Travel Hacks: How To Cheat The System And Fly Anywhere For Close To Nothing

by Basil Siddiqui

A lot of friends and family ask me how I travel so often. I tend to give a lot of them the same advice, so I've decided to do a series on travel hacking.

Over my next several posts, I'll show you all how easy it can be to travel (mostly internationally) for almost free.

Follow these four steps to get started

1. Sign up for frequent flier programs

This seems pretty intuitive, but you’d be surprised by the amount of people who don’t sign up for frequent flier programs. You can sign up for most programs in a few minutes and then all you have to do is add your mileage number when you’re purchasing a ticket to begin collecting miles.

If you fly often enough, you’ll be able to speed through security via priority pass, get free checked bags, access to air lounges, and even free class upgrades.

2. Leverage travel alliances

Many people make the mistake of signing up for every frequent flier program. As a result, they collect a lot of miles, but they are all in different accounts, making it difficult to cash-in for a free ticket.

I recommend people sign up for only one frequent flier program per travel alliance. Some popular travel alliances:

Star Alliance: United, Swiss, Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa and 20 others. One World: American Airlines, US Airways, British Airways, Qantas and nine others. Sky Team: Delta, KLM, Alitalia and 16 others.

By signing up for United, American Airlines and Delta’s frequent flier programs, you’ll already have coverage on most airlines. When you fly on another airline in the alliance, be sure to still use the reward number for the airline you’re collecting miles from.

I personally try and fly on only one alliance (can you guess which one?) to maximize my mileage.

Just keep in mind, not all miles and travel alliances are the same; there are some reward programs that will really let you maximize your travel, but more on that in a future post.

3. Get a solid reward card and use it

All credit cards offer some sort of reward for use, but some are immensely more valuable. In general, the credit cards that offer cash-back are often the worst cards.

Popular cards, like Capital One’s Venture card, rope people in by promising cash rewards or the ability to book on any flight. The problem is that the value of their rewards is super low —  only 1 cent per mile.

Although it’s nice to be able to trade in 10,000 miles for a $100 reward, what if I told you you should be able to trade in that 10,000 miles for a $300-$400 reward?

If you’re really on top of your game, you might even get more than 4 cents per mile. OK, so what is the best card? It really varies.

The best card for you will depend on where you typically fly, where you would like to fly with your rewards, and what benefits matter to you.

Two safe bets, regardless of your preferences, are the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Starwood Preferred Guest cards because they have several airline and hotel partners that you can transfer your points to.

Other reward cards offer the same flexibility, but these two have the best partner redemption options. Once you get a reward card, use it for everything. Seriously! A lot of people get a reward card, but use it sparingly.

I, literally, never use cash or debit unless a place does not accept credit cards or charges a fee for use. By using your reward card on all your expenses, you’ll easily rack up thousands of points a year.

Even better yet, if you pay your credit cards in full each month (You should!), you’ll avoid any interest charges, and it will help build your credit history.

4. Take advantage of credit card sign-up bonuses

The single most effective way to get a lot of points is by taking advantage of a credit card sign-up bonus. If you have solid credit, you can easily sign-up for one to two cards a year and get roughly 50,000 miles per card in the process.

Just one of those sign-up bonuses is more than enough for a round-trip ticket to Europe!

If you time it right, you can do even better. Last year, for example, Chase (British Airways), Citi (American Airlines) and American Express offered 100,000 mile sign-up bonuses.

But, doesn’t applying for a card negatively affect my credit score?

Yes it does, but the effect is small (fewer than 5 points) and it will actually help you in the long-term because it increases your available credit/decrease your credit utilization ratio. Unless you plan on applying for a major loan in the next year or two, you shouldn’t be worried about it.

Well, that's about it for our intro! Be sure to stay tuned for future posts in our Travel Hacking Series.

In the meantime, leave a comment or tweet at me if you’re interested in applying for a card, choosing a travel alliance, or just just have some questions about travel hacking in general.