How I Travel to Expensive Places for Cheap

How I Travel to Expensive Places for Cheap

A few months ago, out of curiosity, I decided to look up the cash price of our upcoming honeymoon flights.

$6,989?!

San Francisco to Auckland

Multiply that by two because my husband’s also coming on the honeymoon (duh). So, almost $14,000 total.

And at the risk of sounding like a jerk, the flights would be even more expensive since one leg is actually in first class, and I was too lazy to change that setting in Google Flights.

You might be wondering: How can she afford this?

After all, I don’t come from a wealthy family, I’m super cheap about haircuts, and I’m known for packing my work lunches from time to time.

I can afford it because I didn’t actually pay the $14,000. I found a way to pay just $144 instead. For the same exact flights. And I’m not a management consultant racking up tons of frequent flier miles for work, either.

Let me ask you this: Have you ever been chilling at the gate in the Zone 4 line, wondering how THAT GUY made it into first class? And how that could never be you? Well, he’s probably not that much different from you. He may not be any smarter than you. Or richer than you. He may not even fly that much.

But he’s probably more of an opportunist than you.

What Is Travel Hacking?

The secret of that guy in first class (and me) is that we take advantage of this hobby called travel hacking.

Travel hacking is a shortcut to collecting lots of miles without actually having to fly. Then you exchange those miles for flights, paying cash for just taxes and fees. Most people know that you can collect miles by flying. But earning a stash of miles that way can take forever, especially if you don’t fly a lot. This is where the “hack” part comes in handy. The “hack” part of travel hacking is that you can turbocharge the amount of miles you can earn by signing up for credit card bonuses. Many credit cards offer you 40k, 50k, or even up to 100k points, as long as you spend a certain amount by a specific period of time (example requirements: Spend $3,000 in 3 months and earn 40k points). And despite the horrible name, travel hacking is totally legal.

Yay, right? Who doesn’t dream of traveling to exotic places? But too often the barrier for why we don’t travel is money. We can’t afford it, we say.

If you think travel is too expensive because that’s just “the way it is,” then yeah, you’re not going to make an effort to brainstorm any other solutions. So if I sound like I’m bragging in this post, understand that what I’m trying to do is show you what’s possible. Because if I show you what’s possible, it can expand your thinking. By expanding your thinking, you’ll start to see that an elevated lifestyle is more attainable than you thought.

And you can be an opportunist, too.

We live in a new world where there are more options than ever. Gone are the days of having to be a business person who actually has to fly a lot to earn frequent flier miles, or someone who’s in the top 1%. My favorite thing about travel hacking is that it’s the ultimate equalizer. Now average people with regular incomes can have dream vacations, too. Imagine an immigrant mom who’s never made more than $14 hour, getting to spend a week in Maui for practically free. A travel-hacking daughter can make that happen.

So if you are in the US, don’t pay a cent in credit card interest, and like to travel, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have at least one travel credit card. It’s like leaving money on the table.

Four Places I’ve Traveled to Thanks to Travel Hacking

Besides the upcoming trip to New Zealand, which cost 300,000 points for two tickets, there are four other places I’ve visited using points. After making this list, I’ve realized the places I’ve exchanged my points for tend to be expensive. That’s because I prefer to save them up for outsized experiences. Here are some examples of places I’ve been to, how many miles I needed, and which credit cards I used.

1. Tokyo

Number of Tickets: 1 round-trip economy ticket on Delta Airlines
Number of Points: 70,000 + $47.60 in taxes/fees
Credit Cards: Delta Skymiles and Starwood Preferred Guest
Retail Cost: ~$1,400

2. London

Number of Tickets: 2 one-way economy tickets on United Airlines
Number of Points: 60,000 + $11.20 in taxes/fees
Credit Cards: United Airlines MileagePlus Explorer and Chase Sapphire Preferred
Retail Cost: ~$500 x 2 = ~$1,000

