You’re the type of person who would drop everything at a moment’s notice and get on an airplane — if you only had the funding.
By travel hacking, you can travel to your dream destination for cheap or even for free.
In this post, you will learn all about travel hacking, including the top tactics that people are using, some things to watch out for, and more.
Travel Hacking: Quick Overview
What is travel hacking?
In basic form, travel hacking is simply traveling without spending a lot of money.
Often, it’s associated with using credit card bonuses to cash in on free flights and hotels, which I’ll cover in just a bit. However, that’s not the only way to travel on a budget. There are many ways to start travel hacking.
Is travel hacking legal?
Don’t let the word “hacking” scare you. Travel hacking is perfectly legal. In this case, hacking refers to using your noggin to find ways to make your money go further when you are traveling.
Of course, always use your best judgment, especially when visiting foreign countries that have different laws and customs. If something feels illegal or like a scam, it probably is.
Top Travel Hacks to Try
Use credit card points
Find cheaper flights
Look for free lodging
Hack your food budget
Do what the locals do
Use local ATMs
Take your work with you
Consider a staycation
1. Use credit card points
One of the most popular travel hacks involves signing up for a new credit card that can rack up airline miles, hotel stays, and car rentals. For starters, look for credit cards with top-earning loyalty programs.
By opening up one, or several travel rewards cards, you can easily get enough points to cover the cost of round trip airfare and hotels for two people. You may also get free perks or upgrades at premium hotel chains.
An example of one of these offers might look something like this: “Spend $3,000 within 3 months of account opening with XYZ credit card to earn 50,000 points/miles”.
After you’ve hit the minimum spend, the points will hit your account and you can use them to “hack” your travel expenses.
DISCLAIMER: Using travel reward points can be a great hack. Personally, I have booked many hotels and free flights using this strategy. However, it’s also risky because it involves opening a line of credit and racking up charges. .
As a rule of thumb, never spend more than you otherwise would to earn credit card bonuses. Always watch your budget and pay down your balance in full at the end of each month. The last thing you want to do is create a high balance before vacation and then dig yourself into an even deeper hole with your vacation expenses. If you’re not careful, you could wind up spiraling into debt very quickly.
The trick is to look for ways to maximize your earnings on money that you already plan to spend. For example, suppose you typically spend $500 or $1,000 on groceries each month. You also plan to spend $1,000 on a new couch. Or maybe you need an expensive dental procedure. Between those costs alone, you can make significant progress toward hitting your new card’s spending requirements.
Just make sure that all of the transactions occur within that card’s minimum spend time window.
2. Find cheaper flights
You don’t have to take out a credit card to get good deals on flights. In fact, in some cases, you can get better deals on travel sites like Kayak or Travelocity.
To maximize your chance of getting a flight deal, the best thing you can do is start searching early. Flights are almost always cheaper many months ahead of the departure date, as opposed to a few weeks before you plan to leave.
Also, look for ways to travel during off-peak times. (Off-peak flights are almost always cheaper as well). If you can leave on a Tuesday or Wednesday, for example, your flight is most likely going to be cheaper than leaving on a Friday or Monday morning.
If you know that you typically fly with the same airline (for example, American Airlines), consider signing up for its frequent flyer miles program, AAdvantage. You can also consider getting a credit card that earns AAdvantage miles.
As an AAdvantage member, once you build up some miles, you can search for low-cost award flights online. I’m just using American Airlines as an example, but nearly every airline has its own rewards program.
Again, the early bird gets the worm when it comes to finding the cheapest award flights. You can also decide to use miles to splurge on a business class upgrade.
3. Look for free/cheap lodging
Some people prefer the comfort and safety of a hotel when traveling (e.g., the Hyatt, or Hilton). However, it comes at a cost, either in dollars or points.
Suppose you have 100,000 bonus points to spend. You can easily blow through that balance by using them to stay at a nice resort. Instead, I would suggest using your points to book flights (since you can’t get around flying to many destinations) and then look for ways to save on your accommodations.
Here are some creative ways to secure free or affordable lodging when traveling.
Travel hackers that are feeling adventurous should consider Couchsurfing, which is a global network that connects travelers with local hosts offering free places to stay.
Couchsurfing is a fun way to travel and visit new places without paying an arm and a leg in the process. Just keep in mind that you’ll sacrifice the privacy of a hotel room. You’ll also stay with complete strangers, which isn’t at the top of everyone’s list.
If you’re considering hoofing it across a place like Europe, consider taking a backpack and checking out local campgrounds. Camping can be a fun and cost-effective way to travel.
Just make sure to look ahead of time to find a campground that is safe, clean, and affordable. For example, in the U.S., there is Camping.com. If you’re going abroad, look into Camping Europe. If you plan to take long train trips, consider alternating nights of camping with overnight train rides.
For many travelers, hostels are the perfect middle ground between staying at hotels and camping. There are thousands of legit, safe hostels located all over the world. Check out Hostelworld.com to review your options at your next destination.
Staying at hostels is also an awesome way to meet other travelers and find new and exciting things to do.
4. Hack your food budget
Wherever you travel, you’re going to need to eat. But if you’re not careful, you can easily spend $100 or more each day on food and drinks, especially when visiting world-famous culinary destinations (e.g., New York or Tokyo).
