Like Indiana Jones With An Expense Account
October 26, 2016 11:21 AM   Subscribe

Looking for everyone's best hacks when it comes to funding travel.

After ten years of living hand-to-mouth as a temp, and by extension having almost no paid vacation, I am now in a job with TONS of vacation time, and want to indulge - but the job isn't equally as generous with the pay. Fortunately I don't have luxury tastes, and there are some tricks I've already implemented, but my reach is still exceeding my wallet a tiny bit.

Things I already do or have started doing:

* Started a dedicated savings account that is just for travel, so I can pay for any plane tickets or hotels or trains or everything in cash.
* Scheduling my travels for the off-season or shoulder-season.
* Packing carefully so that I have only a single carryon and avoid luggage fees.
* Avoiding traditional hotels in favor of the smaller family-owned things, or AirBnB, which not only is cheaper, but also lets me save by making some meals in my room. (Back in the day I also did youth hostels.)
* I found a web site that has alerts with super-cheap airfares worldwide and will start making my vacation choices based on "what's the best deal for the week I'm looking at?"

Things I don't already do, but am considering:

* Getting a credit card with miles rewards. (I already have two credit cards, and am trying to avoid getting a third - but would it be worth it? would that do weird things to my credit?)
* Camping more.

Any other ideas? Any budget-travel destination recommendations also welcome.
posted by EmpressCallipygos to Travel & Transportation (43 answers total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
This is similar to the 'savings account' thing, but my friend asks for additional withholdings from her wages by the IRS, so when she gets her return every year, it's HUGE - then she goes on vacation with it. Heh.
posted by destructive cactus at 11:28 AM on October 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

I found a web site that has alerts with super-cheap airfares worldwide...

I unfortunately don't have any advice for you, but would you mind sharing the website?
posted by lalex at 11:31 AM on October 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Go somewhere cheap. I've had an arrangement a lot like yours for most of my career (lots of unpaid time off, enough money to fund some travel), and I've never been to Paris or Hawaii or a resort of any kind. Instead I've been to places like Turkey and Peru. Travel is actually extremely reasonable when you stop envisioning Tahiti and luxury cruises and the like. There are a lot of countries where the traveling itself is dirt cheap once you cover the airfare.

Use budget airlines. No, it's not fun to fly Spirit or Whizz or RyanAir. But they get you where you're going.

Do you know anyone who lives somewhere you'd like to visit? Stay with them. I went to Greece last year, and the trip wouldn't have been possible if I couldn't stay with the friend I have who lives in Crete.

Look into unconventional styles of travel. I had an amazing time WWOOFing despite the fact that, yes, it involved farm labor.

Keep staying in hostels even if you aren't exactly "youth" anymore. This is something else that falls into the same category as budget airlines. Are they luxurious getaways? No. Are they a place to rest your head in Florence while you eat gelato and look at art? Yes. A lot of older people stay in hostels; the trick is to just find the less party-oriented ones.
posted by Sara C. at 11:36 AM on October 26, 2016 [8 favorites]

I find it takes a long time to build up many miles on a credit card, even if you put all of your bills and monthly expenses on it (which I do). Then again, I'm usually saving to fly three people, and (especially depending on where you're going) it may be a lot easier to get enough miles for one.

I like my Southwest Visa, but Southwest doesn't fly to international locations (aside from a select few Caribbean destinations). No baggage fee though, woohoo!

You'll take a slight ding to your credit for opening a new credit line, but it shouldn't make much difference unless you're trying to buy a house or something.
posted by missrachael at 11:37 AM on October 26, 2016

I found a web site that has alerts with super-cheap airfares worldwide ...

Not sure if this is the site you're talking about, but a Facebook friend often shares airfares from Fare Deal Alert that look pretty good, so you might have a look there and possibly subscribe or follow them.
posted by exogenous at 11:45 AM on October 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A couple of re-directs:

Travel is actually extremely reasonable when you stop envisioning Tahiti and luxury cruises and the like.

Er, I don't recall saying that I was envisioning Tahiti, and my "I don't have luxury tastes" already means luxury cruises aren't things I was envisioning, but noted.

I unfortunately don't have any advice for you, but would you mind sharing the website?

