As someone who’s picked up more than three million airline miles traveling through some 63 countries, I know how to travel cheap.
Even if you don’t earn a lot of money, and even if you have debt that you think prohibits you from seeing the world, the fact is that numerous budget-travel options exist for you to travel to your dream destination.
Credit cards these days come with tons of travel perks beyond the simple accumulation of miles. Choose your credit cards wisely, and you can earn an abundance of rewards including hotel upgrades, free airfare and airline upgrades to business or first class that will allow you to book inexpensive vacations.
And even if you can’t travel completely for free, you can still collect and use travel rewards to radically reduce your travel costs.
This article will cover
- Tip #1: Get A Travel Credit Card
- Tip #2: Enroll In Frequent-flyer And Hotel Rewards Programs
- Tip #3: For Cheap Flights, Use an Airline’s Foreign Website
- Tip #4: Transfer Points Between Programs
- Tip #5:Be Flexible With Flight Days and Times for the Best Budget Travel Options
Tip#1: Get A Travel Credit Card
Travel Credit cards come in more flavors now than an ice-cream shop. Depending on which card (or cards) you sign up for, your travel perks can include:
- bonus airline miles;
- lounge access;
- reimbursement for Global Entry and TSA PreCheck;
- repayment of a pre-set amount of incidental airline-related fees every year, such as seat upgrades, ticket-change fees or overweight luggage costs;
- reimbursed Uber costs and enhanced protections if your flight is canceled.
At at the high end, you can even get a steeply-discounted, companion business-class ticket on some of the world’s best airlines.
A Pro’s Insider Tip: Get A General Travel-rewards Credit-card That Imposes No Foreign-transaction Fees
Lots of credit cards charge a fee if you use your card overseas. So if you know you’re going to be traveling overseas, it’s much better to carry a travel credit card that won’t charge you an additional fee for everything you purchase.
Best Travel Credit Cards to earn airline miles: Venture Rewards – VentureOne from Capital One
Best Travel Credit Card to earn hotel points: Citi ThankYou Premier Card
Best Travel Credit Cards with No Annual Fee: Discover it Miles Credit Card
Pay for Everything in Your Life With Your Your Travel Credit Card, Especially Travel-Related Purchases
Always look to fatten your credit-card mileage or points balances. The more miles/points you have, the more budget-travel options you have for free or discounted travel (think: cheap flights!), free or upgraded hotel rooms and the like. To that end, aim to pay for as much as possible in your daily life with your travel credit card. Don’t go overboard and rack up a bunch of debt. But every dollar you spend puts you 1, 2, 5 or even 10 miles/points closer to your destination.
Earn points or miles based on how much you spend, not just the miles you fly
It really is the best way to maximize mileage/points accumulation. And always aim to use the card that will give the most points for each specific purchase. Some cards, for instance, will give you 2x miles at gas stations. Another will give you 5x miles during a certain period at restaurants. Pay attention to these opportunities to accumulate your miles quicker.
Pay With Points Instead Of Cash
Capital One Venture Rewards and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard are both ideal for ANY travel activity since you can redeem your points for just about any travel experience you want. It’s a great way to nab cheap flights or turn what would be a price getaway into an inexpensive vacation.
Both cards offer a welcome bonus, plus 2x points on all your purchases, making these cards a great option for accumulating racking up points quickly that you can then use to pay for an upcoming vacation or business trip.
Save Money On Travel Insurance By Using The Right Credit Card
Sometimes, the best laid plans of travelers go awry. Flights are canceled, hotels lose reservations, airlines lose luggage … or maybe we bang up the rental car. In those moments it’s nice to have protection that doesn’t come as an additional, and often costly rider on your car-rental policy or trip-protection insurance.
Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, VentureOne From Capital One, Delta Reserve Credit Card, Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card, among others, provide a variety of insurance for all the things that can go wrong when we’re on the road. The Amex Platinum, for instance, offers trip-cancellation/interruption insurance and car-rental collision-damage waiver. The Citi Premier Card adds trip-delay and lost-luggage reimbursement. Capital One Venture card will pay up to $3,000 if your bags are lost or stolen.
How to Travel for Free With Welcome Bonus Airline Miles
The changes mean it will often take longer now to earn a free flight. But there’s a travel hack: Sign up for a new credit card (or cards) and collect tens of thousands of bonus miles/points (sometimes even 100,000) for opening the account. That’s often enough for a free trip overseas, or several upgrades domestically.
And with the special bonus-mile offers for certain spending categories, you can quickly earn points on a wide variety of purchases you make through an airlines list of loyalty-program partners.
