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Beginner’s Guide to Travel Hacking

Beginner’s Guide to Travel Hacking

Greetings from Ouagoudougou, winner of the “most awesome city name” contest and also my current stop on the week-long West Africa tour. I came in via Lufthansa, Royal Air Maroc, and Ethiopian Airlines… but more on that in a moment.

I wanted to write a lengthy post outlining a few principles of what I call travel hacking. In short, travel hacking is all about seeing experiencing the world on a limited budget. I’ve been able to visit so many countries over the past decade not by being independently wealthy, but by learning to be creative.

This leads to an odd, hybrid travel world—I fly Lufthansa First Class to Frankfurt, where the departure lounge includes bathtubs, a complimentary restaurant and wine bar, and planeside transfer via chauffeured Mercedes. Nice. Then I head off to a series of Economy Class flights throughout West Africa, also known as the traveling circus. (In the case of Morocco’s national airline, on which I took three flights last week, I dubbed it Cirque du Maroc.”)

Thankfully, I live in America and fly Economy Class on United once in a while, so I’m accustomed to third-world airlines where everyone applauds upon a safe landing.

***

The Basic Idea

Travel doesn’t need to be expensive. Most of us who live in relatively rich countries can travel even if we’re not rich. The reasons why some people don’t travel have less to do with lack of resources and more to do with fear and insecurity. Learning to deal with those valid concerns is a whole separate topic—see here and here for example—but in this post I’ll look strictly at the logistical concerns.

I like to start with an idea in mind: where do you want to go? One of the principles about world travel and life planning is that you can go anywhere in the world by saving $2 a day for an extended period of time. The $2-a-day-principle is helpful—but if you can save more than $2 a day, of course, you’ll be able to save for your trip in even less time.

So then, once you have a goal, how do you make it happen? Let’s look at a few things one by one.

***

Mileage Mania: Earning

To modernize an old expression, a healthy Frequent Flyer balance is like money—if you have it, you don’t think about it much. But if you don’t have it, it becomes an obsession. Such is life in travel hacking land.

To get the miles, I do a fair amount of flying, but more than twice as many miles are earned on the ground through various promotions—banks, credit cards, and all kinds of bonuses.

I’ve found a bank that will pay AAdvantage Miles in lieu of interest on deposits. Why give up interest (real money) to earn miles? Well, these days interest rates are shockingly low. If you have a balance in the bank, you’ve probably noticed that it either a) goes down, due to being attached to the dismal stock market, or b) stays the same. It’s better to stay the same than go down, but you might as well get something out of the deal. I wouldn’t put my (limited) life savings there, but I moved a decent amount of money over.

***

Mileage Mania: Redemptions

The other side of mileage maximization is redemption. This is critical, because most travelers don’t know how to use their miles. Every year, millions of miles go off to die in expiration land. So sad! Others are redeemed for “Standard” awards (I call them “Let the airline take advantage of you” awards) or for destinations where it would be much better to just buy the ticket.

A much better strategy is to use your miles for partner airlines. Earn on U.S. Airways (bad), redeem on Swiss or Singapore Airlines (good). Earn on American (bad), redeem on Cathay Pacific or Japan Air Lines—you get the idea. You can view a list of partner airlines here:

(Note that in addition to the alliance members, there are often additional partner options for airlines. I’m keeping things fairly basic here.)

Some of my best redemptions have been:

  • Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia (booked on Korean AirLines with Delta SkyMiles)
  • Amsterdam – Atlanta (+ free stopover in Seattle on the way back – it doesn’t make sense, I know, but creative stopovers are one of the fun things you can do with awards tickets)
  • Almaty, Kazakhstan (coming up next week, booked on Lufthansa with U.S. Air miles)
  • Brunei (20,000 AmEx points transferred to Singapore Airlines)
  • South Pacific (Rarotonga + Samoa + free stopover in Auckland, booked on Air New Zealand with United miles)

***

Elite Status

Most airlines reward frequent customers with some kind of priority treatment through the recognition of elite status. The status is usually awarded in tiers—typically Silver, Gold, and Platinum.

