This year I’m flying round-trip to Budapest, round-trip to Southeast Asia, and probably to South America and back—without buying plane tickets. No, I’m not going to any of those places on a press trip: I’m cashing in miles.

Many people are surprised to hear that I’ve never attained elite status on any airline. I rarely see the front cabin of the plane. It’s not that I don’t fly a fair bit, but it’s generally a mix of different airlines and there aren’t enough really long-haul flights in there to add up to 25,000 or more miles accrued in one year.

It’s also partly because I get a lot of free flights by the judicious earning and use of frequent flier miles. In the past I’ve flown gratis to Argentina, Peru, Mexico, and a half-dozen places in the U.S. This year I’m flying for free round-trip to Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. Here’s how much Continental says just my second leg from Hanoi to New York would have cost if I’d bought this route (on Singapore Air) outright:

free flight

Yowza! Obviously I wouldn’t have taken that route and spent so much on my own dime, but that fact I was able to do it for 32,500 miles shows what kind of value you can get out of travel hacking. It can make a massive difference in how much it’s going to cost you to take an international journey.

How I did it – quick case studies

1) Free flight to Europe. My first free flight is going to be in April/May, when I’m going to Budapest and back and visiting three other countries overland. That was 40,000 miles on American Airlines. This barely put a dent in my AAdvantage balance. Sure, I’ve flown them and their partners now and then, but I pumped up the balance in a huge way by getting both a personal and business AA credit card from Citibank. The first gave me a bonus of 30,000 miles after spending a few hundred bucks on it. The second one took more effort—I had to spend $4,000 in six months on it—but I used it to buy things I was going to pay for anyway and put my rent on there one month to get over the hump. For that I earned a staggering 75,000 miles bonus.

Now I’ve got enough left to fly to South America and back (or one-way in business class) and still have leftovers. And I keep earning miles when I use the card, miles when I fly, miles when I dine out at the right restaurants, etc. Join the Travel Hacking Cartel and you’ll get regular updates on how to cash in regularly.

Hungary travel

2) Free flight to Bangkok and back from Hanoi. The carrier I use most often (besides Southwest) has traditionally been Continental, now merged with United. That’s because it has better Latin America coverage than most, especially Mexico, going through Houston on the way. Because of the great Star Alliance they belong to, you can cash in Continental/United miles for all kinds of other great airlines. So I’m flying from Tampa to Bangkok with my family—all of us free—on a combination of United and Thai Airways. They’re having to buy a one-way home, but I’m coming back from Hanoi on mileage. It’s going to be a very long trip via Singapore and Frankfurt, but on the best airline if you’re going to be stuck in economy: Singapore Airlines. I couldn’t get any closer to home than D.C. though, so I took the flight to NYC and will see a couple friends before the last leg on a cheap one-way ticket to Florida.

How did I manage this? Again, a mix of flying, credit cards, and other moves. All three of us have been saving up miles for a while, so my wife was able to transfer some from her account to my daughter’s for $75. And I had to spend $35 to top off my account to get to 65,000. And we each paid the taxes, which were around $40 each way. But considering even a one-way flight from where we live to Bangkok is $1,400 and rising, not bad. What put both my wife and I over the top on miles though was getting an airline credit card from Chase that gave us 30,000 miles each. (And it lets us check in one bag free on domestic flights.) Almost enough on its own for a one-way flight to Southeast Asia and close to what you need for a round-trip to South America or Europe.

I also have regularly bought things through their mileage mall online, taken advantage of special promotions, and earned a bit here and there from car rentals and hotel stays. I even got 1,000 miles once from installing a shopping toolbar then taking it down a couple months later. I found out about some of these opportunities from blogs, others from the Cartel.

3) South America in the Fall. I’m going on a tour through Bolivia and the Atacama Desert of Chile in November. I’m having trouble finding a free flight into Bolivia at any time, but if nothing else I know I can get home from Chile on miles as there is plenty of availability. Once again, a little extra effort up front will dramatically reduce my travel costs when it’s time to fly. With the price of oil continuing to go up and the U.S. economy improving, flight prices are unlikely to get any cheaper. It pays big dividends to use another currency besides your income.

Atacama Chile

The Travel Hacking Cartel

As I’ve said before, if you’re experienced at this and don’t mind browsing lots of different blogs and message boards on a weekly basis, you can find lots of tips and tricks for free. If your time is precious though and you’d like for it all to just land in your inbox—with some hotel points deals as well—then a Travel Hacking Cartel subscription is an easy investment to justify. They guarantee you enough points to get four free domestic tickets a year or you get your  money back. Where would you go with 100,000 miles? And is it worth less than 10 bucks a month to get there?