Browsing Posts tagged frequent flyer miles

how to travel more

“I wish I could travel more, but I can’t afford it.”

I haven’t heard this common excuse from a homeless person or someone who has been out of work for years, because then I might believe it. Instead I’ve heard it dozens of times from people who earn more money than I do. Or they have the whole summer off and just stay home.

In either case, what’s holding them back is a misunderstanding of how inexpensive travel can be. Or just not having their priorities straight. Or both. If you want to travel, it’s not hard to find a way. But if it’s #7 on your list behind gadgets, new cars, a bigger house, weekly clothes shopping, a Starbucks addiction, and your three pets then yeah, that makes it harder.

Traveling more doesn’t require winning the lottery, but it does require a little effort and some contrarian thinking if you’re not loaded. Here’s where to start if you’re not ready to chuck everything in storage and become a budget backpacker.

Game the Loyalty Programs: Sign-up Bonuses

If your credit is good enough to get an average credit card, then don’t get an average credit card. Get one that will really reward you in a big way for your spending. I’ve talked before about the Travel Hacking Cartel and how some advice I gleaned from that got me four free international flights in the course of one year. If you don’t want to pay for that though, you can spend some time on various reward-oriented blogs and get the lowdown on which credit cards are currently paying the biggest sign-up rewards.

airline rewards cardIf that’s too much effort, here’s a simple rundown that’s good enough to get started. 1) Get one airline card, preferably for the airline where you already have the most miles or the one you’re probably going to fly on the most over the next year or two. If you live somewhere with lots of competition and won’t use the card internationally, then get one (or more) of the American Airlines ones from Citi. That’s now the best domestic frequent flier program and at the time of writing they’re giving you 50K miles just for signing up and completing the minimum spend. That’s enough miles for an international ticket or two domestic ones.

2) Then get one that’s tied to a hotel chain. You’ll get the best sign-up bonus from the IHG one (Intercontinental, Holiday Inn) from Chase or the Club Carlson (Radisson) one from US Bank. After you get the bonus, you’ll have several free hotel nights. The Amex Starwood one is good too because you can transfer points to some airline programs if needed.

3) Get (or use one that you already have) that allows you to contribute miles to multiple programs and top off your accounts. American Express has the Membership Rewards program, but better bets these days are Chase Sapphire and Barclay Arrival Plus, which have a more useful array of programs and offer more bonus earning opportunites. Also, they don’t levy a foreign transaction fee and they have a chip rather than just a strip—both important factors abroad. I’m not getting a commission from any of these; I just know they’re some of the best options at the time of writing.

Game the Loyalty Systems 2: Leverage Your Spending

Once you have one or more of these cards, unless you’re prone to rack up a balance you should use them for as much of your spending as possible. First of all, every dollar you spend on cable, internet, phone bills, and gas could be putting more points on your balance. Then there are all kinds of bonus earning opportunities from mileage malls, dining programs, and using the card for purchases at that airline or hotel chain. Add up what you spend in a typical year that you could put on a card and it’s probably enough to earn another flight or couple hotel nights.

IHG reward card

On top of all that, there are all kinds of spending discount promotions too. In three different countries I’ve gotten a night at a Holiday Inn where I wanted to go for just 5,000 points because the place was one their “points breaks” listings at a huge discount. I’m likely going from Mexico to Peru and back this spring for just 20,000 airline miles on United (actually flying on Avianca) because of a discounted miles promotion they’re running for United Chase credit card holders.

Be Spontaneous

Sometimes taking advantage of these great deals means doing things in the opposite order of most people. Instead of deciding where to go and then figuring out how to jam that place into your budget, save the destination choice for last. If you can use miles and hotel points in Place D but not in A, B, or C, then go directly to D!

Or use a site that specializes in last-minute deals and just see what pops up. Examples in all budget ranges include LuxuryLink, Groupon Getaways (or your local Groupon/Living Social site for local travel), Jetsetter, Hotwire,, and most of the big online travel agents like Priceline. Or throw it wide open: go to Google Flights, put in your home airport, and see what comes up. If you’re freezing your butt off in Chicago right now, for instance, check this out for round-trip prices on an 8-day trip in January to go warm up:

everywhere flight pricesClick to expand, but here are the highlights: Phoenix less than $200, Florida less than $300, Mexican resort areas and Costa Rica around $400.

You can do something similar with the Skyscanner app if you have that, just putting in hour home airport and picking “anywhere” for the destination. Haven’t heard of the place before? So what. You can learn most everything you need to know about it in one day online, or just buy a guidebook right before you take off and read it on the plane. You’ll probably have a better time than you did on any previous long-planned vacation because there were fun surprises.

Extend Business Trips

When I worked in a corporate job, here are some places I traveled on my own over a long weekend: Montreal, Austin, San Francisco, Cleveland, D.C., Dallas, Richmond, San Jose, and Las Vegas. In all these cases, there was some biz meeting or convention I had to go to, but I always booked my flight back a few days later whenever possible. As long as the price was the same or less (it usually was because I stayed over a Saturday), then they couldn’t have cared less. So all I had to pay for was a couple days of local expenses. Could you do the same but you just don’t?