Secret Flying. A Facebook friend told me about it; I haven't used it yet, but she's already been to New Zealand and Thailand on a municipal workers' salary with it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:47 AM on October 26, 2016 [21 favorites]

The airline credit card is a good idea, in general.

If you can develop loyalty to one particular airline and/or hotel chain, that's often helpful. Build up rewards points with one brand rather than scattering them around four airlines. If you don't want to do a specific hotel chain (you sound like you're not going to stay in hotels often; me, my destinations for work travel don't always have chain hotels), has a rewards program. Rental car companies have good rewards programs, too. If you do end up signing up for the airline credit card, you'll usually get a pretty big points boost at the start, too. Sometimes (e.g. Delta), airline cardholders also get a free checked bag.

As for destinations, look into off-season stuff. Places on the ocean will be cheaper in winter, and cold-weather places like ski resorts will be cheaper in summer. Summer at ski areas is usually pretty cool - lots of hiking and cycling, plus things like alpine slides. The smaller, the better - very few people travel to small towns in Iowa, for example, so things like hotels and rental cars are comparatively rather cheap there.

If you have too much to fit in a carryon, look into shipping your extras to your hotel via UPS or FedEx. That's usually less than the airline bag check fee.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:50 AM on October 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Here's a detailed guide to the best travel rewards credit card. You should probably get one unless you have relatively low credit card spending (the article explains how to do the math). Having another card should have little or no affect on your credit score (assuming you don't use it to incur more debt that you would have without it).
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:52 AM on October 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Wherever possible and when our plans are firm we prepay our hotels. Usually this means you get like 15% off right up front. Sometimes you can do this on the hotels websites themselves, but you can also do it on a few of the booking websites.

I also started using Expedia for as many of my hotel bookings as possible because you can collect points on there when you make bookings (and they give you even more points (like 3X!) if you book using their smartphone/tablet app) and then can use these points for money off future hotel bookings. Plus, if you keep an eye on your hotel rates, if you find a lower rate for your same room and dates somewhere else, you just need to send them proof and they'll both match it AND give you a $50 voucher. And if you use it enough you get in their higher level loyalty club thing and they give you even MORE points for bookings and access to cheaper rates. Their program is amazing - and to boot it keeps all of your stuff all tidy in an easy-to-use and easily accessible app which is great on the go.

(Honestly, I'm such an independent researcher for travelling that I find it hilarious that I even use Expedia, but it really is that awesome).
posted by urbanlenny at 11:54 AM on October 26, 2016

I second the Hostel route, especially if you are going to Europe. Hosteling is very common there and it is not just for youth. I still recall my 2 week jaunt all over Great Britain about 20 years ago. Stayed only in Hostels and it was a blast.

In Europe, train travel is always an option between cities. Also, if you are visiting Europe and want to rent a car, do so from the US for better rates.
posted by indianbadger1 at 11:54 AM on October 26, 2016

>* Getting a credit card with miles rewards. (I already have two credit cards, and am trying to avoid getting a third - but would it be worth it? would that do weird things to my credit?)

This depends on your credit situation. If you are disciplined with your finances and won't change your spending habits because you have an extra credit line, and you aren't holding any outstanding credit card debt and pay off your cards every month, I usually say this is a good idea with those caveat.

What you'll see is a slight dip in your credit score initially, but then it climbing by a few points over time.

In cases like yours where you aren't necessarily trying to get status with an airline and simply want to travel as cheaply as possible, consider something like Chase Sapphire that has transferrable points that can be converted to buy tickets with any airline. I also like Chase Sapphire because there's no foreign transaction fee when you use it abroad, and you get double points on all travel related things (category is quite expansive), and all dining. Find the right signup promotion and you can get upwards of 50k points right off the bat.
posted by Karaage at 11:54 AM on October 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

I find it takes a long time to build up many miles on a credit card

This takes more effort than I'm generally willing to put in, but if you follow sites like The Points Guy or Frugal Travel Guy, you'll find out about good deals on sign-up bonuses for credit cards that can include enough points for an overseas trip at a minimal cost if you play your *ahem* cards right.

You do need to be a little careful with the points hunting if you're going to need to have a good credit score in the reasonably near future (opening up lots of new accounts can lower your score -- probably not enough to keep you from getting a security clearance, but enough to up your interest rate on a mortgage or car loan).
posted by sparklemotion at 11:55 AM on October 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

You're in NYC, right? Same advice I always give. Go to the site, click on the menu on the upper left corner and select "Destinations". Then pick your airport.

