travel deals


I’ve been doing a lot of trip planning lately and thought it might be useful for others to list what sites I like to use.

1) Kayak When I need to research airfare, this is the first place I go. I like the user-friendly interface that makes it easy to filter options by price, schedule, airline, etc. I also like the search calendar that allows me to see airfare for up to a month at a time. It’s handy when I’m looking at quick weekend getaways and seeing if one weekend is cheaper then another.

Kayak does have its limits. It’s not possible to  book flights directly from it, although I prefer to book directly with the airlines anyway. Kayak does have a price alert feature but unlike other sites like Travelocity, it can’t be set to alert you if the price falls below a certain price.

2) TripIt This a fairly new tool in my kit, but the site has been around for a while. TripIt makes it easy to keep travel plans in one and share it with others. All I have to do is forward flight and hotel confirmations to TripIt and it instantly updates trip plans.

It’s a very good collaboration tool. When I went to South America earlier this year, my friend and I used TripIt to update each other on flight and hotel reservations. Since the trip involved three countries, half a dozen flights and many hotels, it was a great way to keep all the details in one spot and get a good snapshot of the overall trip. Since many of the friends I travel with don’t live near me, the site’s ease of sharing makes it much easier to plan a trip together with them.

It’s also been a good way to know when friends might be in the same city as me at the same time.

3) FlightMemory This isn’t a planning tool, but it’s a fun way to keep track of past travel. Just plug in some previous flight info and it generates a nice map of all the flights along with some fun stats. I find it useful for tracking patterns like which airlines or routes I fly the most. And I love the maps it draws up (I’m a sucker for good maps).

4) AwardWallet This site is designed to make it easy to track points and miles across a number of frequent flyer/traveler programs. It’s very handy being able to track the balances of multiple programs at once without having to go to several websites.

AwardWallet also has a premium version of the site called AwardWallet Plus that will provide more info such as when miles will expire. The interesting part is that there’s no set price for Plus- you pay whatever you think the service is worth.

5) Flyertalk and Milepoint These two sites are the travel sites that I spend the most time on. They’re both internet forums that center around travel. Many of the trips I’ve taken in the last couple of years happened because of information that I found on these forums. For example, the South America trip happened because several threads on Flyertalk explained how to get a lot of British Airways miles for cheap and how to use them to visit several countries around the continent. I check and post on both forums as LizzyDragon84.

All of these sites have mobile apps except for Flightmemory. If there are other useful planning sites out there, feel free to mention them in the comments.

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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.

The screenshot of my Expedia.ca deal, with all the exciting naughty bits censored out.

Two weekends ago I got to take advantage of a crazy deal where I got to book a quick one-night trip to New York City for a whopping 22 cents. It came courtesy of Expedia.ca (the Canadian site of Expedia) and they were offering $300 off coupon for flight+hotel packages to New York City, Las Vegas and Cancun. This meant that with the right combination of flights and hotels, a trip could be virtually free.

The terms and conditions specified that the coupon could only be used for “Canadian bookings”. However, the fine print didn’t specify what that meant. Did it mean trips had to start in Canada? That it could only be used by Canadians? That you needed to sing “O, Canada” and be eating poutine while clicking the buy button? In this case, the terms and conditions were so vague that anyone booking through the Canadian version of Expedia could use this coupon. Thanks to the relatively cheap airfare in the US compared to Canada, people were booking trips essentially for free. Expedia could have limited use of the coupon to flights out of Canada, which would have mean cheaper but not free trips, but for whatever reason they didn’t. Expedia eventually pulled the coupon, but not after hundreds of free trips were booked.

Another deal that happened earlier this week was when American offered flights to various cities in Europe from the US for as little as $97 one way. Getting $200-$400 roundtrip airfare to Europe is very good, especially as airfare often runs closer to $1000. The sale only lasted about 12 hours though, and it appears to have been unintentional as the fares didn’t include a fuel surcharge that normally raise the price by $100 or more.

Of course, such deals and mistake fares like this don’t happen every day. But they do happen, and they happen more often then you might think. But how do you find out about them? Here are some of the places I like to check frequently.

