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Top 15 Travel Hacks (and a Free Workshop!)

TopTravelHacks

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in Canada!

Tomorrow I’ll be teaching a day-long workshop on Travel Hacking. You can enroll here and watch for FREE from anywhere in the world.

In preparation for teaching the course tomorrow, I thought I’d compile a few—okay, many—notes on the best current travel hacking opportunities. If you’d like to see the world, or at least travel without spending a lot of money, perhaps something in this extended post will be helpful to you. Enjoy!

***

Round-the-World Tickets. In my early days of pursuing the quest to visit every country, I traveled on at least four RTW tickets each year. Back in the day you could have up to 20 segments on each one (it took an hour to hand-write them in Narita airport, where I often had them issued), and when beginning the trip abroad, the overall cost was much less.

These days, you get “only” 16 segments and everything is electronic. Overseas ticket prices aren’t as cheap as they used to be, but there are still bargains to be found. In January I’ll be heading to South Africa to begin a new OneWorld ticket, which will probably look something like this:

CPT-JNB-DOH-LHR-LIS-LHR-KUL-HKG-NRT-BKK-HKG-ORD-PDX-DFW-LAX-DCA-DOH-CPT

Purists, take note: This itinerary isn’t finalized, and I’m also waiting for Qatar Airways to officially join OneWorld before ticketing.

Chase Sapphire, Ink Bold, and Ink Plus. The trifecta of Chase cards remains the best overall credit card hacking deal for those who qualify. Sapphire is great because you’ll always earn double points on all travel and dining spend—which in my case, is the largest overall category of spending by far. Ink Bold and Ink Plus are great for 5x points on internet, telecommunications, and office supply stores (more on that in a moment) up to $50,000 a year.

All three of these cards offer no foreign transaction fees, meaning you can use them anywhere in the world without paying a penalty for being a global citizen. You’ll earn a 50,000 bonus on the Ink Bold and Ink Plus cards, and a 40,000 bonus on the Sapphire card. I have each of them and use them daily.

Links:

Chase Sapphire
Chase Ink Bold
Chase Ink Plus

Vanilla Reloads and other Free Money. A while back there was a mega deal where you could earn 5x points on buying Vanilla Reloads, essentially a gift card that contains money, which could then be converted back to cash using AmEx’s Bluebird card. This helped a lot of people rack up a lot of miles very fast.

You can no longer buy Vanilla Reloads for the 5x bonus at Office Depot, but you can still pick them up at CVS and other drugstores at $500 a pop. Thanks to my travel hacking friend Wandering Zito, we’ve both been running $5,000 a month through the cards, the maximum amount. With full optimization this adds up to 60,000 extra miles a year… times two.

Starwood Preferred Guest AmEx. The original card I started travel hacking on many years ago is still going strong. Like the Chase cards, I use it every day—and there’s also a business version, which offers an additional sign-up bonus. The nice thing about Starwood points is that they can be transferred to (almost) any airline with a 20% bonus, so every 20,000 points creates 25,000 miles. I also use SPG points for hotel stays, and unlike Hyatt’s program, awards stays count as qualifying stays for elite status. Bam!

Links:

SPG Program (worldwide!)
Starwood Preferred Guest AmEx
Starwood Preferred Guest – Business

Status Matches (“One status to rule them all”). Long ago I wrote about how to earn one elite status with an airline or hotel chain, then use that to leverage the same status with others. Much of that post is still current, although specific details for various airlines or hotel companies can change. Sometimes you can’t match directly, but instead you can undertake a challenge where you receive the status upon completing a lesser number of hotel nights or miles flown.

Don’t have any elite status? Now you do:

Get a free Le Club membership here

(Hat tip to Ben Schlappig)

Lounge Access Is for Everyone. Actually, it’s not—but it could be for you. I carry the AmEx Platinum card, which gets me free Priority Pass membership and access to plenty of domestic lounges. If you don’t want the AmEx Plat, it may be worth it to pay for the Priority Pass membership directly.

Links:

Priority Pass (available worldwide for purchase, or get it free with AmEx Platinum)
AmEx Platinum

U.S. Airways Purchases (Currently available!). Most of the time, buying miles isn’t a good idea. The airlines are happy to sell miles for your own use or as gifts, but the price is too high for it to be worth it. Several times a year, though, U.S. Airways will offer its miles for sale with a big bonus.

If you’re reading this post today (October 14, 2014), there is currently a deal open! Until midnight on October 15, you can receive a 100% bonus when sharing miles with someone else, up to 50,000 miles. This costs $0.01 a mile + taxes (a bit more than $500 for 50,000) and can be a great deal. Business Class tickets to Europe or Asia begin at 90,000 miles and usually cost thousands of dollars, but this is a way to effectively purchase them for much less.

