Miles and Points Thoughts Travel Planning

How to start travel hacking when your budget can’t hack it

On the last Observation Deck podcast, I had the pleasure of talking to Jonathan Khoo and Joe Cortez about a wide variety of topics. I’ve always loved having Joe as a co-host because he’s not constantly trying to travel hack like Trevor or myself, he just genuinely loves talking travel. He asked a rather poignant question after Jon shared how his family had inspired a love of travel at an early age. 

Joe asked, “For folks like me, who are starting…with a little bit of a disadvantage [socioeconomically] and have that wanderlust, want to see the world – how do they start?”

I appreciated his honesty and it actually hit on something I’ve been thinking about. I’d say that the majority of travel hackers, at least bloggers and those fairly active in the community, strike me as middle class and up. While I’m sure there are a number of notable exceptions, when people are talking about staying in Hyatt 25 times in 2 months (no judgment here just an example), we are at least starting at a baseline with some level of privilege or “advantage” as Joe phrased it.

I’ve long said that even without miles and points, my family would likely travel as much as we already do. We use miles and points to subsidize or upgrade our travel, and I think many people fall into that same category. Still, because I love travel so much, I’ve been thinking about what advice I’d give to someone who wants to get into the travel game who might be starting at an economic disadvantage? And for the record, I’m not saying everyone needs to travel, but if you want to and think you may not have the means, here are some ideas about how to get started.

1. Make travel a priority mentally, emotionally, and financially

Every family needs to prioritize their recreational budget. If you’re super rich, a lot of times you might be in a both/and situation. Or you’re deciding between taking a trip and putting money in your retirement account. If you’re on a tight budget, when it comes to recreation you might be staring down a lot more either/or situations.

If that’s the case and you still feel the wanderlust, then it’s important to make travel a priority. My daughter just got her first piggy bank. She loves putting money in there, but as a four year old, she doesn’t really have any major goals for the money! But we keep encouraging her to set that money aside (aka spare change she finds lying around the house), and…I dunno one day I’ll figure out how to explain to her the value of saving.

But like Joe Cortez said on the podcast, if you want to travel it’s good to be regularly saving to do so. I like having a separate travel bank account – if the money never makes it into my day to day account I’m never tempted to spend it and learn to live without it. Then I can use that account exclusively for my travels.

But ultimately I think it’s about priorities. Where there’s a will, there’s usually a way.

Lots of people want to travel hack, but sometimes they may not think they have the means to do so. Here are some ideas about how to get started.
Saving takes time and commitment

2. Work to get your finances in order

For most people, traveling regularly will likely take some measure of fiscal responsibility. There are too many factors at play here, but at the very least, I would say if you’re serious about travel hacking, you really want to avoid credit card debt. Many travel hackers utilize good credit scores for credit card sign up bonuses which springboard a lot of the travel that they do. Getting rid of debt can be difficult, but you probably don’t want your travel expenses to run into more debt. Figure out what the best fiscal plan is for yourself and your family as you try to enter the travel hacking world.

3. Familiarize yourself with deal sites and good deals

The good news? There are lots of great deals to be had: from flights, to hotels, to rental cars. By utilizing sites like Google Flights, airfarewatchdog, and The Flight Deal, you can save hundreds of dollars on flights. There are plenty of inexpensive hotel deals to be had and there are many ways to save on rental cars (for both, an easy thing you can do is keep checking prices and rebook if it drops. Autoslash will even do it for you for cars).

More importantly, like Jon said on the podcast, if you start searching for deals – even if you don’t plan on going anywhere – you start getting a feel for how much travel normally costs and how much you can potentially save when the deals come around. I used a misguided attempt at a metaphor related to jeans, but basically, you learn to recognize what is cheap and can make decisions accordingly. This information becomes even more important when you are working with a limited budget.

4. Learn to drown out the noise

As you get further and further into travel hacking, you’ll undoubtedly come across a ton of “influencers” (a term I’ve cribbed from mommy bloggers). There are blogs, there’s social media, there are conferences – you will be subject to tons of influence, both direct and indirect. It’s important to recognize these influencers have a variety of motivations and to use that knowledge wisely. For example, Free-quent Flyer made a pretty strong argument for ignoring the advice of affiliate bloggers who receive a commission when you are approved for a credit card through them. He himself would love for you to sign up for a subscription to support his work. My blog runs ads so of course I’m happy when people click on it, though unlike FQF, it’s just for beer money. Well, he probably uses all his money on beer too.

Influencers have a variety of motivations for the work they are doing; make your decisions armed with the knowledge of who is influencing you and why.

