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Travel Hacking Anywhere Without Credit Cards

Travel Hacking Anywhere Without Credit Cards

Since posting the 2012 Frequent Flyer Challenge, I’ve fielded a ton of queries from people about how it works, which cards are best for their needs, and the occasional complaint from someone who feels like this information is too good to be shared.

The short response is: it works very well. I’ll be receiving more than 200,000 miles from my recent applications, in addition to several million miles over the past few years. These opportunities aren’t going away anytime soon, so you might as well get in on them if you can.

Here are the last two posts on the current challenge—

Update #1: The New Challenge
Update #2: An Update with Various Q&A

In addition to the cards mentioned in those posts, there is a new offer from AmEx that provides 50,000 points after completing a $5,000 minimum spend. The bonus is usually 25,000 points, so the 50,000 one definitely won’t be around forever.

Lots of people are also asking… what about the rest of the world? If you don’t live in the U.S., or if you live in the U.S. and aren’t eligible to use credit cards or just prefer not to, what are your options?

Well, there’s good news and bad news on that front.

The bad news is that credit card-based travel hacking is largely an opportunity for people in the U.S., along with a few options for people in Canada and Australia. The cards issued by banks elsewhere in the world aren’t nearly as incentivized as those in the U.S.

The good news is that while credit cards are a quick and easy way for Americans to rack up big signup bonuses—especially these days, as the banks continue to wage an arms race for new customers—most other aspects of travel hacking are open to the whole world.

In fact, in many ways it doesn’t matter where you live. You can open free mileage accounts with almost every major airline’s Frequent Flyer program from just about any country, and you can add to those accounts throughout the year with all kinds of promotions… even if you never set foot on a plane.

Here are a few principles and ideas that may help those who can’t take advantage of U.S. card promotions:

1. The U.S. tends to have the most generous mileage programs.

While not regarded for its actual airlines—much better carriers are in Asia and the Middle East—the U.S. does tend to have the best mileage programs. Wherever you are in the world, you can join these programs for free and take advantage of almost every mileage-earning strategy except credit card bonuses.

As a general rule, I recommend joining one airline per “alliance”—the leading airline groups known as Star Alliance, OneWorld, and SkyTeam. You may want to join others later, but these three are a good start:

American
United or U.S. Airways
Delta

2. Stock up by buying miles at key times.

A few times a year, you can buy miles for discounted rates and use them to “purchase” award tickets to anywhere. Once again, the U.S. leads the way in this department, with U.S. Airways holding big sales several times a year.

You put these miles to work by booking award flights on any Star Alliance carrier, including great airlines such as Swiss, Lufthansa, Air New Zealand, or ANA in Japan. My own U.S. Airways mileage balance has been getting low (currently less than 100,000 miles), so I’ll plan to restock at the next available opportunity.

One exception to the U.S. favoritism: a few times a year, Avianca in South America has begun offering even cheaper purchase options than U.S. Airways. You must be a member of the program before the sale begins, so get a free account so you have the option when the time comes.

3. Round-the-World tickets are most advantageous when beginning outside the U.S.

I’ve now traveled on at least ten Round-the-World tickets, and every one originated far away from my home. The pricing is dependent on country of origin, so good deals are often available in countries such as South Africa, Israel, Japan, and Korea. See Wandering Aramean’s site for a current list of pricing options.

The great thing about Round-the-World tickets is their flexibility. Most of the time, you can change your flights at any time for no charge. I’ve shown up at the airport for a nine-hour flight and rebooked it on the spot. You can also reroute the entire ticket (including adding or subtracting destinations) after departure for a small fee. And again, you’ll save money on the ticket cost by beginning from somewhere other than the U.S. or Canada.

4. Get elite status wherever you live—and then get it elsewhere.

Travel companies offer “elite status” to their preferred and most frequent customers. Why should you care about such a thing? Because at hotels you’ll get free upgrades, free breakfast, free internet, late check-out, and other perks. On airlines you’ll get priority boarding, priority seating, upgrades (sometimes), and better help if something goes wrong.

