The Travel Hacking Cartel: Fly Around the World For Almost Free

by Nora Dunn on 11 March 2011 14 comments
Photo: -Gep -

As a full-time traveler, my total cost of living for 2010 was $17,000. This included well over $8,000 in flights (business class flights no less): return flights from New Zealand to Europe, various short flights around Europe, and four hops between Australia and New Zealand.

Of course, I didn’t pay anything close to $8,000 for those flights. In fact, my total cost of airfare (visiting nine countries) in 2010 was less than $2,000 — and that’s a generous estimate. (See also: Negotiate All Your Travel: The Ultimate Guide)

Travel Hacking

Please welcome in from stage left: Travel Hacking. This is the art of finding ways to accomplish your travel goals for less money than you might spend if you booked everything conventionally. Travel Hacks can include working in trade for accommodation, house-sitting, getting deep discounts or free upgrades on car rentals and hotel rooms, and — of course — finding ways to fly around the world for free.

Flying for Almost Free

Since flights tend to tax our travel budgets the most, then some of the most effective travel hacks are about finding ways to fly for less, and at best — for free. I've written about hitching a ride on an airplane with courier flights, but it seems to be a dying art, with increasingly fewer such opportunities available. But rest assured, there are other ways to take to the skies for less than the sticker price.

Frequent Flyer Miles: The majority of my $2,000 spent on flights in 2010 was a US Airways frequent flyer mile promotion that I took advantage of —  a series of useful purchases I made which additionally earned me 150,000 frequent flyer miles. It was enough to book a chunk of the $8,000 in flights I took last year. (And let me tell you: after my long-haul business class experience, I’m not sure I can go back to economy again).

Using Miles for Business Class vs. Economy: You may wonder why a Professional Hobo like me would splash out on long-haul business class flights, when I could have stretched those same miles towards double the number of flights in economy class.

In fact, one of the travel hacks I learned while accumulating my frequent flyer miles is that you get the most bang for your frequent flyer mile buck by using miles for long-haul flights —  in business class no less. On a dollar-to-mile basis (and when you’re accumulating hundreds of thousands of miles, valuation becomes important), business class flights win hands down.

Learning from a Travel Hacking Expert

Chris Guillebeau is a majority of the way through a major goal of his —  to visit every country in the world within five years. Coupled with a book tour that recently took him to every U.S. state and Canadian province, this guy flies. A lot. But he never pays the sticker price for a flight. Ever.

If you're interested in replicating his successes, Chris has formulated an accessible strategy for anybody with 30 minutes per month to dedicate to the process.

The Travel Hacking Cartel is a monthly subscription service that Chris Guillebeau (a formidable entrepreneur who I’ve written about before) has recently launched to make the world of free travel accessible to everybody. Members of the cartel are guaranteed to benefit, literally; Travel Hacking Cartel members receive a guarantee that they’ll earn enough frequent flyer miles for at least one (domestic) flight per quarter —  that’s 100,000 miles per year —  simply by following the Deal Alerts and spending at least 30 minutes per month applying the tips provided.

The Travel Hacking Cartel

The main feature of the program is a series of Deal Alerts that are sent to you via email and/or SMS. These Deal Alerts advise you of new promotions, spelling out exactly what’s required to earn miles. In addition to frequent flyer mile-based alerts, I’ve seen alerts for free stays at the Best Western, free iTunes downloads, and even an alert about a “mistake airfare” of $294 for a return flight from Houston to London.

There’s also a Knowledge Base in which Chris answers cartel-member questions, and a Video Tutorial section in which Chris explains (and often illustrates with screen shots) various concepts and how to achieve certain travel hacks.

Many of the Travel Hacking Cartel concepts are about more than just flying. For example, Chris discusses alternative lodging options (for budget travelers), $9 car rentals, and how to effectively hack Priceline to get nice hotel rooms for a fraction of the going rate.

