Travel Hacking: The Complete Beginner’s Guide

travel hacking

Travel hacking is something that you have probably heard of, but there’s a good chance that you don’t fully understand what it is or how it works.

The word ‘hacking’ tends to imply some sort of shady activity, but the truth is that travel hacking – just like gym hacking – is about taking advantage of certain bonuses, offers and incentives to save yourself money.

Not only is it completely legal, but it is actually encouraged. A big part of travel hacking is earning miles, reward points, and statuses to exchange for free flights and accommodation. Banks purchase millions of miles and points in bulk from airlines and hotels so that they can distribute them as signup bonuses and ongoing incentives for their new customers. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.

These incentives – along with some other simple ‘hacks’ – make it possible to take big trips on a small budget, explore parts of the world that you’ve only dreamed about, and travel more often without each trip costing you a small fortune.

There are hardcore travel hackers who dedicate their lives to this stuff. They’re willing to take multiple flights to earn certain bonuses, plan trips based on which route will earn them the most miles, and spend hours reading the fine print in hopes of finding a loophole. While that stuff works, it’s completely up to you how far you take it, and in the end it all comes down to how hard you are willing to work for a bargain.

For me, travel hacking is about minimising the costs of travel so I can travel further, and more often. On my last big trip, I used some of the hacks in this guide – like WWOOFing and RTW tickets (more on these later) – to significantly reduce the cost of 6 months travel in Asia, Australia and New Zealand. If I hadn’t, my dream trip wouldn’t have been possible.

This guide is an introduction to travel hacking, so if you’re already a black-belt travel hacking ninja, it probably won’t be much use to you. But for everybody else, it covers the basics and is a resource you can come back to time and time again.

So let’s get started! You can read through the entire article, or click on any of the links below to jump to a sub-topic that interests you.

How To Get Free Flights & Accommodation

travel hacking

The cornerstone of travel hacking is to maintain multiple accounts of Frequent Flyer miles and points. As your balances build up over time, you’ll be able to redeem the miles and points for valuable rewards all over the world.

The simplest way of getting starting is by signing up for a Frequent Flyer program with your favourite airline, and a loyalty program with a hotel chain of your choice. Most major brands offer some sort of loyalty scheme to keep you as a customer, but the catch is that you only get upgrades and benefits when using that brand. There’s nothing to stop you signing up to multiple loyalty schemes though, and if you’re serious about travel hacking this is something you should do. You can view a list of the top loyalty programs on The Points Guy’s website.

If you do decide to sign up for multiple loyalty programs, then use a service such AwardWallet or TripIt to track all of your points.

If you frequently travel with the same airline or use the same hotels, then joining their free rewards program is a no-brainer. But many of these programs have become less valuable in the last few years due to airline mergers, flight cutbacks, and just general program changes.

Today, the single best way to earn large amounts of miles and points that you can use with multiple airlines and hotels is through credit cards. Just one credit card can be enough to earn a free flight, but in my opinion, you should only consider this as an option if you know you can do the two following things:

1. Pay your credit card bill in full every month.

I’m not a financial advisor, but it is absolutely crucial that you only take on new credit cards if you have the ability to pay your bill in full monthly, and no existing credit card debt.

If you’re new to this, you should start conservatively. Earn a free flight or two and make sure you can handle the responsibility of an extra credit card. After that you can step up your game. After all, what’s the point of earning free flights if you don’t have any spending money!

2. Meet the minimum spend requirements to earn the points.

When you sign up for a travel rewards credit card you must meet their minimum spend requirements in order to earn the points bonus. There is absolutely no point in signing up for one if you can’t reach the minimum spend.

The minimum spend can be anything up to $5000 in the first 3 months.

That sounds like a lot of money, but the idea here is that you charge things to it that you already pay for. Rather than going out and buying a new TV that you don’t need, use it to pay your bills and for other big purchases that you would have made anyway.