You can often get elite status through a “challenge” where you agree to complete a certain amount of travel in a certain period of time. In other cases you can simply call up and request a status match.

One way of getting elite status without traveling much at all is by registering for free when it’s available as a limited-time offer. This happens several times a year with many different hotels and airlines.

You may wonder why you’d get an elite status from a company you don’t expect to patronize. Status matching is the answer: you can use it to gain elite status from a company you do expect to patronize.

5. Priceline remains a cheap way to stay in nice hotels.

Thanks to the “name your own price” option that allows you to bid for properties all over the world, Priceline is a longstanding resource of budget travelers. I don’t do many Priceline stays anymore because I have less flexibility and want to earn nights toward ongoing status with Hyatt, Hilton, and Starwood. In years past, however, about half of my hotel stays were booked through Priceline at deep discounts from the regular price.

Two important tips for Priceline stays:

a. Ignore the regular booking process and always conduct your search through the “Name your own price” box listed to the right of the main search bar.

b. Priceline makes money by trying to get you to bid more than you should. To negate this advantage visit Bidding Traveler to see what other people are paying—and then bid that amount or slightly less.

6. No credit card? Try a checking account or debit card.

For those in the U.S. who just don’t want credit cards, once in a while there are some decent debit card options that include limited bonuses. You can also open a Citi Checking Account and receive a $300 bonus after completing a few direct deposit and ATM withdrawal requirements.

For a savings account while interest rates remain low, consider BankDirect for regular earning of AA miles on deposits. This option was devalued somewhat when BankDirect added a monthly fee for accounts recently, but if you can keep a significant balance there, it’s still worth it.

7. But wait, there’s more!

Lastly, these aspects of travel hacking aren’t the only strategies. I’m not a big fan of budget airlines in the U.S., but in Europe and Asia they can be great options. You can also go real budget and stay with people for free through Couchsurfing. You can exchange your house or apartment with someone elsewhere in the world through a home exchange. You can ride share or crowdsource a vacation on Craigslist.

The point is: however you do it, if you want to find adventure, adventure awaits you when you’re ready.

***

These days I’m busy with many other projects and don’t have much time for travel hacking. Despite the lack of time, I still try to give it a bit of attention whenever I can. The points and miles I earn every year (more than 1 million for each of the past 3 years) provide almost unlimited opportunities to see the world.

Speaking of travel, I’m on the road again, soon to be headed to the Seychelles, my 188th country. The Seychelles is an expensive, faraway place, but this is where travel hacking comes in.

My flight to Seychelles originates from Abu Dhabi. I’ll get to Abu Dhabi on a free Business Class ticket booked on Etihad with American Airlines miles. Once I make it there, I’ll be at a nice place on the beach for three nights—this time thanks to hotel points.

There’s more to freedom than travel, of course. But travel is also nice.

QUESTION: Where are you headed for your next trip?

Feel free to share with other readers.

If you have questions or your own advice on travel hacking without credit cards, feel free to share that too.

###

Image: Kamal

43 Comments

  • Adam Porter says:

    I’m finally scheduling a debt-free celebration trip with my partner. We’re headed to the Dominican Republic for some much-needed R&R.

  • Kaitlyn says:

    I’m off to Japan in May of next year. Very interesting actually as this is my first flight with Virgin and it was a toss up between them and British Airways. I found comparing the services a bit of a challenge but as both offered the exact same price right down to the penny, the only way to determine which one was best was to look at the ‘added perks’.

    I must say, the number of offers and mile collecting schemes out there does cause me a headache. I’ve got Aeroplan with Air Canada and find it nearly impossible to spend the points as the system is SO convoluted. I’m also a member of the BA club and, when buying these last tickets, I signed up to Virgin. Virgin seems to have the best and easiest to access offers.

    Regardless, I’m going to work on all three of them and use them as and when it suits.

  • Tim says:

    Planning to go to Japan next year, sometime between Jan – Mar. Anyone knows when is the best time to go hunting for good airfares and hotel rates?

  • Brianna says:

    I have no idea where my next trip will be. I am hoping NYC to visit a friend from college and his girlfriend. My first book is coming out in a couple of months, so perhaps a book tour in 2013.