But after you’ve earned status with one airline, you don’t have to sit on planes the rest of the year to leverage your accomplishment. Thanks to status matching, last year I achieved the trifecta of elite status, with Platinum or equivalent level on all three major alliances. Sadly, I’ve already lost one status, and I’ll likely lose Star Alliance Gold status next year unless I think of something creative before then. It just goes to show that you have to keep working it.

Update: New fun offer! This is a good one. You can now earn Star Alliance Gold status with only 20,000 flight miles. The comparable status on OneWorld typically requires 50,000 miles.

Sign up here and you get 1,000 free miles to start with, and silver status begins at a very low 4,000 miles—so only 3,000 more miles and you’re already on the ladder. My thanks to AONC reader and fellow traveler Kiwi Flyer for sharing this news.

***

Glitch Fares

Once in a while, an airline will screw up more than usual and price one of its fares incredibly low. This is a glitch in the matrix and doesn’t last long, but they often end up honoring the fares that were booked during the glitch.

The only way I know to find out about glitch fares is to actively monitor FlyerTalk. Or you can have nice readers who are similarly obsessed and write to let you know about something before it ends. My thanks to reader Dan Pierson who alerted me a while back to a special deal on Business Class flights from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to any airport in Canada. Due to the glitch in the matrix, the fare was showing up as $630 instead of $2500. Not bad!

I was able to pick up two of them for separate dates, flying KUL-ICN-LAX-YVR each time. (I also bought a cheap one-way ticket home to Portland from Vancouver.) I then alerted several other readers who also got in on it, including the Fly Brother who was on a global adventure of his own. I went to Malaysia twice, came back on good flights, and even earned elite status with Delta thanks to the offer. Fun times.

***

Lodging

Just like flying First Class to Europe and transferring to Circus Class around West Africa, I mix it up when it comest to lodging, from hotels to guest houses to outdoor huts (once in a while) to airport floors. In my old age I’m staying in hotels more often now, but I’m still up for adventure once in a while.

Priceline helps a lot with business hotels in major cities. Just be sure you know what you’re paying for, or you’ll probably pay too much. (This is how Priceline’s ingenious business model works—most customers overpay while still thinking they got a great deal. I wish I had invented Priceline.) You can find which hotels are actually available by checking over at BetterBidding and BiddingforTravel. In transit in Heathrow several times, I’ve never paid more than $60 to stay overnight, when the normal rate is around $150. I’ve also had nice Priceline hotels in Seoul, Brussels, Toronto, Singapore, and many other cities.

Hostels.com is always worth checking out, and not only for hostels—the site also lists guesthouses, and small hotels that don’t show up on other search engines. Plus, you can get a private room at a hostel and still meet other travelers without dealing with six random guys walking in and out of your room all night.

One of my travel pet peeves is that midrange hotels typically provide WiFi for free, while high-end hotels charge for it. This is true for most of the major chains: Hyatt Place gives free internet; Hyatt charges. Courtyard by Marriott gives free internet; Marriott charges. And so on. When in doubt, pick the mid-range property and you’ll probably have a better experience for less money.

Ibis Hotels in Europe are often a good value at less than $100 a night. Breakfast costs 9 euros, which still isn’t cheap, but it’s 22 euros next door at the Sheraton.

On the budget end (or the “no budget at all” end), check out Couchsurfing.org for your choice of free couches around the world. I once stayed on the couch of a Croatian family and watched reality TV. Then they charged me $30, but that’s not really how couchsurfing usually works. The way it usually works is that you pay nothing, and stay with nice people who aren’t as freaky as you might expect.

***

Time and Money

The question of “But how much time does it take” always comes up when I write about travel hacking. Is it really worth it to pursue these things? Couldn’t you just earn more money and pay regular price?

First of all, many of our readers have more time than money. They’re on a tight budget and interested in seeing what they can do with it, so I definitely want to help wherever I can.

Secondly, some of these deals we’re talking about aren’t small change. The Lufthansa flight I redeemed miles for last week rings up as $15,772 in cash on Kayak. Even the Economy ticket from Portland to Frankfurt to Kazakhstan and back comes up well over $2,000. Meanwhile, my cost for the First Class redemption was $720 to get the miles, plus $110 in taxes.