You'll see the cheapest prices for destinations. Also, if you know where you want to go, just pick the source and destination airports and then you'll get an option for a fare calendar that'll show you the cheapest prices for each day.

Do NOT pick a seat. That'll cost you extra. Instead arrive at the airport a bit early and tell them what type of seat you want and they'll give it to you if available. On the Europe side, they have kiosks allowing you to pick your own seat at the airport. And buy food before going on the plane since paying in advance for food will cost you something like 45 euros.

Right now a 1 way trip to Paris is $175 on there.

I usually fly to Copenhagen. I book trains months in advance to other European destinations (like Germany) and end up travelling on the cheap.
posted by I-baLL at 11:58 AM on October 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

If you know anyone that lives in Asia or South America, see if you can have them buy your tickets for you, no matter where you're going. You'll save a significant amount of money (upto $300 in some cases) doing this. I usually have a trusted cousin in Sri Lanka buy my tickets, and my last trip to Dubai included a stay at a nice(r) hotel thanks to the $$ I saved not buying my ticket from the States.
posted by Everydayville at 12:01 PM on October 26, 2016

My point wasn't to insult, but that what you want to do can absolutely be done, you just have to be more open minded about destinations. You will never save up enough credit card points to get an all expenses paid Kauai resort trip. You can probably book a flight to Mexico City for what's in your checking account right now.

The kinds of travel people do via points hunting are usually not as affordable as just widening your horizons on what "travel" consists of.
posted by Sara C. at 12:03 PM on October 26, 2016

Response by poster: I-ball: what site are you talking about?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:14 PM on October 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

If you truly have TONS of vacation time you could try working for voluntourism program. I worked in the Caribbean one summer with Visions Service Adventures. I had to get myself to staff training in Montana but they flew me there and home again after.
posted by raccoon409 at 12:17 PM on October 26, 2016

I discovered a cool way to travel at peak season for less by buying a one-way ticket to my destination as soon as I find a cheap one for my desired date and then finding a cheap return option from somewhere within a reasonable distance. I spend a couple of days at each place and then travel by land in between.
posted by Dragonness at 12:19 PM on October 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you do any roadtripping in a rented car, sometimes switching the car midtrip can save you a bunch of money. For example, I did a road trip from San Francisco through southern CA, AZ, UT, and CO - the car from SF was really expensive for a one-way trip to CO. But, the rental company was having a $5/day rental special if you drove a car from AZ to either CO or NM (to help move around their inventory). So we did a three-day rental from SF to Flagstaff, AZ ($$$), turned it in and picked up an identical make/model from the same place for the second half of our trip for just $5/day. It took maybe 30 mins of our time and we saved hundreds of dollars. So, check for unique one-way deals like this. From NYC, renting a car from Yonkers or White Plains can sometimes have big savings.

In addition to camping, in the US, there are a bunch of KOA cabins that you can rent for cheap - you have to bring your own linens and usually you share the communal bathroom/shower facilities, but it's way more comfortable than sleeping in a tent, especially if it's colder or mosquito-y. New Zealand also has a number of low-cost cabins.

WWOOF-ing is another option for lodging.
posted by melissasaurus at 12:36 PM on October 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

Some people are saying go with youth hostels, and I'm not saying don't do that, but in my traveling these days I'm finding youth hostels are not as cheap as they used to be and Air B&B in shared apartments is often similarly priced. I know you already said you were signed up with Air B&B, but I just wanted to make this point as someone who also did hostels back in the day, and traveling recently on a very low budget, I'm surprised at how their prices have gone up when for the same price or maybe $5 more you can get your own room in an Air B&B. It will be basic, but so are the hostels.'s definitely worth doing a price comparison there. I'm sure this is one of those things that varies widely from place to place as well.
posted by tiger tiger at 12:46 PM on October 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

"I-ball: what site are you talking about?"

Wow, holy crap. Sorry about that. I can't believe I forgot about that.

Norwegian Air
posted by I-baLL at 12:59 PM on October 26, 2016 [9 favorites]

The open jaw flight allows you to knock off a couple of destinations on the same trip. Fly into Paris, and home from London. Train or bus in between.

