Traveling the world for months at a stretch is no longer the exclusive privilege of the idle rich or the dangerously credit reckless. A few money-savvy travel hackers are finding clever ways to take advantage of the assets they do have - including a facility with details and an excellent credit rating - to travel for free - or close to it. It's not simple, but it is possible to take a luxury, round-the-world trip for next to nothing.
The personal finance blogger who calls himself the Mad Fientist (he doesn't use his real name online for privacy reasons) coaches people on how to achieve financial independence and retire early at his blog. And part of this strategy is to live well without spending like you print your own money. He recently demonstrated that it's possible to travel in style without going broke - and he did it by spending travel miles and points to take a three-month trip around the world.
Some might think racking up miles can only be achieved by extensive travel for work. Not so, he said.
"I don't fly very much," he told Seeker. "And when I do, I just pick the cheapest flight. I don't have any allegiance to any programs or status." He does it all by tapping the benefits offered through credit cards.
"I take advantage of credit card signup bonuses," he said. "There are some crazy opportunities for people with good credit to get very high signup bonuses." He has gotten upwards of 80,000 points simply for signing up for a new credit card. "And these points can go a long way if you know how to use them."
Understanding how to use these points, and the ones he earns by charging to cards that offer points for purchases, is the key to this system.
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Once he amassed a stockpile of points large enough to take him and his wife around the world, he gamed airline policies to see as much of that world as possible - in as much luxury as possible - in the time he had. Again, this takes some attention to detail and careful planning but it is, apparently, well worth it.
"The best deal we managed was our trip from Japan to the Middle East," he said.
When he booked his flight, he was able to get that flight for 30,000 miles. (It has since gone up.)
But instead of taking a direct flight, he booked a series of flights that let them stop in Taipei, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Qatar, Moscat, Abu Dhabi, before arriving in Aman, Jordon, all in business class. And when certain flights didn't offer business class, he was upgraded to first class, which came with airport perks he used to get free food, wine and a place to sleep on one of the layovers.
Travel hacking requires an extreme attention to detail, a pristine credit rating, and the ability to pay off your credit cards every month.
"If you don't pay your credit cards every month in full, this is not for you," said the Mad Fientist. "You will be charged way too much in interest to compensate for the miles you are getting. Anyone with debt should not be doing this. If you have debt, you should focus first on paying that off."
Once you get that part under control, though, the Mad Fientist has turned much of his research into software you can use to find credit cards that suit your point goals and maximize the points you can get from them.
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Choosing credit cards for travel hacking is entirely different from the way most people pick credit cards. Travel hackers are in it for the perks and, since they don't carry a balance, are willing to accept a high interest rate and, sometimes, an annual fee if the perks are worth it. The Mad Fientist, for example, pays a $50 annual fee to one card because of one of its perks: a free night in a hotel every year. That's a great price for a high-end hotel room.
For help sorting out the details of all the cards out there, go to madfientist.com, click on Travel Cards, and use the tools on the site to search for your next big windfall of points. You can choose the airline you prefer to fly, the hotels you prefer to stay in, and other options to get the right card to fund your next adventure.
Be patient, though. Financial independence, and the perks that come with it, take time and planning.
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