Until last year, I thought I was doing well by saving a few bucks by searching for great flight deals and use coupon codes when I booked accommodations and then I learned about ‘travel hacking’ and everything changed.
I was browsing the internet and reading some other travel blogs and that is when I had first heard of the term. I don’t think there is an official definition, but for me I have found travel hacking to be a series of actions one takes to reduce the cost of travel as much as possible (the closer to zero the better 🙂 ) while traveling above your means.
The first I ever heard of it was in May 2014 – I took my first travel hacked trip 7 months later (December 2014) with my husband on a 4-day/3-night trip to Las Vegas. Since it was my first time, there are a few lessons I have learned of things I could have done better, which I will gladly share with you, so you can avoid them on your first travel hacked trip.
Personally, I find travel hacking a lot of fun and it is a fantastic way for anyone to fulfill their travel dreams, whether you are a broke College student (been there, done that, hehe), a young couple (or single) with a starting salary or even minimum wage, or even a family with one or more kids who would like to reduce their travel costs. It does involve time and will not happen overnight, but if your goal is to travel on a tight budget, then it is well worth it in my opinion.
And yes, there are credit card applications involved; I know you are probably thinking at first this is a horrible idea, but this is mostly due to several misconceptions that we are taught by the media – travel hacking through credit rewards can even improve your score (if you would like to read about this in more detail, here is a great article How Travel Hacking Improves Your Credit Score from the Tightwad Travelers Blog) when done right and when you are disciplined to use credit cards to your advantage and not spend more the more of a credit line you have (more about this in a future post). If you are about to stop reading, because you think that this strategy involves disposable income that you don’t have, please continue reading to give me a chance to show you otherwise.
The other scenario is that you have a decent budget, but you would like to get the most value out of it and travel luxuriously on a small budget, travel hacking is fantastic in that case as well.
Here is my first attempted travel hack trip and experience
Flights: Saved Approximately $600
We booked award travel with Spirit Airlines – I know some of you hate even the thought of it, but for those kind of savings, I’ll fly Spirit anytime and these may be some of the small sacrifices or trade-offs you will have to make sometimes to keep your travel costs low.
If you would like to know which credit cards we got, how much we had to spend, how we reached the spending limit, and how we collected all the points, open the toggle box:
OPEN HERE TO LEARN How we got enough miles to fly for (almost) free
I signed up for the Spirit Airlines World MasterCard® Credit Card back in September 2014. This card offers a 15,000 bonus after making your first purchase, which is enough for up to 3 roundtrip off-peak tickets. When you sign up for the card, you will automatically be signed up for the Spirit Frequent Flier program – you can also sign up for it ahead of time.
Here is the link to the PDF that shows the date for off-peak travel throughout the year; it also shows how many miles award travel redemptions cost based on the route.
We flew from Fort Lauderdale to Las Vegas, which costs 7,500 each way. At this point, I had enough points for 1 ticket. I referred my husband and received 5,000 bonus miles when he was approved for the Spirit Platinum Plus MasterCard.
At that point I had 20,000. The Spirit Platinum Plus MasterCard has a 5,000 mile bonus after the first qualifying purchase. After doing some research, I also found that Spirit was having a ‘H8te Thousand Miles Giveaway‘. I cannot confirm whether that promotion is still available, but it’s definitely worth trying – for a simple comment submitting to them what you most dislike about Spirit, they were awarding 8,000 miles. My husband and I both took advantage of this and brought our mile levels to 28,000 for me and 13,000.
I didn’t want to take a chance of booking only 1 one-way ticket through one account and the other round-trip ticket + one-way ticket through the other account, so that we would both be 100% on the same flight.
To reach 15,000 on my hubbie’s account, we used Amazon Payments (which unfortunately no longer exists with the functionality we and many other travel hackers used it) to reach $1,000 in spending (equal to 1,000 miles) and Amex Serve for another $1,000 in manufactured spending.
Our plan from August on was to travel to Vegas in early to mid-December to get out of the Florida heat and into the cooler weather and Christmas spirit. But at that point I did not know whether we would be able to ‘collect’ enough miles in time to make this happen. With the strategy above, sure enough, we had reached our goal by October – we had 15,000 miles in one account and 28,000 in the other.
To eliminate the risk of booking one round-trip on one account and not being able to book the same flights with the other one, we first booked two flights from Fort Lauderdale to Las Vegas for 15,000 miles $11.20 in government taxes and fees, and $30 in booking fees through my frequent flier account, leaving me with a balance of 13,000 miles. And then we booked the two return flights from Las Vegas to Fort Lauderdale for 15,000 miles $11.20 in government taxes and fees, and $30 in booking fees through my husband’s frequent flier account.
