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:
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.
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!
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:
(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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.