Travel hacking may sound complicated or not worth your trouble, but it’s simple to set up and well worth your time. If you aren’t currently collecting travel miles, now is the time to start. Below, we’ll introduce you to everything you need to know about travel hacking, including the tips and strategies you can put into place to start traveling for pennies on the dollar.
What is Travel Hacking?
Travel hacking means taking advantage of rewards and travel programs offered by credit cards, airlines, and hotels. Simply put, travel hacking is about getting the most possible travel perks for the fewest possible dollars.
Travel hacking may sound like an elaborate way of cheating companies to your gain, but it’s relatively simple to become a travel hacker once you get started. The longer you wait, the more miles you’ll be costing yourself, so let’s get into it.
Get the Lowest Rates
Before we get to the fun stuff, we start with the sometimes tedious task of hunting for the best rates. But if you’re reading this article and are serious about your travel hacking game, this part can be almost as fun as racking up free miles or getting upgraded to first class.
The easiest way to save money on travel is to book early. If you know you are going to be taking a flight in the coming year, make sure that you are booking well in advance to take advantage of the best rates. While flights may be available to book as soon as 11 months out, according to Hopper, the best prices are usually available starting 150 days before the flight date.
Hopper is an app that helps you search for the cheapest flights and hotels. You just add a “flight watch” and a “hotel watch,” and Hopper will send you notifications on price changes and deals you should know about.
You may be able to get away with booking a flight a month in advance and still receive a cheaper rate. But as soon as you get under the three-week window, you will start to pay drastically increased prices.
The holidays are the one exception to this rule. If you know you’re going to be flying over the holidays, book as early as possible. These rates start high and stay high.
Book Inconvenient Times
If you have the flexibility, you can often save hundreds of dollars on flights by flying at times that others don’t want to. The most extreme example is taking a cross country red-eye flight. But even in this example, you might be able to catch a few hours of sleep, and it may also be in first class if you’re a seasoned travel hacker.
It’s not only red-eye flights that provide cheaper rates, though. If you can wake up early or arrive at your destination later at night, you can save a significant amount of money on your flights. It may not be fun, but to a true travel hacker, it’s all about the bottom line.
Take Advantage of Rewards Programs
You likely fall into one of two buckets when it comes to airline travel. You are either stubbornly loyal to one company and rarely look to fly a different airline unless absolutely necessary or someone who shops around for the best price on every flight.
If you’re loyal to one airline, you’ve likely already signed up for their frequent flyer rewards program. And if for some reason you haven’t, stop reading this article right now and go sign up.
But if you’re someone who typically shops around for the best deal, make sure that you have signed up for an airline’s rewards program before you buy a ticket.
Rewards programs will often offer you additional ways to earn points rather than just through travel. For example, members of Delta’s rewards program, SkyMiles, sometimes receive emailed surveys that allow them to earn additional points.
Be Loyal to Your Loyalty Program
Nearly every company you buy any product from these days has a loyalty program. And the reason for this is that they work. The more consistently you use one airline and one hotel chain, the faster your points will accrue and the sooner you’ll gain more status in the program.
Sign Up for a Travel Credit Card
Another key to piling up the most point lies in taking advantage of credit cards. There are two categories here to take advantage of: travel rewards cards and airline-specific cards. Two of the better travel rewards cards are the Capital One Venture Rewards cards, which offers up to 50,000 miles for signing up, and the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which many consider the gold standard for rewards.
Typically, upon signing up for an airline credit card, you’ll receive enough miles for multiple free flights. You’ll have to take into consideration that these credit cards likely have higher interest rates than other credit cards that don’t offer the same level of rewards. So only use your airline credit card when you know you’ll be able to pay off your monthly balance.
Some of these credit cards, like the one from Southwest Airlines, will provide you with bonus miles on the anniversary of your sign up. In the case of Southwest, this bonus is worth 6,000 points each year, which may be enough to pay for one flight.
How to Earn First Class Upgrades
The longer you are a member of one of these rewards programs, the more status you will receive and the more likely you will be to earn an upgrade. The majority of the people flying in first class have not paid first class rates. For every unsold seat in first class, airlines will offer an upgrade to the members of their reward program with the highest status.
Use Your Miles Before They Expire
This one may sound obvious, but there’s nothing worse than travel hacking your way to free flights and then not using them. Not all rewards programs have miles that expire, but be sure to find out exactly what the policy is for the rewards programs you’re using. You can sign up for a free account at Award Wallet to track when your miles expire, among many other helpful travel hacking tools.