I love to travel, especially on a good deal–or better yet, FREE! I’m not rich, so I try my best to make traveling affordable…which in turn makes my life richer.
My entire Disney World trip in 2014 cost nothing out of my pocket, including all our food and souvenir purchases. For our Chicago weekend getaway, I was able to splurge on Alinea, a “World’s Best 50” restaurant, because I didn’t have to pay for hotel and flight tickets. My lodging and airfare for our 2015 summer Europe and New York trip was fully covered, too.
This takes time in strategically planning ahead, knowing where to look and what resources to use. It could get pretty complex, but the effort is rewarding. Once you understand the basics and start getting creative, it’s a lifelong tool you can use for any trip you want.
When my past manager explained why he assigned me the hardest task, he said, “I knew you would bang your head against the wall until you got it done.” Funny, maybe even a little sad, yet accurate. If I want to do something, go somewhere, I find a way to make it happen immediately after the moment I become set on the idea. Life is too short and way too unpredictable for a buried collection of “someday I’ll…” lists.
Here is a roundup of my usual travel hacks and money-saving tips. There is so much out there already from fields of experts on this topic, so consider this as a starting-point library if you are new to this.
General Tips & Deals
→ Here are the latest hotel promo codes for Expedia/Orbitz/Cheap Tickets/Travelocity etc.
→ If you download the above apps on your phone, they will have “mobile deals” for certain hotels that are at ~15% cheaper than online. Sometimes, they will have special promos too if you pay on the app.
→ Hotwire and Priceline can save you a great deal (keep in mind: no cancellations/no name changes). It’s not difficult to narrow down the mysterious hotels if you match up the details/amenities and refer to BiddingForTravel.com.
→ For first time Airbnb reservations, use my referral code for $20 off.
When to Book
→ General best days to book are Tuesday night/Wednesday…but never on the weekend.
→ Go on “incognito”/private browsing mode so the travel sites don’t increase the prices based on their inventory through your click-throughs.
→ All-inclusive vacations to Mexico are usually cheaper to book as a vacation package/bundle deal. The earlier you book, the better, since airfare is the costlier portion. This is especially the case for holiday seasons. Christmas time is most expensive and I always book it by the end of June.
→ It’s best to book Disney Cruise vacations as soon as they come out too. Prices will only go up.
→ Southwest seems to have a sale per season. June and October are popular months for their best deals.
→ Cyber Monday is a big travel deal day. Last year, Orbitz offered $100 off!! I got a hotel for just $30. Wow.
→ For car rentals, always check retailmenot.com for the rental company’s promo codes and weekend specials.
→ You can also use AutoSlash and they will find the best deal and track the rates for you.
→ If you’re booking on Hotwire or Priceline, make sure you put the correct driver’s name. I accidentally put my name instead of David’s, and that was a huge pain…
→ Chase Ultimate Rewards has good deals on car rentals too. The Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card covers insurance for you. My Orlando rental was only $9 a day with all the extra fees included.
→ If you use an AMEX credit card to book your car rental, you can enroll in their premium car rental protection plan for a flat rate of $17.95 that covers your entire rental period (and not pay by day!)
Cash Back Rewards
You can get cash back when you shop online almost anywhere using these sites. This is worth signing up for…and not just for travel!
→ Ebates: I saved $398 within a year of using it on all my online purchases from Macy’s, Nordstrom, etc.
Ex: If you book directly on IHG.com (Holiday Inn, Crowne, Intercontinental etc), you can get 9.5% cash back.
→ TopCashback: If you use my link, you get $10 for joining and I get $10 too.
→ Since there are multiple cash back sites, EV’Reward helps you compare your best options and lets you know where you could get the highest % of cash back. Just type in where you are shopping.
Ex: I ended up saving $320 for my Cabo trip because it showed me that TopCashback gave 4% cash back vs Ebate’s 1%.
Travel Credit Cards
David and I have different cards as a joint team. Since there are annual fees, we are selective about which cards we keep for the long-run. The cards I’m about to list all have no foreign transaction fees, so you can use it anywhere in the world that accepts credit cards. Some people cancel the card as soon as they get the bonus, but we don’t do that. Do your own research and make smart choices that are best for you, your spending habits/disciplinary control, and your travel goals. Maintaining good credit is important. My decisions never dented my credit score – proud to be in the 800’s club. Check your credit report for free at Credit Karma or Credit Sesame.
→ Chase Sapphire Preferred referral link
-Sign up bonus = 50,000 points, which is $500 cash back, but worth at least $600 when used for travel
-2x points for dining; 1x points for all other purchases
-Covers primary car insurance if you use this card for car rentals- no need to buy extra insurance
-Annual fee: $95; first year waived
-After one year, if you don’t want to pay the annual fee and don’t want to cancel it for chances of lowering your credit score, you can simply downgrade it to the regular Chase Sapphire card without any damage. I did this after I opened the Business Ink, but David kept his Preferred as part of our tag team plan.
→Chase Business Ink Plus referral link
-Sign up bonus = 60,000 points (there may be times throughout the year when the bonus goes up to 70,000)
-5x points for phone/internet/cable bills; 5x points office supply stores aka access to gift card purchasing galore
-Annual fee: $95
-If you have questions on what qualifies as a business, why and how to apply for a business card, click here.
You only need ONE of these cards to have access to Chase Ultimate Rewards. Both of these cards are powerful, especially when combined with points from Chase Freedom. Why? Because you can transfer points to certain airlines and hotels, including Southwest, United, IHG, and Hyatt. This has potential to save A LOT and it’s flexible.
Examples of savings
Southwest: flight cost = $73; points to redeem = 3,835 (~$38)
United: one-way flight to London=$600-1,000+; points to redeem = 30,000 ($300)
Hyatt: one night stay = $299; points to redeem = 15,000 ($150)
Even if you don’t transfer points and use it on the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal for car rentals/hotels/activities they offer, you will also save at least 20%.
