel rewards in the US:-

The guys at NerdWallet.com have done an excellent job in comparing some of the best travel credit cards that you could choose so as to earn those extra miles and free flights. Here is a look at some of the best options in the market:-

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card:

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

This is probably the best option for you if you are looking for a great travel credit card. Perks include a large sign up bonus, flexible rewards and the fact that it supports international travel. Unlike the other travel credit cards which are limited in scope, these cards are not tied up to any specific travel product providers such as specific airlines and hotels. As a result, you can use them in numerous establishments and airlines which gives you greater flexibility in your travel hacking.

The reward structure here entails 2 points for travel and dining for every single dollar that you spend with your credit card. You will earn 25% more in points in case you book your travel using the Chase Ultimate Rewards. The points are also transferable to other loyalty programs on a 1:1 ratio.  Other perks include the sign up bonus that comes with the travel credit card: Once you have spent a total of $4,000 on credit card purchases within the first three months after you have opened the credit card account, you are going to earn 50, 000 bonus points. When redeemed via the Ultimate Chase Rewards, these points will be worth $625 in travel. The card has an annual fee of $95 but this is waived for the first year.

The main drawback with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is that it does not contain the travel perks that you would find in the other cards such as priority boarding and free checked bags but in terms of the overall value, this is a clear winner.

Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card:

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

If you are looking for greater flexibility in how you spend your travel credit card miles, then the Capital One Venture Rewards Card will be a great choice. For every single dollar that you spend on virtually everything, you will earn 2 points. These can be redeemed easily against all kinds of travel expenses. Unlike other co-branded cards that will limit you to spending on particular airlines and hotels, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card offers you greater flexibility and freedom on where you can redeem your points. You could easily redeem the rewards on an airline or hotel of your choice. This credit card charges a lower annual fee of $59 that will be waived in your first year. There is a one time sign up bonus worth 40,000 miles that you will earn after spending the first $3000 in credit card purchases within the first three months after you have opened your account. This is a $400 worth of value in travel.

BankAmericard Travel Rewards® Credit Card:

BankAmericard Travel Rewards Credit Card
BankAmericard Travel Rewards Credit Card

With the BankAmericard Travel Rewards Card, you earn 1.5 points for every dollar that you spend. While there is no annual fee with this, the signup bonus is much smaller at only 20,000 bonus points for every $1000 spent within the first three months. That is worth a total of $200 in your travel expenses and while it can offset some of your costs, it is not as lucrative as that of the other travel credit cards. The points can be redeemed easily for your travel expenses and it gives you the flexibility to use the points with any airline or hotel. There is also a longer window of up to 12 months to use your points. Customers for Merrill Lynch, Merrill Edge and Bank of America will get extra bonuses of 10% and 75% when they redeem the points based on certain criteria. The main drawback with this card is the low sign up bonus that is worth a meager $200.

Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®:

BarclayCard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard
BarclayCard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard

The last on our list is the Barclaycard Arrival Plus card. This too has some excellent perks. You earn 2 miles for every dollar spent and there are no restrictions on the airlines and hotels where you can redeem your miles like with the co-branded cards. For every redemption you make, you earn back 5% of your miles thus earning extra savings for future trips. On top of that, it carries 50,000 sign up bonus miles on spending $3,000 within the first three months after opening your account which is worth roughly $500 in travel statement credits.

Travel Hacking Your Accommodation

Travel hacking does not end with scoring the cheapest flights to your destination. In order to avoid blowing your money fast while hopping around the world, you must also learn to score cheap hotel deals and even free hotel stays using these simple hotel hacks:-

Get an AAA Membership: There are various perks you get in hotels around the world with an AAA membership including generous discounts on your accommodation and flexibility in booking cancellations.

Apply for Hotel Credit Cards: Some of the large hotel chains have credit cards and they will offer you generous sign-up bonuses when you acquire their cards. Those bonuses can afford you anywhere from a few days’ to a week’s worth of free accommodation or free upgrades.

Call the Hotel: If you are booking a hotel for the first time, call them and inquire whether they have any special offers or welcome packages. You will be surprised by the amount of savings that you will score by speaking directly to the hotel manager or reservations staff.

Use Groupon: Groupon often offers some super cheap last minute hotel deals. If you are travelling to a particular city, check out Groupon page for that city for some of the latest hotel deals. This requires some nerve and flexibility, though.

Use the Priceline Name Your Price Offer: You can use this service to score cheap deals on hotels in the city center of your destination city. The main drawback is that you might not always get the hotel that you want.

Work for accommodation and food: In some countries like Japan where the accommodation rates are quite steep, you can ask to work for accommodation or food. These generally involve simple jobs such as cleaning the hotel, arranging furniture, serving food etc. However, you need to be careful. If you are on a tourist visa, you will be breaking the law by working for accommodation which will have legal consequences including hefty fines and deportation. There are some hostel or home stay owners that might offer free accommodation and food if you help them out with something technical stuff such as building their business websites or running their online marketing campaigns for the duration of your stay.

Book Via AirBnB: Perhaps one of the cheapest ways to score cheap accommodation deals globally. Not only are the rates cheap, you can almost stay at an AirBnB home free of charge by taking advantage of AirBnB credits.

Eat like the locals: Did you know that good food can cost as little as $2 in some of the locations that you visit? If you want to save some money and live on less than $20 per day, start eating at some of the places where the locals eat and avoid some of the more touristy areas which are often unnecessarily costly.

Find a local Travel Buddy: Travbuddy.com is a website that connects visitors across the world. If you are planning to travel to a new city, you can connect with a local “travel buddy” that will show you around town and you might just ask them for free accommodation.

Pool resources and rent an apartment: Although furnished apartments in the more touristy cities often cost a fortune for short term rentals, you can pool resources if you are travelling in a group and save a lot of money. Another way to save money on your apartment rentals is by checking the local classifieds or Facebook groups and pages offering apartment rentals to locals.

Use Hotel Reward Cards: If you will be staying at a hotel or hotel chain several times a year, then it is advisable to sign up for the hotel’s rewards programs so that you can begin collecting points that can be redeemed in the future.

Find quality but quirky accommodation: In Tokyo, you can stay in ultra cheap “capsule hotels” that cost very little. Here is a look at a typical capsule hotel:

A Really Affordable Capsule Hotel in Kyoto
A Really Affordable Capsule Hotel in Kyoto

There is a low down of travel hacking. As you can see, there is no complexity involved; you just have to know the right cards to play in order to maximize on the benefits. The most important thing is to start and from there, you can build on it. Start by signing up for your favorite frequent flyer programs and then a travel credit card. Build your portfolio from there.

We admit that tracking all the offers and credit cards can be quite daunting but with the right tools and an iron dedication at scoring the best deals, you will get there and become an experienced travel hacking machine that gets almost everything for nothing.

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