Travel Hacking

travel hackingYesterday morning, I went down to the basement and brought up four photo albums containing all the pictures that I took during a semester abroad in autumn of 2002. After writing my last post about a miserable ride at Die Prater in Vienna, I couldn’t remember if I had captured the culprit, Extasy, on film.

As I thumbed through the pages, wave after wave of nostalgia hit me: picking kiwis at my cousin’s house in Lyon, France; skydiving over the Swiss Alps; listening to a blind man play the accordian on an old bridge in Prague; and walking the grounds at Schonbrunn Palace as the leaves began to change colors.

That fall, I developed a serious case of wanderlust, and over the next three years, my country count jumped from one, Honduras, to twenty.

Marriage has changed many things in my life, but it hasn’t gotten rid of that wanderlust. Thankfully God brought me a woman whose country count beats mine by at least ten. Megan has shaken hands with Fidel Castro, huddled in a cot as an elephant leaned against her tent, and traced the steps of Jesus in the Holy Lands.

We’re Going to Hawaii

The #1 place on Megan’s To-Visit List is Hawaii, and last week in my monthly-ish e-newsletter, I mentioned that we’ll be exploring Oahu and Kauai from September 8 through September 19.

You’re thinking, “The Churches are taking a vacation. Fantastic. Good for them.”

I also mentioned that our plane tickets cost us $10 apiece. Without the AAdvantage miles that we used to book them, the tickets would have cost over $1400. That caught the attention of several e-newsletter subscribers who emailed me to ask how we acquired 70,000 AAdvantage miles.

What is travel hacking? Is it expensive?

Back in December, I stumbled across a tribe of people who meet and share ideas various places online. They memorize airport codes—TYS, PLS, LAX, ORD—and use them lovingly like pet names. They “churn” credit card companies, they descend on mistake fares like hawks on a squirrel, and they list their lifetime mileage and status with different frequent flyer programs the way doctors list their titles and certifications.

They are “travel hackers.”

An entrepreneur, blogger, and world traveler named Chris Guillebeau introduced me to this subculture. A couple of years ago, my friend Scott sent me the link to Chris’s free guide to blogging and business onine, 279 Days to Overnight Success. I found the guide to be quite helpful, and I’ve kept up-to-date on Chris’s business endeavors and ambitious goals ever since.

He plans to visit every country in the world by the time he’s 35. Though I’m sure he celebrates with the citizens of South Sudan, I’ll bet he hopes that no more civil wars give birth to a new country until he has successfully crossed all the existing countries like Angola and Bahrain off his list.

As you can imagine, traveling to countries such as these is inconvenient and expensive.

210,000 Miles in 6 Months—Without Flying

How does a person like Chris travel to ten or more new countries every year without going bankrupt? He has studied travel hacking—a phrase which he may even coined though I don’t know for sure—and written several guides on the subject.

Megan and I are newlyweds, and I know it might surprise you to learn that we don’t sneeze into $20 bills, though the exquisite perspectives on life, travel, food, and entertainment found on this blog might have given you that impression.

If Megan and I want to travel, we have to find ways to do it with less money. I started paying attention to how people like Chris were able to stretch every dollar and bankroll many adventures in beautiful and remote places.

My first monetary investment amounted to $79. I bought two of Chris’s guides: Frequent frequent flyer masterFlyer Master and Travel Ninja (affiliate link).I think the initial investment must be what scares most people off. Perhaps travel hacking seems like a get-rich scheme for miles rather than dollars.  Who knows the mysteries of people’s motivations.

But that $79 was well spent for us.

On December 28, I had 8,485 total miles with American Airlines and U.S. Airways, but over the past six months, we’ve racked up roughly 210,000 miles without flying.

No, that isn’t a typo. You can earn miles without flying. Chris Guillebeau even featured our case study/testimonial in a blog post today.

A New Obsession

Chris’s guides ignited an obsession for a short time. I started by reading everything I could find on the subject and signing up for a free account with Award Wallet, a service that puts all your frequent flyer and loyalty programs in one place, tracks expiration dates, and makes it easy to see your progress. (free upgrade Award Wallet for the first 10 people: free-cnldpt.)

what is travel hackingI pay $15 a month to have access to the Travel Hacking Cartel (my affiliate link). Another one of Chris’s projects, The Cartel simplifies the travel hacking process by putting specials, promotions, and giveaways from all over the Internet in one central location. I receive email updates about new “deals,” and though I have never paid either company a cent, I have Gold status with Hertz and the Hilton hotel group. When I do book a room or rent a car, I’ll get an upgrade for free. Not bad.

A conservative valuation for frequent flyer miles is $.02 for each mile, so in the last six months, I have paid about $245 for Chris’s two guides, 6 months’ worth of access to Travel Hacking Cartel, and the annual fee for a Chase credit card. I’ve put about $4200 in my travel budget, or at least saved that much on what airfare would have cost without using miles. I’ve seen a return on my investment of roughly 1715%.

Traveling isn’t a priority for some people, but if it is for you, you should check out Chris’s guides and the Travel Hacking Cartel.

Travel Hacking

Check out my travel hacking video, which covers some basic definitions and tips:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wYdznSE-NY[/youtube]

We’ve racked up miles in a number of ways.

· Credit cards. I got a 100,000 mile bonus for signing up for a Chase British Airways card and spending $2500 within 3 months. We put groceries, gas, health insurance, and other ordinary expenses on the card and pay it off each month. I also signed up for a Citibank AAdvantage Signature card and earned a 75,000 mile bonus by spending $4000 within the first 4 months. Again, we haven’t carried a balance, and the card’s fee was even waived for the first year. The plan is to cancel one or both of the cards before the fees kick in. I don’t want to take the time here to talk about credit scores, so I’ll just say this: If you have the self-control to pay off a credit card each month, this will be a good option for you. Don’t, I repeat, don’t accumulate a mountain of debt to get some free miles.