Credit cards: There's a distinction between the card you use at home to gain travel rewards, and the card you use while away. For the one at home, use the one that gives you the most points. For the second, find a card that does not charge a currency conversion fee. These are usually not the same card!

Also, whether through work, or as a travel credit card benefit, or through some other coverage, ensure you have travel medical insurance.

Many hostels are getting upgraded as their clientele are getting wealthier and more discerning. There are lots in Europe with private bedrooms, but shared common spaces and kitchens. Cook for yourself, but sleep in your own room, often cheaper than AirBnB, which is also a great option.

Longer trips. Flights are a big part of the expense. Doing multiple destinations on one long trip is often cheaper per day or per destination. It's also a very different experience.

No checked luggage is pretty key. There are two kinds of luggage: carry on luggage, and lost luggage.

I'd look at longer trips to cheaper destinations, like SE Asia, or South Africa, etc.
posted by thenormshow at 1:03 PM on October 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Wow, Secret Flying looks awesome! Another site for cheaper airfares is Matrix, if you want the flexibility to choose specific airports and dates. It tells you whether to buy or not, and is the cheapest I've found (before today's Secret Flying discovery - thank you!)

I'd also recommend claiming an additional deduction on your tax return.

Also, I wouldn't discount credit cards completely. We have an Alaska Airlines card with a program called Companion Fare, where a second ticket is $200. It's $75/year, but more than pays for itself. We've saved hundreds on travel this way.
posted by onecircleaday at 1:03 PM on October 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

I've always done vacations on the cheap. Subscribe to all the airlines that travel from NY and check them often. When they have a sale, look immediately for cheap fares.

Go off-season. There are great websites to research temperature and day light hours. has incredibly cheap cruises if you travel with a partner. If you cruise from NYC there's no airfare (just research additions charges on board). I've used them many times.

Having a lot of time is a BIG benefit when traveling. If you can afford to take a day or 2 to get somewhere you can save literally 50/75% over direct. You can also get interesting stopovers.

Skipping a meal or two a day in restaurants. When faced with similar lodging, getting a place with a free breakfast is great. A place with a fridge also helps a lot. Also have a few go-to meal replacement foods. I'm happy with almonds, a yogurt and a piece of fruit. It also saves time.
When in Iceland last year we made sure we had a loaf of bread, PB and Jelly. Having snacks in the car, and eating a sandwich for lunch $500 bucks a person for the trip. It also help ease the guilt of having a great dinner!

Research vacations as a hobby! When my husband and I finally sit down for an hour of Netflix, I'm often cruising for our next trip (or the one after that, etc). Get a pinterest board and carefully pin good values by location. Find good travelers boards. I often find places that are great values don't have good promotion (like aren't on, etc).

For places you don't need to fly to - book WAY in advance. Places that are awesome are often booked up the year before. I am booking my summer 2017 travel right now.

For camping: Costco. They are by FAR the cheapest for mid-range camping stuff. Book early, very early for the best campsites. It makes a difference. There are some campsites that are real clunkers and some that are spectacular. We camp a couple times a year and I set a reminder on my calendar for when the site can be booked. Some are 300 days in advance and some are a certain date.

I hate my miles cards and feel like it's terrible to try to book with them. Some people like them. I pay for everything with my Costco card and get about 600 back every year. You just bring the rebate check to the service desk and they give you cash. Has yielded more than my miles card did for years.

The website Flyer talk might help. It will certainly help with navigating reward programs.
posted by ReluctantViking at 1:07 PM on October 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

Do house swapping! If you live in a destination a lot of people would like to visit, one of the many online house swapping sites will help put you in contact with them. Then you just decide where you would like to go and sort it out between the two parties. After that, all you have to cover is flights and spending money.
posted by Jubey at 1:08 PM on October 26, 2016

Taking on a second job for a few hours a week and funneling all of that money into a trip.. After my regular job ended I waitressed from 4-9 a couple nights a week one winter; it paid for a trip to Indonesia.
posted by pintapicasso at 1:35 PM on October 26, 2016

The phrase you're looking for to hunt for credit card signup bonuses is usually "churning." It can be a good way to rack up some points, particularly if your monthly spend isn't high enough to rack up a ton of points on a month-to-month basis. Since it looks like you're in NYC, it pays to stay on the lookout for cheap flights; those living further from huge hub airports may have a tougher time finding really cheap deals.

