Travel hacking, in short, is the art of getting more for less. In the context of location independence, it translates into a better quality of life, increased productivity and more opportunities. In this article, I cover the best strategies and my favorite hacks.
Important: Cashback sites
Before booking anything, you should register on a cashback site. By doing so, you will become eligible for a cashback on almost anything you purchase online. Prices will remain the same and you will still be able to book directly with your favorite merchants. For example: use a cashback link to book a hotel on Orbitz and you will get up to 6% back. Pretty sweet eh?
Here is how it works
1. Register on a cashback site. TopCashBack has the best selection of merchants and a good reputation when it comes to paying.
2. Search for a merchant on the cashback site (for example: IHG, Marriott etc).
3. Click on the “Get cashback” button (still on the cashback site).
4. You will be redirected to the merchant’s site where you can complete your purchase.
5. A few weeks after your purchase has gone through, you will receive your cashback (via PayPal or bank transfer).
Living in nice hotels is something many nomads aspire to. With most chain hotels charging at least 100 USD per night however, it is an aspiration which can get expensive. Even in lower cost locations, you will still need to spend upwards of 30000$US per year. While it is nearly impossible to reduce that to 0$, it can be reduced significantly by using the strategies listed below.
Joining every loyalty program should be your first move. There are two types of loyalty programs, chain and non-chain. It is important to understand the differences between the two as they serve different purposes. The chain programs are run directly by hotel chains (IHG Rewards Club is run by IHG for example) while non-chain programs are run by third parties (for example, Hotels.com runs the Hotels.com Rewards program). Chain programs usually offer in-property benefits as well as preferential rates and a better customer service experience while non-chain programs only offer a better customer service experience and in some cases, a cashback. Non-chain programs do offer more flexibility though and the ability to book independent hotels, hostels and B&Bs.
Why join all of them? Because you should never limit your options to one chain or one booking engine. What matters is knowing which program you should use for every specific booking.
The factors you have to look at are:
Search for your destination on Hotels.com, Booking.com and Agoda to get a good idea of the available options and their prices. I recommend using those filters: 3*, 4*, 5*, Ratings of 4+ (80%) and a “Price: low to high” display preference. Once you have found the three cheapest chain hotels, move on to the next point.
Most chain programs continually run promotions, they are not all worth your while but chances are, at least one of them might benefit you. What you should look for are free night certificates (for example, one free night certificate after two stays) and set bonus points (for example, 50000 points after 15 nights). In some cases, double/triple points promotions are worth it but in most they are not as they are based on spend instead of nights/stays. You should also look for bonuses such as the “Make a Green Choice” program run by Starwood / Marriott. These extra bonuses can add up and may even tip the balance in some cases. Once you have considered the promotions for the three cheapest chain hotels in your destination, you can move on to the next point.
(1.3) Duration of stay
The duration of your stay will massively influence which program you should book through. In most cases, chain programs will offer a number of bonus points for every stay completed on top of the normal and promotional points. For example, if you are an SPG platinum member you can receive 500 bonus points per stay. This means that you stand to benefit from breaking up long stays into shorter stays or if you really want to maximize earnings, into one night stays. Please note that chains are not stupid and booking multiple consecutive one night stays at the same hotel will not work. You will have to hotel hop. For example, you could stay at the Marriott Bangkok on day one then move over to the Renaissance Bangkok on day two and then move back to the Marriott Bangkok on day three. By doing so, you will collect the stay bonus three times along with three stay credits for elite qualification and potentially collect even more bonus points if you are enrolled in a stay-based promotion. Hotel hopping can also allow you to stay with multiple chains. Of course, it can be disruptive to your routine and should only be done after careful consideration. Here is an example to show you how valuable hotel hopping can be: Hotel hop for a month between the Aloft Bangkok and the Four Points by Sheraton Bangkok and you will earn 15000 extra points which can be redeemed for 5 free nights at any of those two hotels. That is just for the stay bonus, you will get a lot of regular, elite and promotional points on top of that. In total you could earn as many as 15-20 free nights for your 30 paid nights.
(1.4) Elite status
If you have elite status with a chain and that chain has an attractively priced hotel in your city of choice you should obviously consider staying there as you will get more bonus points and depending on the chain: free breakfast, an upgrade, late checkout etc. Obviously, if the chain with whom you hold elite status does not have any competitively priced option, you should not consider it simply out of loyalty.
After considering those four points you should be able to figure out where to stay. Before booking, make sure that the price you are quoted is the lowest anywhere on the internet (if it is not, contact the chain and inquire about their best price guarantee) and that you are using the best booking channel (chains will sometimes offer you bonus points if you book through their mobile apps for example). In my experience, you should get at least 4 free nights per 10 paid nights, if you are not then you are doing something wrong.
