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So You Want to Be a Travel Hacker



Not all those who wander are lost.” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring 

Perhaps nothing gets us out of our comfort zone like travelling to new places – the food, the sights, the language, the culture – all of it helps us to confront fears, learn new things, and have a blast while we’re doing it. Often we make friends for a lifetime on a single journey, but how do we afford travelling to exotic new places when just getting by in our own town is already a struggle for so many? Say it with me: Travel. Hacking.

An elephant in Tanzania.

The practice of flying cheaply, or even free, using mileage and other tricks of the trade can help you to see the world, even if you’ve got the budget of an average person. Some tricks can even allow you to travel if you are near-broke.

Travel hacking encompasses everything from flying cheaply or using mileage for airline flights, but it also includes finding awesome deals, combining mileage or loyalty credits and cash, and using these tricks to travel, sometimes in luxury and business classes at a fraction of the cost that most people pay.

Bagan is a city with the highest concentration of Buddhist temples and stupas in the world. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Bagan is a city with the highest concentration of Buddhist temples and stupas in the world. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

You can also apply travel hacking skills to cruises, hotel and B&B stays, vacation packages, excursions, dinners, and even for goods like a new suitcase to store your travel gear as you globe-trot.

Ever dreamed of staying in an eco-village in Bali, or dining at one of the sky-high restaurants in the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, an $800-bucks-per-night-room featured in the movie Lost in Translation? What about just staying in a new place for a week to learn a new language or taste local delicacies cooked on an open fire, and chat with the locals? It isn’t a far-away dream. You can travel whereever you desire, with a little travel hacking know-how. Lao Tzu said that the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step – and with travel hacking, it’s more like taking great leaps.

Balinese pagodas.

Booking Flights for Cheap

The first thing you’ll want to learn how to do is source cheap airline flights to your dream destination. You can use a combination of cash and mileage to book a trip, or in some cases just pay cash with the intent of getting the mileage for use on a later trip.

Know Your Tools

Know when to use online travel agencies – like Orbitz. Sometimes they give you a percentage back or extra mileage as a bonus. You can also ask them to match the fares you find elsewhere to get the agency or travel agent to reserve flights or hotels at a cheaper rate.

Just be sure to compare ITA rates to find the best deal.

Book quickly – most reputable sites give you a 24-hour cancellation policy without charging any fees, and refund the full price of the fare. So, book now, cancel later, if needed.

The JW Marriott in Dubai, tallest hotel in the world.

The JW Marriott in Dubai, tallest hotel in the world.

Have Flexible Dates

Having flexible dates can sometimes save you up to half the cost of a regularly priced ticket.

The famous opera house of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.

Look for Great Deals – you can set it up to tweet you when specific deals come up for cities you are eyeing. Usually there are just good sales, but other times you can find clearance flights where they sell tickets from San Francisco to Hong Kong for $300. – Forget about all those pop up ads when you go to “discount” flight search engines. With Googleflights’ calendar you can search really quickly in just a few seconds. – this is another great tool to see price comparisons across several flight partners.

Add Extra Stops on International Flights for Few Miles or Very Little Money

Let’s say you start with a fixed trip from Dallas to Mumbai. Many international airlines will allow you to do as stopover in Europe, often in in multiple cities for free or cheap, so if you have the time, you can visit Amsterdam, England and Ireland on the way to India. If these flights aren’t free, they are often extremely cheap, especially considering what it would have cost you to fly there from your original destination on a separate trip.

The view from a hike in Yosemite Falls, the fifth largest waterfall in the solar system.

Know When to Book Domestic Flights

Book holiday flights as soon as possible. Domestic flight and hotel prices tend to be relatively stable until about 4-6 weeks prior to holidays, at which time you may be able to find last–minute deals, but in peak season and over Christmas, Spring Break, etc., these prices usually inflate.

Also, the best deals usually come about two to three months in advance because airlines, hotels, and travel companies want to have a certain amount of bookings established in that time frame.

Comparing Hotel Prices

Again, know and use your tools. Some of the best places to compare hotel prices are Kayak, Priceline (name your own price option), Hipmunk, Trivago, and for reviews, TripAdvisor.

TripAdvisor is great because no one wants a great deal on a hotel thinking they are going to get a 5-star experience and they don’t sleep all night because it is loud, dirty, under construction, or has ridiculous upcharges for Internet access or parking overnight on-property.

Hipmunk has the best map view if you want a very specific place to stay in a city, but Kayak has a great price comparison tool.

Surf's up in Hawaii.

Waiting for the waves in Hawaii.

Another plus is that hotel bookings are refundable usually within a 24-hour period as well, so you can always book if you find a great deal and cancel if you need to at a later time.

Where to book your hotel after you do the research using these sites depends upon where you can get the most bang for your buck.

Rewards or loyalty program benefits aside, like 3% credit, or points that are separate from your mileage programs on credit cards, for example should be considered before booking with an online site, or deciding to call the hotel directly to book.

Every ten stays at, for example, will give you a free hotel room at the end of those booked and paid. This might be worth it if you plan to use your travel hacking skills frequently.

