Is travel hacking right for you? Tools and tips for finding more affordable vacations.
By Jono Neuser
As a kid, growing up in a rural Minnesota town, I used to watch a lot of action and adventure movies and dream of traveling the world, just like all the protagonists in the movies. I didn’t understand why my family didn’t travel more than we did, and I knew that when I got older I wanted to fly around the world and go on adventures. What I realized as I got older is that travel can be really expensive. But, if you are able to be strategic, flexible, and patient, it can be a lot more affordable.
Being strategic, flexible, and patient while traveling has allowed my wife and I to do a two-week honeymoon in Thailand for only a few hundred dollars, while still managing to stay at high-end resorts and without sacrificing experiences. It has also allowed us to have free vacations at all-inclusives in Cancun and Cabo. It all comes down to planning in advance and putting in the time to find the right deal for you.
There are opportunity costs associated with travel hacking. It can be time-consuming looking for the best deals and you might find that you miss out on a good deal because you’re waiting on a better one to come along. Credit cards can offer really valuable travel benefits and bonus offers, but if you don’t manage them well they could cost you a lot financially. In order to get the best deal, you might need to go on a different week than you initially planned, or add an additional layover – although this can save you a lot of money, it can sometimes take additional time and be stressful.
If you have considered the opportunity costs and are still excited about the possibilities of travel hacking, then let’s get started. There are many websites devoted to travel hacking that I recommend checking out if this article piques your interest, But, let’s start with two of the most important tools I recommend to anyone getting started with travel hacking – credit cards, and Google Flights.
Credit card sign-up bonuses and travel benefits
I remember sitting through a 3rd Decade class and the instructor strongly encouraging people not to sign-up for credit cards with annual fees. However, I would argue that not all credit cards are the same and sometimes the benefits from a card with an annual fee far outweigh the cost. It really comes down to your situation and whether your lifestyle aligns with the benefits the card is offering.
The first credit card I got that had a big annual fee cost me $395 each year – which is a lot of money for someone in their 20’s working in a non-profit job. The sign-up bonus was 100,000 points, which for this card was worth $1,500, but it required me to spend $4,000 in the first 3 months. Now, this is where credit card bonuses can mess people up – if you are going to be going out of your way to spend money, just to get a bonus, it’s not worth it. You should also already have the money to pay back the required spend before opening the card – otherwise you risk racking up credit card debt and getting wrecked with interest. I knew I had a big purchase coming up – I had to replace my air conditioner, so I wouldn’t be going out of my way to try and reach the required spend, and I knew I had the money in my checking account to pay off the credit card right away. But beyond the sign-up bonus I also needed to weigh the benefits of the card to see if it made sense for me to keep it open for at least a year.
The benefits of this particular card were extensive. First, it reimbursed me $300 each year as long as I spent $300 a year on travel. That was an easy one for me – I travel at least 3-4 times every year, so I wouldn’t be going out of my way to get that reimbursement. With this $300 credit, it essentially made the annual fee $95. The card also came with airport lounge access for me and anyone I was traveling with. Most airport lounges I visited offered a buffet as well as both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks included. With myself and my wife, this benefit easily added at least $50 in benefit each time we visited the airport, and usually saved us $200-$300 each year. On top of that it included reimbursement for Global Entry (which, sidenote, you should always pick over TSA precheck because you can use Global Entry for TSA precheck but not the other way around), travel insurance, rental car insurance, rotating monthly offers for online purchases, and a host of other benefits. I could go on and on about how much this card saved me money and how valuable it was. However, all good things must come to an end. This card’s annual fee eventually went up and the benefits became less, and I decided after a few years to close it.
Some might be wondering if my credit score takes a hit opening new credit cards and closing them after a year or two. Although everyone’s credit situation is different. I have found that as long as I have one credit card with a long history and zero annual fee, that I keep open (going on 12 years now), and as long as I am always paying off my credit card balances right away, opening and closing credit cards does very little to my credit score and it’s usually back to where it was a few months later.
There are many resources that you can visit to explore the benefits of different credit cards, as well as learn the value of the reward points. 100,000 points might mean $1,500 in value for one card, or $500 in value for another card. It’s important to research the best credit card for your situation and choose one whose benefits fit your lifestyle. And if you open a card to get the annual fee and decide after a year or two that it no longer suits you, don’t be afraid to either call and ask if they have any retention offers, or just close it. Some of the websites I visit frequently to do credit card research are: Nerd Wallet, The Points Guy, and Thrifty Traveler.
Always start your travel plans with Google Flights
Many people have probably heard of Google Flights, but there are a ton of features available that aren’t always obvious, but that could save you a lot of money. I recommend doing this research on a desktop – I feel like Google flights can be a little more challenging to use on mobile.
Let’s start with the explore tab. If you live near a few different airports, you can include both of them in your search to make sure you’re getting the best price. In the “Where From?” field, add each airport, and click the plus sign to add additional ones. For example, I usually add both Phoenix, and Tucson. In the “Where to?” section, you can leave it blank and use the map view to look at deals all over the world, or you can narrow it down as much as you’d like. As an example, my wife and I are currently trying to plan a trip to Italy, but I want to see what other flights to Europe cost, so I will put “Europe” in the “Where to?” field. In the dates field, I leave it flexible and just say a 2 week trip anytime in the next 6 months. When I look at the results, I discover that a flight to Italy is going to cost me about $1200 per person, roundtrip, and take nearly 17 hours. However, using the explore tool, I also see a 12 hour flight to London for about $600 per person, roundtrip. A little further digging and I find that I can get a direct flight from London to Italy for less than $100 per person one way, and it will be about a 2 hour flight. Even with the layover in London, this option will get us to Italy in less time, and it will save us about $500 per person/$1,000 total. Although this approach might take a little more planning, it can save you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.
The next tool I want to talk about that I use all the time is the Price Graph. When you are on the flights search page and have entered where you want to go, and your dates, you will see the option to look at the price graph. Here you can see the cost of your trip over the next few months and by adjusting your trip length by 1-2 days, you can see how it raises/lowers your price over time. By using this you might find that it’s actually cheaper to stay one extra day, and who doesn’t love a longer vacation!
Lastly, I want to recommend the “Track Prices” tool. I usually recommend starting your trip planning at least 4 months out. Using Google Flights search and the explore tab, come up with a few options for your trip. Then, when you are on the search details, you will see a toggle to “Track prices” (you have to be logged into Google for this to work). What this will do is it will send you an email when flight prices go up or down for your tracked dates. Generally, I see prices lowest about 2 months out, but that can sometimes change, so by starting 4 months out and tracking prices, you’re less likely to miss out on the sweet spot of finding the lowest-cost flight.
After using Google Flights to find the best deal, it’s up to you how you want to book your flight. If you have credit card points, you might want to book through your credit card’s reward portal. Most of the time you will earn more points by doing that, than by booking directly with the airline. And if your credit card reward portal is showing a different price than what Google is showing (which happens often), reach out to customer service and let them know. Most of the time credit card reward portals will match or beat travel prices being offered on other sites.
It’s all up to you
Travel hacking isn’t for everyone and if you don’t have the time to put into it, it’s probably not going to be very valuable to you. But if you are passionate about travel and are willing to be strategic, flexible, and patient with your travel planning, you will find there are great deals out there and tools to help you make your travel realities come true.