If you have not found any attractive chain hotels for your destination, you should consider booking an independent hotel through Hotels.com or a guesthouse through Booking.com. Make sure to join the Welcome rewards program before you book on hotels.com, you will get a free night for every 10 nights you book without using a promo code.
Here is a list of the main chain programs
– Starwood – SPG (Sheraton, Westin, Aloft, St Regis, LC, Le Meridien…)
– Marriott – Marriott Rewards (Marriott, JW Marriott, Renaissance, Courtyard…)
– Hyatt – Gold Passport (Park Hyatt, Grand Hyatt, Hyatt, Andaz…)
– Hilton – HHonors (Conrad, Hilton, Doubletree, Hilton Garden Inn…)
– Accor – Le Club (Sofitel, MGallerie, Pullman, Ibis, Novotel, Mercure…)
– IHG – Rewards Club (Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza, Indigo, Holiday Inn…)
Starwood has been acquired by Marriott and its loyalty program will be absorbed into Marriott’s in the near future.
Note: The importance of choosing the right time to visit a destination
Your choice of destination can obviously have a major impact on hotel prices. The time of travel can too, hotels tend to be more expensive during high season and public holidays. Make sure you Google your destination before booking (“name of the country” + public holidays and “name of the city” + high season). Have a look at the weather too, some destinations can be dirt cheap during “hurricane season” and in most cases, they are still perfectly safe to visit.
(2) Air travel
Air travel is another major expense for nomads, especially if you want to fly business class on every long haul. There are many ways to bring the cost of flying down. As with hotels, joining loyalty programs and participating in promotions will help but there are better ways such as using cheap city pairs, hidden-city ticketing, credit card churning, flying on low-cost carriers, using smart booking engines and in some cases, flying private.
(2.1) Cheap city pairs
When most people book air tickets, they look for flights between the city they are in and their destination and book the cheapest flight available. This is not the best way to go about it if you want to save money. Fares are not calculated based on distance but supply / demand and this means that prices can vary enormously even if the flown distance is similar. You can use that to your advantage, for example the cost of a one-way flight from Jakarta to Paris in business class was 1400$US at the time this article was published while a flight from Singapore to Paris was 980$US, also in business class. Instead of booking the flight from Jakarta, you can book the flight from Singapore and a cheap low-cost flight from Jakarta to Singapore. Even with the cost of the low-cost flight factored in, you will save over 300$US on this single booking. You can use this technique almost everywhere in the world and the savings can be very significant. Use Google’s ITA matrix to search for flights to/from multiple airports at the same time. For example, if flying from New York City to Berlin search JFK, LGA, EWR, PHL, BOS, WAS, IAD –> BER, TXL, DUS, MUC, FRA, WAW, POZ, CPH, HAM.
(2.2) Hidden city ticketing
While hidden city ticketing is frown upon by airlines and somewhat controversial, it can save you tons of money if done properly. How does it work? Let us say you want to fly to Atlanta from New York City on Delta Airlines. The cheapest one-way flight is 350$US and there is no way you will pay that much for this flight. You start searching for flights to other cities that would involve a connection in Atlanta and finally, you find a 150$US flight to Orlando with a stop in Atlanta and decide to book it with the intention of skipping the Atlanta-Orlando leg. Is it legal? Perfectly, is it against the T&C of the airlines? Yes. What does that means? It means that while hidden city ticketing is legal, it is not allowed by most airlines and if they discover what you are up to they will cancel your ticket. Is the risk big? Not at all, in fact, it is almost impossible to get caught unless you do it on a regular basis. What precaution should I take if I want to use hidden city ticketing? Only book one-ways, the airlines will always cancel your return journey if you skip one of the flights. Never check a bag as it will go all the way to your ticket’s destination and you will not be able to collect it. If possible, book the return with another airline to minimize your risk. You can find hidden-city tickets using any booking engine or a specialized engine such as SkipLagged.
(2.3) Signup bonuses
In many countries, it is possible to get a large number of miles or points when you signup for a new credit card, bank account or take a new loan. Even if you do not plan on using the card it may be worth getting it for the miles. Personally, I have never been into credit card churning as I keep my money in offshore banks where they do not usually offer significant signup bonuses. As such, I am not the best person to explain to you how it works or which cards you should get. Have a look at Flyertalk if you are interested in this hack: Flyertalk.
(2.4) Low cost carriers
There are now a multitude of low-cost carriers and this has resulted in the average airfare prices hitting incredible new lows. For example, at the time this article was published, for 150 USD it was possible to fly from New York to Oslo in Norway, from Stockholm to Bangkok, from Seoul to Kuala Lumpur and from Singapore to Sydney.
