To me, the best part of traveling are the unplanned bits. But given that most of us have limited resources, going places on the cheap requires a little foresight. So here are some of the ways that have helped me make my trips affordable over the years. To some, these pointers are obvious, or just not worth the effort. But If you are willing to do your homework, there are surprisingly many ways to minimize travel expenses.
What I cover here applies to US residents but some offers may be available elsewhere as well. The list is by no means exhaustive; send me tips and advice and I will add them here.
Getting there is usually the most expensive part of travel. Once you’ve arrived, there are ways to economize on lodgings (B&B’s, hostels, camping, home stays, etc.), and transport. And while some places may not be conducive to travel on the string, of course; Japan, for example, is an expensive destination in every way. Developing countries, on the other hand, tend to be easier on the budget.
So to deal with air first, how do you get an affordable, or even free, ticket? In short, by optimizing credit card reward points and converting them into frequent flyer miles. But don’t tune out; yes, you have to earn the points, but there are ways to accumulate/use and combine them, even without flying. Instead, think credit card points = miles. I will try and show you how the right combo works.
The first step: You need the “right” Frequent Flyer Program (FFP)
Not all are created equal, and some programs are just impossible to deal with. I settled on United’s MileagePlus, not because I like the airline, but because their FFP is very flexible and pairs up well with key credit cards rewards (a critical point — see the second step). You can use their miles on partner airlines (at equal point value!) such as Lufthansa, Air New Zealand, Asiana, and many other quality airlines. That is a good value for me as I find flying long distance more pleasant on non-US carriers. Also, the MileagePlus reward booking process is easy and a big bonus for me; changes/cancelations are affordable. Of other programs, I have Delta, SAS, BA, JetBlue, and a host of others but none come close to the flexibility/value of United.
Broadly speaking, you will need 50-60,000 miles (or points converted from credit cards) with United (or partners), for a roundtrip ticket many places in the world.
The second step: Pick a credit card(s) and reward program combo
To maximize your points, you’ll need to be smart about what credit card(s) you use with your FFP. Some cards allow points to be moved to travel partners (not just redeem through their own booking site, which is usually not a great deal), such as airlines, hotels, etc. With that in mind, find a rewards card that works with your frequent flier program and accrue points to convert. Depending on the card you select, you will likely use the cards reward program that comes with it, i.e. Chase Ultimate Rewards. I will be covering the Chase/United combo here.
The fastest way to a free ticket is signing up for a credit card offer. The Chase Sapphire card is one of the consistently praised cards in travel forums. As of this writing, they offer a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points (+ 5,000 for your spouse’s card). The United MileagePlus Explorer Card is also “respected” amongst travel cheapskates (I see now they “only” offer 30,000 miles for sign up). The beauty of these points is that they can be moved to a frequent flyer program by converting to miles 1:1; 50,000 points = 50,000 miles. So, with a roundtrip ticket costing about 50-60,000 miles, you practically have that free ticket after 3 months!
The fine print: usually, you have to spend $3-4,000 during the first 3 months. If you use your card for everything, as I do, that can be doable. Stock up on things you use through the year, whatever you have to do to meet the limit. These offers also typically come with the first year of the annual fee (around $95) waived, so some budget travelers cancel the card before the anniversary and reapply for another one to avoid the fee. In fact, I know of cases where people sign up for 50,000 points offer only to cancel before the year is up and then reapply for the very same offer. You have to decide on the ethical aspects of this, and I’m sure banks are getting wiser about the practice.
The third step: Mile making machine
While getting a ticket for free fast is nice, travelers with longer horizons are more interested in earning miles systematically over time to feed the “habit.” With the right card(s) you can maximize miles by auditing your card use. Chase Sapphire, for example, have 2x points on purchases (which is good for big ticket items) and often bonus offers where you can earn more on certain purchases.