Flyertalk- This is the forum for all things travel-related. It’s also the place where most deals first surface before spreading to the rest of the internet. The main focus of the site is on airline frequent flyer programs and how to get status and lots of miles. But the site goes much deeper then that, providing mountains of information on airports, airlines, airplanes and destinations. Most importantly, Flyertalk has a vibrant community that is well-informed and often happy to answer questions if you do your homework first. When the Expedia deal was happening, I used Flyertalk to find out what other people were booking and engage in wild speculations like whether Expedia would really honor the coupons or not (they are). The downside to the site is that it can sometimes be hard to read if you don’t know what all the abbreviations or nicknames mean (it’s a good excuse to brush up on your knowledge of airport codes).


Slickdeals This site is the newest addition to my deal-finding arsenal. The list-style forum layout and detailed headlines makes it easy to skim through the list and see if there’s anything interesting out there. The deals listed are not just limited to airline and hotel deals, but also often include sales on tourist attractions, luggage and other travel-related goodies. What I like most about the site is that it’s all about the deals- there’s little discussion of the best mileage strategy or which airline has the best program. If I need to know what’s hot right now and don’t have the time to plow through pages of forum posts, this is the place I’m go to. The one downside to the site is that it’s fairly US-oriented, so it may not be as helpful if your next trip doesn’t involve North America.

Blogs- I first found out about the Expedia deal through Gary Leff’s “View from the Wing” blog. Another blog that frequently post good deals or sales going on is Ben Schlapping’s “One Mile at a Time” blog. If you’re into credit card promotions, churning or other tactics involving using cards to get miles, Rick Ingersoll’s “Frugal Travel Guy” blog has all the details. The blogs don’t always post on every deal and promotion out there, but they’re great for getting a good understanding of more complex promotions and how to leverage a program to your best advantage.

If you do find a good deal, act quickly. A deal can die fast (that expedia.ca coupon code was pulled 36 hours after it was released), especially if it turned out to be an error made by the company. In other cases, there may be only a limited number of rooms or seats available so it might sell out quickly. Good luck and happy deal-hunting!

In the wake of the Haiti earthquake many organizations have been collecting cash and other donations to help the people in that country. One way that travellers can help out is by donating airline miles or hotel points to organizations like the Red Cross who can then use them to fly people and supplies in.

So if you have a few miles or points to spare, here’s how to send them over to folks who can use them.

Airlines

Alaskan Airlines– Alaskan will match up to 5 million miles for any miles donation.

Continental– No minimum donation amount required.

United– Choose to donate miles in any amount to the Red Cross, Airline Ambassadors or Operation USA. UA will match up to $50,000 of donations through the linked page.

Hotels

Best Western Rewards– Make a donation in blocks of 5,000 points or more.

Choice Privileges– 1,000 points equals a $5 donation to one of several charities.

Hilton Hhonors– 10,000 points equals a $25 donation to the Red Cross.

Marriott– 18,000 points equals a $50 donation to the Red Cross.

Priority Club– Several charities available for blocks of 10,000 points each.

SPG Starpoints– 4,000 points equals a $50 donation to the Red Cross.

Wyndham Rewards– 5,500 points equals a $25 donation with over 100 charities to choose from.

Some airlines are also offering miles in return for a cash donation. American Airlines will give you miles for donations of at least $50, and Spirit Airlines is giving out miles for donations of $5 or more made using the Spirit Mastercard.

Some bloggers like Gary of View from the Wing and Rick over at the Frugal Travel Guy point out that the hotels and airlines aren’t being entirely altrustic by accepting miles for donations. By doing so, they are able to get some of the miles off their books for cheap. Still, with Haiti in such dire straits right now any donation they can get will help the country get back on its feet.

Personally, I’m choosing to help the folks in Haiti by supporting Food for the Hungry. You can make a $10 donation to them by texting “quake” to 85944.

One of my goals this year is to create a mileage-earning strategy that fits my pattern of travel and help me earn enough miles to get some international tickets. Since I’ve somehow given people the delusion that I’m some kind of frequent flyer, I’d love to get at least low-level status on an airline so that I have a shiny card to support their delusion.