(2.5) Smart booking engines
Some booking engines are incredibly smart and can figure out very creative ways to get you to your destination if saving money is your goal. For example, a search for a flight from Shanghai to Nanning on one such engine resulted in multiple options: A direct flight from Shanghai to Nanning for 1000元, a flight from Shanghai to Guangzhou then a high-speed train to Nanning for 700元 and an overnight train from Shanghai to Nanning for 400元. My favorite smart engines are ITA Matrix, Skyscanner and Alitrip.
(2.6) Flying private
Flying private is not something most people would think of when trying to save money. They could not be more wrong. With the rise of services like Jetsmarter, flying private has not only become affordable but in some cases, cheaper than flying commercial. The way Jetsmarter works is quite simple: you buy their annual membership package and that gives you access to all their empty-leg flights (those are essentially re-positioning flights) and their shuttle flights. There are loads of them departing from multiple airports across the US and Canada every day. Empty legs and shuttle flights are free for members and you can usually bring a guest with you. Flexibility is key here as you never know in advance which destination will become available, the departure time or if a return flight will become available etc. For someone with a lot of free time, it is a pretty fantastic way of discovering North America and if you fly regularly it can be a lot cheaper than flying commercial. Read my review of the service here.
(3) The sharing economy
The rise of services such as AirBNB, Uber and Roomorama is quickly changing the way many of us travel. Here are the main services and the best ways to use them.
AirBNB has quickly become a household name, a multi-billion dollar company also. You can use their platform to book an apartment/house/bed almost anywhere in the world and you can also list your own place for other travelers to book. To be honest I like the idea of AirBNB but not the company itself. I think that they are way too extreme when it comes to identifying their users (you have to submit a scan of your passport info page, connect your Facebook account, phone number etc), their customer service sucks and the fees they charge guests and hosts are ridiculous. They do have the largest collection of properties though so it may still be worth it to sign up with them if you cannot find any suitable options on HomeAway, HomeAway Asia or OneFineStay. It is important to note that they also offer monthly pricing on bookings spanning at least 30 days.
(3.2) HomeAway and HomeAway Asia
Also known as VRBO, HomeAway is quite similar to AirBNB but without the crap customer service and the ID/Facebook requirements. They have a significant number of listed properties in the Americas, Europe, Asia and they are growing quickly in other markets.
OneFineStay is the upmarket AirBNB. They focus exclusively on high-end properties but currently only serve a few major cities. I like the way they operate though and I recommend keeping an eye on them as they expand to more destinations.
While Uber may not always be cheaper than a regular cab, it is more transparent, the cars are usually better and so is the service. They often have promos, they have even given free helicopter rides on some occasions.
(4) The free stuff
The way housesitting works is pretty simple: a house owner is going away for a certain amount of time and needs someone to look after their house and pet(s). They offer that someone the chance to stay free of charge in their house and in exchange expect their pet(s) to be taken care of and the house to be kept in pristine condition. For someone traveling on a budget, it can be a great way to secure decent accommodation in otherwise expensive destinations. To get started, simply signup on these three sites, complete your profile and apply for housesits. MindMyHouse, HouseSitter and TrustedHouseSitters.
(4.2) Work in exchange for a place to stay and three meals a day
While it is not really my thing, some travelers may find interesting to know that it is possible to work in exchange for food and shelter in almost every country thanks to sites like WorkAway. Simply signup, select a destination and contact the hosts that offer the most interesting jobs.
Who does not know Couchsurfing? It has been around for years and has millions of members. While it is not what it used to be, it still is a great place to meet other travelers and find places to stay. Even if you do not want to stay in a stranger’s house, you can use Couchsurfing to meet locals for meals and drinks.
(5) Other hacks
(5.1) Getting rid of your small change with a Starbucks card
Anyone who travels a lot has been in that situation: you are about to leave a country and you still have a bunch of coins in the local currency. The Starbucks card hack allows you to get rid of those coins in a very efficient manner. Here is how it works:
1. Get a Starbucks card in your home country (if it participates in the global Starbucks program).
2. Before leaving a country, simply pop into any Starbucks and ask them to reload your card with your coins.
3. The value added will automatically be converted to the currency of the card at no cost (market rate).
4. You can then spend the money at any participating Starbucks worldwide.
(5.2) Use local deal sites
Before choosing a restaurant/attraction, have a look at the local deal sites. In many cases, you can save tons of money with only a very small time investment. For example, about half the restaurants in China offer discounts on DianPing or MeiTuan. Most of the time it will not be substantial (10-20% off) but if you save that much every meal it can add up over time. The most popular sites are Groupon, Livingsocial, DianPing and MeiTuan.
(5.3) Always get cash from ATMs
Never get money directly from banks/money changers or “shudder” Travelex. ATMs almost always offer the best rates and if you have a decent card you will not have to pay any fee (or very little).