Just a side note: You are able to book Spirit flights for other people through your frequent flier account – a great way to be able to travel hack trips with friends and family.
Total actual cost paid: $84.40
2 x $11.20 = $22.40 for govt. taxes
2 x $30 = $60 in booking fees
Remember that when you book with Spirit, whether you pay for your flight or you book award travel, you only receive a ‘bare fare’ which pretty much includes… nothing besides the flight itself.
If you go to the counter without your pre-printed boarding pass, they will charge you $10 to print it. If you bring any carry-on luggage, you will be charged $35 (and yes, by that I mean carry-on luggage, not checked luggage). There is a way to avoid paying any fee for luggage – you are allowed to bring one personal item with you on the flight, but the bag can only be up to 16” long x 14” wide x 12” high.
My husband and I each had one bag that we got from here – at first it seemed like it would be impossible to pack everything we needed into this bag considering we knew it was going to be quite cold (in the 40’s) in Vegas and we needed to pack clothing accordingly. But it actually turned out to be a great fit.
This bag is actually 18″L by 10″H by 10″W, so we had to pack lightly within to be able to fit it comfortably into Spirit’s 16″ long “tester box”. And obviously we could have bought the perfect bag to maximize our height and width allowance – there is a bag that was specifically made with Spirit’s personal item dimensions available on Amazon.
Things I could have done better:
- You can avoid the booking fee through Spirit if you book 180+ days in advance (here is their fee schedule for award travel bookings). This is my strategy for all flights I book with them going forward to avoid any booking fees, but I really wanted to go around Christmas Time for this trip.
- I could have brought a different bag to maximize my available ‘luggage’ space
Hotel: Saved Approximately $240-300
Around the time I started reading and learning about travel hacking, I had heard of a Facebook game or app, whatever you prefer to call it: MyVegas. I read that it was a type of Casino Play app that you could collect points with that are redeemable for accommodations, food, and activities within Las Vegas (they have since added some other cities and companies to redeem for). So I signed up – that was in May of 2014. By November, I had over 250,000 gold points by spending approximately 15 minutes per day to ‘collect my red and golden coins on the strip’ and playing a few spins.
I also had my husband start playing MyVegas (though on a much more irregular basis) and we had just over 67,000 points in his account by November 2014.
I had planned out how to exactly all of our golden points on this trip so we wouldn’t pay for the hotel nor the food and have lots of activities reserved; however on the day I was ready to redeem, I came across the fine print, which limits you to 3 or 4 redemptions within a 30 day period – there went my initial plan.
However, we were still able to save quite a bit of money on our hotel, some food, and activities and make this trip possible using these points.
We reserved 3 nights at the Monte Carlo Hotel on the strip with the points on my account:
It cost 80,000 to redeem for the Saturday night hotel room and 30,000 points for Sunday and Monday night each, for a total of 140,000 points used to book the 3 nights for a nice king-size bed room with a beautiful strip view.
Things I could have done better:
- I should have done more research during my planning to know that there was a limit of redemptions within a 30 day period (some accounts are limited to 3, some can make 4 redemptions within a 30 day period for any MGM Resorts rewards) – I could have booked a nicer hotel using more of my available points
When I was planning this trip, I thought I had it all figured out as my plan was to be able to redeem miles from my Barclaycard (see more information on that card and promotion below) to cover the mandatory resort fees. However, what I had assumed was that they would all appear as one combined charge. Because I booked the hotel using MyVegas points, I had to reserve each night separately and so they charged me the resort fees as three separate charges, which were $22.40 for each night, just under the $25 minimum purchase requirement to be able to make a travel redemption.
Actual cost paid: Total 3 x $22.40 = $67.20
Things I could have done better:
- I should not have made the assumption that my resort fees would all appear as one combined charge, which would have met the requirement of being $25+ for me to be able to redeem and pay for with my miles
- At the time of checkout, I should have checked more into this and requested if they could combine the charges
Transportation: Saved $0 due to a mistake
Instead of paying $15 per day ($60 total) parking fees at the Fort Lauderdale Airport, we drove to an off-airport parking facility about 1 miles from the airport and paid only $20 for the entire time to park our car – a free shuttle brought us to the airport and picked us up from the airport when we returned to drive us back to our car.
I applied and got approved for the Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®, which earns 40,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days and 2 miles on all qualified purchases. After reaching the minimum spending requirement via a combination of using this card for all of my expenses and with some manufactured spending techniques (more on that in another post), I got 4,6000 miles worth $460 to redeem for travel.
You can redeem purchases made within the past 120 days as long as they post as travel and are for more than $25 – for a list of which purchases/sites post as travel, head over to this post on the Flyer Talk Forum.
