Plus, the biggest secret travel hackers exploit that most consumers fail to realize.
They say travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer–that is until you look at your bank statement on the last day of vacation. Going outside is expensive, and often the cost makes travel seem prohibitive for individuals and families alike. Thankfully, there are money-saving hacks available for those who know where to look. Here’s how to secure discounted and even free award travel, with or without credit cards.
Top Picks for You
While the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) focuses on people over 50, there is no minimum age requirement to join. For less than $20/year, you get access to travel savings on hotels, rental cars, airport parking, travel insurance, and even flights. For instance, you can get $65-$200 off economy and business class tickets on British Airways. You can also save 30% on base rates, get a free upgrade and add an additional driver at no extra cost with Budget Rental Car. These reduced AARP rates will save you the cost of annual membership several times over on your first booking.
The American Automobile Association (AAA) has been a longstanding name in travel and remains relevant. Members still get access to travel agents for in-person service, as well as online discounts with partner brands like Hyatt, Marriott, and Hertz. Perks can include the waiver of a young driver fee when renting a car (ages 20-25). There are also restaurant discounts, like 10% off at the Hard Rock Cafe and Rainforest Cafe. The best part? AAA membership automatically comes with travel insurance that includes trip interruption protection and travel accident coverage.
Want to find flight deals with minimum effort? Flight alerts were made for you. Instead of searching the internet for deals, someone else finds deals for you and notifies you via email. You may be notified of a price drop when airlines are trying to sell unsold seats, or an error fare when a price is listed incorrectly (works only if you catch the error before the airline). One of the most popular flight alert programs is Scott’s Cheap Flights, regularly sending out deals like $300 roundtrip flights to Europe and the occasional jaw-dropping fare like a $70 roundtrip flight from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Tokyo, Japan.
Sam’s Club, Costco, and BJ’s Wholesale Club all have travel discounts included in their memberships. This is a good resource for booking discounted theme park tickets to places like Universal Studios, Walt Disney World Resort, and Dollywood, at times with perks like extra park hours and skip-the-line privileges. You can find Broadway tickets starting at $50 and cruise sales that come with bonuses like an on-board ship credit and cabin upgrade.
For those with a valid student ID who are under the age of 26, consider StudentUniverse, an online booking platform that finds discounted flights for young travelers. Students also get discounted train travel on Amtrak and Eurail. Those ages 18-30 can enroll for free in Qatar Airways’ Student Club and save up to 20% on flights. Not to mention discounts on museum admissions, public transportation, and restaurants. Certain discounts continue after graduation, with schools like DePaul and Boston University partnering with regional hotels to offer up to 25% off room rates for alumni.
Cashback programs work like a digital rebate. Once you make a purchase, you get a percentage of your money back. These sites make money on an affiliate basis, getting a commission for every purchase they refer. Part of that commission makes its way back to you as a rebate. Popular cashback sites for travel bookings include Rakuten and TopCashBack. Offers can range between 4-7% cashback and include popular travel booking sites like Expedia and Agoda.
Are you a teacher? Members of the National Educators Association get 25% off car rentals at Hertz and 20% off Red Roof Properties. Teaching isn’t the only profession that comes with travel perks. Nurses and first responders, for instance, get 35% off at Caesar’s Hotels and 10% off all reservations on Hotels.com.
Travel Credit Cards
There are many benefits to having a travel credit card but the biggest one is the ability to accrue bulk points and miles to redeem towards award travel. You earn the most points and miles on a travel credit card at the very beginning, through the sign-up incentive. Once you meet a minimum spend threshold, you get an award of tens or hundreds of thousands of miles, which can then be redeemed for free or discounted travel in the form of flights, hotel stays, or experiences. Credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Reserve have generous welcome offers and dozens of travel partners on their Ultimate Rewards redemption portal.
Airline Loyalty Programs
The traditional way to earn a “free flight” is to fly frequently on a given airline and accumulate miles with them. To do this, sign up for the airline’s loyalty program. The programs are free to join and everyone in your household can have their own account, including children. Notably, you can credit flights from partner airlines to your preferred account. For instance, United Airlines and Lufthansa are part of the Star Alliance, so you can choose to have miles from your flight on Lufthansa credited to your United MileagePlus account.
Shopping Through Airline Portals
Once you’ve created an account with your preferred airline, you’ll notice they have a shopping portal with discounts or shopping incentives for partner brands. To access these discounts, click through to the partner site from the airline shopping portal so they can track your purchase. Deals may include offers like 3 points for every dollar spent at Amazon or Home Depot. If you’re shopping online, you should be getting miles for it. Certain airlines also offer an award just for signing up, like TAP Portugal which gives 200 bonus points for joining their Miles & Go loyalty program.
Referring a Friend
Found a great travel credit card that works for you? Spread the word! You can get points and miles just for referring others. British Airways, for instance, awards 10,000 bonus Avios for each referral, up to 20,000 Avios per year. The Hilton Honors Surpass Card awards 20,000 points per referral, up to 80,000 points a year. You must share your unique referral link to be credited and your award is processed when the account is approved.
Completing Surveys Online
Did you know you can earn airline miles just for completing surveys online? This is an easy, mindless activity you can do while watching TV at night or sitting in a waiting room. JetBlue has a program called JetOpinions where you take short surveys and earn anything from 10-50 miles per survey, depending on the target demographic. You get 400 TrueBlue points when you join and complete your first survey.
Several major brands have a dining rewards program. All you need to do is sign up for the program, register a credit or debit card to your account, and every time you make a purchase at a participating restaurant you earn rewards. Importantly, you can only have one card registered to one dining rewards program at a time. The programs offer a first-dine bonus, like a credit card sign-up incentive, where you get a bulk award when you meet a minimum spend threshold. American Airlines, for instance, offers 1,000 bonus miles when you spend $25 on AAdvantage Dining within 30 days, an easy threshold for most households.
Putting Gas in Your Car
Did you know that gas stations charge different prices if you pay with cards versus cash? This is because the vendors charge the credit card fees to the customer. However, if you pay with a gas gift card it’s considered the same as cash. Moreover, if you buy your gift card from a supermarket or office supply store that offers gas gift cards, you can usually get a point multiplier on your travel credit card. This is a great way to maximize your benefits and save money on gas at the same time.
Perhaps the biggest secret travel hackers exploit, and most consumers fail to realize, is that you can use multiple point-earning tactics at once. You can pay with a credit card that gives you points and miles, through a cashback portal that earns travel rewards, while taking advantage of point multiplier offers. Granted, this is more along the lines of extreme couponing, but the reward is a free vacation as opposed to 20 bars of soap which makes all the difference.