Things I’ve Learned From the Travel Hacking Cartel

I’ve had a chance to experience the Travel Hacking Cartel as a member for the last month. And as a full-time traveler, I’m already an expert of sorts on hacking my way to inexpensive travel. But even I gleaned a few pointers, such as:

  • How to earn miles with one airline and book higher-value rewards with another (better) airline
  • Saving miles when booking low-value domestic flights, instead paying with cash and accumulating miles for higher-value flights
  • Getting cheap accommodation in university dorm rooms when school is out of session
  • Arranging free stopovers on long-haul flights (unfortunately Chris doesn’t say exactly how to do this)
  • Using special tools to view Star Alliance availabilities and hack the system to find out what the operator can’t — or won’t — reveal
  • Booking RTW tickets with frequent flyer miles

It’s Great, But…

One of the advantages of the Travel Hacking Cartel (which is a monthly subscription service) over a fixed e-book with similar pointers like Frequent Flyer Master is the Deal Alerts in which members are promptly alerted of new travel hacks that are constantly becoming available.

But as somebody who isn’t a U.S. resident, I’ve not been able to take full advantage of the Deal Alerts, which cater largely to the U.S. market. This is because most frequent flyer mile programs originate from U.S. airlines. Canadians like me can get in on some of the action, but only to a point. And although there are deals for other international members (for example, I saw a great Deal Alert for Australians through Quantas), it’s frustrating to have to pass on so many juicy Deal Alerts.

Still, Chris figures that about 50% of the Deal Alerts are available to international members, and regardless of where you live, the guarantee applies: if you spend 30 minutes per month on the program and don’t manage to earn at least 25,000 frequent flyer miles per quarter, the onus is on the Travel Hacking Cartel to deliver.

Secondly, I wish that the tutorial videos were downloadable, since I’m not always near an internet connection, and when I am I don’t usually have the time or wherewithal to stream videos.

Lastly, I don’t stay in a lot of hotels, and some of the Deal Alerts are for hotel stays and hotel reward programs. Other members who don’t stay in hotels frequently might not see as much value in these alerts as a regular traveler or business traveler might. Even if staying at a hotel isn’t necessary for the accumulation of points, some of the smaller bonuses for membership programs I doubt I’ll ever use seem too much of a hassle to bother with.

Reasons to Join the Cartel

Having said what I’m not thrilled about with the Travel Hacking Cartel, I must also admit that membership has already been of value to me. I’ve successfully taken advantage of two of the deal alerts, which should net me about 35,000 frequent flyer miles — more than enough for a domestic flight, or a good portion of the way towards my next long-haul business class flight.

And when it comes to researching frequent flyer mile deals, I’m actually pretty lazy. I don’t have a constant internet connection or an ability to spend a lot of time online, especially to research something like frequent flyer miles ad nauseam.

So although I could hack my own way to finding the promotions listed in the Deal Alerts by lurking frequent flyer mile message boards and traveling up the learning curve myself, the Travel Hacking Cartel is perfect for people like me who don’t have the time or wherewithal to do this grunt work. In the name of outsourcing, I’d prefer to have my Deal Alerts sourced, vetted, and sent to me so I can focus my time on other ventures that net me a higher value for time spent.

Although Chris is far from the first person ever to hack his way to frequent flyer mile stardom, what he has done with the Travel Hacking Cartel is made it accessible to anybody who wants to easily replicate his success. And if you are serious about traveling and earning free flights, the cost of membership ends up being negligible.

Case in point: Chris recently used his miles to book $4,500 in business class flights to the Middle East for a whopping total of $84 in taxes. Enroute, he’ll layover in Heathrow and stay at the Sheraton airport hotel (airport hotels are convenient but notoriously high-priced). But he’s not sweating it: the $220 room is free with his Starwood points.

So if you want to travel in style and on the cheap like Chris does, all you have to do is join, spend at least 30 minutes per month reading and applying the knowledge and tips, and watch your frequent flyer mile account balances grow.

Travel Hacking Cartel Membership

As a monthly member, the Travel Hacking Cartel costs between $15-39 per month, depending on the membership option you choose.

No matter where in the world you live, or which membership option you choose, membership comes with a guarantee that you will earn at least 25,000 miles per quarter simply by spending at least 30 minutes per month on the program. It’s time (and money) well-invested, if your eyes are looking skyward for your next vacation.

Note: The author received a month of free membership to the Travel Hacking Cartel, and there are affiliate links in this post.

