Adventures of A Webutante in Hollywood

Dec 27th,
2010

20

The Art of Travel Hacking – Tips for First Class Adventures on an Economy Budget (Part 1)

Have you ever wanted to travel around the world, first class, and stay in 5 star hotels for little more than taxes and surcharges?  Then read on, my friend.

I was 19 when I applied for my first passport. Having never been outside the country, I remember flipping through all the fresh, empty pages, thinking there’s no way I’ll ever be able to fill this thing with stamps!

After a Sand Surfing trip in Dubai!

Now, five years later, I am pleasantly surprised to see I will need to obtain new pages before embarking on my next trip.

I caught the travel bug hard after my first international trip. Now I make it a firm mission to travel outside the US at least once a year, usually over holiday break. My adventures have taken me through Europe, South America, the Middle East, and most recently, Asia (I just finished a three-week trip through Tokyo, Bangkok, Koh Samui, Hong Kong, and Macau.)

In the process of making my itineraries each year, I’ve become a bit of an travel hacker. If you’ve never heard the term before, blogger Chris Guillebeau defines travel hacking best as: “the process of venturing out around the world on a low budget, using tools such as Round-the-World airfare, a big stash of Frequent Flyer Miles, mistake fares, elite status matches, and more.” (NOTE: Chris’s blog, The Art of Non-Conformity, offers great tips for aspiring and newbie travel hackers.)

For me, travel hacking encompasses even more than just finding great deals.  With a lot of planning, and a few ninja moves, the best travel hackers determine how to reap the greatest comfort, flexibility, and experiences for the lowest possible dollar amount.

After repeated requests from friends, I’ve decided to write a three-part series, sharing my own top 10 tips and tricks for travel hacking your way through the world:

Part l: Mastering airline travel

1. Pick a Frequent Flier Program (and stick to it!):

My first few international trips were done without applying for frequent flier mile programs (oh, regrets!), but now I am meticulous about my mileage.

The key is to research the various frequent flier programs and pick the one that is most advantageous to your needs.

My favorite program is the OneWorld Alliance, which encompasses American Airlines, British Airways, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, and a handful more. I’ve never had a problem getting on a flight with reward miles, even with day-of reservations (I recently reserved an award ticket in business class, from Hong Kong to London, a mere 6 hours before flight departure) and there are other perks like lounge access, waived bags fees, and priority check-in/security status (so you can walk through first-class check-in and security, even when you’re not flying first class.)

Through my experience, OneWorld seem to have the most reward ticket availability, longest allowed ticket holds (I’ve held international tickets for as much as 2 weeks before purchasing!) and the reward redemption tiers are lower than some programs (as low as 22,500 miles to fly free on an international flight in coach.) Not to mention they don’t charge you flight taxes when you book a reward ticket – this is huge! – only a $2.50 ticketing fee and a $20 fee if you book over the phone (see below).

Other major programs include Continental/United’s Star Alliance and Virgin’s Flying Club, so research the one that makes sense to you and stick with it.

2. Look Into Multi-Destination Programs for Alliance Members:

You don’t have to have any mileage on your account to take advantage of your reward alliance membership. There are plenty of multi-destination programs available to alliance members. Simply go to the website of the alliance, research the program you want, enroll, fly only on partner airlines to all of your relevant destinations, and pay in low, flat-rate one way fares. Sound confusing? It is.

Case in point: before going to Asia, I took advantage of a little-known One World program known as the single-continent Visit Asia pass. (I say “little known” because you have to dig through the One World website to even find the darn thing, and it’s not exactly the simplest program to decipher. Even the reward reservations desk had to do research the pass while I was booking on the phone.)

My research paid off, however: for a small, flat rate fare per leg for a minimum of two legs, I could travel anywhere in Asia on a One World partner airline. Through the Visit Asia pass, a flight from Tokyo to Bangkok costs $150. The exact same flight, when paid directly through the airline, would have cost me more than $750. Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok on Visit Asia? $150. Same flight through the same airline: $478. The best part about the pass is that you only need to confirm the first leg of the trip – and the second leg you can leave to book last minute, when you are ready to jump to the next destination. That’s one hell of a deal!

