Our break is over! We are back on the road! Or rather the plane, since we flew out at 7 this morning for Hawaii!
Speaking of flying, I want to share with you all how we managed to get these ticket for free. It’s called travel hacking, and it’s a complex, many-layered world. Even though I left out plenty of details of the travel hacking journey I took, I know this post still a chunk of reading. But we saw people in our leg 2 recap survey were interested in some How-To posts, so I really hope you find this interesting and useful. I certainly did.
When we were sketching out the budget for our year of traveling to all 59 National Parks, it was as lopsided as our flat tire in the Miami. For most of the year we could skate by with a trim operating budget of roughly $1,200 for the two of us ($360 for food, $600 for lodging/camping, $240 for gas). Of course there are many other pesky expenses like tours, insurance and miscellaneous that factor in. But those aren’t the budget busters, and I will discuss our financial limitations, goals and progress more in depth next week. The real burs in the budget were our flights.
You see, lot of people can (and some do) take a long road trip to all corners of the continental U.S. while spending very little. Our People of the Parks in Everglades were actually 2 recent high school grads taking a gap year to travel the National Parks on the mainland on an incredible $8K budget. So cool! But ever since we first conceived of this trip, we knew for us it was #All59 or bust. We also knew we wanted an ambitiously small budget Enter the ultimate budget buster parks in U.S. Virgin Islands, Hawaii and American Samoa!
How the heck can we afford these flights?!?!
Starting last January (8 months before we left), I made it my mission to knock out these airline tickets that were taking huge bites out of our budget. Here’s how I did it.
STEP 1: Optimize my flight search.
- Leave from the closest possible large airport to the destination.
- Fly out/back on a weekday.
- Search for flights 3-4 months in advance. Don’t forget many airlines like Southwest aren’t on search engines, so you’ll need to go to their specific site to see all options.
A quick search on kayak.com showed gave me a starting point for the cheapest flights available:
- Virgin Islands = $420 round trip (from Miami)
- Hawaii = $500 round trip (from LA)
- 3 Intra-Hawaii one-ways to parks on Maui and Big Island then back to Honolulu ~ $300 total
- American Samoa = $900 round trip (from Honolulu)
- TOTAL FOR TWO = $4,240
Over %20 of our budget to merely get to 4 parks!!! Not if I have anything to say about it.
STEP 2: Research the world of travel hacks
There are hundreds of blogs dedicated completely to “travel hacks.” They focus on getting airline tickets and hotels for free or extremely discounted. It was an entire subculture and I was entranced by it. One blog i found extremely helpful was TravelIsFree.com. It’s a couple who have traveled internationally full-time since 2011 on a budget that equaled ours, $20k per year.
I could go into immense detail and probably bore you with everything I learned through my research, but I will try to convey my 4 HUGE LESSONS and give you links if you are interested in learning more.
- Credit card sign-up bonuses are the best, most efficient way to earn miles for free flights. I already had experience using the bonus from one Southwest card to get the 2 round trip flights for our Puerto Rico adventure honeymoon for free. But my parents had always dutifully warned me to avoid credit cards.
- Contrary to popular belief, having more credit cards increases your credit score (as long as you don’t keep a balance on them) because you have a lower ratio of debt to available credit. These bloggers I learned from have like 20 cards! I understand people like Dave Ramsey who preach credit cards are the devil, but if they are handled responsibly (paid in full EVERY month) they can be very useful. One of my top 5 financial tips for any Millennial would be to get one (preferably two) credit cards without annual fees to start building your credit history.
- The negative impact to your credit score of applying for multiple credit cards (which causes the bank to do a “hard pull” and request your credit profile) and canceling a credit card (which decreases the average length you’ve kept open your collective credit lines) is negligible. The biggest factors in your score are late payments and debt to credit ratio at 65%. (source)
- Certain airlines allow extremely useful tricks called stopovers and open-jaws that allow multiple destinations in one round trip ticket. A stopover is when you are heading to a final international destination (say Berlin), but you stopover somewhere on the way (say London) for as long as you want at no extra cost. An open-jaw is when you arrive at a destination (like Berlin) and then travel to another city on your own (say Moscow) and leave return home from there.
STEP 3: Pick my credit cards
There are like a bajillion cards out there. But if the goal is earning free flights, the options clear up a lot. Depending on your destination they clear up even more.
Hawaii and American Samoa: I combined these destinations because I planned to make Honolulu our stopover on the way to American Samoa, thus only needing one ticket for the two destinations. The best airline that allows stopovers and doesn’t pass along fuel surcharges on awards tickets (making them not free) is United. Now, United doesn’t actually travel to American Samoa, but Air New Zealand flies from Hawaii to Samoa from which you can take a ferry to American Samoa. Since ANZ is in the Star Alliance with United, you can use United miles to book ANZ flights. For a round-trip ticket to American Samoa you need 70k United miles (140k for the two of us). Since you earn 1 United mile per mile you fly, it would take us ** trips around the equator to reach 140k miles… or a few credit cards. United Awards Chart>
The best cards for earning United miles are the United MileagePlus card and Chase cards (which earns Chase points that can convert 1:1 to several airline miles including United).
