How to Hack Your Way to Cheap Travel
Have you ever had to say no to a trip because your heart and your bank account didn’t quite see eye-to-eye?
If the answer is "yes," we’ve got great news for you: There are lots of sneaky ways you can save big on travel, with relatively minimal effort. From using credit cards to score free flights and hotel stays, to working the system to find posh accommodations without spending a dime, here are some essential tips to help you book vacations on the cheap.
Take Advantage of a Stopover
Did you know that you can often get two vacations for the price of one? It all has to do with a little-used provision called a stopover. With a stopover, you book a flight from one destination to another, with what’s essentially an extended layover (>24 hours) in between. For instance, you can stay in Iceland for a few days while on a trans-atlantic flight.
This stopover can last almost as long as you want, up to several months in length. The best part of all? It’s totally free.
Airlines that offer stopovers include Icelandair, TAP Air Portugal, Singapore Air and Emirates. Some airlines (like Delta) are stingy and don’t allow you to book stopovers on award flights. In this case, you can book a really long layover instead. As long as you’re out of there within 24 hours (for an international flight), you won’t be charged extra.
So, you could book a flight with a 22-hour layover in London, for example, on your way between New York and Paris, and enjoy a brief sampling of English life without paying for a separate flight there.
If you're a responsible person, you could trade your services for free stays while you’re traveling. It works like this: You find someone in a destination you’re interested in traveling to who needs someone to watch their home while they are also away. Often you’ll also need to care for their pets, who may be elderly or need special medications. You get to stay in a real local’s home for free while the homeowner gets free pet and home care. Everyone wins.
One of the most reputable online platforms for housesitting is TrustedHousesitters. It’s not entirely free ($119/year), but if you use it even once or twice over the course of a year, you’ll save a lot more than you paid to access the site.
Pro tip: When trying to book some homes in desirable locations, you’ll face stiff competition, so it’s best to take the time to plan out a winning strategy first. For example, by housesitting first for people in your area, you can boost your reviews and ratings. That way, when it comes time to apply for a two-week stay at that sweet secluded chalet in the Alps you’ve had your eye on, you’ll have a better shot at rising to the top of the list.
Set Up Travel Alerts
It’s no secret that airlines mess around with prices...a lot. If you pick a bad time to buy a ticket, you could end up paying a lot more than you need to. The trouble is, you often don’t know when the right time to buy is.
Tap into the wisdom of computers by using websites to help you snag the cheapest deal possible.
Hopper is a great website that crunches past data to predict future prices for specific itineraries you’re interested in, up to a year in advance. If you're a bit more flexible with your travel dates and destinations, DealRay can send you flash alerts when there’s an especially good sale or a price glitch, potentially saving you even more money.
Some flight-search tools such as Google Flights, Momondo and Kayak will even tell you if a price you’re currently looking at is a good one or if you should wait. And you can use them to set up price alerts for future changes as well.
Use Cash-Back Websites to Book Travel
Wouldn’t it be great if you could shave a few percentage points off of your hotel, airfare, car rental and even tour purchases? With cash-back websites, you can.
These are websites or browser extensions that offer you a certain percentage of cash back for purchases on specific merchant websites. And lo and behold — many of them are travel websites. For example, the cash-back website Swagbucks offers a few percentage points back on purchases made on Priceline and Hotels.com.
For best results, use Cashback Monitor to scope out the most desirable deals. Simply type in which web site you’re thinking of using to book your travel, and it’ll tell you the best associated cash-back site to use to get the most bang for your buck.
These cash-back sites usually take a few weeks to credit your account after you make the purchase, so be patient!
Get Your Currency From a Local ATM
You’ve seen the currency exchange places on your way out of the airport. They offer a convenient way to get local cash, but like anything convenient, you’ll pay a price for it. In the case of money exchangers, that price can be a lot.
Instead, try this: Use local ATMs to get your cash. You’ll be paying the local’s rate, instead of a jacked-up price for tourists. Check with your bank in advance of your trip to see which, if any, ATMs you can use fee-free. Some banks, such as Ally Bank, even refund you for a certain amount of ATM fees every month if you do need to pay for them.
If you absolutely need local currency to pay for the first taxi to your hotel, get just a small amount out in cash from an airport ATM or a money exchanger. Then, when you’re in town, find the specific bank ATMs you’ve identified ahead of time so that you have more money left in your pocket for fun things instead of lame bank fees.
The more checked bags you have, the greater the chance for something to go wrong. Airlines could damage your bags, they could arrive late, or you could even lose them completely. They’ll definitely cost more to tote around in your travels. And even if everything comes through unscathed, that’s still that much more you have to lug around with you everywhere.
Next time you travel somewhere, try packing lighter with fewer bags. The ideal situation is not having any checked bags at all, and fitting everything into a carry-on bag. But if you do find yourself paying for checked bag fees a lot, consider an airline-branded credit card. Often, they’ll allow you one or two checked bags for free, so at least you won’t be bleeding money from the baggage fees.
Use Cheap Calling Services
For travelers on a budget, apps like Skype, Tango and WhatsApp have been a godsend, allowing for long-distance calls without paying outrageous international fees. There is one downside to these, though: They only work with an internet connection.
