Travel Hacking. That’s the term for how we travel for next to nothing. Near-zero is really the only budget we can afford while we pursue early retirement, so it’s incredibly fortunate that it’s possible to trade time spent researching for a chance to travel the world for pennies.
I am the first to admit that when it comes to travel hacking, I am unsophisticated compared to the most intense bloggers on the Internet. I’ll link a few of the best sources for travel hacking news at the end of this post. They are the places you should go for a steady stream of such opportunities. When I see a truly amazing deal, I’ll post it on the blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter.
There are a lot of options out there to travel the world, including credit card reward programs, mistake fares, and companion fares/passes. Before we dive into what all of those mean, let’s talk about a few things you should do to have the best chance of traveling for free.
The best asset a frugal traveler has is not excellent credit (though that’s high on the list). It’s flexibility.
Over the past several years, we have traveled to a variety of places that were not initially on our list of places to visit. In fact, in a couple cases we had friends, family, and even strangers warning us about how “it’s not safe.” You know what? The places we visited were, without exception, fantastic and very safe. We’ve walked nearly alone in ancient ruins in Egypt because of media reports scaring away most western tourists. We’ve taken romantic walks in the park in a part of Mexico City that looks just like Manhattan. There is remarkably little to fear in most developing nations, even those struggling with real and substantial problems. The governments and the people of those countries have a vested interest in ensuring the safety of visitors, and if you don’t go looking for trouble, it’s unlikely that you will find it.
The more we travel, especially to uncommon destinations, the more confidently we can say that the average person in even the most contentious place means us no harm, and sincerely wants to convey love and respect for their culture to us. We treasure the connections we have made in places that others fear to visit, and those experiences remind us to look off the beaten path and be open to the opportunities life presents us.
Stray from the path. You’ll be rewarded.
The most skilled travel hackers employ a mental calculus every day, and with every purchase. Is there a card that would give me bonus points for this purchase? I’ll give an example: At one of my contract jobs, there is often a need for incidental office supply purchases. It might be a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars, but someone must make the purchase and then be paid back after filing an expense report. I’ve made it clear that I am happy to do all the office supply purchasing.
I have an ulterior motive. I acquired a rewards card from Chase that earns five points for every dollar spent at an office supply store. By simply being willing to do the office supply purchasing, I have spent thousands of dollars this year, been paid back in full within hours or days, and earned tens of thousands of reward points! I’ve easily accumulated enough for several round-trip, first class tickets almost anywhere in the world just with this one strategy.
If you want to travel cheap or free, do your research. It will take some time to understand all the terms. Travel hackers guard some secrets pretty closely. Eventually, the alphabet soup will start to make sense, and you will find yourself thinking in these kinds of patterns.
If you want to get started with Travel Hacking, a good way to learn the basics and get some individual attention is to sign up for free travel rewards coaching with Brad over at Richmond Savers. Brad is an incredibly generous guy who I have spoken to personally. Because he’s trying to grow his own blog, he’s offering one-on-one personalized training in travel hacking basics.
When truly great travel deals come up, they often appear for days, hours, or even minutes at a time. Be prepared to jump in with both feet, and figure out the details after the fact. If you wait to secure all the approvals of everyone you need to watch your dog, water your plants, approve your vacation, and drop you off at the airport, you are likely to miss some of your best opportunities. Book it. You will figure it out.
Frugal Travel Examples
Here are three examples of travel we accomplished very frugally since the beginning of the year, and a fourth example of some travel we’ll be booking for the future.
Egypt (Error Fare)
We took a trip to Egypt for 11 days in January. In November of 2014, Delta posted what is called an error fare. An error fare is essentially a ticket posted at a deeply discounted price due to erroneous data entry, a glitch in a currency conversion, a failure to properly account for fuel pricing, or any number of other things. In this case, tickets were available to a number of destinations in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa for just a few hundred dollars. I saw it posted online and immediately jumped on it. It’s a good thing I did, because it was only available for about four hours. We ended up traveling to Cairo on Air France via Paris, and paid $374 per person for our tickets.
Mexico (Points and Companion Passes)
Southwest Airlines offers a fantastic perk called the Companion Pass. Southwest’s Companion Pass allows you to designate an individual by name who may fly completely for free when flying on Southwest with you.
If a frequent traveler accrues 110,000 points in their frequent flyer program in a single year, they are granted a Companion Pass for the rest of that year, and the entire following year. Clever travel hackers quickly deduced that it was possible to sign up for two Southwest Rapid Rewards credit cards, each of which grant 50,000 point signup bonuses, meet the minimum spend required to get the bonuses, and then have only a couple thousand dollars more to put on the card in order to get a Companion Pass. Even better, these offers commonly appear close to the end of the year, so if you time your purchases just right, you can get the bonus in January and enjoy almost two full years of free flying for your companion! I received the Companion Pass in January of 2015.