· Dining programs. Anytime we eat at a restaurant that is a part of a Skymiles or AAdvantage dining program, we earn at least 3 miles for every dollar we spend. If you count the mile for every dollar we put on our credit card, that makes 120 miles for a $30 meal. And we didn’t even change our spending or eating habits, just got smarter about using them to maximum advantage!

· Online “malls.” AAdvantage has partnerships with many online retailers. If you start on the AAdvantage e-shopping site, you can earn as much as 10 miles per dollar spent. Rather than just shop on Amazon for a wireless router, HDMI cable, or other item for around the house, I find a way to earn miles. With big brands like Overstock.com, Apple, and Target, I can usually find what I need, and if I’m strategic about it, purchasing a $12 cable might translate into 120 miles.

· Partnerships between mileage programs and other brands. I’ve earned miles for shipping with FedEx, which I would have done anyway, canceling Megan’s Netflix account, then opening a new one,

· Miscellaneous. I’ve earned miles for filling out short surveys, liking pages on Facebook, entering contests, taking silly quizzes, and other simple, easy tasks online.

You can pay less to travel better has also led me to a number of other resources:

· luxurylink.com: Think posh, full-service mansions in Mexico for $75 a day, airfare included.

· vrbo.com (vacation rentals by owner): Book directly from the owners of vacation properties and save a bunch of money.

· airbnb.com: Similar to VRBO, you book directly from the owners, who might be out of town themselves or might simply have a guestroom and want to host out-of-towners for a fair price.

· betterbidding.com: I particularly like this one. The site takes all the guesswork and frustration out of travel wholesalers like hotwire.com and priceline.com. You can find out which hotel you’re bidding on even if it’s “undisclosed.”

Why stop dreaming?

camino de santiagoWhen our friends Amy and Spencer told us they were thinking about hiking the epic Camino de Santiago trail in Spain, Megan and I said, “Just let us know what your plans are, and we’ll put it in our calendar.” Money won’t be nearly as big a consideration because the plane tickets are already “paid for.”

When my sister Laura and brother-in-law David said that they’re planning to visit David’s family in Sweden then travel in Western Europe, we said, “Can we come too?”

Why stop dreaming simply because you don’t have piles of money?

You could scrape together $150 and within months have enough miles to travel almost anywhere in the world.

Do you have any other questions about travel hacking? Leave them in the Comments section below, and I’ll answer them.

Comments Closed

8 Comments

  1. Lauren
    Posted July 19, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    I am jealous of your $10 flights. Ours to South America cost over $500, but I guess that’s a deal when compared to around $5000 they would have cost.

    After redeeming years’ worth of miles for this trip, I signed up for THC after you posted it on facebook…I’m not still doing it at the moment, but in the couple of months I did, we got more than 100,000 miles each with a credit card.

  2. Posted July 20, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Lauren, Dang! That’s a lot of miles. I’m glad that you had some success with travel hacking. Can’t wait to hear about your next trip.

  3. RenegadePilgrim
    Posted July 20, 2011 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    I just canceled my Travel Hacking Cartel membership because it was a huge waste of money. Unless you use credit cards (which I don’t) and stay at a lot of hotels (which I don’t), or eat out at a lot at chain restaurants (which I don’t), there is really no way to get those high mileage bonuses like you. I just spent about $150 in membership fees over the past several months and have NOTHING to show for it, even though I participated in every option that I could. Total waste of money.

  4. Posted July 21, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Hey Heather, thanks for your honesty, and I’m sorry you didn’t have a good experience with the Travel Hacking Cartel. I don’t stay at a lot of hotels either. In fact, I much prefer hostels or even couch surfing for the price and the potential for friendships with other travelers and my hosts. Like you, I also prefer to support a local, one-of-a-kind restaurant rather than a chain. One of my favorites is Knoxville is called RouxBarb. My wife and I ate a “going away” meal with some friends who were moving to Dallas, and we were able to get over 1000 miles from what we spent on the meal. In other words, you can help fantastic local restaurants stay in business and rack up miles at the same time. We have certainly earned the most miles from credit card bonuses, but as I mentioned in my post, we haven’t carried a balance on any of those cards. It takes discipline, but it has been worth it for us. I hope you’re able to find other ways to meet your travel goals. It might be worth it to get in touch with Chris and let him know how you feel.

  5. RenegadePilgrim
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    No harm, no foul….I thought I would try it and see if it would work for me. I gave it over 6 months and decided it wasn’t worth the money. I’m glad it works for some people.

    Not a lot of our local restaurants in Portland, OR participate in the mileage dining programs. They are almost all chain restaurants or places I don’t eat at.

    Chris lives in Portland….maybe I’ll run across him sometime and tell him why it didn’t work for me. :) Of course, I’d have to catch him between all of his travels and conferences…. :)

  6. Posted July 22, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Heather/RenegadePilgrim, I think your perspective is valuable. You can help Chris build a better community. But, yes, catching him while he’s actually in Portland would be the challenge. : ) Concerning dining programs, you could talk to the owners of your favorite restaurants and ask them to join. Tell them that you’d be even more likely to eat there if you could earn miles by doing so. Wouldn’t hurt to ask… : ) Have a great weekend and happy travels.

  7. Posted August 16, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    this article has been extremely eye opening for me. have not heard of “travel hacking” until now and my wife and i are about to dive in head first. thanks for taking the time to post this great information.

  8. Posted August 18, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Dave, I’m glad you found it helpful. My wife and I dove in head first back in December, and as you know, we’re now over 210,000 miles deep. It’s so much fun to have conversations like, “Do we want to go to China or New Zealand next year?” What?!!