Cheap Travel Hacks – Vol. 1

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Part of being a Budget Ninja (especially one that lives to travel) is not just saving money so you can go on fabulous vacations but stretching your dollar to maximize your vacations! This summer, my husband and I have both found ourselves with incredibly flexible work schedules, and we celebrated our five year anniversary. All of this means that the time to travel is now! We went on our two-week-long dream trip to Italy and Greece in May, and soon we’ll be headed to Colorado for an adventure in Denver and the Rockies. How can a couple of budget freaks swallow the cost of all this travel, you ask…by not paying for it all! Here are some real-life bargain hacks that I used to cover the cost of these trips.

Travel rewards credit cards

It is no surprise that credit card rewards are a great way to subsidize the cost of travel. If you get the right one, these cards can also offer you additional benefits like no foreign transaction fees and travel protection. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again that if you are self-aware enough to know that you can’t handle a credit card responsibly (meaning that you’ll be too tempted to rack up debt rather than pay it off each month OR spend more money than you otherwise would just to get more rewards points), it is not worth it! But if you treat it like a debit card…you might as well get free rewards for the money you’d spend anyway. Check out our recommendations below.

Rewards points are not as straightforward as they seem

The real trick to getting the most out of your credit card rewards points is being creative and not taking your points at face value. There is the obvious way to use rewards points, and there is the Budget Ninja way. I’ll give some real-life examples below of how I loopholed the system into getting a much bigger bang for my buck. You can also sign up for additional rewards points earning opportunities through each airline’s program by shopping online through their websites or linking your credit card to automatically register dining rewards at certain restaurants. Do some digging to see what other possibilities are out there!

Get compensated for your misery

No one likes a travel delay. Unfortunately, they happen, and they seem to be happening more and more often. On our recent two-week trip to Europe, we experienced constant transportation issues. You can’t always get compensated for these things (like when local public transportation isn’t on schedule or there happens to be a ferry strike across the entire country of Greece), but when airlines cancel flights for no reason or lose your luggage for three days…you better bet that they owe you for your troubles! Don’t miss out on an opportunity to take a few minutes to send an email to customer support, who will almost always send you something (even if it doesn’t really seem like enough to make up for your misfortunes).

Now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty how-to of how we made the following things happen for us this summer:

1. Nearly free flights to Europe

Lance and I have established that travel is and always will be a priority in our lives, so a year or so ago, we decided to commit to a quality travel rewards card. I always do my research before I commit to anything, and I kept coming across the Chase Sapphire Preferred card as a highly recommended option. It has tons of great features that make traveling a little easier, and your rewards points are incredibly versatile. You can load up on new customer bonus points while skipping the annual fee in the first year and find yourself with an ample amount of points in a short amount of time. You can use your points by booking travel directly through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards website OR you can transfer points 1:1 to several partners. This is what our flights from Grand Rapids to Venice would have cost for two people if we were to book directly through Chase Ultimate Rewards or by paying outright through United.com:

Chase Ultimate Rewards: 306,606 points or $3,832.58

United: $6,785.80

Instead, I transferred 60,000 points instantly from Chase Ultimate Rewards to my United Mileage Plus account and booked rewards travel for this much:

United Mileage Plus: 60,000 points + $161.20

2. Free round-trip flights to Denver

We also jumped on a limited time offer to get 60,000 bonus points for signing up for the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus credit card. The offer is usually 40,000 but sometimes spikes for short times. We figured we would use the card for a few months to get the bonus points then cancel it later to avoid the annual fee. With the sign-on bonus plus the points accumulated by meeting the minumum spending, we had more than enough points to fly nonstop round-trip from Grand Rapids to Denver for two in the height of peak tourism season in July. These flights would have cost nearly $1,000 if we paid outright!

3. Nearly free car rental in Colorado

We ended up with leftover points from both the Chase Sapphire and Southwest Rapid Rewards cards even after booking flights for these two trips. We knew we would need a rental car in Colorado, and the prices are insanely high in the middle of summer. I looked into booking a rental with rewards points through Ultimate Rewards, but it would have cost more points than we had and had limitations for pick-up and drop-off locations. I did a little searching on Southwest Rapid Rewards: More Rewards site, which is exclusively for credit card customers, and discovered that they have some great gift card options. I realized I could redeem points for three $100 Budget Rental gift certificates to cover most of the cost of booking a car directly through Budget.com. I didn’t have quite enough points in my Southwest Rapids Rewards account alone to purchase all three, however. But I had a lightbulb moment and realized that I could transfer points from Chase Ultimate Rewards 1:1! So track with me here:

Chase Ultimate Rewards Points –> transferred to Southwest Rapid Rewards –> redeemed for Budget rental gift certificates mailed to my house –> booked car on Budget.com –> will use gift certificates to pay for rental in Colorado

BOOM!

4. Airline vouchers for future travel

We’ll end with the easiest but most unfortunate travel hack. Due to our MANY delays, cancellations, lost baggage, and other issues flying to and from Europe through United and Star Alliance airlines, we ended up with $350 worth of travel vouchers (each) for future travel. They are limited (can only be used for United flights and expire in a year), but it’s better than nothing. You can call United’s customer service and maybe convince them to give you even more, but it takes a lot less time to send an email explaining your unfortunate experience in the United Customer Care Contact Form or the respective option for your airline.

Bottom line is that cheap travel is possible, and travel rewards can stretch a lot further than meets the eye. If you have used other genius travel hacks or rewards loopholes, comment below!