When I travel through airports on Fridays, they’re always packed wall to wall with people in business clothing coming home from their work on the road. A lot of them have families with kids I’m sure and need to get back. But if you don’t, what’s your hurry? Sure, Orlando might not be your scene, but you can reach beaches on either coast in a rental care in two hours. If you’re in Vegas and don’t like to gamble, there are a  lot of cool things to see and do within driving distance. Almost anywhere can be a fun adventure or at least a good springboard to one.

Go Local

When I lived in Nashville I had great vacations in Memphis, Lexington, Chattanooga, Huntsville, the Unclaimed Baggage Center, Hollywild, Birmingham, and some state parks. I can think of a year’s worth of cool weekend trips worth taking from where I grew up in Virginia. Weird places to visit

There are probably at least 20 places worth visiting within three hours of your home that you’ve never been to, but have some vague intention of visiting someday. There are probably 20 or 30 more that just haven’t gotten onto your radar. Then there are the ones that may not be all that notable, but are probably still going to be an adventure.

Take the commuter train to the end of the line. Pick a town on the map and drive there. Get a local book on strange things to see in your state and start visiting them. You might not think my sometime home of Tampa would have all that much worth checking out nearby, but this book of one-tank trips from there I got from the library once has been through several editions and has 57 entries.

Live Abroad

You want to really expand your travel options? Move somewhere that’s already foreign. Then everywhere you go will be exciting.

From where I live now in central Mexico, I can take a direct bus to a few dozen destinations and all of them are going to feel exotic. Who’s ever heard of Cuetzalan or Zacatecas? When my wife and I taught English for a year in Korea, we went all over the country, to strange places like Maisan and not-so-strange ones like Cheju Island that still felt very out of the ordinary to us foreigners.

maisan Korea

If you already live in Budapest, you don’t have to pay $1,200 to go somewhere in Europe. If you already live in Malaysia, you can just hop on a bus or train to get to Singapore or Thailand. Not only are you already living a better life for half the price, you can now travel to foreign lands without flying across an ocean to do so.


Bolivia to Chile

Sometimes you have to make your own path…

Why do some people always seem to travel for cheap and others search in vain for deals that elude them? Often it comes down to a combination of patience, persistence, and creativity. As creative thinking author Roger Von Oech advised, often you need to find “the second right answer.”

Next week I’m traveling from Mexico to South Carolina on a Delta frequent flier ticket. Their miles are often derisively referred to as “Skypesos” because they’re so hard to cash in compared to most other airlines. Getting the lowest level awards are next to impossible. But…this is the fourth time I’ve flown Delta for free, so it’s close to impossible, not completely so.

I managed this, as I’ve done the other times, by basing my travel dates on when Delta had availability, not when it was most convenient for me. I’ll make all kinds of changes in my travel schedule if it’s the difference in paying $50 in cash-in fees or $550 to buy a ticket.

Over the past few years, due to some smart travel hacking efforts, I’ve flown for free (except for taxes and fees) to four continents, plus a few domestic flights. Rarely was this as simple as punching in my dates and hitting the booking button. Here are a few contortions that were required to cash in all those miles for almost-free tickets:

  • I flew American to Bolivia and LAN back from Chile because neither had openings both ways.
  • I started and ended my four-country tour of Eastern Europe not in Sofia, as I’d planned, but in Budapest because that’s where I could get a mileage ticket flight the time of year I wanted.
  • My family returned from Southeast Asia on a different airline than me.
  • My daughter and I moved to Guanajuato a week earlier than my wife because we were paying and she was using mileage.
  • I got an extra cheap hotel room one night in Salt Lake City because the date I wanted to fly out on mileage wasn’t available. The next day was.

Be a Travel Deals Detective

This kind of willingness to be flexible also applies when you’re paying. I recently got quoted in this Reuters article about flying an unaccompanied minor because they liked my story about how I avoided paying United Airlines $300 to put my daughter in a seat by herself. I accompanied her up and back on Allegiant, then she returned on JetBlue. It took some time and a calculator to figure all that out, but we saved a a few hundred bucks and it all went smoothly. creative travel savings

Hotels? Go beyond the typical booking engines everyone uses. For normal hotel deals, try and get a look at what everyone is charging. If you just need a chain hotel in a certain area, use Hotwire or Priceline bidding. Try the HotelTonight app if it’s last-minute.

If all else fails, use none of them and go old school, researching independent options that don’t want to pay the big booking sites. Look at guidebooks, destination websites, and the third page of TripAdvisor for hidden gems. Ask friends of friends. Or if you’re staying a while, rent a home or apartment.

If you’re coming up empty finding a reasonably priced way to get from A to B, make sure you’re looking at all the options. From Megabus to Amtrak, Easyjet to AirAsia, one-way rental cars to alternate airports, there multiple possibilities to try before giving up.

Travel is so much easier than it was when I started 20 years ago, but it’s also easier than ever to overspend. It’s easier to mistake info that pops up in your first search as the final word. Really, it’s just a starting point. Dig deeper and wider to find a better answer.

