Travel Hacking for Dummies

The Beginner's Guide to Traveling for Free

By Pamela MacNaughtan on April 21st, 2016
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“Travel Hacking” are the hot buzzwords digital nomads and long-term travelers have been trained to pay attention to over the last year or so, but what is travel hacking?

Do you need a credit card?

Can anyone be a travel hacker?

Many travelers become fanatical about travel hacking, but let’s face it, not everyone has (or can get) a credit card. So does this mean that travel hacking is only for those of a certain class or from a certain country?

In a word, no!

In essence, travel hacking is about finding deals and maximizing travel rewards. It’s stretching your travel dollars without sacrificing experiences. It also requires a little more thought and planning.

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Travel Hacking Before Your RTW Trip


travel hacker before
There are a couple ways in which you can travel hack before actually leaving for your RTW trip, and they are simple.

Airline Loyalty Programs


Take some time to do a little research into airline loyalty programs in your home country. Look at who has mileage partners in your area, and what kind of rewards ratios those partners offer. Is there a partnership with a bank, grocery stores or gas stations? Look for airline loyalty programs that are partnering with brands you already use, then join those programs.

For instance if you’re an Aeroplan member (Air Canada), you can earn miles at ESSO gas stations, shopping for groceries at Sobeys, or shopping online (through their e-store) with big brands like Apple, Banana Republic, and so on. Sobeys, for instance, offers an in-store rewards program which can be linked to an Aeroplan account or used to get free groceries. I chose to link it to my Aeroplan account and shop for items that are on sale and have bonus points to maximize my earnings. For every 2 Club Sobeys points, I earn 1 Aeroplan mile.


” Look for airline loyalty programs that are partnering with brands you already use, then join those programs”

For example let’s say a box of frozen burgers is on sale for $10.99 and comes with 100 Club Sobeys points. It’s a double win. The burgers work out to be $1.83 each and I earn 50 Aeroplan miles as well. Definitely better than eating out.

Think before you shop. Can you purchase the items you want online through an airline loyalty e-store? If you can, buy the items online instead of going to the store. Sure, you will have to wait a little longer to receive the items you want, but you’re earning miles!

For example AA Advantage and Aeroplan both have e-stores and a partnership with Apple. AA Advantage offers 1 mile for every dollar spent. Aeroplan offers 2 miles for every dollar spent. While I am a member of both programs, I live in Canada, so I choose to shop through Aeroplan’s e-store. I was in need of a new computer, so I took this into account when purchasing. I ordered a 13” MacBook Pro with retina and 256GB flash storage for $1,549 (money I would have spent regardless). By shopping through the Aeroplan e-store, I earned 3,098 Aeroplan miles. Score!

When you start building miles with a particular airline long before you leave on a big trip, you can then use those miles to help pay for the biggest expense on your trip – the airfare.

Important Note: It’s important to read each of the airline loyalty program details before joining. For instance Delta has recently changed the way points are awarded. Now, instead of earning points based on distance, you earn points based on the fare you’ve purchased.

City Passes


At first glance buying a city pass may look like an expensive option, but consider what is included before dismissing them. In most cases a city pass will cover main museums and tourist attractions, and some passes will allow you to cut the huge lines. That’s a major score. Look at what is included in the pass. If you were already planning to visit many of the attractions listed, buying the pass may be a good idea.

“At first glance buying a city pass may look like an expensive option, but consider what is included before dismissing them.”

While you can buy city passes once you arrive in the city, it’s usually cheaper to buy them before you travel.

For example: The London Citypass* includes 60 attractions. You can buy a one day pass for £59, but if you buy the London Citypass with Travel for only £72, you will get unlimited travel on London’s tube and other public transportation while the pass is valid.

It’s a great deal as a one day Travel Card for zones 1-3 costs £12.10.

*The London Citypass with Travel is only available to purchase online before your arrival in London.


Travel Hacking on Your RTW Trip


travel hacker money plane

Airline Networks


Do you tend to fly mostly with airlines in the Star Alliance, One World, or Sky Team networks? Find the network with the best selection of airline partners that will suit your travels. For instance, you can join Air Canada’s Aeroplan program and earn rewards by flying with other Star Alliance airlines. By knowing which airlines are Star Alliance members, I can find flight deals and maximize my miles earnings.

For example, if I book a flight through Turkish Airlines I earn 150% Aeroplan miles, as oppose to earning 100% Aeroplan miles by flying with Air Canada. Knowing this I weigh my options. Which airline has the cheaper airfare? Do I mind paying a little extra to earn more points?

Always Claim Airline Miles


You don’t need to buy a plane ticket yourself in order to collect the miles. As long as the ticket is in your name, you can enter a claim through the airline’s loyalty program website. Just keep your airline stub and confirmation email as you’ll need the e-ticket number, flight numbers, destination and arrival, and sometimes your seat assignment.

Note: If you’re not a member of the airline loyalty program, join BEFORE you fly with them so you can claim the points.

Booking Flights


If you decided to buy one-way tickets for your big trip, or if you are only booking a around trip fare, there are a couple of hacks/tricks to use

Booking websites are a great way to find flight deals, and sometimes it’s worth comparing these websites to find the best deals. Some of the more popular ones are Kayak, Travelocity, Momondo, and Skyscanner. Use the Indie trip planner to plan your route and price tickets.

