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June 25: Map Your Escape Route

Throughout this month of directives on how to get busy living your life, I have focused on a lot of spontaneous travel related items, such as playing a few travel games, to getting lost.

Today, I will take a look at the safer side of travel, and how you can use that to help get the blood pumping, the excitement level up and motivated to make things happen.

Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now – Alan Lakein

Maybe you are the type of person that does not embrace spontaneity. Maybe you don’t have deep pockets (I know I don’t) but still love to travel.  If travel hacking isn’t your thing and you just want to book a trip the old fashioned way, then here are a few tips for you to help make the planning phase a little easier, and a little more exciting:

Choosing a Destination

When choosing a destination for a large trip, a lot of factors come into the equation, such as time of year, season, length of time for vacation as well as money.  While I am a believer that all travel can be had inexpensively, I wouldn’t try and plan a beachfront villa in Bora Bora when you only have a 4 day vacation and $2,000.  Moral of the story, be realistic here.

Sites like Wanderfly are a godsend when it comes to the indecisive.  It is an intuitive web portal that will search for destinations based on time of year, theme, length of time and budget.  While I haven’t actually used their site to actually plan a vacation, I do use their site for idea generation.  Just one quick search will give you TONS of ideas on where to go, where to stay, things to do and so much more.

I could seriously sit here and do searches all day long.

Finding Airfare

So you have used Wanderfly to dream up some amazing destinations and have a general idea on what to expect for the price.  While Wanderfly uses Orbitz for their searches, I prefer to use Kayak and Bing Travel for my searches for 2 different reasons.

Kayak is a descendent of the old SideStep, one of the first companies to really develop a flight search aggregator.  Kayak searches all of the major airlines websites, as well as popular travel agencies such as Orbitz, Expedia and Priceline.  With tools to help you search all local airports, flexible days with a comparison matrix, Kayak is 2nd to none in the flight search business.

Bing Travel is the result of an online travel search company that Microsoft bought and integrated into their Bing search engine.  The reason I really love this site is that if you are traveling a common route (we will use LAX to JFK for example) with multiple flights per day, Bing Travel will look at the trending analysis of the flight costs, compare them against recent travel trends, previous year’s pricing and return a recommendation on wether you should purchase the tickets now because prices are set to raise, or if you should hold off, as ticket prices are set to drop.  This really is a handy tool when looking at flight costs over 3-4 months in advance.

Finding Hotels

Now you know where you are going and how you are getting there, let’s take a look at where to stay.  The real question here is if you are looking for a hotel room, or an all inclusive resort.  Kayak is my old fail safe when it comes to hotel searches, as their hotel search engine is just as powerful as their airfare search engine.  Kayak also has a section for deals and vacation packages that will help you look into package bundles and other deals that have amazing savings.

My other default is the Marriott website, as Juliet and I have been huge fans of their customer service and standards for many years now, they are our hotel membership of choice.  More times than not, while sites like Kayak are great, nothing quite beats searching right on the hotel website of your favorite brand.

For us, we can deal with a long flight, maybe a delay or two, but we will not scrimp on a bad night’s sleep or a dirty room.  Hotels are our number 1 priority when travelling, and it helps us wake up in a good mood, ready to attack the day.

Finding Adventure

Ahh, the most important part of your trip.  So you have picked your destination, your travel there and your hotel.  Great. Now let’s plan the fun stuff.  Let’s scope out where we are going to eat, where we are going to drink and where we are going to go have some amazing experiences.

TripAdvisor is a great place to start.  With recommendations based on city and location, Trip Advisor for me has constantly turned up great recommendations for sights to see, places to eat and more.

Twitter is another great tool for researching destinations, as there is always people willing to help give advice and recommendations on things to do, places to see, food to eat, drinks to… well, drink.  Recently, Juliet and I booked a trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands for a much-needed vacation.  With a few quick searches and with the help of some Twitter friends, I got some great recommendations for smaller islands to visit, great drinks to try and restaurants to visit.  Cannot beat first hand recommendations.

The last recommendation for finding adventure at your destination is an old-fashioned Google Search.  There are blogs and websites dedicated to adventure travelers, from personal blogs to corporate guide companies and everything in between.  Chances are with a quick search you will come across a number of blogs from people who have vacationed at the same places you are headed.  Look at it this way, the most website traffic that hits my website from Google comes from people searching about road trips.  Yes, there are plenty more like me out there.