Admittedly, that trip is a (nice) aberration—I wouldn’t actually spend $15k on a ticket if I didn’t have miles, and it took a bit of work to make it happen. But even on the smaller scale, a Priceline hotel deal takes an average of ten minutes to arrange, and typically saves a minimum of $50. I’m OK with that time-to-money-saved ratio.

Finally, I’m the first to admit that travel hacking is also a hobby. I actually like the experience of finding out about various deals and pursuing them for a nice tradeoff. It may not always be a 100% efficient use of my time, but since I usually enjoy it, my sense is “Why not?” So as long as I’m having fun, I’ll keep doing it.

***

I could go on (and on and on) about travel hacking, since it’s simultaneously a hobby, a passion, and a big part of my hybrid career. But speaking of time, it’s getting short here on my trip. If there’s enough interest, we’ll do a follow-up post with several of the other topics.

If you have questions or tips of your own to share, post them here. Keep in mind that I’m roaming around West Africa this week, so it may take longer than usual to run the shop.

Happy travel hacking! And happy belated holidays to everyone from the U.S. and Canada (a few days late or a week late, depending on where you are).

###

Image: UncleBen

54 Comments

  • Nice post and thanks for the mention.

    I agree that information and creativity are key to travelling well for little. I started over 10 years ago and when I began I never believed I would be able to travel as well or as widely as I’ve been able to do.

  • Tara says:

    I love reading about this + would love to hear more, especially about travelling around in the states. I do craft shows all over the country + so I’m always looking for tips on getting me (and all that yarn!) to the show!

  • David says:

    thanks for this post. I am there with getting miles and not knowing what to do when i get them. The airline industry is one i find confusing as those who are regular customers are paying more and receiving less. This is a useful primer for what to focus on when you want more out of your travel life.

    On the bright side, I’m still alive so they must be doing something right.

  • Norbert says:

    Hey Chris –

    Great post! I have to say I’m all about Travel Hacking. I have come up with great savings by investing my time searching for deals and offers. I can spend hours looking for deals, but for me it’s not a waste of time since I love the planning process as much as the trip on itself… It’s the complete package for me. The airfare of my last three trips (from NYC to Costa Rica, Europe, and Puerto Rico – separately) were all paid with miles I gathered through different methods and previous travels. Definitely worth it!

    Travel Hacking is my passion too… who doesn’t love saving money? lol

  • Always enjoy these practical, “in the trenches” posts from you… especially when you’re writing from… er, however you say that place. :)

    I for one am interested in a followup. Thanks for sharing, Chris.

    -Marshall Jones Jr.

  • susan says:

    I bought your Frequent Flyer master and had enough for 2 round trip overseas tix in a few months.

    For lodging, don’t forget about staying in convents and monasteries (common in Italy), yurts, European mobile homes, college dorms during the student’s off season, camping (even in Brooklyn NYC) and hospitals usually have apartments they rent out to families of long-term patients, and when they’re free, to travelers. So many more options than hotels.

  • I am definitely going to use some of your tips, Chris, as soon as I have some time to travel again!

    My previous plans have just meant collecting frequent flyer mile points by using a FF credit card for every purchase, large and small (and paying monthly of course to avoid interest charges), plus whatever points I accrued from flying. My budget in Europe has usually meant 1-2 star hotels (not bad) but mostly camping. A lot of people don’t realize how luxurious campgrounds in Europe can be! Pools, restaurants, you name it. If you don’t mind sleeping in a tent, that is. Last I was there (2003), it was around $10/night in every country I’ve been in (most). Same in the Hawaiian islands. Rail pass for getting around-can’t beat it as far as I”m concerned.

    Back to work but definitely dreaming and making plans :)

  • I made my leap into travel hacking late last year by taking advantage of various credit card and checking account offers. Thanks to things like BA’s 100,000 mile signup bonus, I’ve already gotten over 150,000 miles and will probably pick up around 50K before the end of the year- and all without having to set foot on a plane. This tactic of going after credit card bonuses isn’t for folks who have debt problems (I pay my cards off in full each month) but for folks on a solid financial foundation it’s an easy way to pick up some miles.