Another form of influence is that subtle influence that comes from having a community of people who all love to travel. What? X, Y, and Z are in Hong Kong? Maybe I need to be planning a trip? Someone found a new amazing deal to go to Europe? Maybe I should jump on it. I’ve written about the fear of missing out in the past, and that’s a very real thing, something I feel all the time. But in the end, if you’re trying to travel hack and working with very limited capital; drown out the noise and figure out what’s most important for you. Your goals should be your #1 influencer. Or like Dia and Matt say more colorfully, don’t worry about what everyone else is doing.

5. Use credit card sign up bonuses responsibly

Piggy backing off drowning out the noise, if and when you get into earning credit card rewards through sign up bonuses, make sure you use them responsibly. There are many facets of this but two at least jump out at me for those on a limited budget.

Lots of people want to travel hack, but sometimes they may not think they have the means to do so. Here are some ideas about how to get started.
Start slowly and only get what you need and can afford

First, you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew. Make sure you can comfortable spend enough money to earn that sign up bonus without adding to your financial stress. The classic example is buying more than you normally would. Going out to lunch an extra time a week can add up quickly and the temptation can sneak up subtly.

The second obvious mistake is buying into the hype about X credit card and having no idea how to use the rewards you earn. The 100,000 point sign up bonus (still available in branch until March 12) on the Chase Sapphire Reserve is great, if you know how to use the rewards. Make sure you do your research and have a plan for the miles and points you earn. That fits right in with my next point.

6. Decide where you want to go and start saving towards it

If you want to travel hack, you have to have goals. Your goals don’t have to be incredibly specific (like “I want to go to Bucharest”), but they need to be specific enough to give yourself a road map for your plans. Some destinations are easier to hack than others. Find out what you need to do to get where you want to go and start saving cash, miles, or points to get yourself there. Find a good community of people who are willing to help, there is an amazing travel hacking community out there! Like I said at the top, if you want to travel hack you need to make it a priority, just like any other hobby in life. Which brings me to my final point.

7. Start small

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and travel hackers aren’t either. Techniques are constantly evolving, program terms are constantly changing; there’s a lot to keep track of! Just start small and get your feet wet. Like any hobby, it’s most difficult to get started, but once you do you’ll start learning, then traveling, and then all of a sudden you will be in a virtuous cycle. With each successive trip you might just find your wanderlust increases a little bit more. And that’s fine, maybe you’ll work your way up until the point where it’s a full time obsession!

Final Thoughts

Hopefully if you’re new to all this I’ve given you some good ideas about where to start. There are plenty of amazing resources out there, and I’m always happy to answer any questions you might have. I’m no financial expert, so take everything I say with a grain of salt, but I think even if you’re working with limited means, these steps should help get the ball rolling. Happy trails!

Lots of people want to travel hack, but sometimes they may not think they have the means to do so. Here are some ideas about how to get started.

Just an average joe trying to fly his family for less

5 thoughts on “How to start travel hacking when your budget can’t hack it

  1. Excellent post. Although all points are great, for me the biggest one I struggle with these days is #4. While the “ACT NOW to get $5” that some bloggers post are easy to ignore, I do go through FOMO at times. Like right now with the Chase Fairmont. While I would love to make a trip to a really nice Fairmont in the next 12 months. I have a Hyatt and IHG free night I need to use in the next 3 months, and then the planned travel trips. Squeezing in a trip for the Fairmont nights would be tight. But am I missing out on something great!?!?

    1. Yeah, I have to physically restrain myself from stuff like that. When it comes to hotels, I just ask myself, “are those 100,000 Club Carlson points you’re still sitting on keeping you warm at night?” That usually convinces me!

  2. You mentioned it briefly here, but retirement/savings should take priority over traveling IMO. To start travel hacking, one should really set up their budget (including both known bills and a savings plan that, at least, lets you retire at 65) FIRST! The other day I read that 6 in 10 Americans can’t afford a $500 unexpected bill…that is an unacceptable, IMO, place to be financially if you’re thinking of “travel hacking”. Then see what your budget allows for “entertainment”. Then decide how much of that “entertainment” budget you are willing to put towards travel vs hanging out w/ friends/family etc.

    The hard part with “travel hacking” is keeping track of what actually gets classified as your “travel/entertainment”. It’s easy if you’re using GoogleFlights/the FlightDeal etc b/c that is money directly spent on traveling. But what about the $5, $10,…$50….$100 you spend on gift card fees each month in order to “buy” UR pts? That should still be considered your “travel/entertainment”, but it’s easy to not keep as good of track of those purchases, and then to assume you still have the total amount of your “travel/entertainment” budget left to pay for a rental car/extra plane ticket etc out of pocket. And “buying” UR pts is just an example, the same could be said for credit card annual fees. You also can’t forget about all the expenses that rack up when you’re traveling that aren’t directly paid for with pts/miles…local transportation costs, eating out while on vacation, the price of activities wherever you’re going etc.

    Travel hacking SUBSTANTIALLY reduces the cost of traveling, but substantially does not mean ZERO.

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