Yes, you read that correctly. It is possible to upgrade an economy flight ticket for free to business class, and get free bicycle carriage into the bargain. Pretty good, right?
This lunacy is a classic example of travel hacking. I’ve been experimenting with its various techniques for the last year or so, and I’d like to share what I’ve learned — specifically, I’d like to share how best to put these techniques to use in the context of cycle touring.
What Is Travel Hacking?
Put simply, travel hacking is the art & science of getting for free (or cheap) what would normally be a significant travel expense — flights and hotel rooms being the most common.
It’s usually done by carefully exploiting promotional offers made by credit card companies in partnership with major airlines and hotel chains.
These offers are designed, of course, to sucker the spender into the shackles of debt. Played correctly, however, travel hacking is a particularly satisfying form of consumer revenge, and a money‐saving one at that.
Let me give you an example.
A Basic Example Of Travel Hacking
Last year I signed up for a British Airways credit card. I have no debts (other than a student loan) and thus a good credit record, so acceptance was a breeze.
The sign‐up bonus at the time required that I spend a fairly meagre £750 on the card within 3 months — about the cost of a new low‐end touring bike.
Having done so by moving all of my spending to the card until the target was reached, then paying it off in full, I received 15,000 ‘Avios’ points with British Airways’ frequent flyer network, the Executive Club. (I didn’t actually get on a plane at all.)
Then I cut the card it in half and closed the account, 15,000 airmiles richer at no cost whatsoever.
15,000 such airmiles, it turns out, can be redeemed for two flights on pretty much any Western European route flown by BA — for example, Munich, from where Tenny and I returned after our last cycling adventure on the continent this summer. Not just that, but it covered two business class flights.
Why waste the points on business class? There’s a very good reason. There’s the extra legroom, edible meals, queue‐jumping at all points in the boarding process, and access to swanky business lounges (full of free booze & food) at the airports, where you may loaf for hours while grinning smugly at people in smart suits who’re wondering who let you in.
But the real bonus for the cycle tourist is the doubled hold luggage allowance. Since British Airways don’t charge extra for bicycle as part of your luggage allowance, that meant both our bikes and all our touring gear flew home from Munich with us for free as well.
So that few minutes time spent signing up for and administrating the credit card is saving us a couple of hundred pounds on return flights for our tour, and getting us upgraded into the bargain.
I’m sure you’ll agree that’s a pretty good trade‐off. Particularly if, like me, you glean a disproportionate amount of pleasure from circumventing the ‘system’.
Getting Started With Travel Hacking
Relatively speaking, ours was a very puny beginners’ attempt at travel hacking.
But it’s a hobby for a surprising number of people, who sign up for several cards a year, claim the bonuses, and employ various other hacks to receive hundreds of thousands of airmiles while not actually flying anywhere.
US residents in particular have it made. The signup incentives are so ludicrous that there are even professional guides* available to help folk make sense of it all.
But the possibilities are growing for those of us based in the UK to game the system in the same way. This is particularly true if you’re a couple and you’ve both got significant purchases coming up (touring bikes and gear, for example), as it doubles your ability to meet these signup bonus criteria.
Deals change frequently, but the best such hack currently available in the UK is on the American Express Preferred Rewards Gold card, whose signup bonus alone (20,000 points) is enough for a free return flight to Istanbul.
Simply use the card to buy your touring gear (by spending £2,000 within three months), pay it off in full (it’s a charge card, so you have to anyway), cancel the card (to avoid the £125 annual fee from the second year onwards), and enjoy your free flights. Job’s a good ‘un!
Here’s the signup link. Play it sensibly and you’ll be well rewarded.
So there’s my quick intro to travel hacking — a.k.a. getting free flights thrown in with your new touring gear.
There’s a whole subculture of travel hackers out there, and if you’ve got the time and resources to make it a regular hobby, it won’t take long to rack up the requisite points for free or heavily discounted flights much further afield.
Of course, with multiple cards on the go, this quickly becomes game of shifting money around, which can get a bit complex if you’re not on the ball. So if you’re financially illiterate, it’s probably best to steer clear. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…