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Guest's picture
Guest

Worth reading if you're interested in joining the THC:

http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/milesbuzz/1177156-travel-hacking-cartel.html

Nora Dunn's picture

@Guest - Thanks for offering this resource and comments forum. Flyer Talk is one of the leading resources in frequent flyer miles and strategies. And as I said in the article, if you have the time and inclination, lurking forums like Flyer Talk can be an effective way to accomplish many of the strategies that are offered up with Travel Hacking Cartel. What Cartel membership does (that Flyer Talk doesn't do) is vet the opportunities for members, make them easy to understand and take advantage of, and Chris provides educational resources as well. If you don't have the time and inclination to travel up the frequent flyer mile learning curve yourself, then the Travel Hacking Cartel is perfect.

As a side note, since writing this post I've attained Silver Elite Status with Star Alliance, and joined a few extra programs through deals that will net me a few more perks and points.

Guest's picture
LA Backpacker Chick

Thanks for providing this link! flyertalk.com is awesome!

Guest's picture
Mrs. $

I'll have to look into these ideas. The dorm room idea sounds cool. I would try that.

Nora Dunn's picture

@Mrs $ - I like the dorm room idea too! I'm going to give it a shot this summer. And in fact, I inadvertently stayed in a dorm room when I was in Edinburgh last summer...it was listed on one of the hostel booking sites. But I want to try calling universities directly to see if I can get good deals that way.

Guest's picture
Lizzie

Nora, this is so interesting! I am one of the many that love to travel but after all is said and done it can be quite expensive. I look forward to taking a closer look at your travel tips. Thanks!
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Guest's picture
Kaelli

Thanks for the post! I have a question - starting off, is it better to buy the frequent flyer master or the subscription to the travel hacking cartel?

Nora Dunn's picture

Kaelli - The Frequent Flyer Master is an older publication (though largely still up-to-date), and provides the basics on accumulation strategies.
What I really like about the Travel Hacking Cartel by comparison are the email updates, which make accumulation and taking advantage of deals quite easy. I don't have time to find and vet all my own deals and THC is perfect for time-strapped/lazy people like me - and has all the tutorials you need to learn accumulation strategies from the ground up. (so to speak)!

Guest's picture
Linda

Nora I have skimmed through a lot of content offered by Chris on his site and what you have written. The thing that concerns me is signing up for multiple credit cards to get points that require minimum spending amounts the first year. What does one do with all these cards when the membership renewal fees are required which on many don't appear inexpensive to me. Does one just have to use up their points quickly then move on to new cards? If you could help me understand it would be appreciated. I am not one to maintain a half dozen credit cards at the same time. I do find your information interesting.

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

Hi Linda - great questions. Some cards will waive the first year membership fee, which gives you enough time to satisfy the spending requirements, get the miles, then cancel the card.
Also - with any credit cards - you can try calling customer service and asking them to reduce or waive the fee. It actually works (sometimes)!

And in some cases it's worth the membership fee to get a whack of points with a bonus sign-up offer....(again cancelling the card before the year is up to save further membership fees).

I haven't done a lot of credit card applications, largely because of my full-time travel lifestyle, and as a Canadian I don't have as many opportunities as US citizens do.
But Chris does very well by it - as do many others.

Guest's picture
Courtney

Hi! This program sounds really great. I'm seeing that to take advantage of this program and rack up frequent flyer miles, you need to sign up for credit cards. How would this work for someone who is young and has no credit, or someone who has bad credit. In those instances they are not likely to get approved for a credit card, so how could they still benefit from it?

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

While it's true that the greatest bonuses come from credit card applications, as well as directing purchases online through "skymalls", there are still some ways to earn miles. It's not as fast, but the situation is different for everybody, depending on your credit situation and where you live.
I, for example own one frequent flyer credit card that I got ages ago (I charge everything to the card and pay it all off each month), but I don't apply for new cards as a way to accumulate points. I don't live in places where I can physically shop in stores that award miles, but when I need to place an online order I do it through a skymall.

Guest's picture

I am definitely looking into this! I only wish I'd known about it sooner! I just booked a fairly expensive long haul flight :/ oh well, next time!

Guest's picture

Looks interesting, but it's a quite expensive fee...to obtain a discount!