A better bet is Rebtel, which allows you to make international calls on the cheap without using Wi-Fi or draining your data. With the Global Unlimited plan, for example, you can enjoy unlimited calling in 51 countries for 10 bucks a month.
Also, a general rule that’s too often forgotten: Turn off data roaming before you travel!
Sleep While Traveling
If you're an okay sleeper, you can snooze while on an overnight bus, ferry, flight or train between destinations, saving on accommodations for the night.
For your own physical and mental health, you probably won't want to do this often over the course of a trip. But even doing it once could easily save you $100-plus.
Use a Rewards Credit Card
While all of the previous tips are handy, probably the best thing you can to do save money is to shrewdly use reward credit cards. In fact, there's an entire community of people — travel hackers — who dedicate their time and energy to gaming the credit card system to earn free travel.
The first step in the travel-hacking process? Know which card is best. There are three main types, all of which can be beneficial depending on what you’re looking for:
*Co-branded cards are produced jointly by credit-card companies like Visa or Mastercard and major airlines, cruise lines or hotel chains.
If there are certain companies you’re loyal to, these are an excellent option, as you’ll accumulate points quickly. Plus, some airlines are part of alliances that will boost how much you can get from the card. For example, if you have a United credit card you can also use your rewards to book anything in the Star Alliance, including Air Canada, Avianca and Lufthansa.
*Transferable points credit cards like the Chase Sapphire card and American Express Gold card reward you with points that you can then use to book travel with the issuer through its own travel-rewards portal.
The advantage of these credit cards is that they are more flexible. Rather than just being locked into a certain airline and its alliance partners, for example, you can use those points to book a wide range of travel, including cruises, flights, tours, hotels and even rental cars.
*Fixed-value credit cards allow you to earn points, each of which has a cash value (usually around one penny). When you’re ready to go travel, you simply charge the travel purchase to your credit card and then redeem those points towards a statement credit for that travel.
This is the most flexible option of all because you can use your points towards whatever you want. Check out a handy round-up of the best fixed-price credit cards for travel here.
To make maximum use of these cards, we have a few additional tips...
Check Your Credit Score
To be approved for travel rewards credit cards, you’ll generally need a high credit score — usually around 700.
Check your score for free on websites like Credit Karma, and if it’s not where it needs to be, don’t worry: A credit score doesn’t last forever and it is possible to improve it. The beauty of Credit Karma is that it’ll tell you what, if anything, you can do to improve your score so you know exactly where to focus.
(Full disclosure: I write for Credit Karma, but honestly consider it to be one of the best credit sources out there. Credit Sesame and WalletHub are other solid options.)
Pay Off Your Credit Card Bill In Full Every Month
You need to be a Type A personality to do travel hacking. Why? A lot of people get trapped in credit card debt. And it can be especially tempting to buy a lot of things in order to get more travel with a travel rewards credit card.
But here’s the secret: If you pay off your credit card in full each month, you won’t have to pay any interest at all. It’s free! But the second you start carrying a balance over and have to pay interest charges, the calculus scale tips against you and it doesn’t become profitable anymore.
So, you’ll need to commit to paying off your credit card balance — in full — each and every single month. Does it take discipline? Yes. But again, it’s the price you pay for getting free travel.
Look for Signup Bonuses
Sure, you can plug away earning points and miles at a rate of one or two per every dollar you spend. At that rate, for every $100 you spend, you’ll get $1 back in the form of travel rewards. It’s like getting a 1% return on your investment. Admittedly, it can take a long time before you have enough points to really go anywhere.
That’s why the real gravy behind most travel hacker’s strategies is going after travel rewards credit cards with signup bonuses.
Let’s say, for example, that you get an extra 70,000 points if you spend $5,000 within the first three months (a common time period to earn the signup bonus). If those 70,000 points are worth $700 towards travel rewards, then you just spent $5,000 to earn $700 more. It’s like getting a 14% return on your investment, and you’ll likely have enough points to travel somewhere cool right away.
(An accompanying tip? Put your everyday spending on the credit card so you can be sure to rack up enough spending to earn those juicy signup bonuses.)
You’ll need to keep track of several things for each travel rewards credit card you apply for:
- Name of credit card
- When you applied
- When you’ll earn the bonus
- When to consider keeping it or closing it
- When points expire
When you add multiple credit cards into the mix, it gets very complicated, very fast. The last thing you want to do is let your hard-won rewards points expire because you tried to remember in your head the expiration date, but you forgot.
You can keep track of all of this manually in a spreadsheet. If that’s not how you roll, Award Wallet is a great site that can do it automatically for you.
On a related note, a lot of pro travel hackers will close their credit cards after they’ve earned the points. You’ll just need to be careful and do some research first — with some rewards programs, your points expire if you close the credit card.
Find a Community
Have you discovered yet that travel hacking is...well...confusing?
You’re not alone. And the good news is that the internet is full of friendly nerds with a travel habit to rival your own and who love to help others figure this stuff out.
Here are a few good places to start:
Many of these websites also have their own corresponding Facebook group that you can join. That way, you can interact with people and absorb the lingo, ask questions about your own travel plans, and get insider scoops on the hottest current travel hacking tips.