My plan was to purchase bus transportation from the LAS airport to our hotel and back, so we wouldn’t have to rent a car or spend money on a taxi. After doing a little bit of research I found that Bookit.com had the best option at $13 per person ($26 + tax for 2 people) for a round trip bus transfer. I purposely waited until my bonus miles had posted on my Barclaycard and was so excited to make my first redemption that I went on to book the bus transfer ….. and I used the wrong credit card. Can you believe it?! So instead of being able to redeem 2,808 miles for the bus transfer, I actually had to pay for it. 🙁 Lesson learned – now I always tripe check which card I am using before I make any transaction.
Other than the transportation from and to the airport, we walked everywhere (up and down the strip every day) to save on transportation costs. It also allowed us to explore and see much more than we would have otherwise.
Things I could have done better:
In this case it’s obvious – I should have been more attentive and used my Barclaycard to be able to use my miles to pay for this purchase.
Activities: Saved Approximately $133.90
We spent most of our time just exploring the strip, looking at the many different street shows, beautiful
25,000 points for 2 tickets to the Minus 5° Ice Bar at the Monte Carlo Hotel
“Everything inside minus5° is made of ice; the walls, the bar, the seats and even the glasses that you enjoy your cocktails in. We have our own ice carver who creates the ice sculptures and continuously reinvents the experience throughout the year.
Once you choose your package, you’re kitted out with gloves and a warm parka or Faux Fur Coat, then transported into a winter wonderland of interactive ice architecture while sipping the coolest cocktails from glasses made entirely of ice. An exciting LED light show and upbeat music plays while you take in the pristine surroundings. The temperature is controlled and designed to provide a refreshing experience as you explore the different ice sculptures and themed ice rooms.”
Tickets are normally $19.00 each
40,000 points for 2 tickets to the Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay
“Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay is not your typical aquarium. It’s a total sensory experience designed to transport visitors to an undersea ocean of fantastic sights, sounds and encounters. Featuring dangerous and unusual aquatic animals from the world’s tropical waters, Shark Reef Aquarium takes visitors on a journey through an ancient temple slowly being claimed by the sea.
Fourteen breathtaking exhibits are devoted to dangerous aquatic predators. The largest exhibit is the 1.3 million gallon shipwreck where visitors experience an almost 360-degree view, teeming with sharks and fish, through an acrylic tunnel. The Touch Pool is a popular attraction, where guests can touch an ever-changing collection of animals including sharks, rays or horseshoe crabs. More than 2,000 animals are displayed at Shark Reef Aquarium, over 100 different species and featuring 15 species of sharks.”
Tickets are normally $18.00 each
I purchased two tickets for Madame Tussaud’s from Travelzoo for $19.00 each
Then I used my Barclaycard to and redeemed points for this $38 purchase.
“Million and millions of people have flocked through the doors of Madame Tussauds London since they first opened over 200 years ago. Madame Tussauds opened its doors in the heart of Sin City in Las Vegas in the year of 1999. There are many reasons for this enduring success, but at the heart of it all is good, old fashioned curiosity.
Today visitors are sent on a unique journey through the realms of history, power and fame. The museum-style ropes and poles have gone so guests can truly get up close and personal with A-list celebrities, sports legends, political heavyweights and historical icons, reliving times, events and moments that made the world talk about them.”
Tickets are normally $29.95 each
Food: Saved Approximately $49.98
55,000 points for 2 dinner buffet passes at the Monte Carlo, each valued at $24.99 per person
“Featuring made-to-order cuisine from all corners of the globe, you can choose whatever you like from our fresh, expansive salad bar, our fresh-made pasta bar, grill stations or carving stations making it the perfect choice for your whole group. Naturally, you’ll also want to sample at least a few of the irresistible desserts. After all, it’s a buffet—so knock yourself out!”
The food was delicious and they had a great selection 🙂 Here are some pictures of our food:
Approximate Costs saved: $1,023.88
Total spent: $199.78 + around $50 additionally for food and souvenirs
Even though there are definitely some things I could have done better to increase my savings and reduce our costs, I am happy with the results of my first hacked trip.
I already have some other travel hacked trips planned and booked for this year, which I will be writing about in more detail once I return:
- May 2015: Puerto Rico
- October 2015: Free Flight to visit family in Kentucky
- November 2015: Costa Rica
Have you done any travel hacking yourself? We’d love to hear about your trips, experiences, and advice.
Disclosure: Some of the above links are affiliate links, which at no additional cost to you, will earn me a small commission and help me cover the expenses of running this site. I have had a great experience with each of these companies and genuinely recommend them. If you have any questions about any of these companies or products, let me know and I would be more than happy to answer them.