Traveling for Free
Sadly, Kate's homesickness found her shortly after a severe bout of food poisoning ensured she had a very thorough and educational tour of a Moroccan hospital (she's okay now, folks!). But that didn't deter me from emulating her free vacation skillz, and I promptly set myself up with a number of free loyalty programs as well as a few carefully-researched credit cards with which I could earn travel benefits. I'mma let me finish with some easy tips for n00bs like you and I, but first let me razzle-dazzle you with my recent all-expenses-paid B-B-B-B-BONUS trip!
Itinerary: Los Angeles
My room was at the W Hotel in Hollywood. This is A Fancy Hotel. Barring my marrying up (way, way up) in the future, I may never again experience luxury of this caliber. They change the mats in the elevator three times a day so you know if it's morning, afternoon, or evening. The pool has a m'aitre d' who helps you find a lounge chair and gives you a towel (his podium is right next to the DJ). The wallpaper in the hallways is faux crocodile. Faux crocodile on the walls, man. Somehow that detail struck me as the most absurdly extravagant part of the whole experience.
Round trip SFO-LAX ticket: $11.20 (security fee)
Two nights at W Hollywood: $7.25 (total after points, not including drinks or tips)
Rental car: $37.89 ($24.88 in supplemental insurance, $10 facility fee, $2.76 airport concession fee)
Gas: $7.14 (LOL)
Parking: $41.25 (combined garages and meters)
Who said you can't do a major American city on less than $100 a day?!
Other Shit I Did & Ate
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How I Did It, & You Can, Too
The most obvious and simple tip is to sign up for an airline's frequent flyer program every time you fly, regardless of whether you feel particularly loyal that airline or not. You might rack up rewards faster than you expect: Years ago, I found a cheap round trip ticket on Philippine Airlines from Hong Kong to San Francisco, instantly earning enough 'Mabuhay Miles' for a free round-trip ticket from Hong Kong to Manila! You can also earn miles towards other partner airlines- I earned a number of Air France miles last year when I flew with one of their loyalty partners, Aero Mexico.
Apply for a Frequent Flyer Credit Card
If you have a preferred airline, or one that flies to places on which you've set your sights, you can really boost your miles by getting a credit card linked to your frequent flyer account. As I mentioned before, I signed up for the Virgin America Visa, which awards you free miles when you set up an account and also comes with bonuses like free checked bags, discounts on companion tickets, and triple miles on any Virgin America purchase made with the card.
Apply for Other Rewards Credit Cards
There are plenty of other cards that offer bonuses, too. I used a Chase Sapphire rewards card to earn the points that got me two nights at the W. There is no fee for the first year and if you put a certain amount on the card in the first three months, Chase gives you a bonus 40,000 points. My hotel stay cleared out my entire account of 50,000 points, so I still only 'purchased' 20% of the points that got me the room. It's a pretty amazing deal.
Of course, as with any credit card, you should be conscientious of your spending habits. It's hardly worth getting into debt up to your eyeballs for the sake of a free stay at a hotel. Use the credit card as often as possible, but only for essential needs such as utilities, groceries, and gas, before buying luxuries, and only then the luxuries you already know you can afford. Be educated and aware of penalties, interest rates, membership fees, and other caveats, and don't be afraid to cash in your points and cancel the card if it ever threatens to be more of a financial drain than a financial boon.
Squeeze Extra Miles Out of Stone
Do anything and everything you can to earn extra miles. A few weeks ago I got an email from Air France inviting me to join a consumer survey team in exchange for miles. I only earn 10-50 miles per completed survey, which is probably only enough to taxi the plane away from the terminal and onto the runway. BUT they add up, and most importantly, they keep your account active inbetween vacations. That little box you normally untick that says "send me special offers and announcements"? Keep that ticked! It's mildly annoying to get all the emails but worth it when you're soaring off to your free vacation.
If you need a good place to keep track of all your accounts and points, Kate suggested I try AwardWallet.com. It's been great! Both the free and premium paid accounts provide you with an at-a-glance view of all your rewards programs, how many points by which each one has increased/decreased, and even give you one-click login to each account's website. It's a big help when you're planning a vacation that uses multiple rewards accounts, as I did on this trip.