    I haven’t booked any trips yet with all my miles wealth yet, but I plan to use those BA miles to book a business class seat on LAN and go visit some fun places like Buenos Aires and Easter Island. I can’t wait! And it’s due partly to blogs like yours that encourage me to chase my dream of travelling the world.

    I hope your trip to Africa’s going well- I’m making my first visit to the continent next week with a week-long trip to Kenya.

  • Thanks for the great info Chris. Curious if you ever use round the world tickets?

  • Chris says:

    Hey everyone! Thanks for adding to the discussion – I’m headed to bed over here (1am local time) but will be back in my a.m. to post the other comments and reply to any questions.

    @Linda,

    Yes indeed, I’m a fan of (some) RTW tickets — there’s a whole post about that over here.

  • Audrey says:

    Although I consider myself pretty savvy on the travel front, I am not on collecting and using miles effectively. I feel like I’m always trying to juggle not losing them and then end up with a credit card I don’t need in the end to keep from losing them. Thanks for the practical advice on how to play the game and end up on top.

  • Excellent tips Chris! Pity about your Couchsurfing experience – that’s the first time I’ve EVER heard of someone requesting payment and I’m deep inside the community (hosted well over a thousand people myself!)

    Twitter-share-worthy post once again :D

  • Holly says:

    You should also check out AirBNB.com. It’s a great website that offers rooms, guest houses, and houses that regular people are renting at decent rates around the world!

  • Paul says:

    As far as travel tips go, I have learned a few things about US rental cars that might be useful.

    1. Check your personal car insurance. Its likely they cover your rental car, making expensive coverage unnecessary.

    2. Use a major credit card (not debit) to book your reservation (often required). VISA offers rental car insurance as a free perk when you use your VISA credit card for the transaction. Mastercard likely has the same thing. Check with your card carrier for details, or check your card issuers webpage listed on the back of the card.

    3. If your rental is short term, say a day or two, it might be better to just pay the extra few bucks for the rental car insurance. Having the peace of mind that you can walk away from any damage is a good thing.

    4. Always check the car for damage, driveability, and registration. [The story of my CHP traffic stop in San Francisco, and its aftermath, is coming soon.]

  • SusanJ says:

    I really appreciate that you covered the ratio of research time to rewards gained. I love the adventure of hunting stuff down, but I don’t think this is going to turn into a major hobby for me.

    In future, it might make a fun post or guide to illustrate the different levels of time committment and what can be accomplished with them – like “get me the booking now”, “enjoying the hunt” and “obsessed super-sleuth”.

    Also, I have to echo the earlier Susan on dorms and colleges for good cheap accomodations. London, UK is filled with them and I got a $22/night private room at a religious college in the north end for 2 weeks a number of years ago. (complete with interesting conversations!).

  • Sean says:

    Funny you mention 6 random guys walking in and out of your room…

    One time in Florence my wife and I stayed in a hostel. While we had our own room, the wall didn’t quite reach the ceiling. Around 3 am or so, we were awoken by 6 random guys discussing whether or not it was better to just stay awake or to get some sleep.

    My wife ended up saying something rather venomous and the guys quickly hushed up.

    Good times. Definitely share more Chris. And thank you!

  • Hey Chris,

    Thanks for the generous post – that tip (and link) from Kiwi Flyer rocks.

    Much appreciated man.

  • James says:

    I was really interested in reading this article, and have been following what you’re doing for a while now although up to now I haven’t really got into the whole travel hacking thing myself.
    I was wondering how many of your travel strategies are dependent on living in the United States. I live in Britain and would like to try my hand at what you’re doing. I’d be really grateful for any reply :)
    All the best for your time in West Africa!

  • Alexis Grant says:

    New reader of your blog here — and love this post. You’re so right that travel doesn’t have to be expensive. I also love Ouaga! Hire a moto to drive you through Ouaga 2000 — really interesting after seeing the rest of the country.

