Traveling on credit card rewards is sexy. You can stay in the most luxurious accommodations around the world. Get treated like royalty. And all without spending a cent.
I mean, you can do that if you have steely, unfailing self-discipline when it comes to credit card usage and repayment.
And, yeah, I’m making a huge assumption and basing this entire hypothetical around the idea that you have decent credit.
But where does that leave you if you don’t have great credit? Or know your own spending habits well enough to recognize that the incentive of a “free” vacation would result in debt you might struggle (and resent) to pay off?
Don’t worry. You’re not doomed to a twenty-mile radius outside your home for the rest of your life. Prior to using credit card rewards, I traveled frequently, and always on the cheap.
While I have taken splurge-worthy trips over the past few years, by and large, my travels still revolve around old-school saving hacks.
Travel to people, not destinations
When I was young, I was in a military family. We moved all the time. Plus, we would always take a lot of road trips to see as much of our new environment as we could before it was time to pack up and leave again. Us kids were dubbed “road warriors” as we developed a penchant for perpetually itchy feet.
You’d think all that travel would be expensive, but family finances were saved in part because the military covers the cost of all those moves. The other aspect of our travels that made them so affordable was that we knew someone we could crash with everywhere we went.
Between military friends, friends of our religious culture and an immediate family that made me one of the thirty-some-odd first cousins, we didn’t just know people in all the right places; we knew people in all the places.
My parents were fortunate and social enough to have a lot of people they truly cared about. People that truly cared about them. Of all those travels, there are very few I can remember that did not revolve around seeing family and friends. We didn’t do as many destination vacations; the vast majority of our trips were to see people.
But also, those people had couches, making accommodation costs nearly nonexistent.
I feel like half of you won’t need to read this section because it’s already a practice that’s integrated into your life. And that the other half I’ll never be able to convince to pursue it because who was the guy who thought sleeping outside in the woods isolated from the rest of civilization without steady cell coverage was anything other than the setting of a horror movie, anyway?
If you’re not into camping, feel free to skip ahead. I would tell you to give glamping a shot, but in my experience, I’ve been able to find nice, indoor accommodations for the same or less than the fees charged at glamping sites.
Do your own research, of course. I’m just saying you can probably sleep inside without any money guilt if the only way you’ll consider camping is by glamming it up.
If you do enjoy camping, make sure you’re not getting overcharged for something that can be free. For example, you can camp for free at:
- National Forests.
- Land managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
- Campsites identified as free by other happy campers.
While camping is a cheap way to travel, it will require an upfront investment. You’ll either have to run out and purchase things like a tent, sleeping bag, mess kit, flashlights, ropes, knives, lighters or matches and cooking gear or take your trip with someone who already has the right equipment.
Join hotel rewards programs
Did you know you don’t have to signup for a credit card to be a part of a hotel’s rewards program? An easy way to sign up is to simply let the receptionist know your intentions when you check into your hotel, though you can also sign up anytime online.
You’ll get points for your stay, and any other subsequent stays when you book with your membership number.
Booking hotels isn’t the only way to participate in rewards programs, though. The Marriott Bonvoy program allows you to earn extra rewards points by booking your car through their partner – Hertz – booking a cruise with Norwegian or dining out at select restaurants.
The IHG Rewards Club also rewards members who dine at partner restaurants, as well as those who book travel activities such as tours with partnered vendors, those who turn down housekeeping and even those who fill out online surveys.
Hunt for “mystery” deals
If you’re feeling brave, you can try scoring a great mystery deal as popularized by Hotwire. You can really make out using this tool, but you’ll want to do some leg work first. Research the city, and get to know the general neighborhoods. Identify at least a handful where you’d feel comfortable staying, but more importantly, identify your no-go neighborhoods.
From there, you go to book your hotel as usual. The mystery deals, which Hotwire labels “Hot Rates,” will appear mixed in with your normal search results. They’re likely to pop up near the top, as they’re often some of the cheapest rates.
You will be able to see the neighborhood the hotel is in for Hot Rates, but not the actual name of the hotel or its specific address. Those will be revealed after you pay for your nonrefundable booking. You’re getting lower rates, but those lower rates require a little flexibility.
Book a hostel. It’s not as scary as it sounds
Believe it or not, when I’m traveling solo I enjoy staying at hostels. This usually happens when I’m traveling for work, but there have been occasions when I’ve booked a hostel on more leisurely trips.
My hostel experiences have been overwhelmingly positive. Sure, there’s the occasional woman running an eBay business on her laptop out of your shared room. As a remote worker, I can’t throw stones. And it can be annoying to get the top bunk if you go uber cheap like yours truly and don’t pursue your own, freestanding sleeping quarters.
But there is typically free Wifi. You can book coed or gender-specific rooms depending on your level of comfort. Hostel hosts can be a wealth of local information, and when I’m on a work trip in a big city by myself, it’s a little bit reassuring to know there’s a room full of people that would notice my absence should anything happen.
If you’re really worried about someone robbing you, you can bring a lock with you. Most hostels provide a private locker or another area to secure your personal belongings.
These do usually come with a fee, but you might be able to save a little by having your own lock depending on where you’re staying.
In addition to providing me with a place to sleep, hostels have introduced me to dear, new friends. During trips where I felt less social, I’ve been able to be that quiet-but-happy weirdo who taps away at her keyboard the entire time with earbuds discouraging any undesired conversations or distractions.
I always walk away happy with the price, which has allowed me to stay in places such as the heart of Times Square for under $60/night, or in the middle of geisha district in Kyoto for under $25/night.
Book via Airbnb and tell your friends
I was a reluctant convert to Airbnb, but after using it for a number of years I can say I’m now an enthusiast. You can use it to book entire apartments or homes for family trips, many of which end up being cheaper and more comfortable than a traditional hotel.
You can book something akin to a homestay where you’re staying with your host or something more private – studio apartments that serve as cozier alternatives to hotel rooms.
You do have to be wise when booking, though. Personally, I have a set of rules I follow. I like to book properties rated a minimum of four stars. I prefer properties with at least one full page of reviews. Preferably, those reviews will be close together and recent.
On top of finding cheap and comfortable accommodations with the platform, Airbnb has a referral program you can use. That means when your friends sign up for Airbnb using your referral link, they’ll get some free credit and so will you. That can make your stay even cheaper – or potentially even free.
You don’t need credit card rewards to score cheap accommodations
Credit card rewards definitely make traveling on the cheap super easy. But they aren’t accessible to everyone, and even when they are, flirting with debt in hopes of a free vacation isn’t the best financial move for everyone.
But there are ways anyone can travel for cheap. Whether you’re willing to rough it in the woods or think that hotel rewards programs are the furthest extreme you’re willing to pursue, don’t let money be the thing that keeps you from seeing the world in 2020.