6 Easy Ways to Squeeze the Most Out of Your Travel Budget (While You Wait to Travel Again)

With the recent onset of COVID-19, the opportunity to board an airplane feels so far away, and so uncertain. But eventually we will be able to explore again. Here are my best money-saving tricks that you can do now to be ready.

Are you independently wealthy? Yeah, me neither. I scrimp and save, and take fantastic trips several times each year. Those trips vary significantly from quick weekend getaways to longer, 10-day adventures to other countries. How the heck do I manage this? Here is the short list of tricks that I've learned, that you can take advantage of too!


1. Miles-Earning Credit Cards

You very likely already use a credit card (or two or three). Does that card earn you airline miles? If not, why not?? There are so many available to us these days, and some offer excellent perks. If you make a habit of paying your credit card balance each month anyway, taking advantage of the additional travel perks just makes good sense!

How do you decide which ones to choose? Consider the airlines you fly most (here in Oregon we take a lot of Alaska flights, so an Alaska Airlines Visa was a no-brainer). In addition to a 40,000 mile welcome bonus, each year you can receive a Companion Fare, which is $99 plus taxes for the second person anywhere, domestic or overseas. Yes, this is huge!


Some cards work for more than one airline, like our Capital One Venture Mastercard, in which accrued miles can be applied to many different airlines. The miles earned don't go as far here as with the Alaska Mileage Plan though, so the value isn't exactly apples to apples.


Additionally, some cards earn you more points or miles for certain categories of purchases. For instance, it's possible to earn 4 or 5 times more points or miles when you buy your groceries with a specific card, or maybe 3 times more when buying your office supplies.


Nomadic Matt has written extensively about this, comparing and contrasting many cards and their perks. He's a great ongoing resource in this department (and I'm not just saying that because of my Nomadic Network affiliation!). Yes, offers and promotions will change, so it's a good idea to reevaluate your strategy periodically.


2. Look for Welcome Bonuses

We all get credit card offers in the mail, and I've recycled a lot of them right along with you. But on occasion, they are absolutely worth taking a closer look. Welcome bonuses of 20,000, 50,000, even 150,000 airline miles! In addition, using the right cards can earn you free baggage, seat upgrades, and perks like free hotel stays.

It does seem complicated, doesn’t it? I myself tend to get a little overwhelmed with all of the options, so I leave it to the experts! Those experts are Nomadic Matt or The Points Guy, and I receive periodic emails alerting me to significant opportunities. These guys are lifesavers.


3. Online Shopping Portals

If you do ANY shopping online you should always be using online shopping portals. And now that most traditional in-store shopping is suddenly off the table due to the effects of COVID-19, we're all going to have to make most purchases online.


What's an online shopping portal? Portals work by directing you to a specific retailer’s site, and from there you do your shopping as normal. Any purchase you make gets tracked, and you receive the extra points shortly thereafter. It costs you nothing extra. The only extra step involved is simply to click through to the retailer's site through the portal, rather than typing in the page in your internet browser. Making a habit of this can earn you hundreds or thousands of bonus points or miles each year.

Want examples? I've got 'em!

EXAMPLE #1

I recently walked into a DSW shoe store and the adorable $65.00 Puma Carina caught my eye. I knew they’d be perfect to wear on an upcoming trip I was planning. I tried them on and loved them, but rather than buying them in the moment I took a photo of the box instead.


Later at home, I logged onto my favorite shopping portal (Alaska Airlines) to see if DSW.com is a retailer they work with. No dice.


So I tried Puma.com… yes! But they didn’t have any in my size. Damn.


So I tried Kohl's. Bingo!


In addition to offering 15% off my order plus free shipping, they were offering 3 miles for every dollar I spent. So five days later I received my shoes, in plenty of time for that trip!

  • Total Cost: $55.25 (15% off)

  • Miles Earned: 220 (165 from Alaska Airlines shopping portal + 55 using Alaska Airlines Visa)


Key West, Florida

EXAMPLE #2

I am managing a real estate client’s home renovation, and we agreed that new kitchen appliances were in order. He asked that I purchase them, and he would later reimburse me. No problem!


I determined that Best Buy had the very best deals and availability (and also offered 2 miles for every dollar spent!). I selected a freestanding gas range, a built-in dishwasher, and a built-in microwave. Total cost was $1,039.97, with free onsite delivery.

  • Total Cost: $00.00

  • Miles Earned: 3,117 (2,078 from shopping portal + 1,039 using Alaska Airlines Visa)

EXAMPLE #3

Adidas recently ran a spring promotion advertising 30% off their entire website inventory, including regular and sale price items. Plus free shipping for orders over $50. In addition, by visiting their site through the Alaska Airlines shopping portal, shoppers would earn 10 miles for every dollar spent! Yes, I jumped on this, and found a fantastic sweatshirt ($57), pants ($40), and two pairs of shoes for my other half at ($50 each).

