Booking affordable airfare to Europe from North America can be an exasperating (and seemingly impossible) experience, especially for budget travelers during peak travel seasons. Budget hotels, affordable restaurants, cheap train tickets, and low-cost airlines can help you keep it cheap once on the ground, but you have to get there first!
Matthew Kepnes, author of the Nomadic Matt travel blog, has recently published a new ebook, The Ultimate Guide to Travel Hacking, in which he demonstrates ways to “hack” your way to free or discounted international airline tickets.
We sat down with him recently to discuss his new book and glean some tips on finding cheaper tickets.
So, what, exactly is “travel hacking”?
A travel hacker is a person who uses loyalty rewards systems to gain hundreds of thousands of miles per year without traveling. It’s the art of using the airline or hotel programs to your favor by taking advantage of the loopholes and cracks in their program.
Travel hacking has saved me a ton of money from free hotel rooms to free flights. I’ve stayed at W hotels around the country for free, Hilton hotels, a week at a Courtyard Marriott in Hong Kong for free. With flights, I’ve flown first class to London, Hong Kong, and more with them. I have a lot of examples of using points for free travel.
When did you realize you were a travel hacker?
When I started spending Friday nights looking for flight deals and points.
Right… that’s pretty hardcore. You say you can remove money from the equation by using points. But don’t you really need money to rack up points?
Yes, but no more than you normally spend anyways. I use my everyday spending to meet the minimum spending requirements for the credit card bonuses. I time my sign-ups with big purchases. But there are a lot of ways to “fake” spending from using Amazon payments to Vanilla Reload cards. I explain it in detail in my book, but you can use these methods to fake the spending requirements.
Plus, airlines always have contest, promotions, and deals that allow you to earn miles.
This all sounds great, but won’t taking out more credit cards affect your credit score?
There is always a temporary ding in your credit whenever someone makes an inquiry, but the ding is only temporary and is gone after a few months. Having a lot of credit cards can help your credit score because it increases your debt to credit ratio. So, if you have $100,000 in available credit, but are only using 5% of that, that increases your score. I have a credit score of 791 despite constantly opening new cards.
I wouldn’t go open a bunch of new cards right before you apply for a mortgage, but if you aren’t doing that, why not use your credit score to your advantage?
Are there ways to be a travel hacker without using credit cards?
There are a few things you can do besides signing up for lots of credit cards: airlines have online shopping portals where you can earn up to 20 miles per dollar spent (on average, it’s 3-4) instead of just one when shopping in person; sign up for airline newsletters to watch for special promotions; and take part in every survey or contest, since companies give away miles a lot.
Have you ever taken a crazy mileage run?
I was going to take an overnight flight to Hawaii and then come right back, but Hurricane Sandy happened and cancelled that plan. I fly enough each year I don’t really need a “top up” for miles. I usually plan it out so I’m right over the wire for the highest level I need.
Can non-Americans “hack” their trip?
Yes, but it’s a lot harder. Canada is a good market and the UK is starting to have some really good deals and bonuses, but outside those two, there’s not a lot for people. What makes these countries good are the huge sign-up bonuses the credit cards offer, but you don’t get that in other countries because of tighter credit laws.
What’s the single most important piece of advice you’d offer to a reader in the process of booking a flight for an upcoming trip to Europe?
When it comes to booking flights to Europe on miles, I’d travel off-peak, because you can get rewards for as little as 40,000 miles. Plus, when you travel in the off season, every move on the ground is cheaper. It’s win-win.
Thanks for the tips, Matt.
Readers, what do you think? Is “travel hacking” for you? Do you use these methods to regularly score free or discounted flights to Europe? Do you recommend a particular loyalty program? Please leave a comment below.