On the camping front, you can really slash the cost of a trip if you're not paying for lodging and have the ability to cook your own meals. Invest in good gear that will keep you comfortable and last; REI's in-house gear is generally solid, or check out the wirecutter for recommendations. Then look for "primitive" or "disbursed" camping areas, where you can camp wherever you want, often for free - the trade off is usually no facilities (showers, bathrooms etc.). Bureau of Land Management or National Forest land in the western US often allows free disbursed camping. This is great if you're into outdoorsy travel; not so great if you want to see culture in the middle of the city centers.

If you're doing city-focused travel, consider couchsurfing. I would expect numbers are down now that AirBnB has gotten so big, but I've couchsurfed for free a number of times in expensive European cities and it's cut costs dramatically. Once you have a destination in mind, it's also worth putting out the call via social media to see if you have friends or friends-of-friends living in the destination city who would let you crash on a couch or in a spare bedroom for a few nights.

Also remember that the US is really big and really varied. Don't feel like you need to get a passport stamp to see a cool place or become immersed in a culture different from your own.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:48 PM on October 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you are the sort of person who doesn't have a problem saying no, certain places that are both normal resorts and timeshares will have stupid cheap rates in an attempt to get bodies on site to sit through their pitch.

For a while there was a place in the Dominican Republic that was $10/night in the summer, all inclusive. Of course they wanted you to do their stupid timeshare pitch, but in three years of going I sat through it zero times.

Given the usual $200-$250ish airfares from Florida and NYC, I highly recommend it as a specific cheap vacation.

Also, do concentrate your flying on a specific airline. As long as you choose your destinations based on where the deals are rather than the other way around, it doesn't cost you anything and those miles can be quite valuable if you find yourself with a need to fly somewhere expensive.

Unless you're trying to buy a house, the number of open accounts is irrelevant to your score. Even then it's less about how many and more about how big your credit lines are. (The underwriters get nervous seeing that you could run up 100k in debt the day after closing) Opening the account will ding your score by literally a few points for a few months, but if you are carrying any revolving debt at all the increase in total available credit will knock down your utilization and increase it. So opening two or three accounts isn't an issue. Opening 10 is a bigger one because it kills the average age which can have a longer term effect, but still only 20 points or so (on top of the 2-3 per inquiry) for a year or two.

Until Starwood stops giving the 5000 mile bonus for transferring 20,000 Starpoints to airline programs, I recommend the Starwood card. Use that for your daily spend most of the time and get the airline card for the signup bonus, periodic category bonuses and the perks like free checked bags, upgrades, or whatever else you can get. Spent wisely, airline miles can be worth 5-10c apiece, even now. They are horrifically bad for domestic coach tickets, though.

The other option is to get a couple of cash back cards and track the bonus categories carefully. Chase and Discover (at least) both have cards that you can earn 5% back with in certain spending categories. If you will only ever fly coach to cheap destinations that will serve you better than air miles. If you'd prefer to fly to more expensive places or use miles to upgrade to business, miles are worth far more than any cash back card.
posted by wierdo at 2:00 PM on October 26, 2016

I have really enjoyed multi-day stays at inns in state parks like this one and religious retreat centers like this one. While I have discovered all of them through conferences and programs, they often have very cheap rates for vacationers. For some reason, the food at places like this is often outrageously good for the price.
posted by BibiRose at 2:16 PM on October 26, 2016

I've found that saving for traveling and racking up air miles are mutually exclusive efforts.
posted by humboldt32 at 2:24 PM on October 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Fly into a major hub and bus out to where you want to go instead of trying to get as close as possible via air travel.

DO NOT use credit cards domestically *unless* you are getting miles, and once you have them, use them for everything you can. Abroaders will recommend the best cards for you based on current offers, your spending habits, and your potential destinations. Little tricks to get more out of the cards -- If you go out to eat with a group, offer to pay on your card and have people give you cash. See if you can arrange to use it to pay your rent or mortgage. etc.

Get cheap flights at the Flight Deal

Travel is generally not that expensive if you go off-season, or when a place is pushing for the tourist dollar. I booked a flight to Cancun from San Francisco once for $150 on the first day of spring break. I hopped on a bus immediately and went to Cozumel, it was great! Also most hotels down there are under $10 a night outside the capital cities.

