Since posting the 2012 Frequent Flyer Challenge, I’ve fielded a ton of queries from people about how it works, which cards are best for their needs, and the occasional complaint from someone who feels like this information is too good to be shared.
The short response is: it works very well. I’ll be receiving more than 200,000 miles from my recent applications, in addition to several million miles over the past few years. These opportunities aren’t going away anytime soon, so you might as well get in on them if you can.
Here are the last two posts on the current challenge—
In addition to the cards mentioned in those posts, there is a new offer from AmEx that provides 50,000 points after completing a $5,000 minimum spend. The bonus is usually 25,000 points, so the 50,000 one definitely won’t be around forever.
Lots of people are also asking … what about the rest of the world? If you don’t live in the U.S., or if you live in the U.S. and aren’t eligible to use credit cards or just prefer not to, what are your options?
Well, there’s good news and bad news on that front.
The bad news is that credit card-based travel hacking is largely an opportunity for people in the U.S., along with a few options for people in Canada and Australia. The cards issued by banks elsewhere in the world aren’t nearly as incentivized as those in the U.S.
The good news is that while credit cards are a quick and easy way for Americans to rack up big signup bonuses—especially these days, as the banks continue to wage an arms race for new customers—most other aspects of travel hacking are open to the whole world.
In fact, in many ways it doesn’t matter where you live. You can open free mileage accounts with almost every major airline’s Frequent Flyer program from just about any country, and you can add to those accounts throughout the year with all kinds of promotions… even if you never set foot on a plane.
Here are a few principles and ideas that may help those who can’t take advantage of U.S. card promotions:
1. The U.S. tends to have the most generous mileage programs.
While not regarded for its actual airlines—much better carriers are in Asia and the Middle East—the U.S. does tend to have the best mileage programs. Wherever you are in the world, you can join these programs for free and take advantage of almost every mileage-earning strategy except credit card bonuses.
As a general rule, I recommend joining one airline per “alliance”—the leading airline groups known as Star Alliance, OneWorld, and SkyTeam. You may want to join others later, but these three are a good start:
2. Stock up by buying miles at key times.
A few times a year, you can buy miles for discounted rates and use them to “purchase” award tickets to anywhere. Once again, the U.S. leads the way in this department, with U.S. Airways holding big sales several times a year.
You put these miles to work by booking award flights on any Star Alliance carrier, including great airlines such as Swiss, Lufthansa, Air New Zealand, or ANA in Japan. My own U.S. Airways mileage balance has been getting low (currently less than 100,000 miles), so I’ll plan to restock at the next available opportunity.
One exception to the U.S. favoritism: a few times a year, Avianca in South America has begun offering even cheaper purchase options than U.S. Airways. You must be a member of the program before the sale begins, so get a free account so you have the option when the time comes.
3. Round-the-World tickets are most advantageous when beginning outside the U.S.
I’ve now traveled on at least ten Round-the-World tickets, and every one originated far away from my home. The pricing is dependent on country of origin, so good deals are often available in countries such as South Africa, Israel, Japan, and Korea. See Wandering Aramean’s site for a current list of pricing options.
The great thing about Round-the-World tickets is their flexibility. Most of the time, you can change your flights at any time for no charge. I’ve shown up at the airport for a nine-hour flight and rebooked it on the spot. You can also reroute the entire ticket (including adding or subtracting destinations) after departure for a small fee. And again, you’ll save money on the ticket cost by beginning from somewhere other than the U.S. or Canada.
4. Get elite status wherever you live—and then get it elsewhere.
Travel companies offer “elite status” to their preferred and most frequent customers. Why should you care about such a thing? Because at hotels you’ll get free upgrades, free breakfast, free internet, late check-out, and other perks. On airlines you’ll get priority boarding, priority seating, upgrades (sometimes), and better help if something goes wrong.
You can often get elite status through a “challenge” where you agree to complete a certain amount of travel in a certain period of time. In other cases you can simply call up and request a status match.
One way of getting elite status without traveling much at all is by registering for free when it’s available as a limited-time offer. This happens several times a year with many different hotels and airlines.
You may wonder why you’d get an elite status from a company you don’t expect to patronize. Status matching is the answer: you can use it to gain elite status from a company you do expect to patronize.
5. Priceline remains a cheap way to stay in nice hotels.
Thanks to the “name your own price” option that allows you to bid for properties all over the world, Priceline is a longstanding resource of budget travelers. I don’t do many Priceline stays anymore because I have less flexibility and want to earn nights toward ongoing status with Hyatt, Hilton, and Starwood. In years past, however, about half of my hotel stays were booked through Priceline at deep discounts from the regular price.
Two important tips for Priceline stays:
a. Ignore the regular booking process and always conduct your search through the “Name your own price” box listed to the right of the main search bar.
b. Priceline makes money by trying to get you to bid more than you should. To negate this advantage visit Bidding Traveler to see what other people are paying—and then bid that amount or slightly less.
6. No credit card? Try a checking account or debit card.
For those in the U.S. who just don’t want credit cards, once in a while there are some decent debit card options that include limited bonuses. You can also open a Citi Checking Account and receive a $300 bonus after completing a few direct deposit and ATM withdrawal requirements.
For a savings account while interest rates remain low, consider BankDirect for regular earning of AA miles on deposits. This option was devalued somewhat when BankDirect added a monthly fee for accounts recently, but if you can keep a significant balance there, it’s still worth it.
7. But wait, there’s more!
Lastly, these aspects of travel hacking aren’t the only strategies. I’m not a big fan of budget airlines in the U.S., but in Europe and Asia they can be great options. You can also go real budget and stay with people for free through Couchsurfing. You can exchange your house or apartment with someone elsewhere in the world through a home exchange. You can ride share or crowdsource a vacation on Craigslist.
The point is: however you do it, if you want to find adventure, adventure awaits you when you’re ready.
These days I’m busy with many other projects and don’t have much time for travel hacking. Despite the lack of time, I still try to give it a bit of attention whenever I can. The points and miles I earn every year (more than 1 million for each of the past 3 years) provide almost unlimited opportunities to see the world.
Speaking of travel, I’m on the road again, soon to be headed to the Seychelles, my 188th country. The Seychelles is an expensive, faraway place, but this is where travel hacking comes in.
My flight to Seychelles originates from Abu Dhabi. I’ll get to Abu Dhabi on a free Business Class ticket booked on Etihad with American Airlines miles. Once I make it there, I’ll be at a nice place on the beach for three nights—this time thanks to hotel points.
There’s more to freedom than travel, of course. But travel is also nice.
QUESTION: Where are you headed for your next trip?
Feel free to share with other readers.
If you have questions or your own advice on travel hacking without credit cards, feel free to share that too.