– Best Miles Credit Card Best Airline Credit Card for Earning Miles : Venture® Rewards Credit Card earn 50,000 Miles once you spend $3,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening
– Best co branded airline credit card intro bonus: Citi / AAdvantage® Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
– Most Valuable Airline Miles Credit Card : Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard
– Best No Annual Fee Miles Credit Card : VentureOne from Capital One
Almost every travel-rewards credit card now offers lucrativewelcome bonuses. Some are so big you earn a free flight (possibly even overseas) immediately. To earn a intro bonus, you typically must spend a certain amount on your new card within the first 90 days – again, a good reason to pay for everything on your credit card.
Apply for a Travel Credit Card from Our Partner
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Any Airline, Anytime
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A Pro’s Insider Tip: Sign-up For Two Credit Cards That Complement Each Other to Earn Cheap Flights Faster
Most travel credit cards offer welcome bonuses of 50,000 miles/points, so if you sign up for two cards (a co-branded airline card and a general rewards card), you can combine two reward balances into a single account to afford free travel.
Just pay attention to what airlines are tied to which card and which airline alliance. For instance, if you sign up for both an airline-branded card such as United MileagePlus, you’ll currently collect a bonus of 50,000 miles … and if you get a general rewards card such as Chase Sapphire, you’ll receive another 50,000-mile bonus. You can transfer the Chase miles into your United MileagePlus frequent-flyer account and have 100,000 miles to use on United Airlines or other airlines in the Star Alliance.
Tip #2: Enroll In Frequent-flyer And Hotel Rewards Programs
If you’re not in a position to sign up for a credit card for whatever reason, at least sign up for a few frequent-travel rewards programs at airlines and hotels, even if you’re not traveling anytime soon.
Most rewards program have ways to earn points other than through travel. I get emails from Delta and American regularly, offering points for completing surveys or purchasing a particular item through a special link. Near Valentine’s Day, for instance, they usually offer special deals for buying flowers through an FTD Florist. So, I can pick up a few miles by sending my wife flowers, which I would do anyway.
Once you’re a member of a rewards programs, use that program religiously! Any time you do fly or book a hotel room, make sure you include your personal rewards number in the reservation. And if you forget, call the airline or hotel chain after the trip to retroactively credit your account. Some hotel chains even allow you to “double dip,” meaning you earn miles/points in your hotel- rewards program and your airline frequent-flyer account.
This is the best way to gain access to cheap flights, budget travel and inexpensive vacations.
Which Online Travel Agency Has the Best Rewards Program
I’ll be honest: Online travel agencies (OTAs) are not the best way to travel and collect miles/points. In fact, they can be detrimental.
Best Offers for Any Hotel Stay
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Often, you won’t earn hotel points when booking through an OTA because many hotels reserve that privilege for travelers who book directly through the hotel’s website. And because of the fees OTAs charge, or the fees some carriers impose on OTAs, you’re often paying more than you need to for airfare booked through an OTA.
That said, some travel-agency options can occasionally make sense.
Hotels.com Rewards offers one free night (at an eligible hotel) for every 10 nights you book – the equivalent of 10% cash back, which is pretty sweet. But there are caveats.
The value of the free night you earn is equal to the average cost you paid per night for those first 10 nights. Pay $150 per night for 5 nights, and $90 per night for the other five nights ($1,200 total), and your free night can cost no more than $120, and that excludes taxes, fees and incidental charges. You’re on the hook for those, even if your hotel room for that free night is just $100.
Hotels.com has also partnered with Capital One to offer 10x miles on purchases made at the Hotels.com/Venture website when you use either the Capital One Venture Rewards or the Capital One VentureOne Rewards card. That bonus is available through January 2020.
The card charges no annual fee.
Whenever you book travel through Orbitz.com, you earn “Orbucks.” How much you earn depends on what travel services you buybased on the kind of purchase you make:
- Flights: 1% of the flight price on the first $5,000 spent annually (a maximum of $50 each year, though elite members have higher limits)
- Hotels: Up to 5% of the amount paid to Orbitz for eligible hotel bookings (3% for Orbitz.com bookings, 5% for Orbitz mobile app bookings). You won’t earn Orbucks on charges collected directly by the hotel, such as resort fees or room service.
- Vacation Packages: 1% of the cost of the entire package booked through Orbitz, excluding change- or cancellation- fees, or any additional charges collected by the hotel.
Orbucks you earn land in your account immediately, allowing you to apply them to another trip without having to first complete the initial trip. You can redeem Orbucks for hotel booked through Orbitz, with each Orbuck equaling $1 off your total booking cost.
You can boost your Orbucks earnings potential by applying for the Orbitz Rewards Visa card. You’ll earn an extra 5% in Orbucks on all Orbitz bookings.
Currently, the card offers a welcome bonus of a $100 statement credit applied after you spend $1,500 in the first 90 days. The card imposes no annual fee and waives foreign transaction fees.