Elizabeth and I each applied for a United MileagePlus card that offered a sign-up bonus of 50k miles each when you complete the $2k minimum spend within 3 months. (When I first applied the bonus was actually the standard 30k. But then they started a promo that bumped it to 50k and when I called they were willing to add on the extra 20k I just missed.)
Then I applied for the Chase Ink Plus card with a sign-up bonus of 60k points when spending $5k in 3 months. This is a business credit card which I applied for under the My GreenHome business I started. The standards for a “business” are very low and being able to apply for business cards opens up lots of powerful card options.
U.S. Virgin Islands: After a bit of research, I determined Spirit was the best airline to fly to tiny St. Thomas because we could leave on a direct flight from Fort Lauderdale after finishing our visit to the South Florida parks of Dry Tortugas, Biscayne and Everglades.
Elizabeth applied for the Spirit credit card and earned 15k miles bonus with her first purchase. Since a one-way for our “tier 1” route is as cheap as 2.5k miles, the round trip is only 10k miles for the two of us.
STEP 4: Earn the sign-up bonus miles
Spending a total of $9k on our 2 United and 1 Chase cards in 3 months to earn our bonuses while also trying to save most of our income was big challenge. 3 strategies made it possible:
- We began this process early enough that we could spread out our credit card applications. This was helpful so we could reduce the amount the 3-month timeframes overlapped. We also needed to wait at least 30 days so the bank didn’t deny us for seeing too many “hard pulls” on our credit profile within too short a timeframe.
- We asked each of our parents if they could let us pay for a few of their big purchases and bills with our cards and then reimburse us.
- Then my mind was blown by a thing called manufactured spend. MS, as it’s called in travel hacking world, is a way to spend money on your card and cycle that money back into your bank account so you don’t actually spend it. There are a number of different methods and variations of MS (though all are legal, many eventually get shutdown), but the simplest is buying something like a Visa prepaid debit card or gift card that can then be used or converted back into cash in your account. I dabbled with MS, but didn’t use it much because for me it was a complicated hassle and I only needed to spend a doable, finite amount. But expert travel hackers use it all the time to manage their consistent stream of credit card bonuses.
STEP 5: Redeem bonus miles
After successfully earning all our bonus miles, I quickly realized I had underestimated the redemption stage. Having enough miles to reach the moon doesn’t mean anything if you can’t redeem them for your destination.
American Samoa: This was always the crux. It is such a remote destination with so few airlines with so limited flights. The the United route from U.S to Samoa via Air New Zealand refused to show any mile redemption options. After a few months of calling both airlines and re-searching for seat availability at intervals, the redemption seats were still absent. ANZ gives priority to it’s own redemptions by its own rewards members and our target of January was tourist season in the Southern Hemisphere, so it was unlikely any seats would become available for my United miles. I eventually decided that I couldn’t wait any longer and conceded a very demoralizing defeat after a hard fought battle. We paid the $1,800 for 2 round-trips from Honolulu directly to American Samoa on Hawaiian Air (the only airline to go from Hawaii to AS).
Hawaii: Our United miles were far from wasted though! We redeemed 80k miles for 2 round-trips from St. Louis to Honolulu. (We could conveniently fly from St. Louis right after a Christmas break there with Elizabeth’s family because flights from anywhere in the U.S. to Hawaii cost the same number of miles.)
Then we tackled the intra-Hawaii flights. United does not fly between the Hawaiian islands so they actually have a limited partnership with Hawaiian Air for only those flights (unfortunately they don’t partner for Hawaiian Air’s route to AS, although I told them that was a mistake ;)). So I redeemed 30k United miles for 2 sets of 3 one-ways on Hawaiian Air.
U.S. Virgin Islands: We hit another snag with award seat availability. Because our focus was on the bigger fish, we applied for the Spirit card last. Then we got denied and we called to successfully appeal (not uncommon). The next delay was that instead of the ~2 weeks it took to process and receive the other cards Spirit took 2 months. It didn’t come in the mail until the end of August when we had already left on the trip. Luckily the minimum spend was only one purchase. So got the card number from Elizabeth’s mom over the phone and made a purchase online. Then the miles didn’t post in our account for a month. By the time we got the bonus miles it was just 2 months until our flight, at which point only the expensive (miles-wise) reward seats were left for our flight out. So we paid $195 for 2 one-ways to USVI and redeemed 5k miles plus $50 in airport taxes for the 2 one-ways back to Ft. Lauderdale. However we also jumped through some hoops to get a $50 rebate from our paid tickets, so the net loss was just around $95. That’s why Spirit is an airline after my cheapskate’s heart.
All told, we cut our 18 individual one-way tickets from $4,240 down to doable $2,020. We started the process last January and finished in October. It was time consuming, fairly stressful and not the complete success I’d hoped for, but also a fun challenge. And with an ambitious budget like ours we need all the savings we can get.
I learned that free travel is possible. And if you stuck with me through this monster post I hope you learned something too. Happy travel hacking!
PS- I’d love to hear your thoughts and any travel hacking stories!