Top Travel Hacking Tips from PointsNerd
As this will be my final post for the foreseeable future, I thought I would provide my readers with a synopsis of sorts. The hope and intent here is to provide you with an easy to digest list of tips and tricks to keep in mind so that you can maximize your likelihood of success in this game we call Travel Hacking.
Have A Goal
This is pretty basic but it’s a mistake that I see a lot. People jump into Travel Hacking without an end goal in mind. Without that end goal, you are pretty much hoping that the miles and points you collect will get you to where you want to go, and I can tell you that more times than not, it’s not going to work out for you.
Marketers are paid to make every offer attractive so if you aren’t careful, you’ll sign up for the wrong programs. Signing up for the wrong programs isn’t the worst thing in the world but putting all your spend and effort into those programs can be disastrous.
Where you are located geographically and where you want to go will narrow down the program(s) you want to concentrate on. One great resource that will help you identify which program(s) you want to focus your efforts on is AwardHacker. Just plug in your origin and destination and it will show you which program will get you there for the least amount of points.
Give Yourself Options
While I stand firmly by my first tip, if you are able, you need to have a diverse portfolio of points so that you can pull things off like the Frankenflight. In order to have these kinds of options, you need to have a diverse portfolio of points. As an example, I hold miles/points in a variety of airline programs like Aeroplan, Alaska Airlines MileagePlan, and AAvantage. I also have points in various hotel programs like SPG, Marriott, and Hilton.
So the question is, how do you have a diverse portfolio and earn enough points to actually redeem for what you want? Well, the answer lies in transferable points.
The two programs that I recommend to everyone in Canada are American Express’ Membership Rewards (MR) Program and the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) Program. The reason for this is that both points give you a ton of options to transfer to different airline programs.
For American Express Membership Rewards, you can transfer to the following:
- Air Canada Aeroplan at a 1 to 1 ratio
- British Airways Avios at a 1 to 1 ratio
- Cathay Pacific’s Asia Miles at a 1 to 0.75 a ratio
- Alitalia’s MilleMiglia Miles at a 1 to a 0.75 ratio
- Delta’s SkyMiles at a 1 to 0.75 ratio
- Etihad Guest Miles at a 1 to 0.75 ratio
Additionally, you can transfer your MRs into hotel programs at the following ratios:
- Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) at a 1 to 0.50 ratio
- Hilton Honors at a 1 to 1 ratio
To earn Membership Rewards quickly, you can sign up for the cards below (all links go to PointsNerd’s review of the cards):
- American Express Gold Personal — 25,000 Membership Rewards after $1,500 spend — $150 Annual Fee
- American Express Gold Business — 40,000 Membership Rewards after $5,000 spend — No Annual Fee for the First Year
- American Express Platinum Personal — 60,000 Membership Rewards after $3,000 spend — $699 Annual Fee (get that to $299 — info in the review)
- American Express Platinum Business — 75,000 Membership Rewards after $5,000 spend — $499 Annual Fee
SPG has even better transfer options with 36 airline partners:
To earn SPG points quickly, you can sign up for the following cards (all links go to PointsNerd’s review of the cards):
- American Express SPG Personal — 20,000 SPG after $1,500 spend — $120 Annual Fee
- American Express SPG Business — 20,000 SPG after $1,500 spend — $150 Annual Fee
Also remember that when you transfer SPG to an airline program, you receive a 5,000 mile bonus for every 20,000 SPG transferred. For example, if you were to transfer 20,000 SPG, you would receive 25,000 Aeroplan, or AAvantage, or Alaskan Airlines MileagePlan, or … you get the idea.
Think Backwards and Understand How Programs Link
Much like I encourage people to think about the end goal first before committing to a program, I also encourage you to think backward. What do I mean by that? Well, think about it this way.
When I was booking my Etihad First Class and Business Class seats, I first looked to AwardHacker to figure out the best points program that could get me there. That program turned out to be the American Airlines Advantage Program. There aren’t a lot of ways for Canadians to earn AAvantage Miles except flying with American so that wasn’t an option but I knew that both SPG and Marriott could transfer to AAvantage.
I needed 100,000 AA Miles in order to book the First Class ticket from Sydney (SYD) to Abu Dhabi (AUH), which meant that I needed 80,000 SPG (remember, you get a 5,000 mile bonus when transferring in 20,000 increments). However, I also knew that Marriott has a Travel Package, whereby you can redeem Marriott points for airline miles and a 7-night stay certificate for a Category 1–5 hotel.
If I wanted 120,000 AA Miles and a 7-night stay certificate for any Marriott Category 1–5 hotel, I would need 270,000 Marriott Points, but I knew that you can transfer SPG to Marriott at a 1:3 ratio, so I would only need 90,000 SPG (90,000 SPG = 270,000 Marriott). This would result in 20,000 more AA Miles than if I did a straight SPG to AAvantage transfer and a 7-night stay certificate.
I went with the Marriott Travel Package in the end but let’s keep working backward.
I knew that I needed 90,000 SPG so I had to figure out a way to get those SPG points. Luckily Membership Rewards from American Express transfer to SPG at a 2:1 ratio.