These are just a few of the tips and tricks to help make planning a vacation a little easier and a little more fun.  I spent regular amounts of time on these websites just dreaming about the vacations I would love to take, but I also visit these sites when I am ready to book my travel as well too.  Dreaming can be fun, just make sure to have a plan to turn that dream into a reality, then go ahead and plan your escape from the real world.

Day 25. Way 25. Plan a vacation. Map your escape route from reality.

What are your favorite ways to research and plan for trips? Share your stories, tips and tricks in the comments below!

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How I Earned 200k Miles Without Getting on a Plane

You read that right. In less than 4 months my wife and I have earned over 200,000 frequent flyer miles without ever stepping on an airplane. All 100% legal, all 100% legit.

I started out in the travel hacking game very slowly and with much trepidation, as I did not want to start sinking a lot of money or time into learning this whole new world of free travel. I had done some traveling, so I had a decent handle on which airlines flew where, which ones were part of which alliances, and so on.  So I started reading all I could read on the topic.  The Frugal Travel Guy‘s blog was the first resource that I really used to get up to speed on the topic, as jumping into the FlyerTalk forums was just too daunting of an endeavor.  It is information overload for the novice travel hacker.

The Ruse

Rick’s blog talks about the big wins of large credit card bonuses for signing up and spending a little bit of money on the card.  As an example (I am making this up), Chase Bank will offer you 50,000 United Airlines miles if you apply for, are approved for their credit card and spend $1,500 in the first 3 months. 50k miles on united is the equivalent to 2 domestic round trip fares.

First things first, here is why Chase Bank does this.  They WANT people to have their credit card with it’s 15-20% interest rate.  They WANT people to spend money on that card because most American’s will end up carrying a balance, which in turn they pay interest on to Chase.

Sounds like a good deal for Chase, if you ask me.  Dangle that carrot of 50k miles but end up with card holders that continue to carry balances and earn them interest.  But there is a way to rack up those miles without going into financial debt.

Beating the System

Ask any financial analyst or really, any financially responsible person, if you cannot maintain a budget, credit cards will be the death of you.  In today’s economy, your credit score is everything, and racking up credit card bills is NOT the way to improve that score.  With a bad credit score, you will have a hard time buying a car, renting an apartment, hell, even getting a cell phone. Unfortunately, your credit score has become the single most important factor in your financial stability and freedom here in the U.S.

So, why would I say all that, but still be professing the benefits of using the dangling carrot of rewards points in exchange for the risk of credit cards?  Because if you are financially responsible, with a good to great credit score, you can easily turn these credit card rewards into tons of free travel all while actually INCREASING your credit score.

Some credit cards offer the free miles rewards after activating and using the card just one time.  Others (most others) require what is known as a ‘minimum spend’ where they will give you the rewards points, but only once you have spent a certain amount of money on the card, in a certain period of time.  Some cards the minimum spend requirement is $1,500 in 3 months, some it is $5,000 in 6 months, still others, are higher than that.

To use their system to accrue your rewards miles, it is as easy as adjusting your budget for a month or two.  Instead of paying some bills out of your checking account, pay them with the credit card.  Once you do that, you take the same money from your checking account, put it in savings, and when the credit card bill comes due, you pay it off in full, carrying no balance, therefore, no finance charges.

If you can adjust your budget (and stick to your budget) accordingly, you can easily beat the system and rack up the miles.

How I Did It

Here is first hand proof that this can be done, and done easily.

To dip my preverbal toe in the travel hacking waters, I signed up for a Continental Airlines branded Chase rewards card which offered 50,000 Continental miles for using the card one time.  I read all the terms and conditions and even when I called to activate the card, I verified that I would be awarded the points after my first statement that showed (at minimum) one usage.  With everything all set, the card activated, I set out to Target to buy a few last minute items for the Epic Road Trip 2011.  Grand total, under $35.

Around the same time, Juliet and I decided to each sign up for an American Airlines branded Citibank card offering 75,000 miles for a $1,500 minimum spend in 6 months.  Juliet started using her AA card for groceries, gas and other items within our budget.  I used mine as my primary card on the Epic Road Trip.  Within 2 months we had each spent over the minimum of $1,500 on our respective cards with nothing more than items we would have paid for our of pocket. Items from our budget.

