It’s the email or Facebook message I get the most: What’s the best way to travel to (insert city of your dreams) for free?

And the answer is inevitably disappointing: In your dreams.

Because here is the deal, the real cold, hard truth: Travel isn’t free. No matter what Rolling Stone might have recently said. No matter what you hope. It just isn’t free.

But as one of my favorite bloggers Ben (coincidentally the subject of the Rolling Stone profile that inspired this post) says, getting into the travel game is about how to make this:

Business Class on a Qatar Airways 787 Dreamliner

Cheaper than this:

Economy is nice in the LAN 787 Dreamliner but let's not fool ourselves: It' not business or first class!

Economy is nice in the LAN 787 Dreamliner but let’s not fool ourselves: It’ not business or first class!

And that’s where simple strategies like these come into play! 

Let’s call this a simple strategy for how to fly for almost free. And we’ll introduce a few of the cold hard truths many don’t want to talk about.

Credit Card Bonuses Are Essential

I earn roughly 400,000 to 500,000 miles through credit cards alone. Now before you’re tempted to think Laura and I live in a beach house in Malibu and spend, realize this: Credit cards offer large bonuses for you to open cards with them. And so many of us who are fanatical about the points and miles world open about 2-3 credit cards every 3 months, collect the lucrative bonus of thousands of miles and hotel points, and then decide what to do with the cards. Some, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the American Express SPG stay in my wallet no matter what. Others last about a year before they’re chopped.

Insider Tip: If you aren’t comfortable canceling a card right away, still call to cancel. Often I call, say I love the card (which is usually true) but I just can’t afford to keep it (also true). Often the bank will provide a credit for one more year.

But What About Your Credit Score?

It’s right at 800. There’s a myth that applying for credit cards will DESTROY your credit score and it’s simply not true. This data from myfico.com shows you how your credit score is ACTUALLY determined and it turns out, opening new credit lines accounts for only 10% of your overall score. Much more important are paying on time and not owing too much. Credit Score Determination Travel

So applying for a new card will temporarily ding your score but as my own credit history and that of many other people show, it won’t ruin your credit!

Loyalty Pays

Airlines are making it harder for average customers to be loyal. Of the big three US domestic carriers, only American Airlines still awards you miles based on the number of miles you actually fly. If you’re a big spender, United and Delta might be your friend but for the average traveler, American is the best. Here’s an example of why:

I recently flew to East Africa, connecting through Amsterdam. My itinerary was LA to San Fran to Amsterdam to Kigali (LAX-SFO-AMS-KGL) and back the same route. That is a total of 19,656 total miles flown. An average customer on American Airlines would have received just that many miles. Awesome!

But Delta rewards you based on the cost of that ticket NOT MILES FLOWN. For an ordinary customer with no status, the earn rate is 5 miles per dollar spent. Turns out, I got a great deal on that flight: $1018. And so that means the total miles I earned with Delta on this route: 5,084 or only about a fourth of what I would have earned with American Airlines.

So when does loyalty pay as a Delta or United customer? When you’re a big spender.

But wait, there’s more!

Like I was saying above, loyalty pays. I fly American Airlines and their OneWorld partners like LAN, British Airways, Cathay, etc… a lot! And so I have platinum status with American. This means I get priority security and boarding. I often get domestic first class upgrades. It means when I travel abroad I get cool lounge access with:

1. free food, coffee, and premium beverages (read: booze).

Free noodle bar, coffee, booze and more make a visit to my favorite Cathay Pacific lounge in Hong Kong that much more enjoyable!

2. Free showers. You have no idea how great of a perk this is until you become accustomed to exiting a long flight and recharging for your next flight.

LATAM Lounge in Santiago.

3. Relaxing and inviting spaces to pass time.

Just another day at the airport when you have lounge access.

But most important for the thrifty traveler, it means I earn bonus miles on my travel. And so going back to LAX-SFO-AMS-KGL route:

As a Delta customer I earned 5,084 miles.

If I had the same elite status I have with American on Delta, I would have earned 8 miles a dollar instead of 5 and thus earned 8,144 miles.

An average American customer might expect to earn 19,656 miles

Because of my elite status I earn double mileage on my flights. And so that means I would have earned 39,312 miles on that one trip alone!

Use the Right Card for the Right Purchase

Do this right now: Download Wallaby. Don’t worry, it’s free! If you have more than one credit card, chances are you’ve got various incentives to use one card for certain purchases over another. For example, my Chase Ink provides me 5 points per dollar spent on my cell phone bill. That’s obviously much better than the 1 mile per dollar I’d earn on any other card in my wallet. I’ve got a card that’s best for gasoline. One that will earn me more points on groceries. And a few that really incentive travel and eating out.

Wallaby tells you which card to use when. Simply tell the app which types of cards you have and then when you’re out and about and can’t remember which card provides the most valuable, search Wallaby. Doing this will help you multiply miles on day to day spending!

Every Dollar Counts? So Does Every Mile

Shopping portals are your friend. Whenever Laura and I are going to purchase anything online, we first head over to evrewards.com and see which shopping portal provides the best return on our money. The short and simple is this: If you’re going to buy something from Macy’s, you can first enter a shopping portal that provides cash back or miles per dollar, click Macy’s, and buy what you were going to buy, same price as listed, but receive those miles or cash back weeks later. We’ve talked about this extensively on the blog but we’ve earned close to $1,000 cash bag and 20,000 miles for doing something we would have done anyway.

There are also various reward programs that reward dining. We’re on the one for American, and we earn 5 miles a dollar at certain restaurants. Again, for doing nothing other than what we would have already done: Eat. Pay. Love. I couldn’t resist.

How to Use Your Points and Miles

This is where popular opinion (or temptation) differs with most advice: If you want to get the best value for your miles and points, you use them on what we’ll call aspirational spends. So what this means is this: Please don’t ever use your miles for domestic economy redemptions. Unless that ticket is really expensive.

We’ve used our points and miles in special ways and on experiences we’d otherwise never be able to afford.

Kicking back in our favorite business class product: Cathay Pacific

You could spend almost $7,000 to fly business class Los Angeles to Hong Kong roundtrip. Or, you could spend 130,000 miles and about a hundred dollars.

Another example:

The famous Five Star Park Hyatt Tokyo

Spend about $675.00 a night to stay at the Park Hyatt Tokyo OR 30,000 points a night.

See our point?

The Internet Will Set You Free

We have instant and free access to resources created by people who know more about our dream destinations than we do! Nomadic Notes is a great blog that has travel guides broken down by city and country for several popular destinations. It’s a compilation of advice from James as well as other blogs and bloggers and I recently have found it a useful starting point often to sort through some of the noise of the internet. This is but one of many resources available to the savvy traveler.

Final Thoughts

Travel for free? Hopefully by now you agree, travel isn’t free! But there are ways to save thousands and make it more attainable. And it’s not exclusive to using points and miles, though that sure helps. We just wrote about saving about $500 to go see the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. We didn’t use a single point or mile, we just got smart about our searches and the discounts at our disposal that often go overlooked. And so even when using points and miles, to save the most, it requires doing a bit of homework. Know which points and miles offer the best opportunities for the trip you want to take. Learn which routes have low taxes and fees, and which ones are super high (here’s a hint: Using points and miles to go to or pass through London kills your pocketbook). People want something for nothing and hey, who doesn’t. But like most of life: It simply isn’t possible. But solid and intentional strategy open up a world of possibility. You might not be able to travel for free, but with the right investment of time, energy, and money, you can travel at dramatically reduced prices!

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