  • Apa Design says:

    After opening my business in 2009, I have made it a bit of a mandate to take one long trip every year to refresh and recharge creatively. We set off again in six weeks for just over a month long journey. Thanks for the tips and I will start planning for the next one with points, any suggestions for Canadian travelers or are the point systems similar?
    Happy Traveling!
    Andrea

  • We are active members of Couchsurfing and at home very regularly host surfers. Its a great story how it all started and after a year travelling through Europe (bwe bought a car), this is one way we feel we can keep connected to the rest of the world while at home! You get to meet the locals, pick their brains about local special spots and share some cultural exchange. Helps to make the world and us a better thing!

  • Wyman says:

    Hi Chris and followers,

    While my wife and I are not traveling beyond visiting kids because we are taking care of her 94 year odl mother. I enjoy your adventures and tips and am also collecting tips from the rest of you. Susan’s where of paticular interest. We will travel again if we out live mom.

  • Linda says:

    I love reading about your travel hacking hijinks, and get a tingle up my spine whenever I think of someone ‘sticking it to the (travel) man!’ (my interpretation, not yours!).

    Love the idea of saving $2.00/day for a travel budget.

    My only travel perk has been buying airline tickets with accrued points for purchases. For this reason, I charge almost everything except my mortgage, but am also able to pay the balance in full every month.

    Next travel plan, buy a piggybank!

  • I love your posts and information on travel hacking & couldn’t agree more that travel does not have to be expensive! We’ve been traveling the world non-stop as a family for 4 years solid on just 23 dollars a day per person in mostly “expensive” countries.

    But we haven’t flown much ( despite going to 4 continents, 32 countries) and rarely use hotels,( we’ve used different travel hacks ) so it’s always great to hear your ideas in these areas!

  • Joshua says:

    For accommodation I’ve used Agoda (.com) while hopping around Asia, and it’s been pretty good. They even take Paypal, which is pretty convenient if you’re doing work/travel for longer periods of time.

    I really need to start on the air miles collecting though…

  • Jess says:

    Hooray for travel hacking! I’ll look into mileage. Most of the cards I get offered require “signing up for mileage” and I refuse to pay to fly. Might have to check out this bank business.

    As for LODGING, I can’t recommend couchsurfing or hospitality club ENOUGH. There’s just so many awesome people out there willing to let you stay for free and show you around their city, so you get an even more local perspective. Some are truly locals. Others are expats. Whatever the case, they’re definitely better than guidebooks.

    There’s also the grand ol’ “lock your shit up in a locker somewhere and sleep on the park bench/beach/airport” idea too.

    I’ve decided there’s two categories of travelers: the money budget kind and the time budget kind. Depending on which one you are really influences how you spend your money. $7000 can last you for seven months (or even a year) or just a week. It really just depends.

  • Cat says:

    Always good to know you’re not alone in “searching for travel deals” as a hobby! (I think this is similar to shopping in general for women.) I don’t even want to know how much time I’ve spent looking at and dreaming about deals but you never know when you’ll find something. It’s like a fun treasure hunt! I’m definitely interested in learning more about travel hacking, etc so please share more and I’ll keep on reading!

  • Bradley says:

    The hardest thing to hack for me is finding an inexpensive and trustworthy place or person to take care of my pup while I am gone.

    Last year I went to Belize and spent less on my hotel for a week than on dog boarding!

  • Hi Chris,
    Wonderful article on beginning travel hacking – thanks Chris! I was one of the many that were stranded this past April by Eyjafjallajokull’s ash-clouds. Spent the whole month in Paris, not a bad place to be stranded all in all, and I learned a lot – including CouchSurfing.com! One of the things I wanted to share here is how I got a Parisian phone number that forwarded to my cell (a globally enabled Blackberry Tour – love, love, love it!) and took messages all in the same go. I wanted my Parisian business contacts not to have to suck the toll for calling an American cell (totally usurious rates) so got a Paris (you can get most countries in Europe) phone number at:

    uwtcallbackservice.com/callmyglobalnumber.shtml

    This is not an affiliate link, they don’t have an aff program to my knowledge, it’s just the root link. Hope this helps folks… :-)

  • Amanda says:

    I love love LOVE this post! Great advice, thank you so much for sharing! I’m a big proponent of Couchsurfing.org too, and have friends that have couchsurfed all over the world and host surfers from all over the world…it’s a wonderful way to meet new people and get to know a new culture and place!