Open an Incognito Window


To keep your searches private and to guarantee you get the best deals. If you visit a booking website frequently, you will not always see the cheapest deals.

Why? The easiest way to explain is that they are greedy bastards.

The details are that they will use your own cookies against you by raising the price on tickets the more times you check. As you shop around for better deals, you’ll notice the price is going up and think seats are filling up, increasing your stress level and urgency to buy.

Think About Currency Exchange


Sometimes it’s cheaper to book in a foreign currency and pay your bank’s exchange rate. Open an incognito window and search the same website, but in different currencies. This works better with third party booking websites, but can be done on airline websites as well.

Example: I searched Kayak, Momondo, and Skyscanner for a return flight from LHR to BKK Aug 3 – 17, 2014. I opened a new browser for each booking website, then opened an incognito window for Kayak and changed to GBP for currency (instead of USD).

  • Kayak listed a flight with Aeroflot for $1,246 USD, and the same flight in GBP is £712.
  • The same flight on momondo was $1,359 USD, or £793.
  • Skyscanner listed it for $1,580 USD or £892.

In this instance it would be be cheaper to book the flight in GBP through kayak.com as it’s clearly the better deal.

Note: Make sure you’re aware of the your credit card or bank exchange rates before booking in a foreign currency. Look at all of the angles.


Accommodations


travel hackers hostel employee

Hotel Loyalty Programs


Finding deals for accommodations is not as hard as one may think. Similar to tips listed above, it just takes a little thought and planning. Similar to airlines, many major hotels have loyalty programs, and they are definitely worth joining.

Most hotel loyalty programs will allow you to either:

  • earn points that can be used for free nights, or
  • link your memberships with your airline loyalty program so your points are automatically transferred to your airline loyalty program

Many hotel loyalty programs include all hotel brands held by the parent company. For example, Starwood covers W Hotels, Westin, St. Regis, Aloft, Element, The Luxury Collection Hotels & Resorts, Le Meridien, Sheraton, and Four Points Sheraton Hotels.*


“You cannot earn points on comped rooms.”

Unlike plane tickets, you need to stay with the hotel and pay for the room in order to earn points. You cannot earn points on comped rooms.

*Points earned within a loyalty program/network can be redeemed for rewards at any of the bands included in the program. 

Work for Stay


Staying in hotels during your travels can be expensive, so many of us will end up sleeping at a guesthouse or hostel from time to time. When your budget is limited, did you know that you could talk to the hostel manager about working a few hours each day in exchange for free room and board?

In most cases the work will be front desk or housekeeping (usually the latter). That being said, if you are tech savvy, talk to a guesthouse or hostel about doing tech work, like creating a better website for them in exchange for room and board. Or maybe offer to organize activities and tours for the guests. There are lots of possibilities, and hostel owners and managers are always looking for eager travelers to exchange a little work for a free room.


“here are lots of possibilities, and hostel owners and managers are always looking for eager travelers to exchange a little work for a free room.”

Another aspect of work exchange is to try WOOFing, which is usually a hands-on volunteer gig in which your room and board is covered. Many travellers have used WOOFing and loved it. However, be sure to read through listings carefully before applying. Make sure you’re comfortable with (and can do) the work required.

Note: We don’t recommend WWOOFing if you’re only in it for the free room and board. There is a lot to learn from WWOOFing – a free place to crash is just a bonus.


Activity Discounts


travel hacking city bus

Free Activities


Many cities around the world have free attractions. In most cases you can find out about these activities by talking to fellow travelers, hostel or hotel staff, or tourism websites.

On hot days, visit churches or take a free tour of a parliament building or historic site. These are fabulous places to escape the heat and to learn about the local culture.

Check tourism websites for upcoming festivals as many will have free outdoor activities and concerts (though accommodation and transport costs may rise during these times, so weigh your options).

Free Museum Nights


Many museums will have one day/night a month where entry is free. This is usually during the week and between the hours of 5:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. Check the museum’s website for when they offer free admission, then plan your day around it.

Use Metro Passes


When exploring a city with an extensive metro system, ask if they have a day pass. Many cities offer day passes which will give you unlimited travel. For example: In Paris a tourist day pass is only 10.85 EUR and includes unlimited travel in Paris Centre (zones 1-3) or 22.85 EUR for zones 1-5, which includes Versailles. Riding the metro is the fastest way to get around the city, and the best way to see as much as possible.

Hop-On, Hop-Off Buses


Quite possibly the most dreaded activity to many indie travelers, but don’t dismiss these double decker buses. Yes, they are cheesy, but look at it from another angle, they are also a great way to get around a large city, especially if you’re unsure of where everything is located. In mega cities with limited (or expensive) public transportation and sites that are spread out, these buses are often cheaper than taking a taxi, and less frustrating than taking a series of buses.

For example, Mexico City is massive, and although there are city buses and a metro system, there are some areas that can be challenging to get to. The Turibus is a hop-on hop-off double decker bus which offers two circuits. The cost for each circuit is only 140 pesos, which is about  $8.10 USD, and you have unlimited access to the circuit you purchase for that day.

It’s about doing a little research and planning to get the best deals. None of which require a credit card. Look for deals. If you get points or a discount for signing up for a newsletter, do it! You can unsubscribe a couple months later.

Think of travel hacking as a game, and make it fun.

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