I’m a hacker.
Not the kind with unix installed on my computer. I’m a travel hacker. Actually it might be better to say that I’m aspiring to be a travel hacker. In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, travel hacking is, simply put, experiencing the world on a limited budget.
The king of travel hacking is Chris Guillebeau.* Chris runs The Art of Non-Conformity blog where he writes about the unconventional life, entrepreneurship and travel hacking. He’s on track to visit every single country in the world by the time he’s 35 years old. He started in 2008 and as of July 2011 he been to more than 150 of 197 UN recognized countries. Chris isn’t sponsored a company that is paying his way to do all that traveling, he’s making it happen with the money he earns through his blog and by using the tips and tricks of travel hacking to do it as cheaply as possible. He recently launched the Travel Hacking Cartel which is a program that does the work of finding the deals and bonuses and gives you the specific details on what you need to do to take advantage of them. I’m a member of the Cartel and use it to find the best deals. We’ve added over 165,000 miles or points since joining about 4 months ago.
So what are the particulars of travel hacking?
The biggest piece of the puzzle is taking full advantage of the frequent flier programs that almost all airlines offer. The thing that most people don’t realize is that flying all the time isn’t the only way to earn frequent flier miles. There are special offers and promos going all the time that allow you to earn bonus miles.
There are three main airline alliances and we have at least a few miles in each.
Sky Team (Delta, KLM) is where we have the most miles, because we usually fly Delta back to the states. Star Alliance (United, US Airways, Thai Air, Singapore Airlines) is probably the best of the programs because they have the most airlines and several large US based airlines. And OneWorld (American Airlines, British Airlines).
Credit Card Bonuses
I’m not a big fan of the credit card industry. When Kara and I got married we put a bunch of our wedding expenses on a credit card and it took us almost five years to finally get it paid off. So if you don’t have a consistent income or aren’t sure you have the discipline to pay off the full balance of your cards every month then I would not suggest you try this.
With that caveat in mind, the easiest way to rack up a ton of frequent flier miles is by being approved for cards that give you big miles bonuses. Kara and I each signed up for a Delta Gold card in January 2010 and got a 35,000 mile bonus each. We also have a Capital One Venture card which gave us 84,000 venture points, a British Airways card that will be getting us 50,000 points and we each have an AmEx Starwood Hotels card that came with a 10,000 bonus at signup.
If you’re brand new to travel hacking the Starwood card is a good place to start. You get 1 point per dollar spent on the card, but the best part is that you can transfer your Starwood points into any one of the major airline miles programs with 25% bonus. So if you transfer 1000 points it becomes 1250 miles.
Many of the bonuses are contingent upon spending a minimum amount within the first 3-4 months so we usually pay for our health insurance with one of the cards to reach the bonus, then pay it right off from our bank account. Most cards also have a yearly fee of between $50-$90, but we try to just get cards that have the first year’s fee waived and then cancel the card before the next year.
Glitch Fares, Clever Booking and High Value Redemptions
The other half of travel hacking is redeeming your frequent flier miles and finding great deals. The United States do not have the best airlines in the world. None of the major carriers rank in the top ten in the world, but they have great frequent flier programs and you can redeem those miles with partner airlines. For example: Delta has a stupid 3-tier redemption system (low, medium, and high). The problem is that it’s almost impossible to ever find flights at the “low” redemption level. However, all of the Delta partner redemptions are always redeemed at the “low” level. One of the best deals is that it’s only 40,000 miles round trip to Hawaii from north Asia (Beijing), so right now I’m working on finding redemption tickets on Korean Air, or Japanese Airlines to go to Hawaii.
You can also use redemption tickets to get to places that would be super expensive otherwise, or you can work in stopovers in cool places and spend a couple extra days there. For example it’s the same number of miles to go to Fiji from China as to go to Australia or New Zealand, but you have to fly through one of those places to get to Fiji so you could book your rewards ticket and plan a couple extra days in Aukland.
Occasionally you can also find glitch fares. These are flights listed much cheaper than normal. Usually these only last for a couple hours, but if you’re lucky enough to find a glitch fare you could get tickets for 1/2 or 1/3 the normal price. Often travel hackers will look for these types of deals in order to rack up additional miles.
There are other tips and tricks and getting good at finding deals and earning miles can take a while. There is much more than I could cover in one blog post, but I think this is a good introduction. Racking up miles tends to be easiest if you have an address in the States, but people from other countries can travel hack too. If you want to get started on travel hacking you can check out the forum threads at FlyerTalk, purchase the Travel Hacking Cartel for 30 days for $1. If you do join the Cartel through our link and decide to stay subscribed I’ll get a 500 mile bonus (not to pressure you, just to be transparent).
Are any of you travel hackers yourself or do you have good tips on how to travel cheap? Let us know in the comment threads.
*I’ve been following the Art of Non Conformity for several years and would indeed point to Chris’ website as one of the primary sources of inspiration for this blog and for the desir