# Don't wait til you're old
Don't wait until you are retired or old to travel. You never know how things will work out in life, so plan for travel early in life if you are able to. I saw this photo recently which was a good reminder:
This doesn't mean break your budget just to go somewhere, there are ways to travel for cheaply or close to free if you play your cards right. Life can be pretty brutal, you may end up having to care for a parent or child. You personally may have health issues that prevent you from traveling.
First, start with a travel goal in mind, and then work backwards from there.
# Talk to folks that travel a lot
People that travel a lot know all the ins and outs of their plan as well as caveats of cards and programs. The programs are constantly changing! There are groups online where you can learn and ask questions:
- The Points Guy (opens new window)
- The Points Guy Facebook Group (opens new window)
- Travel Miles 101 Facebook Group (opens new window)
Everyone I've met who travels a lot loves to talk about their successes and failures when it comes to travel. Experienced travelers can help you cut through the marketing material published to get into how things really work and whether it's worth it or not.
# Traveling for work
If you travel a moderate amount to a lot, come up with your plan on how to maximize travel points and benefits. What I'm outlining here is one way to get the most out of work travel. There are other approaches that can work, but this is a good starting point. If you travel a couple times a year, this strategy will not really help you since you won't pile up enough points or rewards.
# Airline selection and points
If you have a travel goal in mind, look at airlines that are convenient for you to use, and can get you to your travel destination goal. Sign up for the rewards program for that airline, and then try to book all travel, work and personal, with that airline. If it's very inconvenient for you to travel with a particular airline, don't fly with them. It's not worth your work travel being a pain in order to get free flights. If you are looking to do most travel domestically in the US, Southwest Airlines is a good choice. As of the writing of this post, they are trying to launch their Hawaii route.
# Hotel selection and points
Similar to airline selection, think of the profile of hotel you'd like and look to see if a given chain is in the areas you want to be. There is a lot of debate on which super chain to work with. The Points Guy maintains posts on best rewards programs for hotels (opens new window).
# Paying for work travel
Check your company's travel policy. If you are able to use your personal card to book work travel, and you can afford to carry that balance, that is a way that you can build points depending on the card you use.
If you do travel a lot, it could be worth getting a travel card which a higher annual fee like the American Express Platinum or Chase Sapphire Reserve. For example, if you have the high end travel credit cards, it may give you status at certain hotels, rental car companies, or with airlines by default. These statuses can help you accrue points even more rapidly. These statuses are in addition to other perks such as trip insurance, travel vouchers, lounge access, and even things like Uber credits. Using the American Express Platinum as a points example, if you spend $20,000 per year on airline and hotels with that card, that would translate to 100,000 points, which you can add on top of the airline and hotel points you are already accruing.
See my post about Credit Cards for advice on figuring out if a card with a fee makes sense for you. Personally, I do not have the AMEX Platinum or Chase Sapphire Reserve because my company travel policy requires me to use a corporate card for travel, and my usage of it outside of work travel does not merit getting the card.
# Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check
Global Entry. Global Entry. Global Entry.
Not sure? Global Entry.
Global entry costs $100, which is $15 more than Pre-Check, but if you have Global Entry, it gives you Pre-Check as well. If you do have a card with excellent travel benefits, there is a chance that it covers the cost of Global Entry for one individual. For frequent travelers, TSA Pre-Check does make things a lot easier. The lines are shorter, they move faster, you don't have to take your shoes off or your laptops out, and most of the times, you are around experienced travelers who know all the rules and fly through security.
Global Entry is useful for returning to the US. Even if you don't have international travel planned, since it's valid for 5 years, it's worth the extra $3 per year.
# Personal Travel
These are pointers for having your money go the furthest when traveling.
# Be flexible on Dates
This is the best way to save the most money on travel. This is not practical for everyone. If you are a teacher, have kids in school, or have very little flexibility with your work schedule, it can be very hard to find travel deals that fit your needs. There are sites that specialize in finding cheap flights, some example:
To give a very tangible example, we were able to book roundtrip tickets between San Antonio, TX and São Paulo, Brazil for a family of four, for under $500 per ticket (taxes and fees included). This did mean that we had to fly in and out on a Wednesday, but we are saving more than 50% on airfare compared to what is typically charged.
Know that most of the extreme discount deals aren't around for long. They may only be around for a day or potentially hours. We watched the fare for Brazil jump $300 per ticket one day after we booked, and it jumped another $100 a day or two later.
# Fly on Wednesdays
This goes back to flexibility, a lot of times the cheapest flights are on Wednesdays. Many booking services and airlines offer fare calculators, and you'll notice that as a pattern for finding cheaper flights.
# Take vacation when traveling for work
If you are flying to a destination for work, you have your airfare covered already. Take a few days off either before you need to be there or after to visit the city. If you have loved ones, it basically means one free ticket for the family that could save you a few hundred or thousand bucks depending on where you are going. When I travel internationally, I will typically give myself a week to travel on my own. The additional cost to me is just a few days of hotel rooms typically.
# But I've got young kids
Before your kids are in school, it's typically easier to be flexible on dates. That flexibility means huge savings when traveling.
# Should I get a travel card?
Like I mentioned earlier, do the math on the benefits and fees to figure out what card is right for you. Travel hackers will typically look for ways to pile up credit card signup bonuses and use that with cheaper flights to travel for close to free. The sign up bonuses are one-time, and more credit card issuers are capping the number of bonuses you can get in a lifetime. Calculate the post-bonus, or year 2 value of your card when doing the math.