Chase Southwest Rapids Rewards Plus
David also has the Chase Southwest Rapids Rewards plus card. There are frequent sign up bonuses for 50,000 points and the annual fee is $69. Those points + all his traveling got him the Southwest companion pass. THIS IS AMAZING because anywhere he flies, I fly FOR FREE up until the end of 2016. Everything you need to know about the companion pass and how to acquire it can be found here.
→Barclaycard Arrival Plus
-Sign up bonus = 40,000 points
-2x points for everything
-Annual fee: $85; first year waived; also downgrade-able to the no annual fee card
-You make your purchases directly from any travel site/agency, and get reimbursed for any of your travel expenses later with 5x points back
-This means you can find a good deal on Hotwire, Priceline, Expedia etc…and use this card to get your money back PLUS another 5% too! Refer to the first section on scoring the cheapest deal. No transferring of points to airlines or hotel chains required.
-Ex: If I’m booking a last minute hotel on Priceline for $115, I charge my Barclay card and use 11,500 points to redeem for statement credit later on. I have 120 days to use my points towards this transaction.
-Unlike Chase, you get your points immediately after your transaction is processed. You don’t have to wait monthly to use your acquired points.
Racking up points
So how will you meet the minimum spending requirements and earn enough points?
→There are ways to charge money without really spending it. Such is a term called “manufactured spending.” If you are interested in this topic, google yourself and read the first link that pops up. I’m warning you that this may be overwhelming to initially understand, which is why there are pages after pages of studying material and methods (though many no longer work). Props to you if you know what bluebird, redbird and serve is.
→Here are sites for you to follow for more easy-to-understand explanations and frequent updates:
Million Mile Secrets / Doctor of Credit
How to Plan a Disney Trip
Disney Gift Cards
→Disney gift cards can be used to pay for everything Disney. This includes theme park tickets, restaurants, cruise reservations, gratuities, gift shops etc.
→Therefore, budget how much you plan on spending and save by buying gift cards in advance.
→Disney gift cards are coded as “entertainment” and not “gift cards” at Target. So you can get 5% off using your REDcard, which is easy to do online. They sell $50 and $100 Disney Gift Cards online and shipping is free.
→When you check out online from Target, the 5% is reflected in the final price. You can use up to 4 Target gift cards to pay. So the trick is to go to Gift Card Granny and search for Target gift cards to get additional discount on top of the 5%. I use Raise.com a lot. Use your best judgement here on which sites to trust- I’ve never used eBay. (BTW, I frequently buy gift cards right before I make my purchase online, especially when it comes to Macy’s, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s. That’s extra 15% off on top of the sale, on top of the ebates cash back!)
→You can also buy Disney gift cards from Sam’s Club online- no membership needed. A pack of $150 will cost you $142. Even better if you find deals on Walmart gift cards and apply it (similar to method above).
→Use Undercover Tourist to purchase discounted AUTHENTIC Disney World tickets. I bought a 5-day pass for the price of a 3-day pass! 100% reliable and has a reputable name. No shady business here.
→Mark your calendars SIX MONTHS (180 days) in advance to make your dining reservation. Not only does Disney World have 4 separate theme parks, they have many notable restaurants. Most popular: Cinderella’s Royal Table, Be Our Guest Restaurant, Victoria & Albert’s
→Staying at Disney World resort may be the best option. They offer free transportation to each theme park, a magic band (value $20), extra magic hours (longer time at the parks), earlier access to reserve fast passes online, and if you buy any souvenirs, you can have them delivered to your room. The are several “value” Disney resorts that are affordable. We got a good deal through Orbitz.com when they had a $50 off $100 promo. One night cost us $81 with the Disney perks!
→I wasn’t joking about how there’s a train of Disney fans trying to save for their Disney trip. There’s a whole budget board forum.
→We went in February 2016. Guess when we booked it? January 2015. Even then, we found that many of the staterooms were already booked..and this is going off-season too.
→Costco Travel was the cheapest place to make our reservation. Costco offers special bonuses like a $70 Costco Cash Card. I put down a deposit and don’t have to pay until November. That gives me plenty of time to get those Disney gift cards and/or rack up credit card points!
→Port Canaveral is an hour away from Orlando. We rented a car for a good deal and paid for cheaper parking offsite. That turned out to be cheaper than shuttles for our group of 6, plus it was more convenient.
→Read my Disney Cruise trip review to get a sense of what to expect.
Disney Vacation Account
I opened a Disney Vacation Account (DVA). You can put money here any time you want to save for your trip. Think of it as a savings account. It’s free and they will happily refund you too.
→DVA is having a promotion. For every $1,000 you spend on qualifying vacation purchases, they will give you a $20 Disney gift card.
→If you have the Barclay card, you can use your points to cover the money you deposit here (at least for now) and get 5% back because it is under the “travel” category.
→More importantly though, you can add all your gift cards online and consolidate them! Once you have enough gift cards to reach your Disney Cruise goal, call Disney or your travel rep and ask them to use your DVA to pay for your remaining balance.
→ALSO, you can request a one-time $500 gift card. Instead of using those $50 cards one by one, you can have them mail you a $500 consolidated gift card. Since I didn’t know about this option sooner, I used 9 gift cards to pay for our fine dining experience at Victoria and Albert’s. Talk about embarrassing…but hey, no shame.
I’m sure there are many other good tips out there. These are only some that I personally use. Hope you find this helpful for your next adventure–wishing you happy and budget-friendly travels!
P.S. Thank you Disney. Because you are so damn expensive, you charmed me (and many others) into learning the best ways of making my dreams come true. I see what you did there…