I’ve done a lot of traveling in my life, and every time I booked a flight I would take an economy class seat. I’ve had amazing experiences and fascinating conversations, but I’ve also experienced the colicky baby, the cramped seat, the overweight neighbor with BO, and the mushy airline food.
I’m vaguely aware that there are other airline classes too, with names like ‘business’ or ‘first’, where friendly hostesses serve 5-course meals with champagne, and every passenger gets their own bathrobe, fold-out bed, free neck massage, and access to a private shower.
We mere mortals can only dream of these overpriced luxuries, which remain forever out of our reach.
Actually, hold on, that’s not quite true. Yes, business class travel is expensive, but it’s not out of reach. With a couple of simple tricks, you too can travel in style. I call this ‘Travel Hacking’:
Travel Hacking is the use of simple tips and tricks to get discounts and upgrades on travel. This brings premium services within the budget of economy travellers.
I recently accompanied my wife on a trip to Hong Kong, and I used travel hacking to make the experience as pleasant as possible. If you want to do some travel hacking of your own, the first thing you need to do is join a couple of loyalty programs.
Step 1: join loyalty programs
Every hotel and airline nowadays provides a loyalty program. By registering, you earn points for every booking which you can redeem for room and seat upgrades in the future. Enrolling in a loyalty program is usually free, so the hotels and airlines are basically handing you a free gift.
TIP: enrolling in most loyalty programs is painless and free. In return you get steep discounts, so it’s a net win.
Last year I joined Air France, British Airways, Emirates, Lufthansa, Qatar, Turkish Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic. I also joined the Accor and Hyatt hotel programs. I usually register just before I do the booking. Signing up for a loyalty program only takes a couple of minutes, so once I’m in I can complete my booking and provide my membership number. This ad-hoc approach works really well.
As of today, I’m in 10 different programs. Managing all those points can get a bit exhausting, which is why you’re going to need a management app to keep track of all the programs.
Step 2: install a management app to keep track of your points
A great site to keep track of all your loyalty programs and points is AwardWallet, which I use myself. AwardWallet keeps track of all loyalty programs for me. It will log into each hotel and airline website on my behalf, download my points, and show everything in a handy consolidated dashboard. A great timesaver.
A nice feature of AwardWallet is that it provides a list of all programs out there, with direct links to their registration pages. This makes signing up for a new program a piece of cake. It also shows when my points are about to expire, and it lets me know when airlines or hotels give me special discounts.
AwardWallet is completely free, and all the basic features you need are in the free version. I personally have a paid Pro account, but only because I like the app and want to show my gratitude to the team.
TIP: get the free AwardWallet account. It will manage your loyalty programs for you, and the free version does everything you need.
Now that you have your loyalty programs set up, the next step is to start collecting some points.
Step 3: start collecting points
The thing about travel hacking is that it gets easier the longer you do it.
When you first start out, you have zero points. No airline or hotel is going to offer any discounts yet, so you’re going to have to rack up flights and stays to collect points. Once you have points, you can redeem them on future trips. This is a classic chicken and egg problem.
Here are a few tips to get started.
- Always claim points when you’re traveling for work. Make those business flights and overnight hotel stays work for you.
- Stick to the same airline and hotel chain. This will concentrate your points and make them accumulate faster.
- Check if your airline or hotel offers a double- or triple- point bonus.
- Check if your hotel offers a bonus for arriving on a specific airline.
TIP: when you’re traveling for business, remember that points are personal. Your employer is paying for the hotel, but you earn the points. Always claim points for business trips.
Once you get up to a couple thousand points, you’re ready for the next step.
Hong Kong travel hacking
So here’s what I did on our recent trip to Hong Kong. Despite having collected points with Air France, Lufthansa, and Turkish Air, I decided to book with Emirates instead, because they offered a better deal. Unfortunately, this meant I had zero points and could not use any discounts.
I booked them because I wanted to show my wife what an Airbus A380 looks like.
TIP: Emirates uses A380’s on most flights. These superjumbo’s have 2 floors, and the entire top floor is business class. They have so many business class seats that you’re pretty much guaranteed to get an offer for an upgrade.
I got the upgrade offer to business class, but without any points, it would have increased the ticket price sixfold. So I declined. But if I did have the points, I would have definitely done it.
Emirates offers about 20 different in-flight meals, each aligned with a particular religion: Christian, Islam, Hindu, etc. I even saw Jain on the menu. They don’t offer meal upgrades, but the standard fare is pretty good, so I didn’t miss it.
TIP: some airlines (e.g. Air France) offer meal upgrades. This will get you a business class meal in economy class. Always go for this, it’s totally worth it.
What I did not expect is that the seating arrangement in an A380 is 3/4/3 throughout the entire plane. So there was no way for me to pick a 2-seat row in the back of the plane. Fortunately, on the way back we found ourselves in a Boeing 747-400 which did have 2-seat rows.
TIP: always try to get a 2-seat rows in the back of the plane. If travelling with your partner, this means you’ll have no other people directly next to you. A considerable improvement in peace and quiet.
With the flight covered, I started looking for a good hotel in Hong Kong.
My employer sponsored a lot of business travel last year and they booked me in Hyatt hotels every time. I managed to collect more than 60,000 Hyatt points. There are a couple of nice hotels in Hong Kong, and the Hyatt Regency in Sha Tin offered a $260/night suite. By using my points, I got the price down to $69 per night.
TIP: do not book through sites like booking.com. Instead go directly to the hotel website and log in with your loyalty account. The discounts will often exceed what booking.com will offer.
A Hyatt Regency suite is pretty amazing. We got a 45 square meter room, private check-in, unlimited drinks, free breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and access to a private lounge. It felt like a million dollars!
Unfortunately, I could only get the Hyatt for 8 out of 10 days, so for the first two days of our holiday, I had to find something else. With Hyatt no longer available, I switched to Ibis.
TIP: create a shortlist of hotels you like. If one isn’t available, switch to another. Keep the list short, so your points do not get spread out too much.
The Ibis Hong Kong Central is right across Victoria Harbor and, if you pay a little extra, you can upgrade your room to have a harbor view. I did exactly that, using my points to finance the upgrade.
TIP: always go for a room upgrade. The extra space or improved view does wonders for your wellbeing.
So for the first two days of our trip, we had the standard tiny Ibis hotel room. But when we opened the curtains, we saw this:
Totally worth it!
Travel hacking isn’t easy. It takes a long time to collect enough points to make a difference, so you’ll need something to get started. In my case, it was frequent business travel with lots of stayovers in Hyatt hotels.
But once you’ve collected a couple thousand points, you can start using them to upgrade your flights and hotel stays. The improvements in comfort will do wonders for your wellbeing.
Even a tiny improvement in travel comfort is great. Last year I upgraded my meal on an Air France flight, and it made all the difference. Best shrimp cocktail I ever had.
What do you think? Will you start travel hacking too?
Also published on Medium.