August 21, 2014

Preparing to travel on a whim

I just booked my trip to Croatia a week ago, and exactly one month from now, I'll be coated in sunscreen and paddling my way around the Adriatic Sea.  I think I booked this trip on something of a whim.  I know time is relative and all that jazz (and physics), but I'm not Neil deGrasse Tyson, so I'm not going to get into all of that.  But I did actually do a bit of prep work in order to book this trip as last-minute as I did.

Now, if you're rolling in dough and have Kardashian as one of your best friends, then traveling prep work is not necessary for you.  But if you're a cheap bastard like I am and don't want to pay a sick amount of money to be able to take a trip at a moment's notice, then setting a few things in motion long before you might want to go somewhere is totally worth the effort.

There are 2 main items that made my Croatia trip possible:

  1. Knowledge of companies and websites that offer reasonably priced or discounted trips that are highly regarded.
  2. A wealth of frequent flyer miles, none of which I accumulated from actually flying.

Let's talk about #1.  I didn't have any specific place I wanted to go, but I did have a date range that I needed to work with.  Since I'm mildly obsessed with travel in general, I already knew of a few places to look for trips that I thought might interest me.

There are places all over the internet offering trips, so that can feel pretty overwhelming.  One excellent company that I've heard about for years is Intrepid Travel, which offers small group tours all over the world.  Nomadic Matt has recently entered into a partnership with Intrepid, and if they're good enough for Matt, then they're, well, good.  And if you're unfamiliar with Nomadic Matt, he's pretty much the Jesus of budget traveling.

Another excellent place to look for trips offered by many different, smaller outfitters is The Clymb, and this is where I found my Croatia trip.  The Clymb offers not just trips (most are activity-based), but all kinds of outdoor clothing and gear at a discount.  Not all the trips they offer had user reviews, but every trip that did have reviews had nothing but fantastic ones.  And since booking my trip, I've also found the company to be very responsive when I've had questions.

Now on to #2, which is a little more complex.  First of all, in order to pull off #2, you MUST have a decent credit score and be financially savvy enough to not ever keep a balance on your credit cards.  Ever.  That's because the easiest way to bulk up on frequent flyer miles is to sign up for credit cards that offer awesome deals just for signing up and using the cards for as many every day purchases as possible to get even more miles.  This is one of the most frequently used strategies in what's called travel hacking.  That's a subject for another day, but the bottom line is, if you keep a balance on your credit cards, this method is totally not worth it.  You'll just lose a lot of money to interest, and any miles you gain from signing up and using a card will be completely negated.

Now that we have that little lecture out of the way, I'm going to assume from here on out that you are able to pay off your credit cards every month.  If you want to try for #2, you need to find and sign up for a credit card or two to sign up for that offer sign-up bonuses of at least 30,000 miles (or points that can be converted 1:1 into miles) and one year fee-free.  For many of these cards, you also have to charge a certain amount of money to the card in the first 3 months.  But, if you just charge every day expenses and bills to your card as mentioned above, this will not be a problem at all.  I would also advise against signing up for a whole bunch of cards at one time.  If they all have charge minimums in order to get the sign-up bonus activated, you'll have to spend that on each card during that time period, and unless you are a super big spender in general, this would be difficult to pull off for more than one or two cards.

But there are thousands of credit cards out there for you to choose from.  While there are many that are worthwhile, I'm going to focus on just a couple of them today.

The first one I'd like to mention is the British Airways Chase Visa.  Once every year or 2, they offer a crazy-ass monster deal that is, well, the best sign up offer I've ever seen.  You get 50,000 just for signing up alone - no strings attached.  And if you spend a minimum amount on the card in the first 3 months, you get another 50,000 miles.  They don't waive the fee for the first year, but paying just $95 for 100,000 miles?  That's nothing! This is THE deal to pounce on when it comes around.  Also, you can totally book flights on British Airways partner airlines with the points.  I flew from DC to Santiago using miles earned from this card, I didn't fly British Airways, nor did I come anywhere near Great Britain.  If you find out about this deal when it happens, drop what you're doing and freakin' sign up for this card.  But if you don't want to wait for this insane deal, this card is still a good deal at any time with a normal sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles.

The second card I'll talk about is a good deal any time:  the Chase Sapphire Visa.  This is the card I used to book my flights to Croatia.  There is a sign-up bonus with a minimum spend amount in the first 3 months, but there's no annual fee at all.  This card builds generic points instead of miles on a specific airline.  But you can redeem the points at a 1:1 ratio for miles on a whole mess of airlines.  And when you use the card for either travel or dining out, you get 2 points per dollar instead of 1 point for everything else.  But one of the best things about this card is redeeming the points - you can use the Chase travel center to book flights with your points.  Their travel site searches all available airlines that the points can be redeemed with, and there aren't blackout dates.  It's like using any other flight search engine.  It is SO easy.  While I love my British Airways card, I was pulling my hair out trying to figure out if I could use my miles with them to get to Croatia. I spent a long time trying different options with British Airways and came up with pretty much nothing that would work for me.  But with the Chase travel center?  I had viable options in 3 minutes.

I totally understand that signing up for more credit cards just to bank a bunch of frequent flyer miles might seem a little daunting, or even just straight up crazy and stupid.  I was a bit nervous about it when I signed up for my first card solely for this purpose.  But I've done it many times now (Delta AmEx, Starwood Hotels AmEx, Southwest Visa, US Airways MasterCard, British Airways Visa, and Chase Sapphire), and it's been absolutely worth it.  I've saved thousands in airfare over the past few years, and while it takes more advanced planning and coordination than, say, finding a website that offers quality trips at a discount, the payoff is truly fantastic.  Had I not signed up for my Chase Sapphire Visa approximately 2 years ago, I wouldn't have been able to purchase my Croatia trip last minute on the cheap.  I'm saving about $1300 through my bookings with The Clymb and using my credit card points.

I guess you could say that I started preparing for the Croatia trip 2 years ago when I signed up for the Chase credit card and when I heard about The Clymb website for the first time (that was a few years ago, too).  I know that sounds like a lot of "prep" work for a trip, but browsing some travel websites and filling out a credit card application online doesn't take a whole lot of work.  I actually consider it more "travel maintenance" than anything else - keeping everything in tip-top shape so that when I'm ready to pounce on an opportunity to go somewhere, I have the tools sharpened and ready to make it happen.

No comments:

Post a Comment