Another perk with the rewards cards is that in addition to the sign up bonus, they typically will offer (at minimum) 1 miles per dollar spent, so on a $1,000 charge, you also receive 1,000 frequent flyer miles. Read those details when you sign up, some offer higher rewards (such as 6 miles per $1 spent) on certain items like gas or groceries.

Logging into my Award Wallet account showed that after 1 month, my Continental Miles hit and after 2 months, both of our American Airlines points hit.  3 months, nothing out of pocket besides what was in our budget and we accrued over 200,000 miles.

Plan B

Everyone needs a plan B.  What if credit card bonuses are not for you.  Does that mean you are out of luck? NOT AT ALL.  There are tons of frequent flyer miles earning opportunities out there, and the Travel Hacking Cartel is one of the best resources to find those.  Options that range from online shopping to web-based surveys and even good, old-fashioned sweepstakes/giveaways.  Here are just a few examples:

For more options, I really cannot recommend the Travel Hacking Cartel enough. Give it a shot for $1 for 14 days.

Advice

Am I telling you to run out right now and sign up for every credit card with free miles offer? NO.

What I am telling you is that the credit card rewards game is VERY lucrative.  You can earn big rewards, very quickly, with nothing out of pocket. But with that being said, here is advice I give to anyone who wants to get started earning miles this way:

  • Know your credit score, it is the most important asset you have.
  • Understand how credit card applications and inquiries affect your credit score.  This is a big one as too many inquiries in a short period of time can affect your score.  Also, credit card inquiries fall off after a certain period of time, it is important to understand that too.
  • Do your research. Understand the credit card offer BEFORE you sign up for it.  Read the forums, read the blogs. Make 110% sure this deal is for you.
  • Know the rules.  Most times, if you own a small/personal business with a Tax ID, you can sign up for a business card as well as a personal card, essentially doubling your miles.
  • Shop around.  Just because you see an offer for 25,000 points to sign up for a card, doesn’t mean there isn’t a better one out there.  Even some “expired” offers can still be found with a little research.
  • Know your financial situation. If you are currently working on the minimum spend for 2 other credit cards, signing up for a 3rd one probably isn’t a safe bet.  Also understand that if the minimum spend for a card is outside of your budget ($25,000 in 12 months) or something you are not comfortable with, don’t do it.
  • Another deal will come along. In the past 5-6 months, we have seen a bunch of offers ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 points.  Airlines want you to fly, credit card companies want you to spend money.  The deals will come, just be patient.
  • Understand the alliances, as I pointed out a few days ago. If you can rack up miles on multiple carriers that are part of the same alliance, you are typically in better shape.

Further Reading

I cannot stress this enough.  Do your research.  Read the blogs. Learn about credit card churning, credit inquiries and things of the sort.  I am just getting into this whole world and wanted to make sure that I spread the love with some of my friends/family that read my site.

Here are a few good blog posts that should get you started:

I am by no means an expert in this game, but I am just figuring my way around.  If you have any questions, please feel free to ask, I will do what I can to help or guide you.  The last thing I want to see is anyone ruining their credit over something silly like accruing miles.

If you are a fellow travel hacker, I would love to hear any tips, tricks, advice, stories, etc in the comments below. Otherwise, see you all on the beach!


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6 Tools to Travel the World for Free

The vast expanse and unbridled beauty of the Alaskan wilderness is a destination that calls to thousands of travelers every year.  Not you, you say?  Ok, let’s try a few more reminders of why we are doing this:

Ahh yes, glad we are all on the same page now.

So now that you have done your research and are completely up to speed with the basics of airline routing, central hubs, rewards programs and your credit worthiness, now we will get into the top tools that I use to manage and participate in the travel hacking world.

Evernote: I use Evernote for almost everything, but in this case, I keep a dedicated notebook for traveling and travel hacking.  This notebook contains notes for upcoming vacations I want to keep an eye on, any research on travel that I am working on.  The main usage when it comes to travel hacking is a dedicated note that documents all of mine and my wife’s frequent flyer numbers and rewards numbers with their associated logins for quick and easy access when signing up for promotions or entering in contests to win miles/points.

