travel hacking

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updated 11/18/2016

travel hacking and me

As graduate students, we don’t make very much. To be able to travel, we’ve had to put my organization (or the micromanaging skills I’ve learned from years of Civilization playing) to use. In addition, there are many travel hack tools and information out there to that can help you travel.

Many bloggers out there call it free (it is, in that you don’t pay for a lot of it), but it does take a considerable amount of time and effort. This is especially true for when you are starting as there are also a lot of noise out there (some sites make out by pulling the important information together). Furthermore, people use a code language sometimes to avoid companies from detecting tricks and there are some negative attitudes from veterans of the game. Lastly, the game is ever changing because companies try to plug many of the holes up. However, there are also perfectly legitimate deals out there and I’ll link those up as well.

Admittedly, I’ve spent way too much time looking as what’s out there and there are still many tricks I don’t know about. This section of the webpage will only serve as a place I will recommend relevant sites that have helped me and my personal experiences. Everything I will refer to will most likely be well publicized out there. In the case it is not, I will use my best discretion to communicate in the established code (mostly from flyertalk).

The resources and deals listed below will be relatively stable. For more time sensitive deals, I will tweet it @traveltowalk.

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intro to travel hacking

You ever see Punch-Drunk-Love where the Adam Sandler character finds that he can buy pudding to redeem for frequent flyer points that were more valuable than the cost it took to buy those pudding in the first place? That’s really what travel hacking is about. Travel hacking in essence is just finding deals and taking advantage of what companies out there offer. The best ones occur when two companies have seperate promotions that we can combine and take advantage of. That’s what this guy did and the movie copied. It doesn’t even have to be for travel, there are plenty of good deals to be had for everyday goods.

Anyways, the basics of travel hacking consists of finding good deals and sales, accumulating loyalty points from companies usually involving credit cards, and figuring out the “sweet spots” in using those points for free travel. This is mostly a hobby for many of us as it saves us a lot of money, but it also takes a lot of time and effort. For a poor graduate student like me, I’m ok with spending my time that way as I’m limited in the sources of my revenue I can get. If you make the big bucks, it may not be worth your time at all.

There is a BIG disclaimer about if this game is right for you. A portion of travel hacking does involve applying for credit cards and with that comes the responsibility of credit. You can very easily destroy your credit score and then all of this would not be worth it. The a big rule of travel hacking involving credit cards is always pay them off. Also, you need to build your credit first to be able to even apply for these cards.

On the other side, there is a big misnomer out there about credit cards. Yes, applying for one does lower your credit temporarily, but showing you can use the credit you are given responsibly will actually increase your score.

These following links are what I first looked at when I first got into the game. They are good reads if you are interested and why reinvent the wheel in explaining travel hacking. In the rest of the sections on this page, I address each portion of travel hacking in more detail.

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cheap flights

There are several reasons why a specific fare is on sale. Sometimes it’s because of the airlines have a fare war trying to undercut each other. Sometimes it’s because they are trying to promote a route or are getting some kick backs from the government to promote a specific route. Lastly there are mistake fares, though it’s a crapshoot whether the airlines will honor them.

Regardless of why a specific fare is super cheap, they go fast. Below I will list several of the websites that do a very good job of publishing the fares. I subscribe to them using their RSS feeds. The main source for all of these are individuals doing searches and flyertalk mileage run forum has been the bible. Because of how popular travel hacking has become, many of the old timers have gone more into private groups, but its a double edge sword between sharing and companies catching on.

Because the best deals go fast (most deals are limited in their availability as well), I will only tweet them out rather than blog them. Keeping with how I blog about deals, they will be ones I do myself or I wish I can take advantage of. In other words, they will be data reduced with the John method.

useful sites

useful online search tools

The websites above are good for being flexible and take what’s available. If you need to travel to specific destinations, it will be more costly unless you can use points (see below). There are a few good website to help you search for flights.

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earning points

Earning points comes mainly through three specific revenues and all revolve around companies loyalty programs. The first is credit card sign up bonuses or banking bonuses (see below here). The second is using your reward earning credit cards to get points, miles, or cash back. The last is actually butt in seat flying.

sign up bonuses

Other than a lot of filler, most web pages out there will be about credit card signup bonuses. This is by far the easiest way to accumulate the resources you need to travel for cheap or free. However, you have to be careful and organized to play the credit card game (refer to getting started warnings).

As travel hacking has gotten more popular and companies trying to restrict those of us that try to take advantage of their offers, there have been more rules and stipulations that you want to pay attention to while signing up for cards (i.e. Chase’s 5/24 or Amex’s one lifetime signup bonus per product). Below are a few sources that I find a the most reliable and upfront about the stimulations that comes with the signup bonuses. Of course, you can usually find information on specific credit cards using a search on flyertalk.