Some of the most commonly used programs are OneWorld’s “Round the World pass” or the “Multi Continent pass.” While these programs are steals if you have six months to a year off to travel, they aren’t particularly worth the several thousand dollar price tag for a 3-8 week travel adventure (in my experience, you can find better deals through discount websites, mile redemptions, and partner airline programs.)

3. Snag Hot Credit Card Mileage Offers:

I’m certainly not one to encourage you apply for a dozen credit cards and incur serious credit problems from forgotten bills and interest charges. I don’t like to keep more than 3 cards, max, but I do take advantage of seriously good credit card offers when they come my way. (You can compare current credit card offers at creditcards.com.) Look for cards with a minimum of an immediate 20,000 reward bonus, no annual fees, and concierge services.

Two years ago, I applied for an American Express Starwood Card that offered 25,000 Starwood points upon sign-up (enough for one night at a 5 star hotel, several nights at a three-star.) I subsequently stayed at Starwood hotels a few times for business travel, leaving me with enough points to cover 7 total nights at sweet hotels like the Westin and the W.

This year, the card increased their annual membership fee, so I cancelled it (no harm, no foul!), and took advantage of a new offer from Chase Visa and American Airlines. This was a great offer – 75,000 bonus miles earned after spending $1,000 over your first four months, not to mention miles earned on every dollar spent (this deal is no longer being offered, sorry. Typically you get 30,000 miles for credit card sign up.) This card alone earned me a first class ticket from Los Angeles to Tokyo (the same ticket was being sold for $12,388 on the American Airlines website, see below) and a first class ticket from Tokyo to Bangkok (sold for over $6,000 on the Japan Airlines site). Not bad, just for filling out an application.

If your card also comes with complimentary concierge services, as my Visa card did, use them! I used my Chase Visa concierge service to help me book a hotel in Tokyo. My guidelines were: a minimum of 3.5 stars, free breakfast and wi-fi, and close to the local train station. I also put down a nightly spending limit. Within three hours, my concierge sent me a document with five hotels to choose from, as well as list of their advantages and disadvantages. Because of this service, I saved myself several hours AND had a clear understanding of what I was getting out of each hotel. Many of the hotel reps in Tokyo don’t speak English well, but the concierge had a translator so they were able to get all the little details I needed. Amazing!

4. Make Pals With Your Airlines’ Customer Service Reps:

I probably spend more time on the phone with American Airlines than my own mother. While the experience of talking to airline customer service is oft panic attack-inducing, there are some ways to make your calls less cringe-worthy and more productive:

- Only reserve, make changes, or seek advice by calling the award travel department. I never call the regular customer service number. The award travel department is better equipped to handle frequent flier travelers and loyal members, and thus more experienced and favorable to your needs.

- Ask the customer service rep their name and how they are doing at the beginning of the call. Put yourself in their shoes. Seriously, how much would it suck to be a customer service rep for an airline? Exactly, now you are probably feeling a bit more empathetic. I’ve found this makes the rep immediately more atune to your needs and in a position to want to help you. If you still find the person isn’t in a position to help, nicely ask to speak to their supervisor and repeat the above friendly tactics. In the past year, I’ve only had one unpleasant call with an airline. But hey, we can’t rid the world entirely of customer service douchebags.

5. Use International Discount Travel Sites:

In the US, Jet Blue and other low cost carriers like Frontier Air don’t always show up on discount airfare sites. Similarly, there are many low cost carriers in Europe/Asia/South America/Africa (such as China Air and Ryan Air) that don’t show up on our discount travel sites. Search on those sites for individual legs; for multi-destinations, I recommend using vayama.com. I book a ton of flights through them and it’s always been painless and cheaper than going through the airline.