 

LastPass: I use LastPass on my desktop and laptop so that no matter which computer I am on, my usernames and passwords are all available to be auto-filled and saved securely.  I also use LastPass’ feature to auto-fill forms.  This makes it easy when entering contests, applying for credit cards or filling out basic information.  Also if I am ever not on one of my computers, I have access to my vault online at http://www.lastpass.com, just like with Evernote.

 

GMail: GMail is my primary email client.  It syncs with my Android phone, my Mac OSX mail client and so much more.  It also allows me to use labels and filters to specifically filter out all of the emails I receive from the various rewards programs into a specific label/folder.  This comes in very handy as I can dedicate time to sift through the emails from the rewards programs at my leisure, not having every email hit my inbox.  This is also good practice with other services in which you get a lot of email from but is not 100% pertinent to your everyday productivity.

 

Award Wallet: After being turned onto Award Wallet back in January 2011, this site has been invaluable for tracking rewards programs points.  The website offers the ability to also track rewards information for more than one person too, so I can track all the rewards programs in my name, as well as those in my wife’s name, all from the same interface.  Currently, the site is web-based only, however, Android and iPhone applications are currently being developed as Award Wallet continues to grow and gain more ground as it garners more attention from the media and users.

 

Google Reader: Like Evernote above, I use Google Reader for a lot of things, but in relation to travel hacking, it is my insight into getting updates and blog posts surrounding the topic in and easy to read manner.  Google Reader makes it easy, I don’t have to remember to go visit 3-4 websites and read up on the daily updates, these updates are delivered to one central place and I on;y have to open 1 application or 1 website.   Here is a third party guide to getting started with Google Reader for Beginners.

Recommended Google Reader Reading

  • RSS Feed 1 Frugal Travel Guy - Rick is one of the forefront experts in the Travel Hacking/Frugal Travel industry.  In his blog, he details his exploits and adventures in travelling frugally either through heavily discounted travel or free, rewards-based travel. He also makes it a point to explain things to “rookie travelers” and those just getting started in the game.  He talks about credit worthiness and how to effectively get the most points, almost always drawing on his own experiences to show the success stories.
  • RSS Feed 2 – The Points Guy -Brian is another expert in the field.  While him and Rick typically offer some of the same offers and promotions that are out there, Brian’s website is straight and to the point.  Just the deals and information you need, nothing more, and that is why I consistently read his blog, and why you should too.
  • RSS Feed 3 – View from the Wing – Gary is another go-to guy in this field.  Recently leaving the ranks of FlyerTalk to start up MilePoint (community based online forums).  His blog offers up various rewards that come across his desk, as well as reviews of hotels and flights he is on.  The site is more all inclusive reviews and rewards for the traveler, which also makes it a must visit on my travel hacking blog list.

 

Travel Hacking Cartel: The only tool or tip for travel hacking that I actually pay for. Founded by Chris Guillebeau, a renowned master in this realm, the THC offers 3 levels of membership. I am currently on the Economy plan, $15/mo for email updates the instant that new deals are released. I will spend $180 this year on THC, which is the cost of an off season, round trip, domestic airline ticket. In 4 months with THC, I have already racked up over 200,000 miles. That is the equivalent to 8 round trip domestic airline tickets.  Yeah, you get your money’s worth.

 

With all of these tools in your arsenal, you should be completely up to speed with all of your rewards programs, with easy access to all of them, as well as a straight forward method to track and maintain all the award points you are getting ready to rack up.

The real take away from all of these tools is Award Wallet and the Travel Hacking Cartel.  Award Wallet is an absolutely stellar product that centralizes almost everything and honestly I could not live without.  The Travel Hacking Cartel is what makes miles/points earning so easy and really helped initialize me into this travel hacking world by providing a constant stream of miles/points earning offers.  I cannot recommend their service enough.

Stay tuned for the next installment where I will detail how I have earned over 200,000 miles without ever leaving the comforts of my house and how you can earn EVEN MORE, as the points game is heating up with many new partners offering huge bonuses.

And just for grins, one more reminder.  You can go here for FREE:

I hope you are as excited about this as I am, because just talking about this makes me hungry for more miles and more travel opportunities!

Questions about these tools, how they are used or any related questions, please feel free to contact me and I would be more than happy to help you get started.