The bonuses and minimum spends vary from card to card, and are generally much better in the US than they are anywhere else in the world. That said, there are still some great opportunities for those outside of the US, too. Some long-standing favorites are listed below:

Credit CardSign-Up BonusAvailable In
American Express Preferred
Rewards Gold Card
20000 PointsUK/US/Canada/Australia
American Express
Platinum
30000 PointsUK/US/Canada/Australia
Chase Sapphire Preferred
40000 PointsUS
Chase Ink Plus 70000 PointsUS
Barclays Arrival Plus 40000 PointsUS
Citibank Signature Visa 60000 PointsAustralia

Disclaimer: it is extremely important to make sure you can pay off your balance every month. Failure to do so will damage your credit rating and can lead to debt. I do not recieve any commission for recommending these credit cards.

In addition to the initial signing-up bonus, these cards come with incentives to keep using them. For example, the Barclays Arrival Plus gives you 2x miles for every dollar you spend. That means if you spend $2000, you’ll get 4000 miles to redeem.

You’re probably wondering what these points actually entitle you to.

Well, it actually depends on how you spend them. Here are a few examples:

  • Domestic Economy Airfare: $250
    Required Miles: 25,000 ($0.01 point value)
    Not usually the best use of your miles.
  • International Short Haul Economy Airfare: $750
    Miles: 35,000 ($0.02 point value)
    Good value.
  • International Long Haul Business Class Airfare: $4,500
    Miles: 80,000 ($0.05 point value)
    Great value.

To get the most value out of your points you should redeem them for high-value experiences. International, premium cabin redemptions are usually the best use of miles.

How To Find Cheap Flights

cheap flights

If you’re not ready to sign up for a credit card, then you can still save money on flights by taking the time to do some research before you book anything.

If you’re planning on taking a longer trip and visiting multiple destinations, you would probably be better off with a round-the-world ticket (which I’ll cover later), but if you’re going to take a short trip, or you only plan on going to a single destination, this first method is perfect:

Step 1: Use Skyscanner as your baseline

There are a lot of great tools out there that are designed to find cheap flights, but my personal favorites are Skyscanner, Kayak and Momondo. Websites like these search for prices from multiple airlines so you can be sure that you’re getting the best deal.

Out of the three of them, Skyscanner makes the best starting point because it offers the most flexibility, which is the key to finding cheap flights.

We can search for flights on any given, day, week, month or even year, and from multiple airports as opposed to just one. The more flexible you are with your search, the more likely you are to find a great deal.

As an example, let’s say that I want to fly from the UK to New York next year. I can get to almost any airport in the UK without too much difficulty, so I’ll search from ‘all airports’, and I don’t mind when I go so I’ll set the departure date to ‘whole year’:

cheap flights

Here are the results:

how to find cheap flights

Woah! A flight with Norwegian airlines for $250/£155! That’s a serious bargain, but before we get too excited we need to see the dates flights at that price are available:

travel hacking

According to Skyscanner, there’s a flight on Saturday the 31st of January 2015 for $242/£150 (cheaper still!), but let’s say I don’t want to go to New York in January because it’s too cold:

cheap flights

Using the little arrow keys either side of the month, I’ve found a a flight in May (a great time to visit New York) for $291/£180. That’s still a great price. Click on the date you want to fly, and then ‘show flights’ for more details:

travel hacking

Step 2: Crosscheck that price with Kayak and Momondo

We’ve managed to find an amazing deal using Skyscanner in this case, but it’s still worth checking other sites to make sure we are really getting the best deal. My gut feeling is that we won’t be able to beat this, but for flights in other instances you might be able to. Two other sites that might be worth checking are Mobissimo and Vayama.

Here are the results from Kayak:

Kayak

And Momondo:

momondo

So although the price showed up as a few dollars more on Kayak, we can see that this flight with Norwegian is definitely the best deal. We even got an economy rating of 10 and a smiley face on Momondo!