However, picking a program to focus on isn’t so simple. I fly out of Orlando, which isn’t a hub for anyone but is a focus city for some low-cost carriers. Nearly all of my travel is for personal trips. Last year, I flew 4 domestic trips and an international one. This year, it looks like I will be doing at least that much flying again and maybe more if I can find some good promotions. While I’m usually flying out of the same city, where I’m going to varies widely and I rarely go to the same spot twice. So I need to choose a program with a lot of partners in it.

Looking at the three major airline alliances, I’m a fan of the Star Alliance. They are the largest of the three and offer the most choices in terms of carriers and destinations. In the US, where I live, there are three Star carriers- Continental, United, and US Airways. I don’t want to keep my miles in United’s program because of their infamous Starnet blocking tactics. Starnet blocking means that United often doesn’t make partner flights available for booking, even if the partner has award space available. I’ve heard stories of people trying to book a flight to Frankfurt via Luftasa or to Bangkok via Thai Airways only to be told that those airlines don’t have any flights available to those cities (come again?). Since I want to fly internationally, this won’t help me at all.

US Airways has a good mileage program with a decent earn/burn ratio and lots of redemption options. However, flying on the airline itself leaves something to be desired. It’s a basic, no-frills airline. It can get you from point A to point B on time and that’s pretty much it. I’ve used US Airways for short hops on the east coast, but for anything longer I try to fly on a different airline.

That leaves me with Continental. Like US Airways, the program makes it easy to redeem miles at a reasonable rate to many different destinations. They also have a decent on-board product that continues to improve. More interesting, if I can achieve elite status with CO, it can be used to get better seating on UA flights as well starting in mid-2010.

Beyond just flying, I’m also working on getting miles through credit card promotions and spending, online shopping and other promos and deals that pop up. I’m not trying to turn into Ryan Bingham of “Up in the Air” who said “I don’t spend a nickel on anything that doesn’t earn me miles.” But if I can get miles for things I do everyday anyway, so much the better.

So that’s my strategy this year. Hopefully it’ll get me to where I want to go this year.

KLM is running a promotion right now where you can get two free luggage tags featuring a picture of your choice through their website. All you have to do is upload a photo or choose one of theirs and provide some personal information. The process also get you entered into a contest for a free trip. There isn’t a deadline posted for this, so I’m guessing they will offer these tags until supplies run out. So if you want some, don’t wait.

I just ordered mine using a photo from my recent Japan trip and I’m looking forward to getting them in three weeks. Even if you already have luggage tags, these could serve as a nice gift for a traveller in your life.

Go here to order your tags.

As has been reported in numerous blogs and news sites already, JetBlue is offering a deal where from Sept. 8 to Oct. 8, you can fly as much as you want if you buy a pass for $599. The nice thing about the pass is that there’s not a lot of restrictions. The big ones are that you have to book 3 days in advance and that you can’t fly from the same city twice in one day. There’s also no additional taxes or fees for the flights that you take unless you fly to an international destination. Also, if you already have JetBlue flights booked during the pass period, the cost of those flights can be used towards the $599 cost.

Even if you can only use the pass on the weekends, it’s still a great deal since a domestic round-trip fare can easily be $150 or more.  And if you are free most of the month and can fly during the week, Will of the Strategy blog wrote a great post on how to maximize the number of flights that you can take.

If it wasn’t for the fact that I was already travelling for 3 of the 4 weekends, I would seriously consider doing this. Orlando (along with Boston; New York’s JFK; Long Beach; Washington-Dulles and Ft. Lauderdale) are hubs or focus cities for JetBlue, so most of their flights originate from those cities, so I would have had a lot of flight options. It would have also been a good way to see some new states and countries that I haven’t been to yet.

The reason that JetBlue is offering this pass is because September is their lowest month for bookings, so they are trying to increase the number of people flying. They’ve never offered this pass before and they haven’t made any suggestion that they will do it again in the future. I suspect that they probably won’t, since the recession has driven down demand for travel. Once the economy rebounds, they will most likely see demand rise again to pre-recession levels and won’t need to offer great deals like this to get people on planes. So if your schedule allows it, take advantage of this and go  have some fun.

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