Stories about people jetting off around the world for next to nothing may seem like the stuff of legend, but a dedicated group of enthusiasts is trying to make the dream of super-low-cost travel a reality.
Travel hacking — the art of traveling at as little cost as possible — is catching on in a big way.
Yet, for the uninitiated, it can be a little intimidating — where should you begin your travel hacking journey?
Two veteran travel hackers — Steve Cummings of the Frugal Expat and Zac Hood of Travel Freely — know a thing or two about getting low-cost itineraries off the ground. Here, Cummings and Hood share simple tips anyone can use to cut down a travel budget and valuable insights for those who are more serious about playing the long game with travel hacking.
Let’s fly away
Whether you are holidaying domestically or heading overseas, flying is usually how travelers get to their destination. Good travel hacking starts by cutting flights down, often leveraging a rewards program.
Cummings advises first-timers to start close to home.
“Sign up to the rewards program of the local airline based in your nearest city, for instance, in Atlanta, it will be Delta,” said Cummings. “Those are airline hubs, so you can increase your rewards every time you fly in and out of that hub,” he said.
For those who are reliable with repayments and ready to buy more with credit, Hood recommends signing up for new travel cards.
“If you spend $1,400+ each month on regular expenses you can put on a credit card, then the most efficient way to earn maximum miles and points on spending is by getting a new travel rewards credit card with a great signup bonus,” he said.
“The value of the bonus alone will far outweigh the points and miles you will earn on the purchases themselves. The average spending required to earn a bonus on a great card is about $4,000 in three months,” he said.
Considering the average American household spends $5,854 per month, this should be manageable for many people. Doubtless, some expenses are impractical to put on a credit card. Housing and income tax, for instance, are seldom paid this way (and together made up around 43% of household expenditure in 2020).
Yet that still means the average household spends over $3,330 on other expenses, most of which could go on a card.
Cummings also reminds travelers to “double dip on points” by booking through their credit card’s travel booking portal when booking a flight. He calls this a “points multiplier” since, with one transaction, you get points from the credit card company and points for the airline you book with.
“You get miles for buying the tickets from the credit card as well as miles for flying,” he said.
If you aren’t ready to pile up the miles, search for flights in the right place.
“I always go first to Google Flights,” said Cummings. “You get the most available prices and then, once you select a flight, they take you to the airline’s website itself, whereas sites like Skyscanner direct you to OTAs (Online Travel Agencies).”
Sleep on the cheap
You can save on accommodation at your destination by leveraging hotel rewards programs.
“You don’t need a credit card to start with these programs,” said Cummings. “Just pick a rewards program for a hotel chain you’ll use a lot. If you stick with one hotel, you can get lots of points and get extra upgrades.”
“Among experts, Hyatt is the most liked for their consistent good value on award nights. They are also a partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, which means you can transfer Chase points to Hyatt whenever you want. These kinds of points are called ‘transferable’ points,” he said.
“As a result, if you have cards that earn Chase Ultimate Rewards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, then you don’t really have to choose between free flights or hotels until you do your bookings. This is not commonly known among average rewards travelers,” Hood added.
Alternative modes of accommodation, like house sitting, could help you save more.
“Check out websites like trustedhousesitters.com and housecarers.com,” said Cummings. “Sometimes you can even earn money, especially if they have a pet you need to care for. So you can get paid to stay on vacation!”
Even after securing deals on your flights and accommodation, there are still ways to cut daily living costs at your destination.
“Look up bus and train tickets on local websites in local languages and use Google translate to make sense of it,” said Cummings. “You’ll find the fares are much cheaper.
“Some countries have super cheap localized transport, which really adds to the experience. When in Guatemala, for instance, take the chicken bus, it’s pennies on the dollar for a ticket,” he said. “Also, look out for rental bikes that your hotel or guesthouse may offer. If you can see the sites in a day on a bike, that will save you too.”
Regarding connectivity, travelers must try to avoid hefty roaming charges from their home carrier.
“Google Fi is an awesome service to have if traveling internationally. Data is free and you can instantly use your phone once you land,” said Hood.
Hood also encourages travelers to seek out debit card plans that waive all ATM fees or credit cards that waive all foreign transaction fees.
Each person will develop a unique approach to travel hacking.
“You have to be a deal finder, you need to go further and shop around for prices,” said Cummings. “Like when perusing restaurants in Prague recently, I looked at the beer price advertised outside and found this to be a fairly accurate indicator of the price of other items on the menu. This is something I’ll keep in mind next time.”