Step 3: Head to the cheapest airline site to confirm the price

The last thing to do is to head over the airline’s – in this case Norweigan’s – own website to confirm the price. Instead of clicking through from one of these search aggregators, head to the airlines website directly or through Google. Sometimes airlines price tickets less on their own websites than they do on aggregators as a way of enticing people to book directly.

cheap flight

One thing that is worth doing is checking the price on the company’s foreign websites. Sometimes the price can be totally different, or you might be able to take advantage of a difference in exchange rates. In the above example I am viewing Norwegian’s UK site, and the example below I am viewing the price on their US site:

how to get a cheap flight

When converted back to GBP, $306 works out to £190, which means that booking the same flight from the US site would cost you extra. Although the saving in this example isn’t huge, it is always worth checking an airline’s foreign sites.

The last thing to mention is baggage fees. These ‘LowFare’ Norwegian flights charge extra for baggage, so if you’re going to need to check in bags just make sure that you factor that into the cost of the flight.

In the example above I’ve found a cheap one-way ticket, but you can also use this same process to find a great deal on return tickets too. Skyscanner, Kayak, and Momondo all support return flights – just select that option before beginning your search.

But what if you don’t want to book a one-way ticket or return flight? What if you want to keep traveling from one destination to another?

Round-The-World Tickets

travel hacking

Round-the-world (RTW) tickets are commonly used by people who want to fly from one destination to another as part of a big trip.

They involve quite a big upfront cost, but can save you a huge amount of money overall – especially if you pick one of the more popular routes. Last year I used a RTW ticket to fly from London > Dubai > Bangkok > overland to Singapore > Sydney > overland to Melbourne > Christchurch > overland to Auckland > Dubai > London for a total cost £1200 (around $2000). A good deal when you consider the individual prices of those flights.

Most RTW tickets are actually airline alliance passes. An ‘airline alliance’ is a partnership in which airlines share seats on planes, passengers, and elite status benefits. The two largest airline alliances are Star Alliance and Oneworld. Their free planners enable you map out a route and see the cost. It takes a bit of time to get used to the tools, but a well-optimised ticket can provide value far beyond what it would cost to otherwise buy round-trip tickets.

One of the main benefits of using a RTW ticket is that, within a window of one year, you can change the dates and times of your flights at no extra charge so long as you don’t change the destinations. If you have a flight from Bangkok to Los Angeles you want to change, you can change the date and time without a fee. However, if you decide to fly from Bangkok to San Francisco instead then you have to pay a fee that is usually around £100/$125.

It’s important to note that these alliances don’t include budget airlines. A budget airline is an airline that usually offers fewer amenities (think: cattle class) and cheaper fares than the bigger airlines. Some budget airlines include:

  • Ryanair (Europe)
  • Easyjet (Europe)
  • Southwest (US)
  • Spirit (US)
  • Air Asia (Asia)
  • Tiger (Asia/Australia)
  • Jetstar (Australia)

Another option, and my personal preference, is to get a RTW ticket through a specialist travel agent. This isn’t quite the same as getting one through an alliance. Instead, these travel agencies string together a series of one-way tickets to essentially create a DIY RTW ticket. Due to the fact that travel agencies incorporate budget airlines into their itineraries it can often work out cheaper, and of course they take away the stress by doing all the planning for you.

I booked my trip through Travel Nation (who I highly recommend to British travellers), but for those outside of the UK, I have heard a lot of good things AirTreks. STA are one of the bigger travel agents that specialise in RTW trips, but they seem to be more expensive than the others.

How To Find Cheap Accommodation

After flights, accommodation is usually the next big expense when it comes to travel. No matter what you look for in accommodation, one thing almost everyone has in common is that no one wants to pay a fortune for it. Luckily, there are a number of ways travellers can find a decent place to stay without forking over their entire vacation fund:

AirBNB

AirBNB is a service that allows people to rent out their rooms, apartments, or spaces for short-term stays.

You could end up staying in anything from a tiny bedroom to a castle, or even a private island. As a group of four, we rented a house in Sydney over New Year’s Eve through AirBNB for $25AUD each per night. To stay in a hostel over that period would have cost around $55 AUD a night (minimum), and that’s assuming there would have been availability.

