As you may remember, Kerry and I recently traveled to Huntington Beach and Palm Springs and we loved it. We had originally planned on not doing many vacations this year, but we have a trip to Traverse City coming up next month, and then in September we are doing a Europe tour, stopping in Dublin, Paris, and Lisbon. And guess what: our flights to both California and Europe were free!
Travel is something we both love and prioritize in life, so we try to make sure we travel as much as possible. Obviously budget is an issue (travel can be pricey!) so I’m going to talk about some ways to make travel a little cheaper.
First of all, I want to say, these steps are not for everyone. We go out of our way a little bit to make sure we’re earning frequent flyer miles, and we’re by no means pros at this. There are a lot of blogs out there (ThePointsGuy and FrugalTravelGuy being my two favorites) that have great information on advanced tips. However, if travel is something you prioritize, and you’re looking for some simple ways to make it more attainable, here are 5 steps you can take to continue to travel, even on a budget.
And full disclaimer: we are not getting paid for any of the links I’m going to put in here. I honestly think these are great ways to maximize travel potential. They are free (unless stated otherwise) and actual things we do. If you’re not comfortable with them, please don’t do them.
1. Sign up for rewards programs. If you’re going to fly, or you’re going to stay in a hotel, you should sign up to receive “points” when you pay for that trip. You might think, “Well, I’ll never stay enough to earn anything free.” Don’t worry, we’ll address that soon, but the fact of the matter is, you never know. Points can add up, and all of a sudden you might be looking at a free flight, or an upgraded room. Also, some rewards programs grant a level of status just by being a member. It might only be free wifi, but why pay for it if you don’t have to? Sign up, start earning points, and work towards your goal.
2. Get points for things you’d normally buy. Kerry and I like to go out to dinner. It’s one of our favorite things. So it’s even more exciting for us when we get 2 to 6 points per dollar spent when we go out. A $50 Friday night out could end up being 300 miles. You can do this a few ways, some of which involve doubling up on each other. First, we pay for things on a credit card that earns 2 miles per dollar at restaurants, which is bonus #1. Then we are signed up for a dining program through United. In fact, I recommend checking out this recent post on ThePointsGuy about dining programs where you can earn extra points — bonus #2. Every airline frequent flyer program has a similar dining counterpart (and hotels often do too). They are free to sign up for. You just register your credit or debit card with your account, and any time you use that card at a participating restaurant you earn bonus points. You’ll get somewhat annoying emails a few times a week, but I’m happy to auto-filter them to a folder if it means I can get to Europe easier.
Another way to get extra points: shop online. Again, most frequent flyer programs have an online shopping portal where you can buy things you’d normally buy while earning extra miles. For example, Kerry and I have two cats. We need to buy cat food. We can buy it at PetCo and earn 15 points (one point per dollar). Or we can buy it at an online shopping portal and earn 7 points per dollar, and get 105 points. Seems a little extreme, I know, buying cat food online. But that stuff starts to add up. And one of the best parts is, when you buy stuff online, you don’t get tricked into impulse buys. Budget saved!
3. ABC: Always Be Comparing. Put. That. Coffee. Down. Coffee is for comparers.
Okay, enough with the Glengarry Glen Ross references. This is a direct follow up to the point above. If you start looking online to purchase things and earn extra points, you start to obsess (or at least we did) about where you can earn the most points. For example, we use both the Chase Ultimate Rewards and the United shopping portal. We do a lot of Home Depot shopping. Sometimes Chase will give us more points per dollar, sometimes United will (the values change almost daily). So whenever we plan on buying something, we compare multiple shopping portals to make sure we’re getting the best deal. Notice a trend here? Yeah, it starts to seem a little bit obsessive. But remember: every mile earned is one step closer to that dream vacation.
4. Know your rules. We start to get a little advanced here so stay with me. Let’s take our Europe example. A round trip flight to Dublin, paying with frequent flyer miles on United, costs you 60,000 miles. We are flying Cleveland to Dublin, Dublin to Paris, and Lisbon to Cleveland and we had to pay … 60,000 miles. It’s the same as doing a round trip to just one city. How is that possible? You need to figure out routing rules, including stopovers (which are basically long layovers, as long as you want really) and open jaws (which is when you fly into one city, and out of another). Different airlines have different rules regarding stopovers and open jaws, and by knowing what you’re allowed to do, you give yourself so many more travel options. So learn beyond the basics and you can get a lot for free.
5. Credit card sign up bonuses. Okay this is where we get risky, and I’m adding another disclaimer: your credit is very important. Your credit score is one of the most valuable things you have. I get my credit score emailed to me every week and I keep an eye on it to make sure it’s not tanking. Learning how your credit score is calculated is very important, so please do not go nuts with this until you know if this will affect your credit. Proceed with caution.
All right, now that we’re safe, let’s talk about cards. Credit cards have very lucrative sign up bonuses. Kerry and I both signed up for United MileagePlus Explorer cards and earned 58,000 miles from the sign up bonus, each. Like I said above, you need 60,000 miles for a European adventure (that card has other cool perks like free checked bag, two passes to the United Clubs, and priority boarding). We also made sure we researched cards that reward us for things we are going to be spending money on anyway. For example, we have a card that earns extra points at restaurants, and we have one that earns extra points on gas and groceries. Other cards have similar bonuses and great sign up incentives, so by creating a good strategy, you can get to your dream destination easier.
Credit cards usually come with annual fees, so that’s something you need to manage, obviously. And if you don’t want to pay those, you can close them before the fee is charged (usually your first year is free). But wait, isn’t opening and closing cards awful for your credit? Again, I encourage you to research how your credit score is calculated. There are a lot of misconceptions out there, and once you understand them, you can make sure your credit is safe. We also make sure to never carry a balance. We pay our cards off every two weeks, to make sure we never get hit with interest. Interest is where they’ll get you, so you need to be disciplined and make sure you aren’t getting into trouble by going into credit debt.
Those are my top 5 basic tips for getting to your travel dreams faster. Again, proceed with caution and do your research before you dive in. Kerry and I aren’t promoting anything here, and not making any money off this post. The majority of these tips are free (except for credit cards, those can cost you yearly fees). These are things we’ve been doing for the last year and a half, and we’ve gotten free flights to Cancun, California, and Europe, and four free nights at a hotel in Paris. The opportunities are out there for everyone, and you don’t have to sign up for a million credit cards to earn free travel (although that is the quickest way, for sure). Before Kerry and I figured out some of these tricks, we were in awe of how often some of our friends were able to travel. Now we can travel much more than we’d normally be able to afford, and we wanted to share strategies with you so you can too.