Advanced travel hacking is an art form, so this blog post will cover personal track hack stories. I have no doubts about that.
But, contrary to popular belief, getting started is actually quite simple. So easy even a toddler could do it. Literally.
But I’ll share a little secret with you… it’s not as glamorous as most people think. At least not for us.
We certainly aren’t professional travel hackers. We aren’t the family you hear in those stories about traveling Southeast Asia for a year for only $127 dollars. I speak only 1 language (Courtney speaks 2). And we have nowhere close to 676,583 frequent flier miles like Chris Guillebeau.
We aren’t total noobs, though. We’ve had an in-your-face crash course over the last year and learned a ton. I’m convinced that 80% of travel hacking is just opening your mind to possibilities you didn’t know existed. I just made that statistic up on the spot… but I’m fairly sure other intense travelers will agree.
Anyway, here are some tips and tricks to take you from naysayer to noob in as short of a time frame as possible.
Once you graduate to advanced (or if you are already there), I’d appreciate you teaching me everything you know in the comments below! 🙂
How We Find Airfare: A Video Walkthrough of How to Save $521+
The video below is just over 20 minutes long. In it, I detail the basic process we use when trying to tackle a potential flight from scratch using a theoretical example. If you’re an airfare noob (someone who only uses Priceline.com), I really think you’ll find value in it:
[If the video doesn’t show up in your reader or e-mail, click here to watch now]
Obviously the example in the video speaks for itself. However, here’s the summary version of our usual process for those of you who can’t watch the full video:
- [0:00] – Video is a step-by-step walkthrough of how I would tackle a theoretical sample flight leaving from Christchurch, NZ to Bangkok, Thailand towards the end of this year.
- [0:20] – Most people start with the larger online aggregator sites. That’s fine to gain a ‘baseline’ price.
- [0:40] – Look for websites that aggregates the aggregation sites!
- [2:30] – Research several of the sites and establish the baseline for airfare prices.
- [3:30] – Find the budget airlines that aren’t included in the aggregators, but that fly that route. I use WhichBudget.com or basic Google searches.
- [5:00] Visit the direct sites of the budget airlines (and major carriers, as well). Look for specials on the front page that wouldn’t be included in the larger search sites.
- [7:00] – Locate the common ‘hubs’ of the flight path. The cities that are popular stop-overs for multi-leg flights.
- [8:00] – Research the individual legs of the flight on the budget airline sites. Look for ways to be flexible with travel dates, as it can save a lot of money.
- [10:00] – Pay attention to different currencies. Prices are often quoted in the starting point for the leg of the trip (which can mean you need to convert currency).
- [12:00] – Compare the different fares for using different ‘hubs’. In our case it’s flying through Sydney compared to flying through Melbourne or Hong Kong.
- [14:30] – Convert exchange rates all to one currency to compare apples to apples. I usually convert to USD to compare easily to aggregator sites.
- [17:00] – After fee prices, our examples ends up being at least $521 dollars cheaper over the lowest price with the aggregator sites! Around 25% off in less than 20 minutes.
- [19:00] – Last tip, use social networks to find the best local sites for flight deals in each specific country. GrabASeat.co.nz is a great on for New Zealand. (Certain flights for $1 every day)
Other suggestions I’ve learned when booking airfare:
- Always call the airline directly before purchasing online. In rare cases, they actually have better deals (we have to do this anyway most of the time with an infant).
- The more flexible you are willing to be, the more money you can save. Look at flying on different days of the week. Or staying an extra day in a connecting ‘hub’ in order to take advantage of a huge drop in flight prices.
- Search all airports for a city or destination. For us, Chicago, Melbourne, and Brisbane/Gold Coast are all places where we’ve found deals at separate airports in the same area.
- Be willing to take bumps if offered. On our Honeymoon, Courtney and I purposely gave ourselves room to take flight bumps if needed. On the way home, we took one that resulted in free flights, meal vouchers, a free overnight hotel, and a direct flight the next day (when our original flight had another connection left). It was awesome!
Even under my current system, I know this is just the very tip of the iceberg. There is much more that Courtney and I could be doing in this area. For example, we are not taking nearly as big of advantage of frequent flier miles as we could be. I didn’t realize just how bad we were, until I was blown away by Chris Guillebeau’s new Frequent Flyer Master eBook. It’s actually embarrassing how much money we’ve left on the table from not doing very simple things. I’ll provide more info on this at the bottom of the article for those interested.
Couchsurfing, Hostels, & Wwoofing… Oh My!
Another area where Courtney and I have been able to save a lot of money has been in accommodation. (Well, at least until we rented the apartment). 🙂
First, we’ve fully shot-gunned the Couchsurfing kool-aid. When we first arrived, we were very skeptical. We hadn’t planned on using the service, although we had heard great things. But after our first experience with it, we were blown away.