Pro-tip: don't book everything in advance. You'll find better deals on the ground when you arrive. Don't trust tourism companies at all, ever.

WOOFing, house swaps, house sitting, voluntourism can all off-set your room and board expenses.

I've done a ton of this, so feel free to PM me if you have a specific destination in mind.
posted by ananci at 3:01 PM on October 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Campervan relocations
posted by Thella at 5:08 PM on October 26, 2016

Present at conferences, many will pay for a speaker's flight.

Of course, you should give them their money's worth by having something worth speaking about, and giving a good presentation.
posted by joeyh at 6:35 PM on October 26, 2016

International urban tourism: once you've figured out the cheap airfare and lodging, I can't speak highly enough of self-catering picnics out of international grocery stores. The novelty and fun of new potato chip and yogurt flavors-- plus eating outside in beautiful parks and squares-- makes me feel much more like a part of the city than cheaping out at a restaurant. You probably already know this but some of my favorite times travelling have been picnics.
posted by athirstforsalt at 12:09 AM on October 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's all about miles accrual, which is a bit of work and rather expensive in terms of time and money.

I don't have a miles-earning credit card because I can't get one for my main accrual airline where I live, so here's what I do. It is mildly helpful and, occasionally, has saved me a bundle.

- I collect my main miles on Aegean Airlines, which only (at the time I enrolled) required 24,000 miles/year for Star Alliance Gold status - this means business class check-in, always a free checked bag, lounge access, priority boarding, and a higher rate of upgrades. I easily hit this each year as I am based in Hong Kong but am from California. If I go home once a year, that's over 12,000 miles in the bag. A regional vacation or two - India, Japan? - and it's done. Whatever you can do to get status should be something you do - it makes every other element of air travel so much better that I go out of my way to maintain it, sometimes taking less-convenient connections and marginally more expensive flights. It's that good. I haven't paid to check a bag or paid for a drink or a meal in an airport in years, for example; the savings are significant.

- But I don't live in Greece and almost never fly Aegean - instead, I credit my miles flown on the airlines in Aegean's alliance, Star Alliance. This is something like 20+ airlines all over the world. It's not always clear what you will get if you don't pay attention - the cheapest tickets on Thai or ANA or United or something won't get you even 50% of the miles you fly credited to your account, because (fair enough!) you didn't pay much for them. But often, and with careful analysis of the fare booking code and a site like Where to Credit? you can find out that loopholes exist. For example, I'm flying premium economy to Europe this Easter on Scandinavian Airlines and earning 200% of the miles flown; business class on the same flight would have cost me three times as much but still only earned me 200% of the miles!

- I book all my hotels through my airline's hotel portal since I get miles for every dollar I spend there.

- I live in a hub for one airline alliance, OneWorld, so always find good deals on rival alliances, especially to destinations Cathay Pacific serve non-stop. For example: Cathay Pacific, in the OneWorld alliance wants over $1000 for a simple economy round-trip ticket to Bali this Chinese New Year. Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways, with under-two-hour layovers in Singapore and Bangkok respectively, want under $600, and I'll earn miles/have lounge access/get a free bag. It's a no-brainer and, as you said, if you have the time you can spend the two hours to save $400.

- Now, it's not perfect. You can't get any flight anywhere, like New York to London via Tokyo at the click of a mouse with my tiny Greek programme. There are rules. And Aegean is rather quaint in that redeeming the miles requires a phone call (I Skype them and they are charming!) to their English hotline in Greece. But all you pay is tax and a fuel surcharge. This year I flew from Istanbul to Hong Kong via Singapore for $150 and 25,000 miles - to me, this was a great value redemption, because the cost of redemptions on Aegean don't change depending on the time of year - flying three days before Christmas is the same as a random Tuesday in March, though obviously fewer seats are available.

- There are flights I won't bother to redeem on, and others where it would be insane not to, once you understand the rules. Hong Kongers get charged an arm and a leg for flights to Japan, for example, but Aegean's rules allow you to fly to ANY airport their partners serve with one stop on the way. This means I can fly from Hong Kong to, say, Tokyo, for the same price as a flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo to Sapporo. A more extreme example: Aegean will charge you the same number of miles for a simple Singapore Airlines redemption from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, a distance you can fly in 50 minutes or take a $40 train to cover in an afternoon, as they will from Bali to Sapporo via Bangkok on Thai Airways, an entire day's travel and over 27 times the distance. If you pick airports to fly through with limited tax, or fly airlines with no fuel surcharge, you'll pay very little indeed.

