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24 Ways to Travel for (Almost) Free

24-Ways-to-Travel-Free-Flickr-Justin-Barton

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.

AIRLINES

  • 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

HOTELS

  • 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

  • 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

CRUISES

  • 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

MISCELLANEOUS

  • 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)

WRAP-UP

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?

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Related Entries:

28 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Traveling
Travel Hacking in an Unfriendly Environment
Working from Anywhere on the Planet
How to Buy a Round-the-World Plane Ticket

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21 Comments

  • R. Lowy says:

    The link to international drivers permit is broken.

    Also probably a well known tip: If your schedule’s flexible enough, don’t be afraid to go on standby, when the plane is overbooked I’ve often gotten upgraded, or even gotten a refund for offering to be a standby passenger and then rebooked to a flight just a few hours later.

  • Chris says:

    @ R. Lowy,

    Thanks for the tip and the link report! (It’s fixed now.)

  • Scott says:

    Great list Chris. For extended stays http://www.vrbo.com is also work a look. Although not free, there are some pretty good rates in the off season.

  • Audrey says:

    While we managed to avoid renting a car during two years traveling through Asia and Europe, we’ve had to rent several on a recent visit to the States to see family. Our friend turned us on to this website – Rental Car Momma – to find every sort of discount code possible for the major rental car companies (United States, Canada, Europe). We’ve found the rental companies don’t seem to check often whether you actually have the card or identification associated with that discount code.

    We have yet to take full advantage of all the miles options available with credit cards…but we’re trying to change that (just got an American Express and 50,000 miles).

  • Joely Black says:

    Thanks for the tips. I’ve done a lot of travelling to places in political difficulty and it’s great for the economy to get it back on its feet. It’s also cheap and easier to get around!

  • Chris, I absolutely love Sheraton. I’ve never had a bad experience with them and their rewards program is pretty good. Although they can be expensive at times, I always look there first when I travel.

    Good tips on the cruise too, I’m looking to take one this year.

    Now, I just need some good tips on finding a place in Orlando, that place is a zoo!

  • Kelly says:

    These are really great tips. I’m a big believer in paying it forward by opening our home to friends (and friends of friends…or even virtual friends) from all over the world. You will always find a free place to stay, in return, and more friends all over the globe.

  • BayAreaCheap says:

    I just stumbled your terrific post for it’s comprehensive and fresh tips. I especially agree to “go big” on an award. Many people don’t know the best way to use their miles.

  • Todd Borst says:

    Love this post. I tried hostels.com recently base on your recommendation as well and had an awesome experience. Definitely have to bookmark this. Thanks again.

  • Chris says:

    Hey guys, thanks for the comments and additional tips! Keep ’em coming.

  • Oliver says:

    Hmmm, is “sneaking into the club lounges” significantly different from emptying out the minibar and refilling the bottles with water and ice tea?

    I *have* visited a club lounge when I didn’t have the room needed for the privilege, but I only ordered a soda and the purpose was a meeting with a co-worker (who was there legitimately).

    The status match thing generally only works once per airline, but I did the same as you with NWA since their program is about to disappear (so no reason to wait). And then I used the NWA card to get matched to BMI Diamond Club Gold (which might disappear soon as well), which then gives me free domestic lounge access with United and US Airways.

    Volunteering for a “bump” (taking a later flight in case of an oversell situation) is another good way to get free travel if you have the flexibility.

  • Daniel Mick says:

    Concerning Citibank AA card churning, how soon after fulfilling the minimum purchase have you found your miles posted? Would canceling before that null the delivery? Ever had a problem churning?

    I’ve already received a Mastercard, but Amex wanted my life history and firstborn. I’m concerned they’ll reject me because my pay statement salary does not make up my entire income.

  • Chris says:

    @Oliver,

    Well, that’s a question of situational ethics, so my answer might be different from yours. But I’d say there is a big difference in those two behaviors. When you sneak into a lounge, you’re not really hurting anyone. When you take someone else’s drink, then you’re hurting the next person who comes along and wants it. As for me, I’m comfortable with the first behavior but not the second. Also, a lot of lounges are just nice places to work – they don’t always include free drinks or food.

  • Bill Riddell says:

    Another way to travel free or at least quite cheaply is by rental car relocations. Rental companies often need there cars relocated to other locations and will give great savings if you take the car from point A to B as they specifiy within a set time period.

    I haven’t used them myself, but I recently heard good things about this service, however you should be able to find deals by contacting any rental company with multiple locations.

    If your schedule is quite flexible then they can be a great option. Some not only give free rental but also contribute towards your fuel. Be careful to read the fine print though.

  • Nathan says:

    How fast can you cancel the AA cards after you spend the first 750 and still get the miles. Can you do this with both the AA amex and mastercard? If so were talking 200,000 miles in a year. Thanks for the info.

  • Karen says:

    I’ve done a home exchange before with someone in Groningen, Netherlands. It was a wonderful experience. The organization we used was http://www.homelink-usa.com/index.html

  • Chris says:

    @Daniel and @Nathan,

    In short, yes, it’s possible to churn AA Citi cards to earn upwards of 200,000 miles a year. Since I recently applied for a bunch of cards at once, I”m being a bit more conservative on the apps this year. However, I still expect to earn 100,000 additional miles from it.

    Read this (very long) thread from Flyertalk for more detailed info.

  • Jeff Jowers says:

    Great great article. You are going to be bookmarked now.

    Great stuff cause Im planning on going to greece next month….. Have any tips?

  • Pam says:

    Another great article Chris! Thanks for the info. I checked out Ryanair today (from a link I found on Attitude Travel, and they are offering some free flights:

    http://www.ryanair.com/site/EN/fares.php?dest=REU&base=BHX&pos=cday

    Thought I’d share.

  • Sonja says:

    Another possible way of getting an upgrade or possibly even a free flight is to respond to a medical emergency in flight! Of course, you have no control over if this happens or not on your designated stretch, or if you are the most experienced to respond, but an airline was quite generous to me recently after I spent two hours on my knees in the galley with a woman who had collapsed. I merely asked the question where we might be and the possibility of landing in the circumstance that she would deteriorate further (she was genuinely sick) and by the end, had the crew fussing over me like I was the Queen! I suppose the airline saved big bickkies by avoiding an unscheduled emergency landing, and all the hotel bills of potential missed flights of unhappy diverted customers!

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