Travel Hacking: How We the Broke Can Travel

Thanks to the hobby of travel-hacking, my husband and I travel the world year-round on a poverty-level budget. Not to be mistaken for a lifestyle that demands bumming on couches or pitching tents in abandoned lots, this hobby gives us the opportunity to see some of the top-rated hotels in the world and some of the most exotic locations, from the islands of Greece to Easter Island.  
 

Travel Hacker Caroline Yoder Macomber

 

To give people an accurate look at the behind the scenes of this lifestyle, we track and publish every single spend we make at FreakinFlyers.com. This includes spends made in cash as well as spends made in the “travel-hacker’s currency”- miles and points.

In this article, however, I’ll discuss this hobby on a more basic level, describing “earning and burning” the currency of miles and points.

 

1.) Earning: Credit Card Bonuses

 

Travel hacking - how we, the broke, can travel

 

If you’re not familiar, travel hacking is earning miles in an untraditional way, without ever having to sit in an airplane to earn those miles. The biggest way this happens is via credit card bonuses.

Before we go further, I’d like to call out the elephant in the room and reassure you that we’ve put lots of thought into what this does to a person’s credit score. While it’s not something I’ll talk about in this post, Drew’s got a great post on the ways that this hobby can actually improve your score.

Drew and I probably have 20 credit cards each- credit cards we almost never use, but signed up for solely because of the bonuses offered. With one single credit card bonus (after a 50% transfer) we flew ourselves and two friends (four people total) from the U.S to Santiago Chile, then on to Easter Island, then on to Peru and back. Seeing as each stopover can be made as long as you want, that was like getting three vacations out of one ticket. This may be my favorite example, as it was a priceless experience to see Easter Island’s Moai and Peru’s Machu Picchu on the same trip.

 

Travel hacking to Easter Island

 

2.) Burning miles: Miles can get you a better ticket

People tend to assume that miles are impossible to use, but the funny thing is often you can do more with a miles ticket than you can with a revenue ticket. A revenue ticket can get you from A to B and back again. But with miles, the rules are different - more generous. Many mileage programs allow you to add a number of stopovers to your flight at no extra cost in miles. Since a stopover is a stop of 24 hours or more, it can basically be thought of as a complementary second destination.

We got really ambitious and decided to see how far we could make our miles go. The result? We flew from Guam to Rarotonga with a stopover in New Zealand and layovers in Sydney, Singapore and Tokyo. That marathon trip cost 40K United Miles each in Business Class. One credit card bonus could cover that flight!

 

travel hacking route

 

We had collected enough miles to get ourselves to Guam in the first place, but even a casual participant wanting to go after just one credit card bonus could do a trip to Peru and back with a stopover in Cancun.  

 

Travel hacking route

 

3.) Earning Hotel points: Credit card bonuses and promotions

Travel hacking is not just about getting free flights, though. After all, not every destination has hotels that run as cheaply as they might in Asia or South America. Credit card bonuses can come into play for hotels too. For instance, IHG offers a 60,000 point bonus for their card (some are even able to find 80,000 point offers.) This would be more than enough points for a week in a low category hotel or a night in the nicest 5 star hotel in the IHG brand.

But an equally popular strategy for “travel hacking” hotels is to find a great promotion and go all out for it.

For instance, Drew and I heard of a Club Carlson promotion that rewarded each Radisson stay with 9,000 points. Knowing that 9,000 points was enough for a free night, we realized this was basically a buy one get one free. The thing is, each “stay” was rewarded, not each “night.” So in order to make the buy one get one free benefit work, we’d have to break up our stays into one night pieces. So, we found a cheap Radisson and stayed there for a long stretch, but alternated nights. One night we’d stay in my name under my account, then we’d check out and check right back in again for another night in the same room, but this time under Drew’s name and in Drew’s account. Back and forth. That little trick earned us so many Club Carlson points, points we were very grateful for as we traveled Europe this year where even the hostels can be expensive.

While that promotion isn’t going on right now, there are other great promotions that happen all the time.

 

4.) Burning hotel points

IHG points are my favorite hotel points to “burn.”

Every two months IHG releases a list of hotels whose prices in points are on sale for only 5,000 points. This includes hotels like the InterContinental Kiev or the InterContinental Athens, hotels that ordinarily go for 7 times as much. There is no other way Drew and I could have managed spending 17 nights at the InterContinental Kiev, a hotel that often goes for $400 a night. Even with the credit card bonus alone, we could have gotten 12 nights.

 

Intercontinental hotel

 

It never ceases to amaze me that Drew and I can spend more than two weeks in a 5 star hotel as two broke vagabonds with holes in our jeans and backpacks instead of briefcases. At one time, I was nervous we’d be “outed” as the unworthy stragglers we are. But let me tell you, a five star staff doesn’t miss a beat in making you feel like a million bucks. Even guests staying for free are treated like their wealthiest.

This is only the beginning.

Just as money can be a complicated thing to master, perhaps the same is true for miles and points. But you don’t have to give up your home or your job, as Drew and I have. If we can apply these strategies to achieve a poverty-level budget for non-stop travel, surely you can apply the same strategies for your vacation, absolutely free.

 

 

 

Caroline Yoder Macomber is the "Travel-Hacking" Editor for Wandering Educators. She is traveling the world with her husband on a poverty-level budget, using the hobby of "travel-hacking" to prove that broke folks can travel too. Visit her website http://freakinflyers.com/ to learn more about her project and for a glimpse of the currency of miles and points in action.

 

 

All photos courtesy and copyright Caroline Yoder Macomber.
Maps generated by the Great Circle Mapper - copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

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