- Often miles will be on sale; if I'm a few short I'll pay to top-up my account and often this is far better value than flying somewhere to accrue. I've earned miles from magazine subscriptions, filling in surveys, and more!

- Finally: Aegean fanboy that I am, I also accrue Avios, British Airways' miles scheme, by flying Cathay Pacific/Japan Airlines/other OneWorld partners when I have to (like when I need to go on a business trip and work will pay for Cathay/JAL!), and then I use those for regional redemptions. The British Airways site is more robust, and it lets you book partner redemptions on its OneWorld partners - handy for weekends away on Malaysia Air and Dragonair. Their program is distance and segment based, but again it has its loopholes: the non-stop flight on Cathay Pacific to Dubai I took this summer was far cheaper in miles terms than the one-stop flight on Qatar via Doha to Dubai because the Cathay option was only one sector, while the Qatar one was two sectors, despite the cash fare for the Cathay flight being far higher. You can also part-pay with Avios and cash.

Good luck and happy travels!
posted by mdonley at 4:30 AM on October 27, 2016

On the subject of credit cards: unless you spend a lot on cards habitually/are going to fly a lot, I would primarily look at sign up bonuses rather than gradual points accrual. Southwest cards give you 40k points for signing up and spending $3000 within the first three months ( not going to spend $3000 on a credit card? I route my rent payments through them via radpad). That's good for multiple round trip domestic/Latin American flights. Chase sapphire has a 50k point sign up bonus right now that can be transferred to several airlines. Delta runs a good sign up promo pretty often, as does Barclay card. The points guy is a good intro to this ("churning"). It won't hurt your credit if you don't miss payments or go into debt BUT it's definitely a practice that can get you I trouble if you're not 100% sure that you won't get yourself into trouble with the added lines of credit/incentive to spend on your cards.
posted by geegollygosh at 6:13 AM on October 27, 2016

Packing carefully so that I have only a single carryon and avoid luggage fees.

Being careful here is indeed one of the keys. You'll make your life a lot more pleasant getting a bag that will fit European discount airline (Ryanair, etc.. ) size restrictions. They're often a lot smaller than US or the bigger European carriers, both in max size and weight. Bag fees can add up very quickly. On recent flights for work, where I had to travel with an overweight field bag in addition to my clothing, I ended up paying $170 extra bag fees on each leg. Almost more than the costs of the tickets themselves.

One thing to consider, that I've found gives me a tonne more options is to abandon wheely bags. A shoulder carry bag (lighter than a wheely bag anyway), if you can manage that physically, gives you not just more and cheaper options to fly, they're also a lot easier on the ground away from airports. A wheely bag is a misery on a cobble street, in the rain. I've been there.

Getting a credit card with miles rewards.

We do this to fund our travel itch and it's been a fantastic benefit. You can splurge on a fancy hotel when you're feeling down and stuck by a plane delay without blowing away your budget, for example. It comes with some caveats though. Like any rewards card, they're really only beneficial if you can avoid carrying balances on your monthly budget. So you need to be able to clear that balance every month. Some systems can lock you into using their booking tools which limits choices and the deals available. You get stuff for "free" but the deals may not be the greatest or there will be limits on what and when you can choose.

This goes double for airline and hotel affinity points schemes. Things like Star Alliance work really well if you travel a lot for work and thus take major carriers most of the time to accrue points. For a budget traveller who tries to sew together routes from multiple and discount carriers, they may be much less of a benefit. The ability to spend points on these systems can also be quite limited, quite a bit worse than the credit card points systems, in my experience.

Credit cards points rewards---we've found them to be a great benefit. Affinity clubs for airlines and hotels: only because I travel a fair bit for work and get points that way. If we were travelling on our own dime all the time, much less worth the trouble. So this means we've opted for a card reward system that does not link to one of the airline schemes. This works best for us primarily because the bank's system gives us more flexibility in bookings. YMMV, and this is worth doing your research here.

