Tips for cheap (or free!) travel

Who doesn’t want to travel for free (or at least very cheaply)? Welcome to the world of travel hacking, a worldwide community of people dedicated to maximizing the value of every resource (be it time or money) with the goal of getting the best flight, hotel room, rental car or upgrade legally possible. While some in the community object to the word “hacking” because it implies doing something shady or illegal, it’s become a common enough term for working the system. If you’ve never travel hacked before, prepare to have your mind blown at how creative some people can get in the name of free travel.

The Credit Card Game
Far and away the fastest and easiest way to rack up travel points is by taking advantage of credit card promotions – basically a bonus for opening up an account and meeting a minimum spend without ever having to travel anywhere. First of all, this works mainly for US residents (and to a much lesser extent, Canadians, Brits and Australians). This is simply due to the huge number of banks competing for your business. How it works is banks will buy frequent flier points from airlines and use them as incentives to open up a credit card. Sign up, spend say USD3,000 in the first three months and bam! 50,000 free miles,enough for two free domestic tickets. Pretty simple, right? The best offer I’ve seen is somewhere around 100,000 frequent flyer points for a USD10,000 spend, but with an annual fee of USD450. However, chances are if you’re the type of person accumulating hundreds of thousands or even a million miles or more a year, you won’t flinch at a fee of a few hundred dollars for a card that typically comes with other perks as well, for instance airline lounge membership and free checked bags. 

Travel hackers take this one step further by opening up multiple cards. I’ve seen people open up one each for a personal Visa and MasterCard and then another two for ‘business’ use. To get around the condition that you can’t already have a rewards card with that same bank, some will open up applications in four different browser tabs (or use different browsers all together), pre-fill them out and then click “submit” all at the same time so that the system doesn’t flag that you’ve already applied for a credit card. Don’t own a business? No problem. Just enter your social security number instead of a tax ID number. Meet the spend limit for all four cards and within a few months, that’s 200,000 miles in your account, enough for an around the world ticket or two. (And if you find a better offer within 60 days of opening your card, remember to call and ask the bank to match the bonus.)

Travel reward cards aren’t always points, though. My Marriott card comes with no foreign transaction fees, free Silver Elite benefits (like free internet and priority late checkout) and offers one free night per year. It does have an annual fee of USD65, but when I saw my beautiful room on the 34th floor of the brand new Marriott Hotel Sukhumvit last month in Bangkok, it certainly felt worth the fee and then some.

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The Churn
Basically credit card churning is opening a card, collecting the enrollment or activation bonus, closing the card, and then reapplying for the same card. Lather, rinse, repeat. This is best for people with very good credit scores (as your rating takes a hit every time you apply for / close a card) and for people who manage their money well (i.e. can keep track of multiple cards and who don’t carry a balance from month to month, as paying interest on a credit card violates the spirit of travel hacking). Churning requires a fine balance of knowing when to repeat the cycle. Back in the day, one bank was famous for allowing new applications once every 60 days. At one point, I was probably juggling 7-10 different active credit cards. Nowadays, banks have made churning more difficult by increasing the amount of time required between applications, anywhere from 90 days to 18 months. Fortunately, the close-knit community of travel hackers often posts their own experiences of how long it took them to get a specific card approved, providing real-time data for others.

Manufactured Spending
So, now that you’ve got four brand new credit cards, you’ll need to meet the minimum spending amount to reap your rewards. The problem is most people can’t spend that much within the time limit without buying things they don’t need or want. Enter “manufactured spending,” described by some as a legal way to launder money. One example was using your credit card to buy US coins from the US Mint (for face value, and at the time, counted as a purchase, not as a cash advance) and then depositing the coins into your bank account to repay the credit card bill. I actually did this once, but decided it felt a bit too shady for me. This loophole has long since been closed, so nowadays, manufactured spending can mean using your credit card to buy store gift cards then purchasing something and selecting the option to receive cash back using your gift/debit card. US residents can also use Amazon Payments ― basically paying a friend into his/her Amazon account (which counts as a purchase if you say you’re paying them for goods or services), then have them transfer the money to their bank account, withdraw it and give it back to you.

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While the credit card route is the fastest way to rack up miles, it obviously isn’t for everyone. And some of the methods required to maximize your rewards, while not quite illegal, may cross the ethical line for some. Next month, I’ll talk about some more ‘benign’ ways of travel hacking including mileage and mattress runs and fat finger fares.

In the meantime, check out these sites for some more travel hacking tips.

www.flyertalk.com
www.thepointsguy.com
www.millionmilesecrets.com
www.boardingarea.com

Just remember to do a lot of reading before you post anything, as these communities are mainly made up of people who take travel hacking very seriously and devote hours and hours to keeping up with the latest deals and ‘tricks.’ They have their own lingo and typically have little patience for wide-eyed newbies who jump into the fray uninformed. Enjoy, but consider yourself warned!

Having visited nearly 60 countries as a travel writer and award-winning photographer, James pham blogs about his adventures at FlyicarusFly.com.