But the real fountain of miles for me is the Chase Freedom card. There’s no annual fee, but no generous sign-up bonus either. Instead, the card has very attractive bonus categories. This is my card of choice because it lets me convert points into United’ MilagePlus FFP via Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program (see below how to do this). Sure, you only earn 1 point per $, but with the quarterly 5x multiplier bonus categories, things get interesting. For example, one-quarter it may be gas stations (which won’t amount to much) but the next quarter groceries, which quickly adds up. You can earn 5x on up to $1500 per quarter/category. So if you spend $1500 on groceries in 3 months (families often have no problem doing this), you have $1500 x 5 = 7,500 points. For the last few years, the last quarter was 5x on amazon.com. That’s another 7,500 points for me.
You may not be able to capitalize this way every quarter if the categories do not fit. But I get an enormous amount of points this way. The bonus categories alone yield me 20,000 to 25,000 miles annually. When adding the points earned on the regular purchases, I usually harvest at least one free ticket yearly.
There’s one important caveat; it doesn’t seem that Chase Freedom points allows transfers to programs directly via Ultimate Rewards, but rather you have to make less valuable bookings on their site. But there’s a way around that; if you have another “higher end” Chase card, i.e. Sapphire, they usually let you combine the points from different cards. By combining points earned with Chase Freedom with, say, Sapphire, you’ll get better redemption options through the Ultimate Rewards program, i.e. you can move the points to miles at United. This is an important distinction. Be sure to check these options for accuracy before you decide to sign up for the cards. There’s also more about this here: http://thepointsguy.com/2015/06/combining-ultimate-rewards/
Here are some other ways to earn points:
– Set up automatic payments for utilities and recurring charges using your cards. Not only will this save you time, it also accrue points.
– Monitor special earnings offers with the cards and airlines. United, for example, have rotating offers available on their site, not only for travel. Last Fall I used a Hertz rental car offer. Not only were the prices the best for a one-day rental, United Mileage and Hertz offered 2,750 points as a reward. The value of these miles almost paid for that rental!
– United also has a United Dining program that gives you miles for dining at some restaurants. If you’re already going to some of the restaurants on the list, you may as well earn miles as you do.
– There’s lots of other offers on their site, everything from 12,500 miles for getting an NRG solar power offer (you don’t have to sign up), 6,000 miles for trying out a wine club, etc. For some states, there’s also bonuses with certain utilities.
– Using apps. If you have the United MileagePlus X app, for example, you can make 2-5x points on some retail stores by paying via their app, linked to your credit card. Barnes and Noble, for example, is 4x.
That is it as airfare is concerned. My combo is Chase JP Morgan + Chase Freedom with the Ultimate Rewards = Miles at United MileagePlus. I’m sure there are other lucrative combos, but I haven’t found any that works quite as well. Also, keep in mind that some cards have built-in values beyond miles. Chase United’s MileagePlus Explorer card, for example, is great for travels because of the travel protection bennies. Naturally, that’s the card I use when making travel bookings, rental cars, etc.
I use my cards religiously, obsessively, for every purchase, large and small, and have been very fortunate to earn a staggering amount of miles. But I also have spent a bit of time setting these things up. Monitoring reward opportunities seem like a lot of work but once you get going its more or less automatic. I keep thinking they’re going to close the “loopholes” soon, but while reward flights tend to go up in price over time, they are still very attractive.
The fourth step: use miles wisely
If you do the math, you can see that miles can be very valuable. Let’s look at the value of a mile (and point). Let’s say the fare to Tokyo is $1200 roundtrip or 60,000 miles. That would give you a value of 2 cents/mile. But this value goes up exponentially if you use miles for very expensive flight segments such as Oceania. Some budget travelers use their miles for business class on very long flights, i.e. to Beijing, where one way would cost almost $12,000. A one-way business segment usually is only twice the milage of a regular coach ticket so that would be exceptional value.
