How to Travel in Style Without Breaking the Bank

Think you can’t travel comfortably because it’s too expensive? Think again. There are a lot of resources out there about travel hacking, which is essentially doing things strategically to get free (or almost free) travel. The number one way to travel hack is to search out credit cards offering travel reward miles or points upon sign up. But who has time to continually open and close new credit card accounts, with the added stress of maintaining a healthy credit rating? Too much work for me. While I don’t strive to get free travel, I do try to get the best quality travel for the lowest price whenever possible. Here are two ways to help you get more and better travel options:

  1. Check your credit card. This option is actually quickly becoming the easier of the two ways I’m describing to gain elite travel status. As reaching elite status with airlines is becoming increasingly difficult due to new accumulation rules and minimum-spend requirements, credit cards just might be the way to go. Many cards will offer travel reward points for first, signing up, and second, using the card. Some of these will come with a yearly fee (this can run between $300-$500 for elite status cards), so you need to weigh out how much you travel and use your credit card to determine if this is a good option for you. Credit cards that are affiliated with a travel program, particularly specific airlines, can include benefits such as free checked luggage (at $20-30 per checked bag, this can easily add up if you’re a frequent flyer), free cancellation or travel insurance, and free business lounge access (if you don’t have the convenience of living beside a major airport with direct flights, you might find yourself waiting at sometimes multiple, stopovers. The business lounge offers a more comfortable place to wait, free drinks and snacks, free WiFi, showers, and high priority flight services). In addition, a few cards will also offer advanced boarding privileges and better seats. This, however, ties you to flying with only one or two airlines – depending on your card, you may also have access to a network of airlines, such as OneWorld or Star Alliance. Then, all you need to do is use your cards for things you would normally buy anyway, or use it to pay your monthly bills.

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  1. Join rewards programs. Although it’s easy to just enroll in any reward programs that come your way, it takes a bit more strategic planning to actually accrue and use the points that you need to have much value. First, start with the airlines that are most available from your home city. Since this is where you will be flying in and out of most frequently, it will be quicker to accrue points with a resident airline. Next, look at the network of partner airlines that are connected to your resident airlines – e.g. OneWorld, Star Alliance, SkyTeam, Sky Miles. The more partner airlines in a network, the more opportunities you have to collect points. Before signing up, also check the minimum number of points needed to redeem for rewards, and to make their “gold status” list, because ultimately, that is when you will get the most value for your membership. Here are some of my favourite rewards programs:
  • Star Alliance – I try to fly with Star Alliance airlines as often as possible because Air Canada and United Airlines are most prevalent at my home airport (Calgary). Although WestJet sometimes offers cheaper fares, their network is smaller, with fewer international flights available. I used to have memberships with both Air Canada and United, but soon realized that I needed fewer points to achieve gold status with Air Canada, and also, that there were more flight reward options departing from Calgary, so I’ve since merged my accounts and continue to have gold status with both. Remember that there are many ways to earn points besides flying. Many airlines have their own online stores, or affiliate companies that will give you points when you make purchases or reservations with them. Because of my gold status, when I fly with them, I have 3 free checked bags per flight, priority check-in and priority boarding (which means I can comfortably arrive at the airport less than an hour before my scheduled flights), free seat upgrades when available (I fly in business class approximately 75% of the time for no extra charge), and access to all Star Alliance business lounges (I love being able to take a hot shower in the middle of a long day of travel, and catch up on work and emails with free high speed Internet). As already noted, achieving gold status is becoming increasingly more difficult because of the new minimum-spend requirements. Buying low-cost airfares may no longer qualify you.
  • OneWorld – because I travel so often, it is sometimes not possible to fly with Star Alliance, depending on flight routes, and/or other airlines are significantly cheaper (I look for anything over $200 in savings). While I usually don’t earn enough points in a year to obtain (and maintain) gold status with OneWorld, points earned can be kept for years, and many of their airlines have the option of redeeming points to give to charities, so it is easy to keep your account active (and do some good at the same time). For example, my membership is with American Airlines, and you can donate as little as 1000 points to a charity of your choice. And of course, it’s a bonus that every few years or so I do actually earn enough points to redeem for a free flight.
  • Agoda – this is a hotel reservation site owned by booking.com and by simply booking hotels through them (for the same price or cheaper than I can find on booking.com, Expedia, hotels.com or many other aggregate booking companies), I am able to earn enough points to redeem for at least one free week of hotel stays per year. They also offer “insider deals” every week, which are often up to 20% cheaper than other hotel sales, including booking directly through the hotel. I average about one free stay every 7-8 stays, which is slightly better than hotel.com’s “every 10th night free”. The other unique feature about Agoda is that they allow you to accrue points when you book stays for other people, even if you aren’t staying yourself. Read more about Where to Stay at Affordable Prices.
  • Expedia Plus – most of the points that I earn through Expedia are for car rentals, or hotels when I can’t find anything suitable on Agoda. Being an Expedia Plus member often gives you free room upgrades when booking hotels. I also book flights using Expedia when they offer the same fares as Google Flight Search, or booking directly with the airlines. However, I find that their change/cancellation policies are limiting, so they are no longer my first choice for flights. Read more about Finding the Best Flights for your Travels.
  • Airmiles – I’m a bit undecided as to whether this should make my list. While it is easy to earn points with Airmiles because there are so many affiliate companies, it takes a long time to earn enough to redeem for substantial travel, and the travel that you can redeem for are usually the lowest priced fares, restricting flexibility and options. Most of my Airmiles redemptions have been for household things, or things that can help to enhance your travel experience – such as a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones (I love my Bose). To accrue points faster, try to find ways to “double-dip” for points. For example, you can log into airmilesshops.ca (for Canadians) and then book with Expedia, which means you earn airmiles, flight miles, and credit card points as well. Win, win, win.

The three things that make any travel experience better are money, convenience, and comfort. By cashing in on free rewards, upgrades, or access to better services, you can strategically plan to make your travels less stressful and more enjoyable. There are hundreds of other rewards programs that I haven’t listed here that may be better suited to your travel needs. Just remember to show your membership cards when you make purchases, pay with your points affiliated credit cards, and redeem for rewards as often as you can. Enrolling in frequent flyer and other rewards programs only takes a few minutes, and you can literally watch the rewards come to you.

Happy travels! Have a travel hack you want to share? Leave a comment and share these tips with others!

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