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?

As most of the frequent flier programs get more transparent on the web and more savvy travelers get clued in to the wonders of travel hacking, all kinds of comparisons keep popping up for which programs are the best and worst. It’s hard to do this without the exercise making a DSLR camera manual look fun to read in comparison. The airlines’ programs all have different points quirks, different elite level perks, and different credit card alliances.

So this information is ripe for an infographic—a way to see the whole array visually so it all makes more sense than a string of numbers and costs. Here are two worth checking out.

This first FindtheBest airline infographic is pretty bare-bones visually, but it collects a lot of info in one place once you figure out that you can click through many boxes to see more detail. Right away I saw things that make me scratch my head, however, like valuing Delta “Sky Pesos” at 4 cents per mile for domestic flights, even though every mileage guru will tell you Delta’s are the hardest miles to actually redeem for anything worthwhile. They’ve got a poor record on redemptions and make it harder to find the info you need for cashing in with partners.

Still, I immediately bookmarked this site because it provides a lot of info in one place that usually requires pecking around on each airline website to find. You can see in one place who the partners are for earning miles, how many miles it takes to get to Europe or Asia, expiration window, and how the airline stacks up to a competitor one-on-one. Tabs take you to elite level perks and more mileage charts.

I would have liked to see more on fees, like how much they charge you to call them, what the fuel surcharges are (some airlines charge them on “free” flights, others don’t), and how much they ream you on baggage. But hey, for a free service, this is quite comprehensive.

Next, this cool frequent flier rundown from really puts the “graphic” in infographic. That section I cut out and stuck in at the top of this post is a sampling of how a bit of information can really pop if you frame it the right way in a picture. Let’s see, I can earn a flight in one year on Southwest and in eight years on Continental. Hmmm, which one has a better payback you think? (Factor in free bag checking and the spending-to-reward gap is even wider.)

The graphic kicks off with a great illustration of annual fees on the lowest level of airline credit cards: $45 on JetBlue, $95 on Delta, for example. With banks paying close to zero on interest yet collecting more than 14% in interest, they’re all loan sharks in that department.

Keep scrolling down though and the differences are more stark, especially in how many points/miles you can actually earn in the first year with any of these cards and how far that will take you. This is mostly about earning miles from credit cards, but since that’s how you can often earn enough for a flight in one shot, that’s the quickest way to travel hacking payoffs. It’s also the way to keep earning miles on the ground paying for things you had to buy and bills you needed to cover anyway. See the full comparison here.


I did a big long post about the Travel Hacking Cartel program from author Chris Guillebeau when it launched back in late February. Go check that out to get the details on how it works. But the general gist is that it takes most of the current mileage deals on offer out there for airlines and hotel loyalty programs and bundles them into one pretty package for members. You can get mileage deal updates by e-mail or text.

There are also tutorials on how to maximize frequent flier miles and hotels points—both from the acquiring standpoint and the using standpoint. Last, he guarantees you’ll earn 4 free plane trips per year if you spend sufficient time on the site.

Based on what I’ve experienced so far, the site may not yet meet that guarantee for experienced frequent fliers who already have a bundle of mileage credit cards. If you don’t fit that profile though, or you’re a business traveler on the move a lot, you’ll probably make the guarantee. Either way, you can’t lose really.

So far I’ve gotten more hotel points than airline miles out of the deal, especially by finding out about some deals I didn’t know about through Intercontinental Hotel Group’s Priority Club.

The airline deals have been a few hundred miles here, a thousand miles there through surveys, bonus offers for mile transfers from Amex, or following an airline on Facebook. That’s not going to add up to 25K miles in three months, unfortunately. Most of the advice in the tutorials—dining for miles, using the mileage credit card for regular bills, and taking advantage of mileage transfer bonuses—I was already doing.

Where you really get the maximum miles is through churning credit cards and charging everything you can on those cards. I’ve done a fair bit of that in the past with good results. So I tried again with one offer I only saw through the Cartel. It offered 50K Continental miles after sign-up and charging a certain amount after getting the card, which would have been enough for two round-trip domestic trips or one to South America.

Alas, I got turned down. My credit rocks these days, but I’m not a homeowner since I sold my house in the fall and I already have three Chase credit cards, one an older version of Continental’s. (Combined credit limit from the three—enough to buy a new Mercedes.) Who knows the reason, but I got struck down. Had that card been approved, I would have gotten what was promised easily. [Update – I tried again a few months later and got one with a 30,000 bonus instead. Not too shabby.]

I’m sticking with the Travel Hacking Cartel and watching how it develops. I still feel like you can find more deals out there on your own if you have the time to hunt and peck through mileage blogs and the FlyerTalk message board. But do you enjoy doing that? (Some people do—the thrill of the hunt.) If not, how much is your time worth? If you like to have it all dished up to you in one place in a pretty package that you can act on immediately, the Cartel delivers.

The beauty of this program is, it’s a monthly subscription (starting at $15). You can try it for 14 days for $1, then after that you can cancel anytime if it’s not working for you. Give it a whirl here.

Have you used the cartel yourself? How’s it going so far?