Charlotte and I started doing a goal setting exercise every year in January where we outline all of the things we want to accomplish that year. We even go as far as creating different categories and for some things an expected time frame to complete the goal. Some categories are Spiritual, Travel, Major Purchases, Education, Career, Personal Achievement, Recreational, and Miscellaneous. For all of you who know me, you know I love travel and adventure. So one of my main goals this year is to find a way to make that happen no matter what my budget is. Enter Travel Hacking.
I first heard of this term from a local Portland Blogger Chris Guillebeau at his blog Art of Non Conformity. He has since written a book which I highly recommend; although it’s not really dedicated to Travel Hacking it does have some material on that subject. You can find the book with the same title as his blog listed in the left column in my Amazon Recommended books widget. Before I read his book, I read his blog entry called Beginners guide to Travel Hacking, which introduces the topic. He also has an e-book called Frequent Flyer Master for sale that goes more in depth on the subject. For me, the Beginners Guide was enough to get my brain moving in that direction, but I will probably get the e-book eventually.
Before reading about Travel Hacking I was already an experienced Travel Hacker and didn’t even know it. I’ve always signed up for Frequent Flyer Miles programs which are always free. Eventually I did get a free RT (round trip) ticket to the Bahamas from Denver in 2003. Last year I tracked down all my frequent flyer accounts and listed the account names, numbers, and accumulated miles in a spreadsheet so I can keep track of them. Turns out I had thousands of miles with Asia Miles and Frontier that expired without my using them, but also had thousands of valid miles racked up under other various airlines. That was more than enough inspiration for me to start a new era of Travel Hacking.
When I got my free ticket to the Bahamas it was with Continental airlines. I signed up for their mileage credit card which gave me a free 25,000 miles upon approval (current offers may vary). There was an annual fee of about 75 on the credit card, but it was waived for the first year. After that year I called to cancel the card and said it was because of the annual fee, so they waived it and I got another year of miles on the card. The 25k miles was already enough for a free round trip domestic airfare. The credit card gave me one mile per dollar for everything charged on it, so I started charging all my regular spending there including bills and groceries. By the end of the first year I had the 35k miles qualifying me for a free ticket to the Caribbean, Central America, or Ecuador. I chose to go Shark Diving in the Bahamas with my buddy Rick.
The costs of most vacations roughly break down to three even parts, airfare, lodging, and food/other. If you get a free ticket and then go with someone that can split the lodging with you, then you are basically taking a vacation for half price. Unfortunately after the Shark Diving trip I kind of forgot about frequent flyer miles. It’s too bad really, because Charlotte and I traveled for about 6 months in 2005, and could have earned enough miles to go another 6 months if we had known better. That’s ok though, it’s all in past and the future is now!
With most carriers 25k miles is enough for 1 round trip domestic airfare. 35k can usually get you to the Caribbean and sometimes South/Central America. If you don’t like their destinations you can usually transfer your miles to a partner airline. Many airlines such as Alaska Air will also offer cheap companion tickets for around 100 dollars for a second passenger flying with the cardholder. Last fall Charlotte signed up for Alaska’s Air miles and earned enough miles to get a free flight with the sign-up promo and the miles from the special qualifying flight she was taking to Las Vegas. She didn’t even sign up for the credit card to get that deal, but if she does get their airline credit card she’ll get enough miles for another flight, plus eligibility for a 100 dollar companion ticket for me to go with!
Last year I signed up for the American Airlines credit card which gave me a free 25k miles on top of the 7k I already had from some previous flights. I get an additional 1 mile per dollar spent on the card. I was completely unaware of a special promo they were running on the card that gave me an additional 15k miles during the first three months. Imagine my surprise when I logged into my account last month and saw I had almost 50k miles.
Most travel airline rewards are similar but if you look at the American Airlines reward chart you can get an idea of the possibilities. Take note that these miles are listed one-way and organized by off-peak or peak times. In many cases off peak times can be just as nice for traveling anyway, think of skiing in Japan or Europe. With 50k miles I can go RT to most countries in South America, Europe, or Japan in the off-peak season. A few countries at the top of South America including Peru and Ecuador will qualify for peak or off-peak time for under 50k miles. I haven’t decided for sure but I’ve wanted to go to South America for a very long time, so Peru and/or Ecuador are both looking like good candidates for me.
If you are wondering how else you can earn miles it is free to sign up for the dining miles program associated with your frequent flyer account. Once you link your credit card number to the dining miles you will usually get some bonus miles and start earning triple miles when you eat out at specified restaurants. After a certain number of transactions you get 5x miles. Many car rentals and hotels offer extra miles too. Of course there are many other ways to get miles, but this is a good start.
Occasionally you will get an offer to take a different flight for airline miles or vouchers. I once got a 500 dollar flight voucher and free overnight stay in a luxurious hotel to give up my seat. I already had planned the next day off to recover from the international trip, but was more than happy to earn an extra 500 to fly back the next morning. Even if I had to call in sick to make that 500 it would have been worth it. The bottom line is this may not always be an option, but if the situation comes up you have to be ready and prepared to pounce on it or someone else will.
I’d also recommend taking advantage of your location to visit places that are close by or have direct flights. Utilize your local airline, for us in Portland its Alaska Air. In Dallas its American Airlines, Denver is Frontier, New York is Jet Blue, you get the idea. If you are in Florida you should be able to get cheap flights to the Caribbean and South America. If in Denver there are cheap flights to Mexico, for us in Portland we have cheap direct flights to Hawaii and Alaska, and we hope to visit one if not both of those this year. I’ve found the site FlyerTalk which Chris Guillabeau recommends is very helpful, and we often use Kayak.com to compare fares for different times and carriers. Message boards from travel sites like BootsNall and LonelyPlanet can be informative too.
At the very least register for the frequent flyer program with any airline you fly on. It’s always free and sometimes the miles are good for several years or even life. Even if you don’t’ use the miles you can donate them to a good cause, so there is really no reason not to sign up for the miles program. Besides what else are you going to do while waiting to board your flight?