So the way I thought about it was this:
AAvantage ← Marriott Travel Package ← SPG ← Membership Rewards
Essentially, what you need to understand is the linkages between programs. While most people would stop at “it’s really hard to get AA Miles in Canada, there are always options. You just need to think outside the box. Start at the end and work forward.
Don’t Ever Forget About Cashback
Let’s face it, Travel Hacking is about maximizing your hard earned rewards. We are always looking to stretch the miles that we have into things like mini-round-the-world vacations and using them for sweet spots redemptions within programs. It’s a mentality that should be used throughout your life and not just when you are using miles or points for flights.
I have been a HUGE advocate of cashback sites because they reward you for purchasing things you were already going to purchase anyways. If you aren’t sure what a cashback site is or how they work, check out my post about them here.
Great Canadian Rebates is especially good for cashback on the MBNA Alaska World Elite MasterCard. That card provides you with 25,000 Alaska Miles after $1,000 spend in the first 3 months with an annual fee of $75. That in itself is a great deal but if you sign up for the card through Great Canadian Rebates, you will receive $60 cash back, taking your annual fee down to $15! The great thing about this is that you can churn this card multiple times a year so you can rack up your Alaska Miles very quickly.
I have personally received thousands of dollars in cash back incentives through the years and you can too. If you can buy it online, there’s likely a cashback bonus so don’t forget to check. If you aren’t using cashback portals, you are literally leaving money on the table.
Build Your Network
Trust me. As much as I try to help with this blog, there is nothing like spitballing an idea with people that have the same passion as you. Whether that be in person or over chat, having a network is absolutely essential to developing your Travel Hacking game. I have personally met dozens of people at events like PointsU and while I may have originally balked at the idea of paying for a Travel Hacking Conference, I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be anywhere as good at Travel Hacking without the group of friends I met through PointsU.
I would highly encourage you to attend the next conference (likely in Toronto) and make the most of it. Come to the social events before the conference and after the conference so you can meet some new people. It’s amazing how much information is shared at these things, especially if you are willing to share what you know. Just like in life, with Travel Hacking, you get out what you put in.
Think about it, why would someone just give you all their Travel Hacking secrets if you refuse to provide something of substance in return?
Conferences are an ideal time to build out your networks but be sure to take advantage of the time you have with these like-minded people.
Read the Terms and Conditions
Terms and Conditions are boring and sometimes hard to read, but if you take the time to decipher the code, you are very likely to come across loopholes. Interested in if the new contest for 1,000,000 Aeroplan actually requires you to purchase a vehicle from Volvo? Read the terms and conditions. In Canada, most contests that require a purchase will have a way for you to enter the draw without making a purchase.
Wrap your head around how contests and promotions are structured and you could take advantage of different ways to win.
I remember a contest for front row seats for a Tragically Hip concert that I wanted to win. The terms and conditions didn’t say anything about the maximum number of entries you could have nor did it mention that you needed to have your entries filled in by hand. An hour with a photocopier and a paper slicer entered me into the contest 10,000 times. Needless to say, I won.
Register for Everything
If you see a contest, status match or promotion that’s being offered? Sign up for it. You never know when it might come in handy.
I personally never stay at Best Westerns but when they offered a status match from my Marriott account, I signed up and became Best Western Diamond.
Turns out, we needed a last minute hotel in Port Campbell, Australia, and the best option was a Best Western. We got a free breakfast because of my elite status and all for about 30 seconds worth of effort.
Trust me. It’s worth your time to do so. It definitely speaks to the adage, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Don’t Let Non-Experts Dissuade You
There are lots of times where people that don’t understand Travel Hacking encourage you not to do something because it “won’t work”. Take their advice with a grain of salt. If you’ve read the terms and conditions like I suggested above, you are well equipped to deal with the opportunity, at least more so than the person giving you “sage” advice.
As you become a more advanced Travel Hacker, you will find that you will need to experiment in order to uncover hidden ways to take advantage of lucrative opportunities. Whether that be through contests, promotions, or manufactured spend, you will need to experiment to see what works for you.
Never give up … or at least never give up easily. There have been so many times that I have seen others give up on trying to make a redemption work because they’ve lost patience. I have always believed in never giving up so I don’t quit easily.
Take, for example, the Marriott 5-Night Travel Package. I called over 40 times to get this to work but when I was successful, I was able to prove that the restriction of getting these 5-Night Packages was not a Marriott system limitation but rather a human one, meaning that the phone representative was the gatekeeper for the redemption.
While it is certainly more difficult to obtain than in the past, I am confident that with enough persistent, I’m certain you can make it work.
Travel Hacking is essential a state of mind and by adopting the tips above, you will be well on your way to becoming a good Travel Hacker. While these tips may be fairly commonsense for those who have been doing it for a while, they should be embraced by those that are new to Travel Hacking or for those that perhaps have lost their direction.
Nothing trumps experience but these tips will certainly make you a better Travel Hacker.
Originally published at PointsNerd.