  • Gigi says:

    My dog and I are heading back to the states to visit friends and clients at the end of the month!

  • Chuck Kuhn says:

    Just booked 12 days in Morocco from NYC. I’ve been using Priceline for 12 yrs or more and save $$$ everytime. There is a art to bidding on priceline or to get free bids. I suggest you try http://www.biddingfortravel.com Their menu from Priceline bidders (like me) and they record the bids from hotels all over the world. It give a an idea where to start your bids and how to work the system to get more than one bid, when your price is too low. It works believe me. Note: on my 100,000 miles from BA, which I’ve had 13 months. BA is very expensive when traveling from USA to other countries. But I find I can fly from Casablanca to Madrid for 4500 miles. From Madrid to Marseille for 4500 miles. As long as your connection is not through London, mileage rates a bargain.

  • Can I just say I <3 travel hacking? I'll be traveling to Germany & Switzerland in December on a rewards ticket thanks to miles I earned via my credit card. I also bought a ticket to Oslo in April! I should have enough miles to fund another rewards ticket late next year, but I haven't decided where I want to go just yet.

  • Susan Hall says:

    French Polynesia; Moorea and Bora Bora. Tahiti Moorea Marathon February 13, 2013 (or the Tahiti Moorea 10K if my marathon training falters.) I started the ‘My One Place’ @ $4. a day about two years ago and am well on my way to paying for this trip in cash.

    http://chrisguillebeau.com/3×5/your-one-place/

  • Barrie B says:

    Chris, you are right on target and right on time. I never thought to purchase miles before, and now that I am interested the Universe responded.
    I just received an email from United:
    Save up to 40% on the purchase of miles.
    For a limited time, save 40% on the purchase of 30,000 miles or more, or 20% on the purchase of up to 30,000 miles.
    …offer ends at 11:59 p.m. CDT on September 19, 2012.

  • Gwen says:

    Not as exciting or exotic as some, but I am using my first miles to go to Tucson, AZ for 10 days in Feb. the weather in the Pacific Northwest will be making me crazy by then! I will be staying with a friend, and I plan to investigate options for spending the next winter in AZ!

  • Lisa says:

    I travel extensively for work – so my next trip is NEXT WEEK….to North Carolina for a business trip. Then I’m off to Chicago for my niece’s Navy Basic Training Graduation Ceremony….and then off to Orlando for a Walt Disney World trip with my husband to celebrate Epcot’s 30th anniversary!

    I quit my job though, so the trip next week is my last trip for a traditional employer. Looking forward to maybe seeing you in Norway in April – we’ll see where life takes me!

    Thanks for your tips on travel – they make perfect sense and are very usable.

    Take care,
    Lisa

  • Marc says:

    Just swapped some hacked miles for flights to UAE from UK with Etihad – for anyone else looking to fly Etihad sign up for the skyBlue club (a Manchester City FC supports club) for free & book through their portal & you get instant & automatic 5% discount on all flights (more in you fly via Manchester UK)

  • I didn’t realize you could purchases miles at a discount. Seems like a good option for those who don’t use credit.

    Also, seems like a good opportunity for some company to offer miles for debit card use since debit spending is now more than credit spending. I know the personal finance community would support such a product.

  • James says:

    Thanks for your tips on travel! It’s been nearly four years since I was outside of North America and I am dying for adventure. Signing up for a dozen credit cards seems a bit scary, but I think it’s preferable to the alternative of staying put.

  • These are fabulous suggestions for someone like me, who *may or may not* have the best credit… :/

  • Jason says:

    I just received an email today from United on a miles sale. 20% off for under 30k miles and 40% off for above 30k miles. Is this a good deal? Doesn’t really seem like it is.

  • Chris says:

    @Jason,

    Nope, that’s not a good deal. Valuation is key when buying miles – you should always relate the purchase to a specific award you’re planning for.