If you’ve never purchased before or don’t have any U.S. Airways miles, fret not. This opportunity returns a few times a year. The next time you can purchase them at a low rate, do so—and then you’ll have miles to share.

Link:

U.S. Airways 50% Share Bonus (ends soon!)

Free Elite Status and Hotel Nights with Cards (Hilton, Hyatt, Club Carlson). Just like the airline cards, you can put your credit to good use by applying for and responsibly maintaining hotel credit cards. Several of them offer free nights just for getting the card and meeting a minimum spend.

Links:

Citi Hilton (get free Gold status and two free weekend nights at any Hilton property worldwide)
Club Carlson (get free Gold status and a whopping 85,000 point (!) bonus)
Chase Hyatt (get free Platinum status and two nights at any Hyatt property worldwide)

Meeting minimum spend is easy. When you get a new credit card, the issuers sometimes require that you meet a “minimum spend” before receiving the sign-up bonus. The minimum spend usually ranges from $500-5,000, and you usually have up to three months to complete it.

If you’re not able to meet the requirement with your usual spending, you’re not out of luck. Amazon Payments allows each person to send up to $1,000 per month to anyone else, using a credit card and without any fees at all. Bam! That takes care of at least $3,000 of your 90-day spend.

Suntrust Debit Cards for Tax Payments. What if you don’t want or can’t get credit cards? If you can get a debit card, you still have a couple of options: Alaska Airlines and Suntrust Delta. These cards don’t usually have big sign-up bonuses, but at least they earn miles for spending.

I prefer the Suntrust Delta, because it earns miles on tax payments. For the past six months I’ve been using the Suntrust card for my quarterly tax payments. Unlike credit cards, where you pay a percentage that makes it too expensive, you pay only $3.49 per payment when using a debit card.

Fidelity Cash Deposits. Have a lot of cash on hand? You’re not earning any money with interest rates these days, so deposit it at Fidelity and you’ll get up to 50,000 miles. Depending on the current rules (they appear to change a lot), you may be able to deposit, withdraw, and redeposit funds until you get to the amount needed for the bonus.

Links:

Fidelity AA
Fidelity Delta
Fidelity United

(Oh, and you can get this bonus once a year until you’ve exhausted all three programs.)

The Big Hit Every So Often (Mistake Fares, Buy Useless Stickers, etc.). Once in a while, something really big comes along. In 2008 I went for a hair-loss consultation and earned 20,000 SkyMiles. During the next year I regularly purchased free money from the U.S. mint ($30,000 worth) in exchange for miles on a 1:1 basis.

In 2010 I purchased $5,000 in useless stickers and received 800,000+ miles (and many of our readers did so too—here’s the proof).

You never know when something really big is going to hit. The best advice is: be prepared!

Hang Up, Call Again. This advice from my friend Gary Leff applies to all things travel: if you don’t like the answer you receive, hang up and call again. Everything is changeable or fixable somehow.

This advice is great in life as well. If you don’t like your situation, change it up! Try something different.

The Biggest Hack of All: The Travel Experience. Travel isn’t all about miles and points, or at least it shouldn’t be. For me, the miles and points are what enable the overall experience of seeing and engaging in the world.

I’ve had an amazing time going everywhere. For 10 years and 193 countries, I’ve been seeing the world. There are no plans to stop now!

If you have any questions, post them up!

I’ll also be doing an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit later today (4pm PDT).

Happy travels and adventures to all. I hope to see many of you in the workshop tomorrow.

###

Image: Kabacchi

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    37 Comments

    • Andy says:

      Love it Chris, passed it along to some friends looking to get into the hobby.

    • Sol says:

      Will the workshop cover mostly American cards ? Will there be things that would be useful/work for Canadians?

    • Chris says:

      @Sol,

      About 25% of the content will be U.S.-specific. The majority will be applicable worldwide.

    • Looking forward to your creative live and Reddit AMA. Thanks, Chris!

      Question: Is it beneficial to apply for all these credit cards at once? I’ve heard that applying for them at once increases the chances of getting them because it only registers once through the credit card companies. Truth?

    • Chris says:

      @Max,

      Yes, generally speaking, it’s best to apply in batches. I do this through the Frequent Flyer Challenge a few times a year. This minimizes the impact on your credit score, since all inquiries post on the same day, and also makes it easier for your own record-keeping.

    • Serge @Qc says:

      Bonjour Chris

      Great to read you today. Returning home from a small get away weekend in Montréal. 🙂

      Will all this can be apply easily to a Canadien citizen ? Not sure I have understood everything but will definituvely read your posts to learn more.

