How did I get over $7500 worth in flights for only $1600 in Canada (if I were living and working in the US I could probably get way more value) ?
Quite simply: Credit cards.
These were my flights for 2013 with their respective approximate values:
YGK-YVR-YYC-YGK (Kingston-Vancouver-Calgary-Kingst0n on AIR CANADA) -$750
YOW-PHL-YOW ( Ottawa-Philadelphia round trip on UNITED AIRWAYS) -$600
YYZ-NRT-SGN-YYZ (Toronto-Tokyo-Saigon-Toronto on ANA & EVA) -$2500
SGN-HKG (Saigon to Hong Kong on CATHAY ECONOMY) $608
HKG-BOM (Hong Kong to Bombay on CATHAY BUSINESS) $2300
HKG-SGN (Hong Kong to Saigon on CATHAY BUSINESS) $1152
Pretty amazing for someone who doesn’t even have a regular income! Of course, these flight values are estimated (as they say, no two seats are sold at the same price), but they give you an idea of the return that I’m getting for my efforts.
So how did I use credit cards to get basically a really cheap flight? I just apply for cards with hefty sign up bonuses:
Amex Aeroplan Gold – 20k points after $500 minimum spend in 3 months
Amex Aeroplan Plat – 50k points after $1000 minimum spend in 3 months
Amex Gold (got it twice) – 15k and 25k after $500 minimum spend in 3 months
CIBC Aerogold and Aerogold Infinite – 15k for both after first purchase
That right there got me 140k points, enough for all of those sexy flights.
Now some of these cards have annual fees associated with them, but as you can see, you can redeem these points for flights worth way more than what the points cost. Also, the cards with the biggest bonus (as well as the biggest annual fees) have some pretty nice perks like lounge access, priority this and that, travel credit, and insurance (the cards I’m talking about are the platinum amex cards). Some of the cards that have fees will have promotions that waive the fee for the first year, in which case you can get the bonus, then cancel the card all for free. Contrary to popular belief, this has minimal impact on your credit score. The only thing that might stop you from getting approved is too many credit card applications at the same time (pickings are slim in Canada, so I tried applying for a bunch of Amex cards all at once).
The next question is usually related to minimum spend. Maybe you’re a poor student, or a hobo like me who tries to make a living off dance. In that case, you have to be creative. Some things that I’ve done: be the guy who pays upfront with the credit card and then gets cash back from everyone else who’s splitting with you (like for hotels, rental cars, internet bills, restaurant bills etc), buying gift cards for things like groceries (or somewhere else you frequent regularly), make big purchases for friends and family you trust, and of course big ticket items like laptops and cameras are always easy especially since some of the cards will offer all sorts of insurance protection. I had a pair of boots stolen from my front porch once, and they sent me a cheque for it. Use your credit card for everything and you will easily make the minimum spend. Just make sure you have good spending habits; it’s pretty easy to see how this could turn out for the worst for some people.
Now that you have all these points, what do you do with them? There are a lot of things to consider actually, chief among them being flight value and taxes paid. The two main programs you will most likely be redeeming through are Aeroplan and British Airways Avios (you can transfer Amex points at a 1:1 ratio to the BA Avios program, pretty good deal!). You also want to plan ahead as far as you can to get the best flights, as there is limited availability for seats. They’d much rather someone else pay for a flight then have you get it for free.
When you search for flights to redeem your points, it pays to understand the point redemption system, especially since Aeroplan and BA have different schemes. In general, I like to use Aeroplan for round trips and BA for routing all sorts of one-ways. They are also different airline alliances so you get access to two different groups of airlines by using both.
When booking, keep in mind that you are also still paying for fuel surcharges, airport taxes and other junk like that. How much you pay varies, and I have no idea what the rules are exactly. I just know that currently when I search on Aeroplan, Lufthansa, Thai, Air Canada, and I think ANA, all charge more than the other airlines. With BA, fuel surcharges are added when you fly with BA, not so much with their partner airlines. To give you an idea of what I paid in taxes/fees, my flight from YYZ (Toronto)-NRT (Tokyo)-SGN(Ho Chi Minh City)-YYZ cost $345 in fees by flying ANA and EVA. Another flight segment I searched (but couldn’t get because … someone else booked it while I was looking at it!) cost only $123, and it was Turkish Airlines and China Air I believe. An Air Canada long haul flight within Canada would cost about $180 in fees (so flights are generally only worth it if you’re flying out of a small city like Kingston). This was with Aeroplan. With BA, the Cathay flight from HKG-BOM was $143.
So those are the main points to consider! I don’t consider myself a crazy world traveller, but thanks to these points I have gone to quite a few amazing places. All this was inspired by Chris Guillebeau, a dude who travelled to every single country in the world in 5 years and is now a serial entrepreneur. Great guy. But his travel hacking cartel program didn’t work very well for me (being in Canada I guess), so just stick to the credit cards 😉
Good luck, let me know about your own travel hacking adventures!