One tip: don’t waste your miles on short domestic trips flights in the US, as there are usually competitive fares available. Your miles are usually proportionally more worth for international flights. Also, decide on a frequent flyer program (FFP) and stick with it. Some of you may have signed up for several programs, neither of which have accrued enough to reap tickets. Yes, you can save a few bucks by comparison shopping but remember that the alternative cost is the miles you miss by not using your frequent flyer program.
Many FFP and credit card points programs allow transfers/bookings of hotels, rental cars, etc. In my experience, these offers are never as attractive as airline rewards. But there are ways that you can maximize what you get out of hotel bookings.
Staying in hotels can get expensive fast. So, finding the booking site with the best prices is key. I have not had much luck with Trivago or Tingo, but Kayak sometimes give me good options and is a good start to compare booking sites. But in general, I go between Booking.com and Hotels.com. While prices in my experience seem to be matched, on occasion they can vary as much as 15-20% between the two (often in Booking.com’s favor), so it pays to compare.
Keep monitoring prices at your destination as you get closer to departure. While some booking engines offer price protection, it’s only good for the hotel room for the night at the hotel you booked. For me, the price protection has never worked out. Instead, I keep a couple of other hotel “candidates” open and check if there are significant price movements closer to arrival date. This tactic is hardly worth it for a night or two at a budget hotel, but the practice can significantly reduce costs for longer stays in expensive places. For longer trips, you may also consider making a set of bookings with easy cancelation options and then evaluate options on the go. Be ethical about this, though; in developing countries, this practice can place hardships on local lodgings.
Many booking sites have member discounts, i.e. Booking.com’s “genius” offers, which can be good deals at certain hotels, often 10% discount. Hotels.com rewards give you every 10th stay free. That is an immediate 10% discount. If you also sign up with Upromise.com, you’ll earn a 4-5% “college earnings” (which in reality can be used for anything, at least here in CT) on bookings through their site. If you use the Sapphire card to pay for the reservations, you get the 2x points. The net effect of combining these models is a 15-20% discount on your hotels at Hotels.com.
These sites are not only for high-end hotels anymore; most of them now feature backpacker inns, hostels and also sometimes private lodgings. But in some cases, home stays, AirB&B, etc. will, of course, be cheaper.
A word of caution: Kayak and TripAdvisor sometimes include booking sites with extraordinary offers. And, as they say, if it sounds too good to be true…. These sites may be legit, but I have learned through experience that going cheap can be expensive. When dealing with lodgings in far away places, you need a reputable company; one that responds to cancelations, claims, requests and your call when you get there and there’s no room…
Other penny-pinching tips
This list is a work in progress, and I will add other suggestions as I get them.
-Wherever I go, I try and rent bicycles, use trains or tuk, or go on foot. Given that there’re not much cheaper ways than this at your destination, the only little trick I have to save on getting to airports in the greater NYC area by using a one-way rental car. It doesn’t sound intuitive that this is a cheaper option. But when considering the parking costs, or train fares (which can be a long journey for us 2-3 hours away), especially if you’re more than one person, rentals can be cheaper. For example, getting to JFK or EWR by train often can cost me close to $100 r/t and eat up a significant amount of time. Parking your car for 2 weeks might run you $200+ at either airport. But I am often able to get one way rental for $50-75.
-Food can be costly when you travel. But depending on your comfort level/where you go, you may find that street food is a good alternative to restaurants. The general safety rule; if you see lot’s a good amount of customers, food-turn over is rapid and thus safer. I also try and find markets, where fresh fruits, bread, etc. are cheap.
-Carry an empty water bottle in airports. As soon as you’re through security, fill it up at the drinking fountains. With bottled water at $4, it adds up over the years. Keeping a protein bar and some small snacks can be a good way to avoid the expensive (and often sub-standard) airport restaurants.
Disclaimer: The advice on this page are my experiences, and while I believe most of the information is accurate, it is important that you read all card/frequent flyer program offers before making any decisions.