Once I had the CP, I was able to book a flight to Mexico on miles (using up just a few thousand of the 110,000 I earned while pursuing the pass), and book my fiancé for free. Thus, we went to Mexico for a long weekend for just the airport fees and taxes of $95. Even better, we were left with enough points to do about five more trips to Mexico by the end of next year! Finally, at the end of next year, the Soon-to-be Mrs. Vagabond can take over, earn the Companion Pass in the same way, and we can enjoy another two years of free travel!
Europe (AirBNB, Inexpensive Countries, and various other cost cutting measures)
This summer, we took a three week trip to France, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Austria, and the Czech Republic. Because we were booking too close to the trip to find availability on points, we ended up buying deeply discounted tickets to Europe instead. In this case, we found savings by using AirBNB instead of hotels, by traveling by nice buses and trains when possible, and by choosing a few destinations that are less visited by tourists.
As I mentioned above, the most rewarding experiences we had were in some of the places that had very few tourists. We stayed in the old town of Sarajevo and sat atop the Yellow Fort as the sun went down on the last day of Ramadan. We heard about the experiences of the owner of our pension in Mostar during the Bosnian war as he cheerfully drove us to the train station. We met up with an old friend of mine in Prague and drank many, many delicious Czech beers.
I am a huge history buff, and seeing the sights is always on my list of things to do, but it’s the intimate encounters that remind me that we’re not simply looking to visit uncommon places, we’re seeking out uncommon experiences.
Future Bonus Travel (Credit Card Signup Bonuses, Category Bonuses)
As we are planning a wedding, STB-Mrs. Vagabond and I have begun to discuss our honeymoon. We’re both perfectly satisfied with traveling almost anywhere in coach class, as we generally want to travel more often rather than more luxuriously. However, given how many points I’ve accrued over the past few years, I’ve floated the idea of just this once flying first class.
Some travel hacking blogs will urge you to spend points quickly, as the rewards programs are constantly being devalued (inflation hits rewards points too– what once cost 50,000 miles might cost 60,000 next year). However, there’s only so much vacation we can get! Even with almost two full months of travel this year, we’re absolutely swimming in points. I could take both of us anywhere in the world in first class, several times over.
The biggest way I have managed this is by signing up for the best rewards credit cards, accomplishing their minimal initial spend, and then receiving a huge signup points bonus. This process is called churning in the travel hacking community. Specifically, I sign up for about four new cards every six months, complete the signup bonuses, then repeat to earn more points. When annual fees come due on most of the cards, I cancel them.
I had good credit when I started card churning. My lowest credit agency score at that time was a 720. 19 cards and two rental property mortgages later, my lowest credit score is a 757. I had long since paid off all of my credit card debt. If you want to card churn, it is absolutely critical that you not carry credit card balances, and that you pay all of your bills when the statement arrives. If you do not have good credit habits, churning is not for you.
I’ve only been at this for about two years. If you need to travel in the next couple of months, it’s likely already too late to earn a credit card signup bonus and find award availability. However, you can easily start building a huge balance of points to travel on in the coming years.
Travel Hacking Resources
Here are some great sites to get you started on your travel hacking journey.
Travel is Free is a fantastic blog about travel hacking by a couple named Drew and Carrie. They travel full time on a shoestring budget, with only their blog income to support them. They are one of the few truly original sources of content about travel hacking. The guides and infographics sections on their site are amazingly information-packed.
One Mile at a Time is also a great blog, and part of the Boarding Area travel hacking blog network. This is a travel hacking rabbit hole that will never seem to end.
The Flight Deal tracks the best sales on airfares, as well as the occasional mistake fare. One of the most useful parts of the site is the fact that you subscribe an RSS feed for each origin. I track the deals for all the major airports in California, knowing that I can get to one of them if the deal is good enough.
Secret Flying is a lot like The Flight Deal, but they often find different deals and mistake fares. I have an email trigger set up if either of them posts a new deal so that I can jump on it quickly.
Finally, Flyer Talk is the deep end of the Travel Hacking pool. This is where the wonky, nerdy travel hackers come to talk and share deals. They’re not the most patient lot, and there’s a ton of information to pick through to find anything relevant to you, but if travel news is breaking, it’s likely breaking here.
A Taste of Our Dream
Indulging in frugal travel is how we whet our appetite for our long-term dream without compromising our savings. Though it will be different to completely immerse ourselves in culture abroad when we retire early, it’s such a rewarding experience to get a taste for the places that are opening up to us with every dollar saved.
How do you save money on travel? Do you have any money-saving hacks to see the world? Any questions about travel hacking? Let me know about them in the comments!