If you’ve been following my blog for any amount of time, you know that I’m all about travel hacking, and making travel more affordable for everyone. Some of you may be wondering what is travel hacking if you’ve never heard of it before. Well, it’s basically the BEST way to dramatically cut your travel expenses. Not only that but it always you to get crazy cheap first class tickets for almost free!
Travel hacking is how I get virtually free airline tickets and hotel stays. While economy class is the easiest way to use your airline miles, it is also one of the best ways to make First Class flights affordable to the average joe.
As an example, I bought a ticket back to Seattle from Medellin to visit friends and family for a few weeks. It’s a LONG trip between South America and the Pacific Northwest. So as you can imagine, it’d be a pretty expensive flight, normally.
But in the end, I paid just $117.06 in TOTAL.
That’s for a round trip flight.
And the return flight is (all three legs of the trip) in First or Business Class!
That’s just mind-blowing, isn’t it? That’s definitely what I would call a cheap first class ticket.
One of the biggest obstacles stopping people from traveling long-term is that travel is “expensive”.
But it certainly doesn’t have to be expensive.
I’m not the kind of person who normally flies First Class, for sure. I’ve only done it once before when I was lucky enough to get upgraded on a flight way back in the day. So having all this time in First Class was certainly a nice treat. It only cost me marginally more miles to book a First Class rather than economy.
I could never really imagine paying thousands for a First Class plane ticket, but I’m happy to pay a few dozen more miles for the chance to travel more comfortably and in a little bit of luxury!
Not only did I get the drinks, better food, and the big seats (one leg had the lay-flat seats, which was so nice!), but I also got access to the airline lounges at each airport.
That meant I could go into the Alaska Airlines Lounge at Seatac before my flight for some food, comfy chairs, and drinks. I had a red-eye flight into Chicago (at least I had the nice seat and got some sleep!) and I was able to enjoy the wide and varied breakfast bar spread which is buffet style with all you can eat.
After that, I used the airport lounge shower to clean up and feel refreshed after a long flight — that’s definitely the first time I’ve had a shower in the airport. Then I boarded my next flight to Miami where I got into the lounge again and enjoyed more food and a few cocktails before my return home to Medellin.
There was almost too much food! Haha, but it was an awesome experience that I’d highly recommend to my fellow travelers. What better way to travel first class than traveling for free?
The biggest downside of flying first class is that it will ruin economy for you for a while!
Fly Around the World for Free?
In my book Big Travel, Small Budget, I talked extensively about travel hacking, and also told the stories of some fellow travel hackers like my friend Katie.
Thanks to travel hacking and airline mileage rewards programs you can fly around the world for pennies on the dollar. Literally. It isn’t just for cheap first class tickets, as you can use those same points for more flights in economy if that’s more your style
Katie used her airline miles to book a trip around the world through a six-city tour across Europe stretching between Madrid and Zurich, and another 12 city tour through the Middle East, India, and Eastern Asia. For less than $600 total (the cost of some round trip domestic flights in the USA), she was able to travel around the globe and visit a dozen countries.
That is just awesome.
That trip of mine might not have been as exciting or ambitious, but it’s always nice to head back home to Seattle for a visit after being gone for so long… I always love the chance to enjoy some delicious Seattle teriyaki, hang out with friends and family, see Mount Rainier (hopefully) and the beautiful Puget Sound.
And hey, free first class travel was just the icing on the cake!
Cheap First Class Tickets
So how did I actually get the flight for $117.06?
It’s all through airline mileage reward programs. I had a bunch of miles through Alaska Airlines thanks to credit card bonus offers and being able to meet the credit card minimum spend.
I talk in detail about these strategies in the book, but if you do it right, the bonus miles don’t cost you anything additional out of pocket… You are being rewarded with free miles as a new customer. Promos vary all the time, but many are sufficient for at least one or two domestic round trip flights, or at least one international round trip flight, and probably even enough for a cheap first class ticket, depending on your destination.
Read More: Best Travel Credit Cards
This particular flight ended up costing me 52,500 miles (with the return in first class) and $117.06. Economy round trips usually go for around 40,000 miles, so it was only marginally more expensive for 3 first/business class flights and lounge access in three airports (Seattle, Chicago, and Miami).
Similar flights for those same dates were at a minimum of $650 round trip for a coach only fare to Seattle. So I save more than $500 out of pocket, much more if you consider that it was first class. Always a nice thing!
Cost Per Mile on Cheap First Class Tickets
One way of analyzing whether you are getting a good deal is to look at the cost per mile of an award redemption.
The cost per mile on this flight ($650 / 52,500) equals 1.2 cents per mile, which is an okay rate of redemption (if it were economy). If it’s at or below 1 cent per mile, it is usually better to just purchase the flight in cash rather than use your miles. The higher the cost per mile, the more valuable your redemption is.
But this was a flight that I needed to take, so I was just happy to save a huge chunk of change.
And in reality, the cost per mile is much, much more valuable given that my return flight is First Class and not Coach, although that is somewhat hard to calculate in this case since it was one way in economy and one way in first/business. But I’d have to estimate at least $1,400 for the same ticket which is a cost per mile of 2.6 cents — a very good value!
Traveling in style, and traveling for cheap? Some people think it’s impossible, but they just haven’t figured out the tricks of the trade yet…
If you’re interested in getting started with airline travel hacking and finding cheap first class tickets be sure to check out my Amazon.com best-selling book Big Travel, Small Budget: How to Travel More, Spend Less, and See the World. It has over 150 reviews now with a 4.6 star average (out of 5).
I promise it will change your perspective on how much travel costs. I also go in-depth on travel hacking and three other big money-saving travel strategies that I’ve personally used in my perpetual travels.
Get the Book
Big Travel, Small Budget: How to Travel More, Spend Less, and See the World is available from Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle editions.
Travel Hacking Credit Cards
Learn More About Travel Hacking
- You should already have a good handle on the fundamentals of personal finance, including not carrying a balance on any consumer debt before you get started. Free travel via travel hacking ONLY makes sense if you aren’t paying high interest to get it!
- Identify your travel goals and timeline, including whether you are targeting free flights or free hotel stays to start with, what airline network best services either your local airport or your dream vacation.
- Find the best credit cards for travel hacking that will help you meet your goals. I love the Barclay AAdvantage, Chase Sapphire, and Chase Marriott Rewards cards.
- Apply for your credit card before any big expenses (existing travel, electronics, auto repairs, taxes, etc) and put all of your recurring bills or other expenses onto the new card. Read more about credit card minimum spend tricks.
- Put a note on your calendar 11 months from now about the upcoming annual fee, this will ensure that you can call to either cancel or downgrade the card before the fee hits if you want. I use Google Calendar for this.
- Sign up for Mint.com (free) to track your spending on this new credit card to ensure that you meet the minimum spend. Mint is also a great way to help manage your personal finances in general.
- Join Award Wallet to keep track of your points and miles across all loyalty programs to ensure that you don’t forget about them and accidentally let them expire.
- Keep maximizing your point earnings by joining airline dining programs, using the airline shopping portals, and double-dipping on points by buying gift cards for upcoming purchases.
- Enjoy your travel hacking lifestyle and the ensuing free vacations! WARNING: it will make you NEVER want to pay full price again in the future.
I hope this helped you get started travel hacking! I know it can be confusing when you are just getting started, which is why I started writing so extensively about it!
If you have any questions about travel hacking, budget travel, or anything else shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(I love getting questions! That is how I get ideas for my blog posts and what to write about!)
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