  • Monica says:

    Every since I visited Senegal in January, I’ve been obsessed with this notion of traveling around the world for extended periods of time for low costs. I’ve signed up for alerts and notifications that will tell me when there are special deals on plane tickets in the US and overseas. In the meantime, I stumbled across the book “Vagabonding” which gave a lot of good advice for extended overseas travel. Some of the advice I wouldn’t adhere to (don’t bring your computer), while other advice I really liked (find a temporary job overseas). That same desire to travel is also why I love reading this blog every week!

  • Azarethroy says:

    Great post. I’ve been semi-nomadic for the last 6 years but have yet to get my head around frequent flyer points!!

    Btw I can whole-heartedly recommend CouchSurfing. It’s more than a free couch, it’s a cultural exchange.

  • Paulius says:

    I’m reading your blog for the first time. The post is great! I didn’t got everything(need more time for the research), but if other posts are as awesome – you’re in my RSS!

    I have to explore the idea of the airmiles, and if any of the readers are from the UK and doing travel-hacking, please contact me googling my twitter nickname. I would love to hear from them!

    keep up the awesome stuff and enjoy Africa!

  • Petteri says:

    Nice tips.

    I haven’t been thinking about the whole idea of frequent flyer points even though I have been traveling a lot. Obviously I haven’t been traveling enough. :)

  • Jules says:

    Hello Chris,

    I was wondering about the glitch you mentioned. I recently bought a Singapore Airlines ticket from Singapore to Zurich at $2.1k. Previously it was $2.3, so when it dropped to $2.1, I grabbed it. I check occasionally now, and it’s always $2.3k! Is this a sort of glitch like you mentioned? Or just flight price fluctuations? Thank you if you have any idea!

  • Chris says:

    That would just be a normal price fluctuation – but nice job on saving $200!

  • Janna says:

    This piece assumes that readers want to travel no matter where they have to stay or what conditions they have to endure. It seems like you score a few luxury deals for cheap prices but then you end up having to endure squalid conditions the rest of the time. For me, the point of travelling is to enjoy comfort/luxury that I might not be able to afford at home! Sure, it’s great to experience new places, but I’m much more likely to enjoy myself when I’m fed and watered in comfort…not “circus class”.

    Part of the reason I travel is specifically to stay at nice hotels. There is no way I would enjoy travelling if I had to stay in hostels or huts. I guess it might work for the adventurous out there, but for me, life is too short to compromise. I’d rather stay somewhere nice in lieu of “roughing it” for the sake of seeing “more”. QUALITY OVER QUANTITY ;-)

  • Brian says:

    My best deal I ever got was a roundtrip ticket from Los Angeles to London for $374 in 2004. Only downside was that when I landed in heathrow airport I missed my flight at Gatwick airport. It was my fault because I didn’t read the schedule and didn’t know I would lose a day by flying. Then I ended up paying more to fly to Amsterdam from London then I did from Lax. But thats traveling……

  • Colleen says:

    Hi Chris
    Is there an equivalent of Priceline.com for around Europe?
    Still enjoying your posts, my blog is coming along nicely :-)
    Colleen

  • Kote besaq says:

    Thanks. Very helpful.

  • Julia says:

    Hi Chris I have looked at your site several times and I just find the thought of travel hacking so exciting but very scary. I get overwhelmed when read about all these companies and points places I have never even heard of as most of it doesn’t seem to relate to getting started in Australia? I currently have a Qantas frequent flyer card and when I buy my groceries from Woolworths I get qantas points. I am wondering if you or anyone has some great tips on how to get more points and get started as a full time travel hacker from Australia and what particular deals we can join over here in the land down under. Thanks so much. Cheers Julia

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  • The saying “Patience is a virtue” should be put to action when training your dog.

    We already do this when teaching them little tricks, such as shaking hands.

    When you lead your puppy exterior and he finishes the work then be approving and supply praise and treats.

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