It occurs to me that there may be new people coming to the blog and while I do my best to lay out all the information you need, I perhaps take for granted that some people are coming in completely cold.
Hunting and pecking across an entire site can be time consuming and confusing so to combat that and to have a single series that covers everything a newbie needs, I have decided to create a How To Get Started Series. The intent of this series is to hold you by the hand and teach you everything you need to know to get started in Travel Hacking.
I’ve decided to start this series because everyone needs somewhere to start. When I started out, there were definitely good sources of information but it was scattered everywhere so trying to track it all down was incredibly difficult and time-consuming. My goal when I started this blog was to make it easy to find the information you needed but I’ve realized that even within my blog, information is quite scattered.
By creating this series, my hope is to provide you with an easy to follow guidebook and something you can always refer back to.
This series will be simple in nature and will give you the basics. As I have been writing this blog over the past year plus, I have covered off most of the things I will be talking about in great detail so I will provide a simple overview but link you to more detailed posts delving into the nitty-gritty details if you want to dive in further.
Just like everything else on the internet, this subject can lead you down MANY rabbit holes. I have often started researching how to find availability on an obscure airline only to find out 3 hours later that I’ve been looking at gifs of cats doing human things for the past hour.
Lets get started.
Have A Goal
My first question when someone asks me how they can get started into Travel Hacking, is “what do you want to do with your points?” or “where do you want to go?”
Without an answer to either one of those questions, you risk heading down the wrong path. So what’s the big deal about that? Well, to be quite honest, it can mean the difference between redeeming for luxury vacations or throwing up your hands in disgust and giving up on Travel Hacking in its entirety.
There is nothing worse than collecting miles or points for a long period of time only to discover that you can’t book the vacation you expected to be able to. To be honest, it’s something that can definitely happen to you if you aren’t thinking ahead.
The good news? It’s easy to avoid too.
Set Your Expectations
Just like everything in the world, if you set your expectations correctly, you won’t be disappointed. With Award Travel, this is incredibly important so that you don’t become frustrated. Read this section carefully because it will help you understand if Travel Hacking is for you.
In this crazy game we play, flexibility is key. I often tell people that if you want to fly Friday after work and get back Sunday in the evening during Spring Break, you can do so but you just need to plan far out in advance (like a year in advance). If you are willing to fly out on a Thursday and come back on a Monday, you can almost assuredly fine award availability, depending on the route of course.
Award Travel is a bit weird. I have found through my years of booking that every airline is different in terms of when and how they release award availability, however, if I were to paint the entire industry with one broad stroke, I would say that you tend to find availability during these three primary points in time:
- Right when the schedule is released and becomes bookable (355 in advance of the date of travel for Aeroplan)
- About 10 months from departure – this tends to be a sweet spot for many airlines
- Close In – airlines will often have active load management, so if they can’t sell their tickets, they can/will release them for award redemptions. Each airline is different but T-14 is typically a good time to look (14 days from departure)
Obviously, you can still find award availability outside these windows but you tend to find the best availability during these times. While these are the general guidelines, having flexibility opens up more windows for you to book.
Class of Service
If you are planning on only traveling domestically in Economy Class, you can still do so on points but you won’t derive the value out of your points that you will if you fly in premium cabins (Business and First Class). The reasoning here is simple. Business Class and First Class flights are often 4-10x more expensive than Economy Class flights when you purchase them with money, however, they are only 2-3x more expensive when you book with points.
That being said, if you fly Economy Class, you can still get a lot of value but you need to take advantage of things like mini-RTW trips in order to maximize the value of your miles and points.
This touches back on my point on flexibility but what you need to realize is that just because you want a direct flight from Calgary to Bangkok, it doesn’t mean that you will be able to find award availability. The reason for this isn’t that there isn’t award availability per se, but rather, it is because that no airline in the world flies that route.
If you are banging your head against a brick wall because you can’t find availability, take a step back to make sure that the route actually exists.
I find that this is an issue that many novice travelers run into because they don’t fully grasp the concept of what airlines can and can’t do. In general, airlines are allowed to fly to and from their country of origin.
For example, Air Canada, based out of Canada, can fly between Canada and any country in the world. They can also transport people from any country in the world back to Canada. What they cannot do is ferry people between Greece and Turkey or the US and Mexico, etcetera, etcetera.
There are of course exceptions to the rule with something called a Fifth Freedom Flight but in general, that’s the rule.
In my example of flying from Calgary to Bangkok, if the route existed, it would almost assuredly be serviced by a Canadian or Thai airline. In order to find out what airline flies to the city you want to visit, use FlightConnections.
FlightConnections can help you understand the possible routes but over time you will start to understand which cities you can connect to and start narrowing your search for Award Flights. In the example of Calgary to Bangkok, here’s what FlightConnections tells us.
I’ve narrowed the search to Star Alliance Airlines because Aeroplan allows us to book Star Alliance Partners. There are no direct flights but there 3 routes that allow us to get there with one connection.
Understanding the routings to the cities you want to visit is a HUGE step in understanding what is going to be available for redemption.
Change Your Outlook
Like most of you, I hated connections before I got started on my Travel Hacking journey. Now, I welcome long connections because it gives you an opportunity to visit new countries and new cities for no additional cost. If you had a 23-hour layover in Cairo, you could grumble about it, or you could go check out the pyramids of Giza. Every long layover is an opportunity. Even if it’s to check out the airport and watch the world go by, it’s better than being stuck behind a desk, reading through a 20,000 line Excel Spreadsheet.
My plan is to have this series cover a lot of what people new to game should know. We will cover general ideas like how to earn your points, how to burn your points and all the information in between. The next part of this series will concentrate on how to quickly earn miles and points so that you can redeem them for the travel you want.
Also published on Medium.