  • San Francisco, CA from Portland, OR from the 21st to the 24th of September for 14,940 points and $10 in tax fees (booked two weeks ago). I received 25,000 points after getting the Southwest Chase Credit Card and paying the $69 fee. I still have enough points for a one way to NYC. Thanks for the tips Chris! -George

  • Thanks for the tips! I’m living in Japan now, and will be returning to the US around the end of the year. My next trip will be to the UK and Spain in October. I booked the hotels and flights before I found your site and started learning about travel hacking, so I feel like a total sucker now. Thanks for that. ;-)

    I’m excited to get started travel hacking though. As soon as I get back to the U.S. I’m going to review this and start racking up the miles!

  • MatCoes says:

    Hey there,
    I’m taking my first reward trip to New Orleans in November. A free flight via a Southwest Chase signup!
    I’m hooked, now how to get the whole family travelling?

  • Flying everywhere for free is something I just take for granted now. Thanks to you (and my purchase of Frequent Flyer Master years ago) I’m sitting on enough AAdvantage miles for a RTW trip. Now I just have to figure out where and when to make that happen.

  • Gipsyseekers says:

    Backpacks are full and flights booked for Kathmandu next week. The first port of call on a mind expanding travel odyssey through Nepal, India and South East Asia.

  • Bert says:

    Thanks for the great tips and info! I’m booking a flight using Alaska Miles for a trip to Loreto, Mexico, to learn how to scuba dive next March. Can’t wait!

  • Amanda says:

    These tips are great, but it still seems overwhelming. Maybe that’s because I’ve never really traveled before. I moved to Beijing last month to teach for a year and that was my first flight ever!

  • Kate says:

    I’m off to the North of Chile tomorrow. I just quit my job in China to move to South America. Will hope to take the bus to Peru and then to Ecuador – finances willing :)

    My friend gave me some free miles via United to travel to Florida (cheap dropping off point for anyone traveling to South America) for my flight to Chile.

    Chris, I thought the original article was about how to travel to countries without credit cards and atms like Myanmar and North Korea but I was wrong. lol. They are still doable though when I went there this year, just need to bring a lot of cash.

  • Erin says:

    Headed to the Med in 3 weeks for a 3 week trip to celebrate my 30th birthday! Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey and a few days in Paris before we come back to the states. Woo-hoo!

  • Adam says:

    Since I’m Jewish I get a free 3 week trip to Israel, from there I will do a 5 month Krav Maga program, then fly to India for some meditation and perspective, then Thailand for nature and rest, then go to Australia to work for alittle while and make money since Canadians can get work Visa’s so simply in Australia, then after save up alittle bit and head to South America and do a humungous trip!

    You’re inspiring us 21 year olds!

  • Sana Saeed says:

    I just used the priceline name your quote for the first time and scored a ticket to vegas for $289 roundtrip. So heading there in a week, then to the Dominican Republic w/ a Living Social deal (does that count as travel hacking?). I got e-mail from a friend about your blog an hour ago, and can’t get enough of it. I’m interested in connecting social entrepreneurship to travel- slowly I’m traveling doing good, which is the best kind of travel for me.

  • carl says:

    Does it make any difference how close to the date you try to book a tkt, i.e. a month in advance, easier/harder. I am waiting for miles to show up and then hope to travel a month after that, just wondering…thank you..

  • Lissie says:

    We’re off to Burma(MYanmar) in about a month. (can’t recall if Chris has been there yet or not). Really looking forward to it – but no free trips on CC in my part of the world (New Zealand). That said I ended up getting the trip on full-service Quantas for less than the no-frills airlines were offering to Bangkok, and then a cheap hop via AirAsia – my favourite Asian discount airline.

  • Michelle says:

    I must be missing something. In my world the more credit cards you have the lower your credit rating goes. Do you have to sacrifice your credit rating to be hacker ? Comments ? Thanks ! Love the site and ideas.

  • Chris says:

    @Michelle,

    If you’re living in the U.S. part of the world, more cards will actually improve your credit rating over time — as long as you manage them well and ensure that balances are paid off each month, of course.

  • manureva says:

    I’m living in Tahiti and my next trip would be to visit China. I got mile from my Amex credit card to the local air company Air Tahiti Nui. This post reminds me to ask for my due. I should be able to get a free ticket to China.

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