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5 Simple Tips to Travel the World for Free

White sandy beaches, exotic locales, remote islands, foreign culture.  Just a few of the many reasons that people love to travel.  They want to experience things they see in photos like this:

The common complaint is the cost to visit these places, so many people put these trips off until retirement.  Then you end up like Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in The Bucket List, rushing to do these things before you die.

Sound familiar? Then this is for you:

You CAN go to these places for CHEAP or FREE.

Yup, you heard me.

CHEAP or FREE

Airlines and hotels have been giving away Frequent Flyer miles and Hotel Rewards points for quite some time now, but what most people do not realize (and I really didn’t until recently) is that you do not need to actually be on an airplane or in a hotel to earn miles/points.

I had heard about the concept of Travel Hacking over the years, but really got involved in it this past winter.  Sure, my wife and I had always stayed at Marriott properties and had racked up some points there, but when I started my foray into this, we only had about 50,000-60,000 hotel points/airline miles combined.

4 months later, we have over 475,000 miles/points. More on that later.

Quite impressive, right?  Not really.  I am still an amateur in this game.  Others have been in this game for much longer and have easily racked up over 5 million points/miles, with VERY LITTLE out of pocket expenses.

In a series of upcoming posts, I will detail all of the tools I use to consistently earn miles from the comfort of my own home, as well as some recommendations for surviving in the travel hacking game.   To start off, here are my 5 simple tips for the newcomers to get started.

5 Simple Tips

Sign up for all the Frequent Flyer and Hotel points programs

All of the rewards programs are free, for every hotel, every airline.  The quick sign up form typically involves a name, email address and mailing address.  Yes, they want to send you marketing email and junk mail, but that is not completely a bad thing. Sure, there will be some SPAM, but there also is the opportunity to get last minute airfare deals that are only sent to hotel/airline rewards members, or emails that offer exclusive discounts for rewards members too.  Not bad when planning a last minute trip or searching for great deals, but the ultimate goal here is to have rewards numbers for all the programs so that you can quickly and easily partake in any promotions or giveaways.

Research which airlines fly out of your local airport(s)

It is important to know which airlines are based out of your local airport, as you have a greater likelihood of getting inexpensive airfare or rewards flights when dealing with an airline’s central hub, rather than with an airline that only has a few daily flights in and out of your local airport. AirlineRouteMaps.com is a good place to start.  If you are not located near a central hub, then it is equally as important to know who flies in and out of your airport.  This will make planning rewards trips easier.

Research which airlines fly into your destination locale(s)

If you are planning on earning some miles for a particular destination, it is also important to match up what airlines fly out of your local airport with ones that fly into the destination you are wanting to go to.  Non-stop travel is (at least for me) ideal, as much as I love flying, my goal is to get to my destination, not to spend hours in an airport.  Keep reading up on AirlineRouteMaps.com for a good primer.

Understand which airlines are part of which alliance

There are 3 major airline alliances in the world today, Star Alliance, SkyTeam and OneWorld, all with various U.S. Based and international airlines.  It is important to know which airlines are part of which alliance as it can increase your overall ability to earn miles towards a goal. For example, if you have the ability to earn miles on both American Airlines and British Airways, you can combine the two when traveling as they are both members of OneWorld. More details can be found on the Airline Alliance page of Wikipedia.

Check your credit scores

I know what you are thinking, but yes, credit scores can actually help you earn more miles, and faster, aside from being just good general financial knowledge for you to have. There are 3 credit bureaus that all retain scores on your credit worthiness, and all 3 combine to make up your credit score. There are a resources out there to check your credit scores with 1 of the 3 bureaus for free, every 6 months, or there is the only U.S. Government authorized credit score site, AnnualCreditReport.com.

Those are the 5 basics that really helped me get started in the travel hacking game.  Not only will this knowledge help you in identifying what your ultimate goal is, it will also help you focus your efforts on those that are important to you, ensuring that you will be successful in your goal.

Let’s face the facts here, if this concept of travel hacking was easy, everyone would be doing it and we would be putting the airlines out of business.  The truth is, it is very easy to go astray in this game.  Most people I know do not have lofty goals of travelling the world, they would just like the ability to not be completely in financial debt by taking their family of 4 on a week long vacation, and those are the people that I want to help.

Stay tuned for the next installment in this series that will detail the tools I use to earn miles from the comfort of my home (or, hotel room).



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