Through Expedia, you’ll earn a certain number of points per dollar spent, based on what you buy:
- 2 points per $1 spent on hotels or vacation packages
- 2 points per $1 spent on activities, cars or cruises
- 1 point per $5 spent on flights
In addition, you’ll earn double points on all bookings made through the Expedia mobile app. You have five travel options for redeeming your points (a sixth option – charitable donation – is beyond the scope of an article on how to travel cheaply):
- Hotel stays: 0.71 cents per point redeemed, but if you book at one of 3,500+ VIP Access hotels, Expedia doubles the value to 1.42 cents per point.
- Flights: 0.7 – 1.0 cents each toward flights, and you must have enough Expedia+ points to cover the entire ticket cost. Tickets can’t be changed or canceled, and you must book it over the phone (a hassle, honestly).
- Vacation packages: Redemptions start at 3,500 points for a $25 coupon and go up to 140,000 points for a $1,000 coupon.
- Car rentals: 0.71 cents per point.
- Things to do: 0.71 cents per point for various activities at destinations around the world.
Priceline offers no traditional loyalty program, but you can apply for the Priceline Rewards Visa and collect certain benefits:
- A welcome bonus of 5,000 points after your first purchase
- 5x points on eligible purchases made at Priceline.com and 1x points on all other purchases.
- Redeem points for statement credits for any purchases of $25 or more made within the last 120 days … and if you redeem your points for credits against eligible Priceline or other travel-related purchases, you’ll get back 10% of the points you spend.
- No foreign transaction fees.
- No annual fee.
Compare Travel Agencies’ Reward Programs
|Online Travel Agency||Hotels Rewards||Credit Card||Shopping Portal||Maximum Rewards|
|Expedia||1.42%||4%||4% (with limits)||9.42%|
The bottom line: You’re generally better off with a co-branded airline credit card and/or a general rewards credit card. You’ll have more flexibility and greater perks.
Tip #3: For Cheap Flights, Use an Airline’s Foreign Website
When you book international travel, always visit an airline’s foreign website. Many times you’ll find substantial cost savings.
For example, search airfrance.fr instead of airfrance.com. You’ll need to do some currency conversions (easy at XE.com), and you need to consider whether your credit card charges a foreign transaction fee (another great reason to have a travel credit card that imposes no foreign-transaction fees. (Here, you can find cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees).
You also might need to use a VPN (virtual private network) to mask that your internet IP address is coming from the US. Chose a VPN connection in or near to the airline’s home country.
Tip #4: Transfer Points Between Programs
Once you accumulate enough frequent-flyer or travel-rewards points, you can combine them in a single program and redeem them for free of cheap flights and inexpensive vacations.
Before making any transfer, however, read the rules to understand the process and whether any bonuses apply. Most of the time, points will transfer at a 1:1 ratio, though frequently you can find bonuses that really goose the value of your miles. I once transferred 380,000 American Express points into my British Airways Avios accounts and received well over 500,000 Avios thanks to a 40% bonus offer.
Also be aware of the airlines in each of the three big alliances: Star Alliance, oneworld and SkyTeam. Because of special offers, you can often transfer credit-card points into one airline’s frequent flyer program, and then redeem those miles to grab the free ticket you want for fewer miles than you otherwise need on the carrier you want to fly.
Tip #5: Be Flexible With Flight Days and Times for the Best Budget Travel Options
Always look for last- minute deals, and search websites that track cheap tickets.
Every airline offers an email sign-up option, and you should sign up for any airline that serves the region you want to visit. Airlines constantly run specials or offer last-minute deals that offer huge savings … and all of that comes across in emails.
When I’m planning a trip, I immediately start with Google Flights because it shows prices across a month, allowing you to see how much you can save by altering your itinerary. However, Google doesn’t track all airlines, particularly budget carriers, and it has no idea about last-minute deals, so you’ll still need to hunt for the best deal. Nevertheless, Google gives you a starting point on price.
Skyscanner, Momondo, and Kiwi.com are good for finding low-cost flights on foreign routes. And ITA Matrix is, perhaps, the king of finding low-cost routes – though it’s not the most-convenient website. You cannot book directly on ITA Matrix and, instead, must recreate your itinerary at an airline’s website (or an OTA) and there’s no guarantee you’ll find the same routing or price.
Finally, always choose the “flexible-dates” option, if your travel plans are flexible. Certain days – particularly Thursday – tend to be cheaper. Moreover, when you chose the flexible-date option, you will see prices across a longer stretch of time, giving you greater visibility on the cheapest budget-travel options.
To Sum Up
These days, there are myriad ways to travel on the cheap … and that doesn’t necessary mean “cheap” travel.
It means that if you use the strategies I’ve described above, you can travel well, pretty much anywhere you want to go in the world, in style and comfortably, but at a reduced cost.
All you need to do is exert a little bit of effort, and you can see the world without killing your wallet.
What are your tricks for traveling on the cheap?
Let us know in the comment section below.