In the future, I will also add which offers I have taken or I would recommend in this section (I’ll also have my referral links in case you are applying for a card and feel like supporting my work). For now these guys above should have to covered very well.

using credit cards or manufactured spending

As part of incentivizing credit card use, the company usually will give you benefits in the form of money back or points. Many credit cards have bonus categories of spending where you get more back by using their card in the stores that belong to those categories. Of course with the different categories out there, you can organize your spending to maximize what you get back. In general as part of the game, you should be getting points back every time you buy something and thats points you should be able to use to travel for free or just get cash back.

  • the frequent miler – this guy is the go to guy for this topic (as you’ll see below). His posts are the best about maximizing returns from credit cards.
  • the points guy maximizer tool – I’ve used when it first came out, but you had to put some personal information into it and it didn’t take into account of signup bonuses. I don’t currently use it as I don’t think it provides enough of individual customization. It’s a good general tool.

An additional source to earn cash back or points while shopping are in the form of reward portals. These are online sites that will link you to where you want to buy something and give you extra money or points for going through their site. The caveat is that this process uses cookies and may be difficult to get to work. The best plan is to do your shopping using one web browser and another to actually do the purchasing (e.g. shop with chrome and buy after going through the portal with firefox).

Manufactured spending is the process of using your credit cards to pay for something (like gift cards) and then figuring out a way to get your money back. The gist of this is you will get more out of the bonuses from the spending from the credit card by a large enough margin to justify the time and cost it takes to get the money back. This process mostly takes advantage of high paying bonuses and reward portals as mentioned above. It is also a useful tool to try to meet signup bonuses if you don’t have the spending power to do so.

This is always a highly popular topic in the travel hacking world and a practice companies will shut down when they realize what is happening because someone is losing out at some point. Recently using gift cards with either Amex serve, bluebird, and Target Red card have been shutdown. Current ideas may involve ebay and the reselling goods market. I haven’t much manufactured spending because it is a good amount of effort and I am able to meet my spending requirements with my regular spending.

  • the frequent miler – most blogs will talk about manufactured spending in one way or another, but he is the man at it

mileage runs

The last way to get points is to actually fly. However this is harder and harder for typical flyers as Delta, American, and United have gone to revenue based frequent flyer programs. Unless you have a specific status with the airline or are willing to put in the money and time to fully commit to getting status, it’s becoming less worth it.

There are other airlines like Alaska and Copa that you can credit flights from the big 3 to for actual distanced based milage earning. But they are becoming less and less. For all of this, flyer talk is your best friend.

tracking your points

When you start to collect points, you might end up with many different accounts. There are websites out there that can keep track of that information for you. Personally, I use awardwallet. Here is my referral link and use the code “free-kzxqeb” for 6 month premium membership where they’ll keep track of your expiration dates (first time users only).

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burning points

There are 2 main sites I that are the best in understanding how to best use the points you have or what are the best points to get to where you want. Knowing what points you need to get to where you want to go is very important in formulating a plan on what you need to do in points earning.

There is really no easy way of redeeming points unless you go through a service or get direct advice. To really know, you will have to spend time reading the guides they provide and playing around with different airline’s award search engines. If this ever takes off where I am supported by this site, I will go through and pull out very helpful guides among the sites and expand this section. But for now, all I can do it point you in the right direction for you to do some work. This is probably the most time consuming and most difficult thing to learn and I’m still a novice at it.

  • Travel is Free – Look at their resource section
  • Mile Value – A little disorganized, but they have very comprehensive guides if you search utilize the search function

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banking hacks

bank account for traveling

The consensus among travel bloggers out there is that the Charles Schwab High-Yield Investor Account is the best travel bank account out there. What makes it great is that it will reimburse you for any fees you are charged for using an ATM and it doesn’t charge you a fee either. There is also no upkeep fee for the account. The negatives are that it takes a little time to set up, processing bank transfers take about a week, and it runs a hard credit check (because it is part of a package that gives you an brokerage account also – I have yet to do anything with it).

Here are a couple of links that talk about it: extra pack of peanuts podcast, Nomadic Matt, and million mile secrets.

Lastly, there is a promotion with this to get $100 if you keep $10k in the account. It’s not a lot for the work, but it’s also not the reason you’d get this account. You need a referral for the deal. My referral id is REFER6GZAX

banking bonuses

Banks give out sign-up bonuses for opening their accounts. You usually need to have some sort of direct deposit to avoid fees or to get the bonus and there is usually a requirement for how long they have to stay open. The bonuses earned are also taxable in most cases. Free money is free money though. The best database for this is the doctor of credit webpage and where I find most of my information.

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best hacks, in my opinion

There will be more to come in this section. For now, this is the best tricks out there with the hacking world.

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