It’s 11:50PM where my plane took off from and 8:50AM where my plane will land in a few hours. I’ve got a poor man’s first class seat—an economy class seat with the no one sitting in either of the other two seats next to me. I should probably be adjusting to U.S. time by now but I can’t help but take advantage of the free-flowing wine. “I’ll have another red, please.”
Life is good. A 22-hour airplane ride is long enough to make my feet and ankles swell up and requires multiple deodorant applications throughout. Yet who can complain? My flight—from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to San Francisco, U.S.A,—is free after paying the inescapable fuel surcharge and numerous airport taxes. My flight back to where I came from several weeks from now? Also free.
I’m arriving a day late of course—the plane coming out of Kuala Lumpur was late arriving in Singapore, so I missed my connection. An unexpected detour to be sure, but a welcome one. Singapore is an immaculate little city-state with some of the best food and entertainment options in the world. I also just happened to have a few Singapore dollars burning a hole in my bag from the last time I was there visiting.
After apologizing for the “inconvenience” and rescheduling my departure for the next morning, I was sent off to my hotel—the 4-star Carlton—for a night’s stay, free of charge, meals in the hotel restaurant included.
Travel suckers and hackers
There’s an affordable way to see the world and there’s an expensive way to see the world—both of which can be luxurious if you’re willing to be a little patient and take advantage of the many options available to you.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention that I don’t live in San Francisco, so my journey won’t be ending there. Singapore Airlines doesn’t fly to Phoenix, Arizona—where I’m from—so I’ll have to catch another flight out of San Francisco on another carrier. The good news is, it’s also free.
What follows are the best ways I’ve learned over the years (sometimes after getting burned myself) to save money on travel costs while still having a great time and occasionally enjoying the finest luxury. My only warning to you is this: When you realize how easy it is to travel the world with very little money, you’re going to want to quit your job, or at least reorganize it to be 100% mobile.
1. Rewards programs
What we’re really talking about here are credit card rewards programs, but they often go hand-in-hand with hotel and airline rewards programs that can be equally helpful. If you haven’t mastered the fine art of paying your bills on time, skip to number 2, because you may get yourself hurt. For everyone else, trust me for a second, I’m not selling snake oil.
Most people who sign up for credit cards (hopefully the ones who are now reading number 2) have no business owning credit cards. They view them as tools for spending beyond their means and delaying the pain of losing actual dollars and cents from their bank accounts. The good news is, because so many of these people exist, you stand to benefit.
Credit card companies have designed rewards programs to be baited hooks. Only, instead of earthworms, the bait they use is the finest lobster you’ve ever tasted–credit card points for free or discounted hotel rooms and flights. If you simply look at the bait carefully before swallowing it whole, you can safely remove it without getting hooked and being reeled into a boat of giddy creditors.
The key is to churn and burn with credit cards, but to do so responsibly. Find the highest point reward offers for the lowest amount of spending with no annual fees, and pounce. Once you’ve reached the point threshold, you can either keep using that card and accumulate more points one by one for years and years, or you can switch it up with another and do it all over again. I prefer the latter, and currently have seven credit cards in my rotation.
With modest credit card spending ($1,000 a month will usually do the trick), you can very easily earn 150,000 points or more every year—good for all the flying you can probably stand. For reference purposes, my flight from Kuala Lumpur to San Francisco costed me just under 30,000 points, and that’s one of the longest flights in the world.
My only words of advice are to pay your bills on time (ahead of time is better), and be mindful of annual fees. If your credit card offers to waive an annual fee for the first year, be sure cancel or downgrade the card to a fee-free one before that year is up.
2. Stay in hostels
I understand that some people will resist this at all costs. So be it. But I question your snobbery, and kindly ask that you reconsider. Hostels are a fantastic travel hack, and are often nicer than some of the seedy hotels you’ll end up staying in if you ever travel off the beaten path at all. If it makes you feel better, call it a guesthouse.
A hostel can sometimes cost 10-15% what a similar quality hotel would cost. The only catch is that you’ll have some roommates. Fortunately for you, just about everyone else has the same concerns about being mixed in a room with strangers, so if you prefer to be left alone, you will be. Without a doubt, if you want to travel cheaply and get an intimate look at wherever you’re going, your best option is to stay in a hostel.
Competition is high in the hostel industry and many of the innovation-crushing rules that apply to hotels don’t apply to hostels, so they’re able to cut the unnecessary fluff you don’t need or care about to focus on what actually matters.
3. A no or low-fee debit card
If hanging around seedy joints in foreign countries is your thing, you won’t need this hack. But if you think money-changers are inherently confusing and occasionally dangerous, get a card that allows ATM withdrawals in whatever country you’re visiting and at whatever bank, free of charge.
There are few more unpleasant travel predicaments to find yourself in than to be at an ATM trying to guess how much cash you’ll need for the duration of your trip because the ATM fee is outrageous and you’re on a budget. Having the freedom to withdraw as much or as little as you need, when you need, is travel hack that is more liberating than you many realize. The Charles Schwab checking account is my personal favorite.
4. Travel discount sites
There’s several useful discount aggregator sites for hotels, flights, and even rental cars. Often, the rates you’ll find are better than what the hotel or airline itself offers on their own website. Discount aggregator sites are usually receiving a small percentage of the final sale, though, which presents yet another opportunity to have some leverage for getting the best possible price. By contacting the hotel or airline and offering to purchase from them directly, they will sometimes offer a better price in order to avoid paying a percentage to the third-party website. It’s also just a little more foolproof for booking and may give you the ability to make special requests.
Here are a few of my favorites worth checking out:
5. Private review sites
In order to make sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck, it’s key to check multiple private review websites. You might get a steep discount on a 4-star rated hotel, but it may be one that’s perpetually overpriced. The measurement tools used by professional star-rating agencies may not account for aspects of a hotel you care about, and it may over account for aspects of a hotel you care nothing about.
Private customer review sites will help you find individual reviewers discussing the details important to you, and tell you whether or not the hotel meets their standards. Be mindful of fake or insincere reviews—they’re easy enough to spot because the reviewer generally will have only one or two reviews under their belt. When you complete a stay, leave some reviews yourself, especially when you have a positive experience. The good guys in the business world deserve to be rewarded, and you have the power to do so.
There are multiple private review sites, but here are my two favorites:
6. Unlisted domestic carriers
Foreign domestic airlines often offer some of the best prices on airfare. They tend to be no-frills and subsidized by local governments to keep prices competitively low. They also don’t always have the best websites, and sometimes don’t show up on third-party discount aggregator websites. With a little Google research, you can usually find some low-cost domestic carriers if you don’t mind flying without some of the luxuries of other airlines.
7. Buy Foreign Sim Cards
This can be complicated, especially if the country you’re visiting has a low English comprehension rate and you don’t speak the language. With a little effort, though, you can easily find someone who will assist you.
One of the most difficult things about traveling abroad is communication. If you rely on the roaming services of your home cell phone company, you’re going to end up with a hefty bill. You’re much better off having a local prepaid SIM card with a local number. They are often as cheap as around $5 and don’t require any signing a contract. If you’re going to be making friends with the locals—and I hope you do—you’re going to want to have a local number to give your new friends for contacting you while you’re in their country.
Those are my 7 most potent travel hacks, and they save me literally thousands of dollars every year while providing me with added luxury and comfort during the times I need it most. Put them to good use and see the world. Don’t forget to represent your country well while you’re abroad. Use your travel savings to be generous and set the best possible example for fellow travelers. Enjoy!