I hate to hear people say “I wish I could travel more.” Most of what you can and can’t do in life is a matter of priorities. If you want to do something badly enough, you’ll find a way to make it a top priority. If you don’t, you’ll find excuses.
I do realize, however, that travel is not an everyday habit like shopping for shoes or cooking, so some people need an easy step-by-step instruction manual to get moving. There are plenty of ways to travel more on your current income, but if you follow the steps below, you will have a nice vacation this year. You’ll will probably spend less than you do in a week or two at home also.
1) Get an airline credit card
The big U.S. airlines all now award frequent flier miles by amount spent, not distance flown, which leaves out most leisure travelers. They make too much money from affiliated credit cards to give those up though, so you can still earn a lot of miles by using those, especially if you’re American.
I have a whole wallet full of these things so you’re not restricted to just one. Start with whichever one is most likely to get used because of who flies to where you live, but if you don’t care because you’re in a big city, just get the one with the best sign-up bonus. That’s often enough for a domestic flight at a minimum. It might even get you to Mexico, Canada, or the Caribbean. As I write this Alaska and Southwest have the most attractive offers. For the non-Southwest airlines, the saved luggage fees will often more than cover the annual fee if there is one.
If you’ve got a spouse, he/she can get a card and the bonus too. If you run a business, you can often pick up another one in the business name. There are other programs too where card points can go to different airlines or gain points that can be used on any travel period. The best are the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Barclay Arrival Plus, and the Starwood/Marriott American Express cards. Amex works like this for regular cards but the transfer partners are very limited.
You’ll need to hit a minimum spend level though after signing up, usually between $1,000 and $3,000 in three months. So you need to pull it out a lot at first.
2) Put all expenses on that card for at least three months
If you’ve got some big spending coming up, such as a move to a new house or your car insurance bill, that’s a good time to get one of these. Even if you don’t though, put your regular bills on there (cable, phone, car payment, whatever) and you’ll spend what you need in no time. Make this your go-to card for any online shopping, especially if you can shop through the airline site and get bonus miles. If you sign up with the dining program, you can amplify the points when you pick the right restaurants.
3) Get a hotel chain credit card and repeat
After you’re close to the minimum spend on the airline card, sign up for a hotel chain one and go through the same process. You’ll switch as much of your regular spending to that card now instead. Ideally this is a card for a chain where you already stay now and then, but if not I’ve found the one from IHG Group (Intercontinental, Indigo, Holiday Inn Express, Staybridge Suites) requires the least amount of points to get rooms, especially when they run promotions. They’re currently offering a 60,000 point sign-up bonus. I’ve had good luck with the Hilton one too after getting a huge sign-up bonus from them.
Many of these charge an annual fee, but you usually get at least one free night each year (in addition to your points) so it’s a wash at worst. Some give you automatic elite status, which means late check0ut and a room available upgrade after check-in.
4) Start looking at where you can go on miles
Most people who spend way too much on vacation do it backwards. They eliminate most variables, picking a single place to go and a certain week they will travel. If you can start with what’s available and then work backwards, it’s much easier to cash in your frequent flier miles and much easier to get cheap flights when you buy them.
This should be obvious, but if you go where everyone else is going when everyone else is going, the chance of you getting the free tickets you want is slim. I average three or four free flights a year though, at the lowest mileage levels, so it can definitely be done.
If you find a match, snag it! Most experts consider a penny a mile to be a fair value. So don’t use 50,000 miles for a $200 flight. Use 50,000 miles for a flight worth at least $500 on the open market.
Don’t forget that most airlines will let you book half of it now (a one-way flight) or do an “open jaw” where you fly into one airport and out of another.
5) If not with miles, pick your destination based on where the deals are
If you don’t have enough miles or you’re striking out, don’t worry. There are still hundreds of great airfare deals every week if you keep your options open. Check sites like Airfare Watchdog or follow them on Twitter. Use Google Flights and/or Skyscanner to search from your home airport. And don’t forget about the ones that don’t feed into those systems, like Allegiant and Southwest. Check for foreign airlines coming here too like Interjet and Volaris from Mexico and Porter Airlines and Westjet from Canada. If you head to the cheap vacation spots, you’ll spend less on the ground when you get there too.
6) Book at least one night with your new hotel points
You should be sitting on a few nights’ worth of hotel points from that second credit card, so cash some of those in to offset a few nights of lodging. This is especially useful if you need to be near an airport for the first or last night. Always check the real prices though to see if it’s worth it. Paying 30,000 hotel points for a room that’s going for $68 doesn’t make much sense. Use a penny a point as a rule of thumb because at that level you can be sure it’s worth doing. (If a $400 room is going for 25,000 points, that’s a deal and you should book it.)
7) Use Trivago and rental sites for the rest
In most cases, you’ll can be relatively sure you’re seeing the best price available on the web if you use Trivago to search for a hotel.In foreign countries or with independent hotels, you may be able to negotiate a better rate over the phone or by e-mail. They pay the likes of Expedia close to 25% commission and love to avoid that.
If you’ll be somewhere for a long time though or you’re a family, renting from AirBnB, FlipKey, or VRBO might be a smarter (and cheaper) option.
7.5) Or, do a home exchange
Could you stay in someone else’s house while they’re staying in yours? Or does one of you have a vacation home so you could do a non-simultaneous exchange? Many people who belong to home exchange organizations spend very little on vacation. They cash in miles for flights and then stay in a house for nothing after arrival. They’re just paying for some ground transportation, food, and having fun.
Some have also found success without having a home of their own, by housesitting via a service like TrustedHousesitters
Ready now? Start today and get moving!