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The Latest in Travel Hacking: Earn Free Airfare in 2012

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Happy New Year!

On Sunday’s long run, I pushed it to 12 miles in honor of 2012. I then tried to eat 12 pieces of nutella pie as a reward, but that plan fell through after piece #2.

As you’re thinking about a new year, here’s a free tip: forget resolutions; think about living intentionally instead.

What matters to you this year? Do that.

What do you hope to build in 2012? Work on that.

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Longtime readers may recall some of my travel hacking reports—how I went to a hair-loss clinic for 20,000 SkyMiles, earned 808,000 miles by buying useless stickers, took a free First Class side trip to Thailand while visiting Germany, and many more. This is a big part of how I see the world, traveling 200,000+ miles and to more than twenty countries every year.

With that in mind, here’s the first part of my travel hacking plan for 2012—and more important, here’s how YOU can earn free airfare to go wherever you want.

My Elite Status Plan: Hilton + Hyatt Diamond, AA Executive Platinum

In last year’s travel roundup, I shared how I have fewer countries to visit in 2012 than I do most years… but the challenge is that I no longer have any backup plans.

Since I travel all the time, achieving elite status with hotels and airlines is important to me. First, I’ll want to earn elite status with hotels, requalifying for Hilton Diamond and getting a new Diamond status with Hyatt. Last year I qualified for Hilton Diamond the hard way, by staying with them at least 28 times. This year, I want to keep that status, but I also want to switch to Hyatt, so I asked them to match my elite status through a challenge.

On the airline side, for the past two years I’ve made American Airlines and the OneWorld alliance my primary choice of carriers, though I travel on at least a dozen other airlines every year as well. With AA, I have Executive Platinum status—the highest one, and one that gives me access to First Class lounges around the world.

Unfortunately for me (and fortunately for AA), every year you have to requalify for the status… all elite-status earning clocks reset at zero on January 1. I need to earn 100,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQM) in 2012 to get to the top again, so of course I’m starting early by planning a big trip for the middle of January.

Good news: a special AA promotion offers double EQMs through January 31. It’s free, but you have to register first. This offer will help a lot, since I have an AA flight to Spain booked for the middle of the month.

Are you lost already? Don’t worry, it’s not that complicated. Here’s the easy part for those with U.S. bank accounts: if you can get an airline credit card or two (or three or more), you’ll be WAY ahead of the game. Card bonuses have become increasingly lucrative, and if you manage your credit well, you can easily earn enough miles to travel anywhere on earth.

100,000+ Free and Easy Miles

More than two years ago, I wrote about my attempt to earn 300,000 Frequent Flyer Miles in one month without flying. I did this by applying for more than a dozen credit cards all at once, and was accepted for every card.

The series of updates that resulted was one of the things that made this blog infamous, and I even got hate mail over it—some people were indignant about a decision they said would “ruin” my credit. But actually, my long-term credit score went up thanks to the cards. I always paid the full balance every month, and the card companies kept offering me new products. Since then I’ve earned an additional 700,000 miles through the same method.

Many of our readers have done the same thing in different ways, over and over. Whenever I host meetups or go on book tour, people share stories about taking their partner to Europe for the first time, going to Hawaii on vacation, or even funding their own Round-the-World trip thanks to credit card bonuses.

The other day I had coffee with a friend, and I asked her: “Hey, remember when I told you about those AA Citibank cards? And maybe a few others?”

“Yep,” she told me. “My husband and I got three cards each over the course of a few months, and earned more than 200,000 miles.”

Nice. This conversation, and many others that have come up recently, caused me to rethink my position on referrals. Despite years and years of sending people to credit cards that pay out big signup bonuses, I’ve never earned a single dollar in referral fees. Even in our commercial products, we’ve linked directly to the bank’s websites without any affiliate links.

After thinking it through and getting some advice, I’ve decided to create a page on the site where you can learn about the latest deals and offers. Unlike everything else I write about, I receive a commission if you apply through some of those links.

Of course, I only recommend cards I use myself, and if you don’t want to use those links, you certainly don’t have to. This page is just there for those who want it:

–>The Best Airline Credit Card Offers

I also wanted to get more active in sending people to these deals because they keep getting better. It used to be that most cards offered a 25,000 mile signup bonus, if they had one at all, and you always had to pay an annual fee to receive it.

Many years ago when I first got my Starwood card, I received no bonus of any kind—I was just thrilled to have a great card that earned transferrable points with every dollar I spent. Over the years I’ve used the points I earned later for nearly a hundred stays at nice properties all over the world.

These days, 50,000 is the new 25,000, and anyone with a U.S. bank account and decent credit can regularly take advantage of deals to earn large amounts of miles, several times a year. The new Chase Sapphire card is my recent favorite, with a 50,000 point signup bonus, no foreign transaction fees, points that transfer to United or Hyatt (among others), and the opportunity to earn double points for all dining and airfare purchases.

You can also get the Chase Ink Bold card for an additional 50,000 point bonus and all the same perks, or the AmEx Platinum Card that offers free lounge access and a $200 yearly statement credit on your choice of airlines.

On the credit card signup page, there are numerous other offers that are also very good. Yes, I’ve had all of them, and regularly cycle through new cards without any adverse affect on my credit score. If you need help on a specific recommendation or just have a general question, feel free to email me—I’m happy to give quick advice whenever I can.

Not everyone who reads this blog cares about travel hacking, and I respect those who prefer not to use credit cards for whatever reason. But if you’re responsible with your credit, this is a great, easy way to travel for nearly-free in 2012. That’s what I’ll be doing, starting at the end of next week …

Next Trip: Turkmenistan, Chad, and (maybe) Eritrea

After the flight to Spain on American Airlines (working on that elusive elite status), my next trip takes me to Turkmenistan in Central Asia, Chad in Central Africa, and hopefully Eritrea in Africa as well. I have all my tickets confirmed, and not surprisingly, all of the flights to my real destinations are booked with miles:

Turkmenistan: Booked on Turkish Airways via Madrid and Istanbul with U.S. Airways miles

Eritrea: Booked on Lufthansa and Egypt Air via Frankfurt and Cairo with U.S. Airways miles

Chad: Booked on Air France via Paris with Delta Miles

I say hopefully for Eritrea because after repeated attempts and three months of waiting (!), I still have no visa from the embassy in Washington, D.C. I’m desperately hoping they come through in time, and I’m excited about this first big trip of 2012 that begins next weekend.

First, though, I’m spending most of this week getting ready for next Tuesday’s launch of the Unconventional Guide to Publishing, our first new guide in … wait for it … more than 16 months.

I know, I know—what was I thinking in taking so long? But I’ve been busy with other things, and this guide will be worth the wait. I’ll tell you more about it early next week, right before the launch.

Happy 2012, everyone! Here’s wishing you happy travel hacking and many other good things this year.

– Chris

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Image: Becky

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