      Great day to you from Québec.

    • Marcy says:

      Thanks so much Chris! Can’t wait to see you on CreativeLive.

    • Hi Chris,

      Great hacks! Happy to share this with my travel buddies. Signing off from Pndicherry, India.

      Thanks again,

      Ryan

    • Todd M says:

      Chris:

      Just wanted to say thanks.. after your last email I signed up for the United explorers card and just got the 35k bonus, which put me over the top for a free flight to run the Barcelona marathon in Feb!

      After today’s email, I signed up for the Chase Sapphire and when I get those 40k, I’ll then sign up for the Ink, and that 50k will give me enough miles to go to the Jerusalem marathon for free as well.

      Thanks, and you’re always welcome at our NoPo run club.. every wed night at 630 at BarBar on Mississippi ave.. lots of good drinkers, travelers, and a bit of running thrown in!

    • These are clutch tips!
      We’re looking to do a round-the-world trip in the next couple years, would you suggest a particular alliance? Or does it depend on your destinations?

    • Luke says:

      Great stuff. Thanks, Chris. I have been following you and using your guides to rake up serious points also.

      I’m now finding that CVS is running out of Vanilla Reloads alot. Sometimes they are keeping them behind the counter and you have to ask for them.

    • Jeff says:

      Too bad this isn’t available to Canadians. 🙁 (Most of it)

    • Chris says:

      @Jeff,

      Most of it is! It’s just the U.S. cards that aren’t available up your way. We’ll be posting about some Canadian cards soon on CardsforTravel.com.

    • Sue says:

      Hey Chris,
      In your store, you have two products – Frequent Flyer Master and Become a Travel Hacker. Can you tell me what the difference is between these two products and are they both up-to-date and current ?

      Thanks!
      Sue

    • Chris says:

      @Sue,

      Good question. Frequent Flyer Master is a one-time product, and Travel Hacking Cartel is an ongoing service + community. They are both up-to-date and current. 🙂

    • Lloyd says:

      Hi Chris
      Good to hear you’re going to include some non-US hacks. It’s not easy to find similar deals in the UK so it would be great to get your help with that. Unfortunately I can’t join for the whole day, will you be publishing sections of the webinar online afterwards? Thanks. Lloyd

    • Nimesh says:

      Hi Chris,

      Can’t wait to join the workshop later today.

      I am from India and would like to know if the workshop content will be applicable for people from India/Asia?

      Thanks for your help.

      Keep it up!

    • Marvin says:

      Hi Chris,
      I love reading AONC and Frequent Flyer Master.
      Looking forward to your online workshop later.

      Cheers from Malaysia!
      Marvin

    • Tom says:

      Awesome! How did you buy money from the US Mint? Cash for Cash? Credit card? They just wanted to ensure that new tender was circulating? I’m also assuming you didn’t just walk in there and write a check for 30k but did this gradually during that year.

    • Ryan says:

      I really enjoyed the Creative Live presentation, am interested in trying the Travel Hacker service. In the presentation, I recall mention of a 30-day (vs the normal 14-day) trial period for those who viewed the presentation, but I haven’t seen any further info on how to get the extended period….or is my recollection incorrect.
      Thanks for the great presentation!

    • Chris says:

      @Ryan,

      Yes sir, we are automatically comping people from the workshop an extra two weeks!

    • Louis Tam says:

      I have definitely tried the “Call and Hang Up” strategy! People don’t cope well with rejection these days, and often give up too quickly. (Even when they are so close to getting what they want!) I probably call and hang up an average of 2-3 times before I find a suitable deal…If you don’t ask you will never get what you want! Thanks for the great post, looking forward to more good reads.

    • Quick question Chris: how do you use the SunTrust Delta debit card for tax payments? Meaning, from a logistical standpoint do you simply give your accountant that debit card number, or do you have some way you pay the IRS online?

    • Chris says:

      @Ben,

      I use PayUSAtax.com — they process debit card payments with just the small convenience fee (as opposed to the percentage fee for credit cards).

    • Kael says:

      This is a very insightful write up. Thank you for taking the time to put this together for us!

      Just stumbled across your site. Looking forward to more of your content!

    • connie barrett says:

      Today 10/23 I went to CVS and tried to charge a Vanilla Reload but they no longer allow it. I’m in Nevada. Then to Walmart and they no longer sell or accept Vanilla Reloads. Now stuck on meeting minimum spend on several cards. Is there something similar to VR?

    • Chris…you figured out a way to avoid the monthly checking fee through an organization like SunTrust debit card? They require you carry a minimum ledger balance of 3K…

    • Chris says:

      @Ben,

      I keep more than 3k in that account, since I use it to pay taxes.

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