Several times a year I check into a Sheraton hotel that is free to me. Most of the time, the check-in clerk mentions my Gold status.
“Thank you for giving us your business,” she says. “No problem,” I reply. “Thanks for giving me free rooms.”
The secret is that I give Sheraton almost no business, at least in terms of money. I have Gold status with them thanks to the Starwood Preferred Guest credit card I use, and over the past four years, I’ve only paid for two Sheraton rooms. The others (at least 15-20 at last count) have been free to me.
From Sheraton rooms to Frequent Flyer Awards, I travel for free or almost free to a lot of places each year. I’ve compiled a short list of my tactics for you below — and if you have some of your own, feel free to share them with others at the end.
- Post-disaster travel: Air Asia offered tens of thousands of almost free flights to Thailand after the recent coup. Vacations to Kenya were half-price after the election violence in 2008. This is also good for helping the local economy during a difficult time
- Look for airlines that don’t show up in travel search engine results. When you have a destination in mind, check Attitude Travel for a complete listing of budget airlines
- Whenever you earn elite status with one airline, request a status match from one in another alliance. I have Platinum status with Northwest despite almost never flying with them – but whenever I do, I’m automatically upgraded ahead of people who are regular Northwest / Delta travelers
- I’ve mentioned this before, but people are always surprised that it works: you can get into almost any airline lounge as a guest of another member. Just ask someone entering the lounge (politely) if they will help you get in
- Flying to Australia from the U.S. or Canada, the Qantas Aussie AirPass will almost always save you money and give you two free stops
- If you have multiple upgrade certificates for a long-haul flight, be aware that airlines with three-class service (Economy, Business, First) do not usually allow double-upgrades. What you can do, however, is upgrade someone else at the gate and then trade seats with them on the plane
- Fly at 4am in Europe from secondary airports. RyanAir and EasyJet are the classic providers of middle-of-the-night flights from random airports. Warning: this is usually a fun adventure the first time, but it gets old after a while. I’m not a huge fan of the RyanAir experience myself, but it deserves a place on any good “almost free” list
- Buy a Round-the-World ticket on OneWorld or Star Alliance. Bonus points: spend a few hours optimizing it well. Even more points: begin your trip from a country where the price is lower
- Use the Cathay Pacific All Asia pass to visit five countries in Asia for the price of one
- Use the Best Rate Guarantee Blog to get free Wyndam hotel nights throughout the U.S. and Canada. You can get one each month for a total of 12 a year
- Even if you don’t like hostels, check Hostels.com before you reserve anywhere else. The site includes a number of small hotels that don’t always show up in other search engines
- Provide good feedback after a not-so-great experience. Most high-end hotels will follow-up with a contact from the general manager and an offer for points or credit
- Stay in other university dorms including NYU and the London School of Economics during the summer. Rates are about 40-60% of nearby hotels, and almost always in a great location right in the heart of the city
- Couchsurfing and Hospitality Club are the largest “completely free stay” networks. You can literally couch surf your way around the world if your budget is especially tight
- To sneak into the club lounges of nice hotels, take the stairs instead of the elevator, which usually requires a key card for the executive floor. Don’t tell them I sent you, OK?
FREQUENT FLYER MILES
- Use the 5 Million Frequent Flyer Challenge info to earn at least 50,000 miles (enough for two round-trip tickets)
- Take the challenge a step further by churning Citibank AA cards to earn an additional 100,000 miles each year. You can reapply for personal cards every 60 days and business cards every 90 days
- “Go big” on an award. This is where you spend a long time optimizing the award (and talking to the reservation agents on the phone). It will take time, but can be worth it. I’ll provide several examples of this in the upcoming Travel Ninja guide.
- Take quick surveys to earn 500 or 1,000 points at a time. These add up – I earn at least 30,000+ miles a year through this. To find these, follow the blogs from Frugal Travel Guy and Lucky
- Join the loyalty program of every hotel or airline you ever travel with. You never know when you may use the points, and if something goes wrong, the company will often give priority to it’s loyalty program members
- To earn repeat passenger status on any cruise line, look for one or two-night repositioning cruises with Kayak Cruises or directly on the cruise line site. For as little as $49, you’ll receive the same benefits on your next cruise as someone who spends $1,000+
- Cruise in the off-season – January or February, non-Spring Break April weeks, to Alaska in May or September, and so on
- Use CruiseCompete to invite travel agents to bid on your next cruise. This is a great way to understand how low the price can be. Every time I’ve done this, I’ve saved at least $300
- Get an international drivers’ permit if you want to have the option of driving overseas. Many car rental companies won’t rent to you without this (although others don’t care)
If you want more info and in-depth tutorials, you can also buy my products. The goal with each of the products I’ve been slowly creating is to provide value many times more than the low purchase price. Judging from the feedback I get every day, I think I’m getting that right.
The upcoming Travel Ninja guide focuses on intermediate and advanced tactics for anyone who wants to be able to travel anywhere in the world. I spent a lot of time working on it during my last trip, and I’m excited to bring it to you early on Thursday morning. (I was aiming for today, but it wasn’t 100% ready yet. Check back for an update with more details on Wednesday.)
Of course, you don’t need to buy anything to travel for almost free. The above info should be able to get you off to a good start, and others here will have their own strategies they can contribute.
In fact, that’s how we’ll conclude: if you have something to add, please post it up in the comments section.
That way, other people can benefit from your experiences, and we can all travel for (almost) free. See you at the Sheraton?