Benefits of booking directly with the hotel include amenities and status with their benefit programs or being gifted loyalty credits. This might be a great thing to do if you see a lower price advertised on another site. Just mention the fares that you find online to see if they will match them. They may also offer additional rewards or perks for booking directly through them.

The Hacking Bit

The Atacama desert in Chile.

The Atacama desert in Chile.

Use the Best Rate Guarantee

Particularly with hotel chains – they will give you the difference if you find another site that is providing the same room for a cheaper price, but also will then give you an additional credit – like 25% off or additional mileage perks. Just note that the room description needs to match exactly for the best rate guarantee to be honored.

Using Loyalty Programs to Your Advantage

The first tip is to try to stick with one alliance and one chain. This allows you to achieve certain status levels and award benefits within that company’s reward program. For instance, if you are trying to accrue miles, points, or dollars with Delta or American, you would stick with their partners to amass the most amount of mileage possible. If you spread yourself out over multiple airlines or loyalty programs, you are less likely to be able to gather the mileage or credits you need to use them for travel.

Know what a flight costs in mileage. Different points are worth different levels of travel dependent upon the carrier. With many credit card-amassed miles, you can transfer them to the airline or hotel chain of your choice, but you need to know which will let you go furthest for the miles or points you’ve gathered. allows you to put in any airline company imaginable to find out what they ‘charge’ in miles to get to a destination. It will also show me where mileage earned with one airline can be transferred – for example, I can learn that my AeroMexico flight credits can be used with 10 other airlines including Czech Airline and Korean Air.

Earn miles when you fly or stay at a hotel. This one speaks for itself. You earn mileage when you stay at a hotel chain, or fly certain airlines. Use every opportunity to maximize these miles.

Earn miles when you shop. and are a good place to start. Also, check your airline’s site to see if they have a shopping portal. If your about to buy toilet paper from Amazon, you may as well earn mileage for it.

Earn miles when you eat out. Sign up for mileage-based dining loyalty with your airlines and credit cards. American has one, and this site goes into great detail about how to maximize reward earnings when dining out.

Ascher Cliff restaurant is nestled into the side of a mountain in Switzerland.

Ascher Cliff restaurant is nestled into the side of a mountain in Switzerland.

Earn mileage bonuses for signing up for a credit card. Credit card companies are in a very competitive environment. They will offer anywhere from 25,000 to 70,000 bonus miles for signing up for a card, but you sometimes have to spend a certain amount of money with them within a specified time to get the mileage bonus. For instance, one card recently increased their sign-on bonus from 25k to 45k miles when you spend $3000 in the first 3 months. The trick is not to spend any more money than you normally would, but just filter it through the credit card. Pay your rent. Buy groceries, or fork over car insurance premiums and other large-ticket items on the card and then pay it off. 300 different cards are reviewed here.

Earn miles to give your opinion. There are also a ton of sites online that will give you mileage that you can transfer to the program of your choice for filling out surveys, watching videos (usually advertisements) and providing companies with market research. is one of them.

Also, keep your eyes open for last-minute mileage award deals – sometimes a company will reduce mileage to allow you to take the trip of your dreams for a huge mileage discount. You can combine cash and miles as well to take advantage of insane travel deals when this opportunity arises.

View from an airplane overlooking Rio de Janero, Brazil.

View from an airplane overlooking Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Some award-flights offer free stop-overs in additional cities. Use this to your advantage.

Call into the airline, even if an award flight doesn’t show up on the Internet as available online, because many airlines will still offer you a multi-city trip for miles even if it says they won’t online.

A Few Extra Tips

If you want to be even more frugal, you can take advantage of other travel hacking tips like:

  • Stay for free on a friend’s sofa. Don’t have a friend where you are going? Check out sites like where people offer their sofa or a free room to people who like to travel on the cheap.
  • Stay in a hostile. Hostiles are the backpackers dream. You can often stay for a few bucks a night in some places, as long as you don’t mind sleeping in a bunk with other frugal travelers. You won’t have your own bathroom and little privacy, but if you’re an extrovert, this can be a great option.
  • Become a Gold or Platinum member with airlines to avoid add-ons, get perks and seat upgrades.
  • When you are traveling with lots of time to spare, get bumped from a flight on purpose. Listen to the representatives when you’re on a flight that is likely to be overbooked and offer your seat as soon as possible. Airlines will often give you vouchers for a future flight, free food, and even free hotel stays if you are flexible when they have over-booked flights.
  • If you get bumped without offering your seat, know your rights. If an airline bumps you without you volunteering, know your rights. As per this site, airlines are required to pay you an amount equal up to $200 of your one-way fare, with a $650 maximum if you fly between one and two hours later than your original flight time. If it’s more than two hours later (or 400 hours internationally), the airline must double your money back, with $400 on a one-way fare and $1,300 maximum.

As Terry Pratchett says in A Hat Full of Sky, “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

What are you waiting for? Start earning your miles, and keep a look out for those travel deals. Your next dream destination awaits!

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