Since each travel site is different, you may need to do dozens of searches before finding the perfect, low budget itinerary that meets your needs. Change your dates, the order of cities in which you travel, and stopover preferences. I probably searched 50+ different flight combinations for my trip to the Middle East in 2008 before finding my hallelujah ticket.

6. Travel On Off-Peak Dates:

If you have some flexibility with your work, I recommend traveling on non-peak travel days. For most people, you get the most bang for your buck by doing this during the holiday season. Take off two weeks earlier than typical holiday travelers (i.e. leave between Dec. 1 and Dec. 10th), and returning one week later than most (i.e. Jan. 5th-15th.) I like traveling during this time because I feel like I’m only taking off two weeks, instead of four or five, since most people in LA are off work from about Dec. 18th- Jan. 3rd.

If you prefer to spend the holidays with the family, then do your research and visit a region a week or two before or after their peak tourist season. You tend to still get the best weather and service, but for about half the price of the cost to travel during peak times. If you don’t mind braving extremely hot or cold weather, ignore the peak times altogether and travel to your heart’s content! DON’T ignore more serious weather conditions, however, like the monsoon season in India, hurricane season in the tropics, etc. There is nothing fun about returning to a flooded hotel room.

6. Little Things That Make a Big Difference:

AIRLINE SEATS – to secure the best seat on the plane, visit seatguru.com. It gives you a detailed breakdown for all the seats on an airline – which ones have the most legroom, which are located right in front of the stinky bathroom, and so on. On a three hour flight it’s not such a big deal, but when you’re flying 13-14 hours, you want to make sure you’re not seated next to the toilet.

LOUNGES – while lounges are often only available for business and/or first class passengers, sometimes they accept coach passengers (i.e. Bangkok Airways), or passengers who are gold or platinum members (i.e. American Airlines.) If you have several hours to kill, the lounges are a great place to relax, get free wi-fi and snacks, and meet fellow travelers.

Hanging in the Tokyo Narita Lounge

BAG FEES – for most people, bag fees are incredibly frustrating, especially when you find out just how steep they are. All it takes is an extra ten pounds of gifts you bought overseas to rack you over $500 in airline charges. There are a few ways around this. If you are traveling in business or first, often they will make exceptions. However, if you are flying in coach, ALWAYS save your departing ticket. Why? Many airlines make exceptions to the bag fees if you can prove to them that you did NOT pay a fee when you left your country. As long as you fly on partner airlines for all legs of your trip (another big advantage of using the alliance programs for international travel), then you just continue to show the ticket desk your previous leg ticket. They will look up the ticketing number, and upon seeing you weren’t charged for bags, will waive the fee.

For my trip to Asia, I flew American Airlines first class from LA to Tokyo. No bag charges. From Tokyo to Bangkok, I flew business on Japan Airlines – and again, no bag charges. From Koh Samui to Hong Kong, I flew Bangkok Airways. They wanted to charge me $300 in overage charges. I showed them my previous tickets, and because Bangkok Air is a partner of Japan and American, they waived the fee. From Hong Kong to London, the ticketing counter wanted to charge me $600 in overage bag fees. Again, I showed them my previous tickets, and the fees were waived. I can’t guarantee this will work everytime, so check your alliance’s program rules, but it’s worked for me through OneWorld and is definitely helpful when you want to bring gifts back for friends.

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I have so many fond memories from my travels, namely from the unique experiences and perspectives I’ve gained from locals and fellow travelers. You don’t need to travel first class or stay in five star hotels to have these experiences, but it’s nice to know that you have that option – and if you travel frequently enough, the trips begin to pay for themselves.

If you would like more tips on travel hacking, I’ll soon be releasing Part 2 and Part 3 posts for information on travel hacking hotels and experiences. (You can receive automatic email updates of my posts by entering your email in the subscription box on the right panel.)

Hopefully you’ve found this guide somewhat helpful or encouraging, but if you have your own airline travel hacking tip or trick, please share it in the comments! I am still but a humble travel hacking amateur :-)

Here’s to more adventures in 2011!