Finally a word: spend the money on the TSA precheck/trusted traveller/global entry systems. They speed up both domestic and international security checks at the airport AND the customs clearances. They're like a cheat code for airports. For me, it costs around $10/yr ($50 for 5 years). Even if you travel once a year, I'd say it's worth it in the lowered stress of having much more predictable times getting through airports. So worth it when you are on a late flight and have to clear customs still before connecting to the next. It's saved me an overnight stay at an expensive airport hotel more than once.
posted by bonehead at 7:05 AM on October 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

BTW, this recent AMA, while a bit of an ad for their service, is full of good info from professional cheap-flight finders.
posted by bonehead at 7:12 AM on October 27, 2016

Unless you are truly flexible as in you really don't mind where you go between landing and departing and/or have a ton of time to dedicate to planning your trip - don't dismiss group travel out of hand. Not the whole coach full of people kind but the group of 10 people kind. I have yet to find a trip where I could make cheaper local, single person travelling arrangements compared to the cost of the trips I've been on. Now it may be that I am simply time poor or too lazy but it works for me.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:14 AM on October 27, 2016

Re: PreCheck/Global Entry, it really depends on where you're flying to and from. If you're flying in and out of small domestic airports, the cost is probably not worth it. For example, my home airport is CMH, and I fly for work to a lot of small places (TVC, CIR, SAV, RST). I've never waited more than fifteen minutes in line for TSA at CMH, and often in the smaller airports, there's no wait at TSA at all - you just walk through. In fact, at RST, the non-PreCheck line was actually shorter than the PreCheck line. I've found this to be true at midsize airports as well (BDL, MKE, RDU, SAT). On the other hand, flying out of big airports, it could save you a bunch of time. I waited 45 minutes at SFO, and that seems like I got off easy compared to some stories. It might be better to know where you're going before you spend the money on PreCheck.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:23 AM on October 27, 2016

Sorry I didn't have a chance to read all the responses but the best way to do this is through credit card signup bonuses. Check out r/churning. Only good if you always pay your balance in full! But I've taken probably 10 round trip flights this past year with my girlfriend and we've probably paid no more than $500 out of pocket, including a trip to Nepal. This can also be applied to hotel stays.
posted by masters2010 at 9:36 PM on October 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Visit places where you get a lot more bang for the buck.

Washington, DC comes to mind; public transit/trains go out to where hotels are cheaper, three airports (or Greyhound) can get you there, and the vast majority of museums and monuments are all free, while food is pretty normally priced.

Visiting the Hoover Dam and/or Grand Canyon is pretty darn good, and flights into Vegas are cheaper than some other places, as casinos (I think?) subsidize the airport to boost their own business.

Hawaii flights from the west coast ain't bad, and AirBnB there has a few low spots in the winter. (Hawaii at high season... not cheap.) Yup, it's not 90F, but if you live somewhere where it's 20F, flying down to 72F in January is pretty damn nice.

Alternatively, NYC and SF seem brutally expensive destinations.
posted by talldean at 12:32 PM on October 28, 2016

I found Hopper to be a good tool for monitoring fare sales. Their app notified me when the price dropped on my itinerary, and saved me over $200 on cross-country tickets for next spring.

If you're not ready to sign up for an airline credit card, you can open a frequent flyer account and earn miles through shopping portals. The miles/$ earning rates vary over time and by portal, so searching ev'reward will give you the current earning rates. During the holiday season, portals often offer bonus miles after spending some minimum amount.

United airlines has an app that will help earn miles from stores and restaurants. Sometimes, you can double-dip by shopping through the portal and using the app to pay for the purchase online.

Definitely check out your favorite airline's frequent flyer program details and all the ways they have to earn miles. I've gotten free miles by accepting emails from partner programs, for playing games, or taking short surveys. You won't get a big windfall of miles from shopping portals or these things, but every little bit helps. And, every time you earn miles, it'll keep your frequent flyer account current so you won't lose the miles. Without an airline branded credit card, miles earned typically expire between one and three years if you're not flying with the airline.

If you do stay at a hotel, consider booking through Rocketmiles to earn airline miles for your stay. They had a sign-up bonus when I used them last year, so keep an eye out for that. Some rental car companies have partnerships with airlines, which is another avenue to earn miles if you plan to rent a car.
posted by hoppytoad at 2:51 PM on October 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

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