Despite recently re-branding and settling on a really weird logo (I won’t say what it looks like!), AirBNB is still my favorite method of finding accommodation when I travel.

Get $25 to spend on your first rental through this link.

Hostels

People tend to think that hostels are just meant for young people who want to party, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The majority have dorm rooms that are perfect for backpackers and other budget travellers (costing just a few dollars a night), but they also have private rooms designed for solo travellers and couples. I’ve met people from all walks of life in hostels, and even people in their 50s and 60s. They’re not just for 20 year olds!

As with most things in life, you get what you pay for. If you choose the cheapest hostel in the city, then you can’t expect the best amenities. But if you pay a little bit extra, then you will often find that hostels can be just as good – if not better – than hotels.

My favorite hostel booking website is Hostelworld.

WWOOFing

‘WWOOF’ stands for ‘Willing Workers On Organic Farms’. You can work on farms in over 99 countries, and in exchange your hosts provide you with food and accommodation. You can read about my experiences, and find out how to give it a go, here.

Couchsurfing

Couchsurfing is similar to AirBNB in so far as private parties open their places to travellers seeking short-term accommodation. The major difference, however, is that Couchsurfing is totally free.

The idea behind Couchsurfing is that people can score somewhere free to stay, while connecting with travellers from all over the globe. So rather than having the place to yourself, you’ll be sharing it with the owner. It’s as much about meeting people and making friends as it is about having a roof over you head. If you’re on a tight schedule and only have a couple of nights in a location, this could really limit the amount you get to see.

When All Else Fails…

It’s not much of a ‘hack’ – given that pretty much everyone already knows about it – but when none of the above are working out for you, jump on TripAdvisor.

The fact is that there is more accommodation listed on TripAdvisor than there is anywhere else. This is great for us, because it means there’s more competition which drives the prices down, and of course you can see reviews left by other people.

When we were travelling in SE Asia there were a couple of occasions where we couldn’t find any hotels, hostels or other places to stay that were quite what we were looking for. The best example of TripAdvisor really paying off for us was in Phu Quoc (a tiny Vietnamese island just off the coast of Cambodia). We managed to find some amazing bungalows right on the beach for just $25 a night for 2 people (the place was called Phuong Binh House just in case you were wondering) and we couldn’t have been happier – this actually ended up being one of our favorite parts of the entire trip.

cheap accommodation

Phuong Binh House in Phu Quoc, Vietnam

Although we managed to great deal on that occasion, there will be times when you simply can’t find what you’re looking for. When that happens, consider splashing out and staying in a more luxurious hotel. In all likelihood you will be able to find some great budget accommodation in most other locations, so just think of it as a one-off.

Where Can I Go For More Information?

Undoubtedly the biggest expenses of any trip are the flights and accommodation. My hope is that you’ll be able to use the advice above to travel further and for longer, but this is really just a primer on travel hacking.

If you’re looking for more information and advice from people who dedicate their lives to this stuff, I highly recommend the blogs of these two travel hacking veterans:

  • Nomadic Matt – Matt has been travelling around the world since 2005 and runs the most popular travel blog on the internet.
  • Chris Guilleabeau – Chris has visited every country in the world and has a number of books and services to help with travel hacking, along with some great articles on his blog.

There’s a tonne of information on their websites and hopefully you will be able to pick up some great tips, but don’t get lost in the details – after all, miles are meant to be spent on life-changing experiences outside your comfort zone.

Happy travels!

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Lot’s of good information. I travel a lot as well mostly to developing countries and have used many of your suggestions including RTW, but was not familiar many as well so very helpful. I find agoda.com good for locating hotels around the world and Bootsnall.com as good source of “indie” travel.

    • Glad you found it useful Steve 🙂

      Agoda’s a site I really like, but somehow forgot to include it here! Not seen boots n all before – going to check that out now. Thanks for the tip!

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