For any of you that don’t know, CouchSurfing.com is essentially a social networking site for travelers and people willing to host travelers. Think of it as a Facebook for backpackers and world travelers.
I wrote an extensive article covering the basics of CouchSurfing over at Get Rich Slowly. If you want more information check out my thoughts there. I’ve also written here on our amazing experiences with our hosts in Townsville, AUS and Auckland, NZ.
The value of Couchsurfing extends far, far beyond a free place to sleep. Our hosts have provided many of our most memorable moments and saved us hundreds of dollars with their recommendations, expertise, and knowledge of the local area.
Here are my top 5 CouchSurfing tips from the Get Rich Slowly post:
- Spend quality time on filling out your profile honestly!
- Put up as many pictures as you can!
- Utilize the filters when searching for hosts!
- Completely read the profile and references of potential hosts!
- Reference parts of the host’s profile when requesting to “surf”!
I electorate more specifically on these points in the post, as well.
CouchSurfing is just one of several networks like this. However, it’s been the only one we’ve actually used.
Willing Work On Organic Farms
Wwoofing for short, is a website/community of people who (in general) provide a room and meals in exchange for work. In many cases, this work is on some sort of farm, vineyard, orchard or similar set-up. However, like CouchSurfing, there is plenty of variety if you search around.
Courtney and I paid for a membership to the New Zealand community and even went as far as to contact several of the opportunities that were listed. This was our back-up plan if obtaining a sponsored visa was going to carry a longer waiting period.
Through wwoofing we would have been able to stretch our money much further. Most of the arrangements we contacted involved 5-6 hours of work a day for the room and included 3 home cooked meals. There were places that welcomed families and those that didn’t.
Usually these are longer commitments than say Couchsurfing. Most last anywhere from a week to several months, which is perfect for extending your trip in places you’d like to explore more!
Tapping into your social network!
This is another technique that we’ve used and that I plan on using more and more going forward. As social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and others continue to rise, the world is growing smaller and smaller. These days, a simple tweet or posting an update on Facebook can gain lots of feedback.
For example, if you are reading this… I am in your extended network. If you wanted to travel to Argentina, Barbados, Japan, India, Ireland or nearly anywhere in the world, I just so happen to know a friendly face who would love to help provide you with information.
Don’t hesitate to use your social networks or to e-mail me to ask for help when planning an extended trip. Through friends of friends it’s easier than ever to get in touch with locals who know the area like the back of their hand.
They might provide an actual place to stay or may know a suggestion for discounted accommodation. They might be able to tip you off on budget airlines or country specific airfare sites like grabaseat.co.nz here in New Zealand.
Hostels aren’t just for singles looking to party.
Hostels seem to have bad raps due to movies and popular culture references. There’s no doubt in my mind that some of them suck. Most travelers have been into dirty, noisy hostels (and stayed in them) at some point.
But we’ve also been able to find perfectly reasonable hostels that were clean and free of late night noise. In our experience, hostels overseas have been much like Motels in the States. Some you wouldn’t step foot in, but many are perfectly fine.
Our custom hostel hunting tips from recent experience:
- Look for hostels that aren’t right downtown or right on the strip. The ones a couple blocks away are often less noisy and have fewer of the ‘party’ crowd.
- Look for smaller, quaint mom-and-pop type hostels. These often have a bit more pride of ownership than some of the massive discount chains. We’ve had some very positive experiences with smaller local hostels.
- Walk around the entire hostel. Check the bathrooms and the kitchen areas and see how clean they are kept. You can usually tell a lot more from these areas than the specific room.
- Look for rooms with fans and/or air conditioners (non coin operated). With a fan or air conditioner on, you can seriously negate any outside noise (plus it’s cooler).
- Don’t be afraid to ask for discounted rates or to offer some sort of cleaning and or work in trade for discounts. In nearly all of the hostels we’ve stayed a portion of the people in the rooms helped out in some way for a cheaper rate.
Using some of the above tips, we’ve been able to find very reasonable lodging at great rates. We’ve been 100% comfortable staying in hostels even with a 1-year old and have experienced no problems (other than maybe a harder-than-average bed occasionally). 🙂
We’ve only had limited experience with this, however it is a realistic option, especially if you can tap into your connections. Our house-sitting experience came about through CouchSurfing. A couple that had hosted us was leaving overseas for a month themselves. It was cheaper for us to stay in the home and take care of their cat than it was for them to pay to board her.
This helped us have a rent-free month while we were awaiting Courtney’s work permit.
