There’s a good reason why I’ve never written about travel hacking: I’ve never done it. So when Ariana of PointChaser offered to do a guest post about it, I was ecstatic! Read on to find out how to travel for free with miles and points. (Americans get the best deals in travel hacking, but Canadians and Brits can do it too.)
I joined the ranks of travel hackers 2 years ago and have since booked some amazing trips.
This past year, I booked an entire trip to Australia on frequent flyer miles and hotel points — all of which I accumulated at virtually no cost.
Here’s what I did on my free trip:
- I flew a multi-segment trip to Sydney in First Class. On one segment, I flew the Thai Airways A380, where I had a “suite” with a seat that turned into a bed. On another segment, I feasted on caviar and lobster thermidor.
- I got to speed past the other passengers through immigration and security upon landing in Sydney.
- I stayed at the five-star Park Hyatt hotel in Sydney, where I was upgraded to a room with amazing views of the Opera House and where my $90 breakfast bill was comped by the hotel.
All of this is just a token of what travel hacking has gotten me. It’s not just about traveling for free, it’s about upgrading your travel experience.
So how can you get in on the action?
How to travel for free: 4 easy steps to start travel hacking
1. Sign up for credit cards
You’ve probably looked at those airline credit card sign-up bonuses and thought, “Is that even enough to get me anywhere?”
The answer is yes, pretty much across the board. Every major rewards credit card on the market right now is good for at least one round-trip domestic flight or one free hotel night.
- There are cards, like the Chase Ink Bold, which offer a sign-up bonus so generous, you can use it for a one-way Business Class ticket to Europe. This represents a value of at least $3,000. (Booking your travel directly through Chase will get you $625 worth of value. However, by transferring your points to partners like United and Korean Air, you can redeem for first/business class and get even more value out of your points.)
- If you don’t mind roughing it in economy class, the 50,000-mile sign-up bonus from the Citi AAdvantage card is enough for one round-trip economy ticket to Europe during the off season (October 15 – May 15 for AA flights).
- If you want to avoid a $3,000 spending requirement, the US Airways World MasterCard offers 30,000 miles after your first purchase (it can be a $1 soda at a gas station). 30,000 miles is just 5,000 short of an off-peak economy flight to Europe, which US Airways classifies as January 15-February 28.
Clearly, these reward credit cards are not to be underestimated.
Aside from the rewards, credit cards are also useful for achieving status with rewards programs. Status equals better treatment, upgrades, and free stuff.
The perks from that Park Hyatt stay I mentioned above? Courtesy of my Hyatt Diamond status. Having status means you won’t have to pay for internet, breakfast and, in some cases, even other meals if you take hotel lounge access into account.
2. Churn credit cards
So you went for it and signed up for your first rewards credit card. Congratulations! Now go back to your computer and do it again.
Travel hacking isn’t about just getting one card and sticking to it for life. Hackers get three to five credit cards at once (to minimize the hit on their credit report) and once they’re done with the sign-up bonus and see no use for the card in the future, they dispose of it and do another churn three months later. This is done over and over again, year after year, with no long-term negative impact on one’s credit score.
What’s more, some issuers allow you to get the same card more than once. So if you cancel your card and decide you miss the hefty sign-up bonus, you can simply re-apply and top off your rewards account yet again.
3. Manufactured Spending
This activity requires some organization. It involves five simple steps: Pick up an American Express Bluebird prepaid card. This card is free when ordered online, though there is a small fee when you buy it at Walmart. Activate the card and set up an online account. Head to your local CVS and purchase Vanilla Reload cards with your mile-earning credit card. These are found on the gift card rack and come in $500 increments, with a $3.95 fee. Load your Vanilla Reload card onto your Bluebird card. You can quickly do this online. Use your Vanilla Reload card to make mortgage/rent payments, or pay off your mile-earning credit card. Bank the miles at the end of your billing cycle.
Manufactured spending is done in a variety of other ways as well, involving Visa/Mastercard/American Express gift cards.
However, the Vanilla/Bluebird route is the easiest.
Update: it’s no longer possible to use Vanilla Reload cards for manufactured spending. There are still other ways you can do it, though.
4. Mileage running
A mileage run involves flying on a very cheap fare (aka a mistake fare) in order to earn miles as well as elite status.
You can track mileage run deals on Flyertalk or follow @TheFlightDeal on Twitter. Last November, they broke an insane fare glitch that was happening on Norwegian booking site Wideroe. For pretty much an entire day, people were able to book flights between Los Angeles and the Middle East for under $300 round-trip.
Or if Europe was more your cup of tea, you could book a round-trip flight between New York and Milan for $150. That number is not missing a zero — it was dubbed one of the lowest mistake fares ever, and plenty of folks jumped on it. The tickets were honored and those who got in on it are off sunning themselves on a beach in Dubai and enjoying the fashion scene in Milan.
For more on travel hacking…
There are many other facets to the travel hacking game, and the best way to stay up to date is to read blogs specializing in this niche.
I write one of these blogs, PointChaser.com, and if you’re still scratching your head after reading this post, check out my beginner’s guide for a more extensive overview of what travel hacking involves. Another great site for beginners is Frugal Travel Guy, which focuses almost exclusively on the newbie audience.
There are more advanced techniques for earning miles, though trust me, once you dedicate yourself to these steps, that will keep you plenty busy.
Got any questions about travel hacking? Feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email.
Images: 1. Ian Barbour (CC BY-SA 2.0 License); 2. Graeme Churchard (CC BY 2.0 License); 3. 401(K) 2012 (CC BY-SA 2.0 License); 4. 401(K) 2012 (CC BY-SA 2.0 License); 5. Rennett Stowe (CC BY 2.0 License)