If you are really looking to save every penny when traveling, here are a few hacks you can use to keep food costs to a minimum.
Bring your own food
Fill a travel bag with your favorite, easily-packable snacks like granola bars, trail mix, and peanut butter. These essentials can prevent you from splurging on dining out.
Alcohol can also be costly at popular destinations. Rather than paying for expensive drinks at a fancy beach bar, you might be able to bring your own and set up a picnic in the sand. However, make sure to check with local regulations to ensure this is legal.
Another easy hack is to bring an empty water bottle to the airport so you can fill it with water from a fountain once you get through security instead of paying $5 or more for a bottle.
Find local grocery stores
Using local grocery stories is another simple way to save money when traveling. Many grocery stores have prepared food you can take back to your hotel. Or, if your hostel or Airbnb has a kitchen, you can buy some local groceries and whip up your own meals. Shopping at local markets is also a great way to learn about local delicacies and food cultures.
5. Do what the locals do
One of the first things you should do when traveling is observe what the locals are doing. Where do they eat and shop, and what they do for fun?
Most locals are not visiting museums in their home cities on a daily basis. Chances are, you can meet helpful locals who can give you a variety of money-saving tips.
Engaging with locals is also a great way to make new friends and learn about fun and free activities, such as off-the-beaten-path swimming spots, nature walks, and events that might be taking place during your trip.
If you hit it off, you may even develop life-long friendships. For many people, this is a more fun way to spend time abroad than following in the footsteps of your fellow travelers. Again, be on alert for bad situations and don’t get yourself into trouble.
6. Use local ATMs
It’s usually a good idea to carry some cash when traveling, especially when visiting street markets and areas that may not take digital payments.
When you need to take out cash, your best bet is going to local ATMs that accept Visa debit cards, for example, and then just take out the money in the local currency.
You might have to pay an ATM fee (depending on your bank), but in most cases, that fee is going to be lower than exchanging currency at an airport kiosk.
7. Take your work with you
There’s never been a better time to bring your laptop with you and work from the road. I have personally done this all over the world and so have many of my friends.
This way, you can go for a longer period of time, you can see more destinations, and you won’t be burning a hole in your bank account because you still have a steady paycheck coming in.
Whether you are considering a road trip across the US, a Euro trip, or a few weeks in Southeast Asia, look for ways to bring in money while traveling. It’s a lot easier than it might sound.
Many people are already working from home. Does it really matter whether you are logging in from a hostel in Alaska, or your mom’s basement, so long as you are on top of your work?
That said, if this interests you, I recommend testing the waters to see if your boss is OK with you working while you are away. So long as you are keeping up with your daily responsibilities, why wouldn’t they be?
8. Consider a staycation
Another way that budget-conscious millennials are travel hacking is having staycations, which involve taking time off but staying closer to home.
For example, you may explore your local area’s hiking destinations, beaches, and gardens. Bring your favorite book with you. Sometimes all you need is to unplug for a few hours or days.
The pandemic has also made it very difficult to travel to exotic destinations. Let’s suppose you want to travel to India. You could organize an Indian-themed staycation, during which time you learn about Indian culture or language. You could then try your hand at cooking Indian food or order takeout from a local restaurant. After dinner, throw on the latest popular Indian movie.
At the end of the experience, you’ll walk away with a greater cultural appreciation of another country without leaving your home or local area.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is a sign-up bonus?
Many credit cards offer incentives called sign-up bonuses to entice customers to sign up. For example, a sign-up bonus may include rewards points that you can redeem for cash back, gift cards, or travel accommodations.
Is it a good idea to have multiple credit cards?
If you’re completely on top of your finances and cash flow, then you may want to sign up for multiple cards to maximize various rewards programs and bonuses.
There’s no limit to how many cards you open other than your ability to manage the accounts and pay down the balances. Plus, by having several accounts, your credit score may go up as your available credit increases.
Just remember to stick with a budget and avoid reckless spending. You should also look for ways to avoid paying annual fees, which can add up if you have several premium travel cards.
Lastly, I only recommend opening several credit cards if you have an emergency fund saved. This way, if an unforeseen expense comes up, you have the cash to pay it off right away. The alternative can lead to a never-ending debt spiral, which is the last thing you want.
Are free flights from credit card points really free?
Even if you save up enough bonus points to get a free flight on an airline like Delta, Southwest, British Airways, or American Airlines, you most likely still have to pay a little bit out of pocket in service fees and taxes. Furthermore, when you redeem credit card points for free travel, in many cases, you are making the choice to “spend” those points rather than redeem them as cash back. So you are still spending money.
Another thing to remember is that a “free” trip can lead to a lot of other expenses. If as a result of getting a free flight or hotel, you wind up overspending in other areas (like on clothes, or at restaurants) then you are back to square one.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, travel hacking is all about getting creative and finding strategic workarounds to save money. All too often, people go overboard spending on travel without considering how they’ll pay for it. Then, they spend the rest of the year, or many years down the line, paying down that debt.
The next time your sights are set on a particular destination, it might be time for you to start travel hacking. Plan ahead and use the above-mentioned tips to make that trip happen on the cheap.
At the end of the day, the less money you spend traveling, the more trips you can afford to take. Bon voyage!