  • Total Cost: $137.90 (30% off)

  • Miles Earned: 1,516 (1,379 from shopping portal + 137 using Alaska Airlines Visa)

Sure, these three examples earned me only 4,853 Alaska airline miles. That's not exactly a trip to Paris, is it? But believe me: they add up!


The goal is to use these portals as often as possible, and to really think outside the box. Planning to buy a new laptop? Camping gear? Furniture for your home? Gift cards? Always go to your favorite shopping portal first.


Cascais, Portugal

4. Hotels

Before you book any hotel you should be checking Rocketmiles.


This site works with hotels from all over the world, and by booking your stay from their platform you can earn airline miles or points using your chosen mileage program. The amount of miles or points you receive is based on the miles/points plan you work with, and can often be upgraded to more miles for a fee.


If you use more than one mileage program, make sure to compare the different points/miles available for each hotel with each program. Sometimes it may surprise you. For example, for the same stay Alaska Mileage Plan may earn you 3,000 miles, Aeroplan may earn you 4,000 miles, and United Mileage Plus may earn you 2,000.


Why, yes, I do have examples!

EXAMPLE #1

Newport Beach Marriott Hotel, Newport Beach, California - 3 night stay

$166/night plus taxes + $3,000 bonus miles

64

  • Total Cost: $564.56

  • Miles Earned: 3,564 (3k + 564 using Alaska Airlines Visa)


EXAMPLE #2

Royal St. Charles Hotel, New Orleans, Louisiana - 3 night stay

$174/night plus taxes + $8,000 bonus miles


  • Total Cost: $632.93

  • Miles Earned: 8,632 (8k + 632 using Alaska Airlines Visa)


For these examples, I used Alaska Mileage Plan. That's a total of 12,196 Alaska Airlines miles additional miles I earned by booking those two stays!


Interested in signing up for Rocketmiles, too? Please do so through my link! I don't earn any money, just some bonus miles, which is always appreciated. Thank you!


Barcelona, Spain

5. Flight Deals

Hopper Do you already have your trip dates set, but are wondering when the best time is to book your flights? Use the Hopper app. It’s fantastic at updating you when prices are going down, when they’re expected to increase, and will alert you when you should buy “right now”. It’s free to use and it will track many different dates and locations.

Skyscanner What if you don’t have a destination determined, but you want to know where you can afford to go during a coming month? Use Skyscanner. The best! And plan to spend some time perusing your options, because there are a million. A great place to brainstorm your next travel destination.


South Beach, Florida

6. Groupon Deals

Before you head out on a trip anywhere in the United States, it’s a good idea to check Groupon for local deals and specials.


Whether you want to take part in a local art tour, do a spirits tasting with a nearby distillery, or sign up for a day spa package, there's something for everybody. Why pay full price if you don't need to? Also, it’s great to have a few things tentatively on your schedule because it can provide “anchors” and help you plan your days.


*BONUS: Groupon works with several online shopping portals!! And anyone who knows me knows I love a good travel Groupon.

EXAMPLE #1

Beach cruiser rentals in sunny Southern California! Regular price was $30 each, and there were three of us who needed bikes. They had two options available; one bike all day at one price and two bikes all day at another price. I got one of each, and our total was $31. An added bonus was that we didn't have to commit to a specific day at the time of purchase, so that gave us some flexibility over the three days we would be in the area. I also liked this deal because the rental time was from 9am to 6pm. There was NO way we'd use them for this whole time, but at $10 each, who cares. Totally worth it!

  • Total Cost: $31.00 (66% off), $10.30/pp

  • Miles Earned: 155 (124 through shopping portal + 31 using Alaska Airlines Visa)


EXAMPLE #2

Since we live in gorgeous Oregon wine country, we occasionally like to head out and do tastings with our friends. Using Groupon (which was offering 4 Alaska miles per dollar spent!*), I found a fantastic deal with nearby Ardiri Winery: a 5-wine tasting flight for 4 people that also includes a $40 wine credit. The regular price is $100, and it was offered here for $65. Then Groupon added an additional 20% off! We have 120 days to use it.

  • Total Cost: $52.00 (48% off), $13.00/pp

  • Miles Earned: 260 (208 through shopping portal + 52 using Alaska Airlines Visa)

In Summary


Eventually, we will all travel again. The waiting can be hard, but we can all use this time to our advantage and maximize the value of our dollars now.


Do you have other tricks you use to earn points and miles, and to stretch your dollars? Please share them here in the comments section below. And thank you!


Happy (eventual) travels!

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