Income On the Road: Visas, Job Hunting, & Freelancing
The last major area we’ve been able to find limited success is in creating some sort of income while traveling. This is essential for travel hacking noobs as it can help fund the journey into ‘elite’ status. 🙂
My biggest advice here is to fully study the visa options upfront. We’ve gotten into trouble several times in this category, nearly all of which have been my own personal fault.
If you are young and without dependents, many countries offer a working-holiday arrangement. It’s easy to use Google and find out the specific of your target destinations. It’s common to be able to use this visa for up to a year and many of the countries require you to work for no longer than 6 months at any single job.
This is great if you have experience waiting tables, bartending, cleaning, or any other commonly needed skill. Even in this ‘horrible global economy’ there seems to be an overwhelming amount of opportunities in every city we’ve encountered for this type of basic work.
In our case, Milligan disqualifies us from obtaining this sort of easy working option. Even so, Courtney was able to obtain find a school willing to sponsor her to teach here in New Zealand. She even qualified for a $2000 NZD relocation grant to help with expenses.
This was a fairly intensive process and we made a lot of mistakes, but have proven it’s very possible. If you have a marketable degree, you can bump into all sorts of opportunities while traveling.
Another popular option for travel hackers is to do freelance work. This can be in a variety of areas, including writing, blogging, graphic design, consulting, and data entry.
Until recently, I wouldn’t have considered this a viable possibility. But in a short amount of time, I’ve been able to build up the ability to generate $2000-$2500 per month in freelance income if I were to devote myself full-time to freelancing. That’s not in the cards right now for me, however it’s a great back-up plan for traveling in cheap countries.
But you don’t have to be a formal writer to freelance even in the blogging world. Prior to march, I hadn’t written anything. I’d never been exposed to blogging or even consider writing as a hobby or career. My point is that many of these fields are very easy to get into it.
For starters, you can search some of the most popular job posting sites for online writers:
Of course, writing is just one example. Many people have some sort of skill they can market online if they are willing to spend the time researching all of the emerging possibilities!
Other Travel Tips We’ve Experience First-Hand
- Stop buying stupid trinkets. Seriously, 99% of souvenirs are an absolute waste. If you must buy something on your trip, make it functional. Buying unique clothes, for example, is something that will provide a memory, but also give direct value. Also, you can consider buying travel gear you are sure to use, such as a handy flashlight, water canteen, a sturdy watch, etc… Other than those things, just take pictures. The pictures will end up being your most valuable asset. So take all the money you say from buying useless crap and get a decent camera!
- Pack as light as possible! Once you’ve packed light, throw out half of what you’ve packed and you should be ready. Everyone I know that travels points out that they started with too much stuff. I know we did, even though it seemed like we brought nothing. Light packing can save you direct money on items like baggage fees, but the real value is in the time and stress it saves you. When in doubt, just buy it when you get there. Chances are you won’t need it anyway.
- Consider Public Transportation. You don’t have to rent a car everywhere you go. For long-term travel sometimes this can be a bigger burden than benefit. We had a great bus trip (up until the last 15 minutes) from Cairns to Townsville down Australia’s eastern coast. I’ve had friends report having a blast taking the rail through Europe instead of renting a car or hoping on and off planes. It’s a great way to travel slowly, save money (most of the time), and see different parts of the country. Obviously, you have to use common sense and sometimes a car is the best option. Just make sure you are open to multiple avenues of getting around.
Chris Guillebeau’s Frequent Flyer Master Endorsement
Let me just say this… I had no idea how deep the rabbit hole really went on this frequent flyer stuff.
- Chris went to get a free hair-loss consultation because there was a 20,000 bonus miles promotion just for showing up. (Haha)
- How people order thousands of dollar in coins from the U.S. mint and then turn them into the bank for the miles.
- How to get $40 Hilton Hotel credits and $50 Expedia credits multiple times a month.
- How to get 10k miles just for graduating college (C’mon Courtney!)
- The costs that you do incur even with ‘free’ trips and how to minimize them
- And the best and worst programs for collecting miles. Chris names names.
But, my personal favorite was the name of the bank that actually has a DEBIT card that earns miles. Woot! Woot! I’m personally checking into this local bank next week.
As always you get a full e-book, a 20-minute audio, a 4-page Priceline specific guide and month’s worth of continual updates on new changes in 2010 as they emerge.
Most importantly, Chris has gotten pretty bold this time. He has guaranteed that you will earn at least 25,000 air miles in the first 90 days with the guide, which is enough for one free domestic flight. If you don’t earn the free flight in the first 3-months, just ask for a refund. Like I said… a bold offer.
What about you?
At what stage of the travel hacking journey are you? Are you a bonafide travel ninja or just another noob getting started?
I’m looking forward on taking your tips and taking my game to the next level!