Travel HackingI’ve been getting some questions lately from friends about how I manage to travel as much as I do without going broke and eating rice and beans all the time over the past year and a half. I can say that I’m not some kind of trust-fund baby and I’m not suddenly awash in cash from some dead relative. And my co-workers know I’m not in a job making six figures a year. So just how am I doing it? I’ve been doing it through a variety of tactics, but the one that’s been paying off the most dividends is travel hacking.

Most airlines and hotel chains have frequent flyer/stay programs where you earn miles or points for using the company’s services. Travel hacking involves using a variety of tactics to get those points as cheaply as possible, often without actually taking flights or staying in any hotels.

Credit card promos- Many banks offer large number of miles in return for getting a card and spending a certain amount of money in a certain amount of time. For example, about a year ago Chase Bank offered a British Airways credit card where folks who spent $2,000 in 3 months would get 100,000 British Airways miles- enough to go to Europe twice or to many other destinations around the world.

Many travel hackers take credit cards one step further by finding creative ways to spend money on their cards without actually spending a lot of dough by doing things like buying gift cards and reselling them or even buying money-yes, cold, hard cash- from the US Mint and then using the cash to pay off the card before the due date.

If you have no problems with paying off your cards in full each month, have a solid credit score (above 700) and are not planning to get a house/car loan soon, taking advantage of credit card bonuses is a fast way to get a lot of miles in a hurry.

Airline/hotel-branded credit cards often come with other perks as well, like status, free checked bags, $50 off coupons and more. So even if you don’t need a pile of miles, a card associated with your favorite program can still be useful.

Airline/Hotel promotions- Many frequent travel programs will run special promos where you can earn a lot of points by doing certain activities like shopping through their online mall. Sometimes the program will offer special redemption rates so you can get a flight or hotel for fewer points then normal. Other times, it could be earning double or triple the normal points for an activity. Some promos occur quarterly or annually, so there’s opportunities to take advantage of it multiple times.

Mileage/Mattress running- This involves getting status in a particular airline or hotel program either by doing a lot of flying or staying in hotels. This is done by finding cheap flights that will yield a large number of elite qualifying miles. This often means flying from say, New York to San Francisco while connecting in Chicago, Houston and Denver along the way to maximize the miles earned. Other times, it could mean flying a short segment multiple times in one day. To get hotel status might mean switching hotels every night or staying in hotels in the same city where you live in order to get enough nights or stay credits or status.

The reason is that the perks that come with having status can include free upgrades, lounge access, priority-access lanes, free checked bags or in-room freebies. It’s a lot of little things that make travel more pleasant and fun. Many mileage runners end up doing their mileage run near the end of the year when status expires in most programs.

The online world is full of travel hackers who have blogged about their successes.
Chris Guillebeau of the Art of Non-Conformity used a US Airways shopping promo to buy lots of useless stickers to get 280,000 US Airways miles, which he then turned into flights around the world.
Steve Kamb of Nerd Fitness has a post about how he booked a trip across four continents for $416 and a bunch of miles.
Tyler Tervooren of Advance Riskology shows how buying $15,000 in cash racked him up thousands of miles that he’s putting towards a round-the-world trip.

I admit I’m fairly new to travel hacking myself. I started jumping on various offers last year and I now have enough miles to get myself and a friend to South America in business class. I’m also currently working on getting enough miles to fly first class to Asia- probably to Hong Kong. Once I get those South America tickets booked (which should be sometime in the next week), I’ll share how I did it and how you can do something similar.

If you’re looking for more information on travel hacking but don’t want to wade through pages of travel blogs and forums, Chris Guillebeau just started up the Travel Hacking Cartel. The cartel provides information on the latest deals and information on how to earn and burn miles and points in the most effective way. The cartel promises that there’s enough info there that you can take four free flights a year. I joined the cartel last week and it’s great for folks with more money then time (and with the cheapest plan at $15 a month, it’s not even that much money). Most of the information provided can be found elsewhere, but you need to know where to find that info and it’ll take longer then reading the cartel’s list of deals.

The cartel offers all the deals in one list with clear instructions on how to take advantage of them. It also has over a dozen videos about how to earn and burn airline miles. The info provided is certainly enough for a few domestic trips if you can take advantage of them. The cartel is still very new, so I’m curious to see if it can get me info on deals I haven’t found elsewhere. The cartel has been adding a new deal about every 2-3 days right now. If you want to check it out, they have a $1 2-week trial available. (This is an affiliate link.)

I also have a post that I wrote last year about where to find good travel deals. With some patience and a little creative thinking, a dream trip doesn’t have to be a dream much longer.