3. Paris

Number of Tickets: 2 one-way economy tickets on American Airlines
Number of Points: 60,000 + $11.20 in taxes/fees
Credit Cards: Citi Aadvantage and Starwood Preferred Guest
Retail Cost: ~$600 x 2 = ~$1,200

4. Hawaii

Number of Tickets: 4 round-trip economy tickets on Delta Airlines
Number of Points: 120,000 + $44.80 in taxes/fees
Credit Cards: Citi ThankYou Premier, Chase Sapphire Preferred and Starwood Preferred Guest
Retail Cost: $950 x 4 = $3,800

If I add up those four trips our points have covered over $7,400 in flights. Add in the New Zealand flights and that’s over $21,000 in award flights in the past three years. We wouldn’t ever pay out of pocket for premium class, so that number is a little deceiving, but still, you’ll get a lot more bang for your points if you use them for international and premium flights.

How I Earn the Points

I earn points through a combination of the following:

  • Flying
  • Online shopping through credit card portals (using affiliate links to buy things I’d buy anyway)
  • Credit card bonuses

The credit card bonuses are far and away the most lucrative option, so I concentrate my efforts there. If I see a high bonus I’ll usually try to get it, then build my trips based on the points I have. I have 2-3 everyday credit cards, and then I supplement with new cards with high bonuses, which I eventually close once I earn the miles.

For example, I just signed up for the Barclays Aadvantage Aviator card where I’ll earn 60,000 American Airlines points just for making a single purchase. That’s enough points for a roundtrip ticket to Europe.

I also am planning on applying for the JetBlue Plus card, because I saw they were offering 60,000 points after spending $1,000 within 3 months. Usually they only offer 30,000 points, so this is a rare opportunity.

Both of these cards I’d close right after I’ve used the points.

How to Get Started Today (Without Credit Cards)

So I just finished talking about the virtue of credit cards…and now I’m not gonna tell you which credit cards to get. Doing justice to credit cards requires a whole separate post, and I wanted to first introduce the idea of travel hacking to those who weren’t familiar with it.

And just like personal finance, travel hacking is one of those topics that seems super complex and overwhelming. It’s good to start small with bite-sized information. I see a lot of blog posts that list 10 ways to earn free miles. But if you’re a newb, you don’t need the 10 ways; you need to start with just a few actionable, practical things. Here are three easy steps that you can knock out in a couple of work lunch breaks.

1. Sign up for frequent flyer accounts. It takes just a few minutes, and each time you’re flying somewhere and don’t have a frequent flyer account, you’re losing out on miles because you were failed to do a simple task If you’re US-based, a few main ones to start with could be United, American Airlines and Delta. Aim for those three right now.

2. Once you sign up for these accounts, immediately set up a system for yourself so you can easily retrieve the number and username and password. If you don’t have a system to track these account #s, then you’re putting up an unnecessary barrier for yourself to earn points. Make things easy for yourself, and you’re more likely to do it! Remember the last time you couldn’t remember an account #, got frustrated or annoyed, and then just blew off the whole task?

Always remember to include this # when buying plane tickets. You can do this on third-party sites like Orbitz and Travelocity too, not just actual airline sites. Also, always remember you can earn miles through work travel. Just do the above step if buying yourself, or make sure to send the # to your work travel coordinator. There is nothing that incites more fury in me than when people travel for work and forget to plug in a frequent flier #. That’s so much wasted potential.

Case Study: At one point my husband and were working to build up American points, so I told my husband to fly American every time he had a work trip. In a couple years, he’s built up over 15,000 points, just from flying work trips he would have needed to fly, anyway. See? Easy.

3. Start shopping for flights. One of my favorite resources for looking up how many points I need is Award Hacker. Play with the tool by plugging in a few destinations you have in mind, and seeing how many points you need for each airline or program. Not all points are created equal. Do you see which airlines tend to require the least amount of points? And vice versa? Are any of the airlines listed a hub near where you live? Start practicing planning with a specific goal in mind, and then go backwards.

That’s it for this intro to travel hacking post!

So let’s hear it! Do you travel hack? If not, what questions do you have about it?

Image: Unsplash

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