26 July, 2014

How do people travel so much?

A few years back, I was working at a large corporation, I hadn't gone on any real vacation in over ten years, I had never been abroad, and that's when I decided to visit London. Upon my return I was forced back into training as punishment for leaving by my angry boss who made the smug remark, "well not all of us can afford to visit England for vacation". You could tell her sense of social hierarchy was about to make her head explode, as me, the little minion of cubicle slave labor had suddenly operated outside our social contract, where poor people aren't supposed to travel.

Interestingly, this was long before I really knew how to travel cheaply. That trip, around 2009, cost $2200 for myself and Shannon. That included staying at a four-star hotel, and eight days in London, a car rental for a day out to Bath, and seeing Stonehenge.  The airline tickets were the most costly part, at around $700 a piece, however, they were a direct flight for us.

Crazy enough, today, that seems super expensive to me, yet a lot people are always are asking me how do I travel so much (ironic, since I haven't went anywhere since March). Worse yet is when people make sarcastic hatred filled remarks similar to my former boss. Yet, it always surprises me how these same people will book the cheapest flight they can find, never register for frequent flyer miles, and refuse trading their expectations for the possibility of more travel.

To give you an idea of what I'm talking about let me explain. In 2012, I studied abroad in Belgium. While most students were flying in coach, squeezing a semester's worth of clothes in a single bag (or paying additional fees), I was flying first class on American Airlines, eating steak and ice-cream. I had a two bag allowance, and access to first class lounges where I waited with the rich and famous, drinking from a bar, and fully stocked kitchen. How much did this privilege cost me? Less than $100.  How you ask? Miles.

I signed up with American's credit card, which instantly gave me enough miles to fly in first class. Unfortunately, it did not give me enough miles to fly into Brussels. So I flew into London, spent the day bumming around the city, and the next morning took the high-speed TGV train to Brussels. I just visited two countries in Europe for just a few hundred dollars. I also have the United Airlines equivalent, and these are the only credit cards in my pocket-book. I use them for groceries, gas, tuition, and other bills, and they all earn me miles.

Yet when people ask how I travel so much, and I begin to tell them about airlines and points, they quickly drift off, into some uncaring, eye rolling purgatory. I've been told, "well, that sounds too difficult to me". Inside I'm shaking my head wanting to scream "well then don't complain when your next vacation is at Myrtle Beach!" (not that there's anything wrong with that).

So here it is, it's simple. If you want to travel cheap, and travel a lot, you need to start earning miles on the airlines (Go watch Up in the Air as a primer). I know people who fly constantly back and forth from Europe to the U.S., and never sign up. Most Airlines allow you to sign up online, and by simply providing your frequent flyer number at check-in, you receive miles for flying. Earn enough miles, and you get free flights. It's that simple.

In addition, as mentioned before, most airlines have credit cards. Sign up for them during a bonus period, meet the qualifications, and you'll likely earn several free flights. In addition, you can then use those cards for all your expenses, like car rentals, and continue to fly free (or very inexpensively).

Who should you fly with? You would think the cheapest airline would be the correct answer, but you'd be wrong. Remember, every time you fly, you earn miles, so you want to fly with the same airline the most often. This will obviously depend on your geographic location, and the airlines that serve your airport and the locations you most travel, but I can give you my opinion based on my travels (as an American based out of North Carolina).  In general I try to fly on American Airlines (my first choice) or United. Why, American, the innovator of the frequent flyer program, is a part of the One World Alliance, and United is a part of Star. They're the two largest, and best mileage programs, and typically have a fair amount of reward inventory. Many business people are loyal to American, and though they are currently re-structuring themselves because of merger with US-Air, it's unlikely they will surrender their clientele for less rewards. My personal experience is that American's employees are nicer, better at customer service, and kinder to their customers as well (YMMV of course).

You may notice who is not included in this, Delta. Delta is known as the least favorable reward network. Their Skymiles program currency is known among professional travelers as Sky-Pesos because they offer little value in comparison to other networks. In my experience, Delta is often the cheapest airline of the three. Especially in relationship to my experience with student travels, I find many students end up on Delta simply because it was the cheapest, and they know nothing about miles. However, consider this, if these same students paid as little as $20-$100 more for a flight from American, they would have effectively earned enough miles to almost pay for a free domestic one-way flight (short 2,000-3,000 miles).

Lastly, watch out for deals, bargains, and coupons. Know your fares. I spent about $400 dollars on a trip to Belgium last spring while other students spent closer to $1000. I earned miles for that flight, which means eventually there will be another free flight. Try flying into and out of different airports, on different days, and work the system to your advantage.

Now while I won't dwell on it, reconsider your expectations of travel. Take public transportation, sleep in a hostel, or a hotel with European accommodations (shared bathroom), take a backpack instead of a suitcase (save on baggage fees). Eat street food rather than restaurants, and always look for that next opportunity to travel. More importantly don't make excuses like "I could never afford that", or "traveling is just too expensive", because though it may appear some of us travel like rock-stars, in reality we're dirt poor, addicted to the world, and work at finding airplane tickets like it's some CSI murder mystery.

How do we travel so much?  We're filthy clever, that's how.