Travel hacking to get free hotels


I stayed at the Holiday Inn in Gwangju, South Korea. The question that invariably popped up whenever I told anyone that I was staying in Gwangju (even Koreans all said this) was, “why!?” Yikes, do they know something I don’t?

Why was I there? A free hotel stay, of course.

Hi, I’m Mike, and I’m a travel hacker

One of my hobbies is travel hacking. To borrow Chris Guillebeau’s definition, travel hacking is “seeing the world on a budget” and “the creative use of frequent flyer miles and other strategies that give you more choices.” I discovered this a few years ago, and I admit that I can get a little obsessed. There’s just something so alluring about the prospect of flying first class without paying $5000 for it, or getting airline lounge access without paying full price, or (in this case) a free hotel.

It wasn’t totally free, of course. For a limited time, each night at the hotel cost 5,000 points, down from the usual 15,000 (or about USD $150 if paid straight in cash). This is known as PointBreaks, and the list of applicable hotels changes every few months. If you get in on it, you can save a bundle.

I had a bunch of points saved up from a few previous promotions. So, in effect, two nights at this Holiday Inn cost me USD $0, and very few points. That’s a good price.

But wait, it gets better. I talked about spending frequent flyer miles on my flight. Where did I get many of those frequent flyer miles? Part of it was by playing the US Airways Grand Slam promotion in 2011. While there’s no space to go into the details of this game here (details all over the Internet though), I’ll just say that I bought around 55,000 miles for about $250. And my trip to Asia cost 60,000.

Can you see why this is a fun game?

Watch out for financial perils

Now granted, like any hobby, it can cost you money, even when you think it might be saving you money. For example, you can easily find a situation where spending (say) $1000 will get you $1500 worth of benefits. That’s great, but you still need to spend $1000. If you don’t have $1000, it doesn’t matter how much benefit it gives you. So it’s very important to be vigilant here.

Also, many of the super big deals involve credit cards. I confess that I generally avoid these deals, for reasons that I have talked about. I know that you can acquire enough miles and points to buy tickets to outer space if you put all of your spending on a credit card, but I think that’s a bad plan, and I don’t recommend this. There’s too much risk involved in decoupling your spending from your budget, and it can over-complicate your financial picture. Any mistake and you’ll likely lose much more than any perks you might have gained. It’s not worth it to me.

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Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to get in on travel hacking without credit cards. Aside from the aforementioned Grand Slam (requiring no credit card usage at all), I got in on the Radisson Big Night Giveaway last year. I bought one night at a Radisson hotel and received 50,000 points, enough to stay at that same hotel for three nights for free. Yes, it cost me one night’s hotel stay, but that was a price I was willing to pay.

Why this matters

Why do I care about this so much? Well, as I’ve explained before, I feel that travel is the great eye opener. It’s hard to feel antipathy towards foreign lands when you’ve walked them. You learn so much about yourself too, especially when things go wrong. It’s difficult to get out and go, and it’s scary and risky as well. But these are all situations that make your life more enriching. Travel hacking allows me to do all this while making it a bit easier, as well as turning it into a kind of game. What’s bad about this?

So sitting in my hotel room, looking out the window at the local convention center, the view was interesting. Even cities that are not the most exciting can seem so when they are foreign to you. And the hotel was lovely, the staff helpful, and there was a hot tub. My time at the hotel enabled me to rest up, do some work, and give me the stamina to continue on my journey. Definitely worth the money I didn’t spend.

But enough about me. Do you play the travel hacking game?

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