“I don’t need a vacation,” said no one ever. But if you’ve ever put a trip on the back burner because you didn’t think you could afford it, know that there are ways you can travel more without breaking the bank. We chatted with Emily McNutt, Associate Editor at The Points Guy, a site chock-full of tips and tricks for maximizing your travel. McNutt is no stranger to frequent jet-setting — she reports on travel news, reviews aircraft products, and has visited over 40 countries. See her tips for racking up points, how to find the best deals, and where you should consider going this year.
How to maximize your travel
Want to travel cheaper? Make your money work harder for you. The easiest way to rake in airline and hotel points (without actually flying and staying in hotels) is through credit cards. Many credit cards offer sign-up bonuses, which automatically give you tens of thousands of points just for qualifying for the card and meeting a minimum spending requirement over the first few months. McNutt says the key is earning transferable points, so they can be used across a number of hotel and airline partners. “For example, earning Chase Ultimate Rewards points allows you to accumulate that transferable currency. You can then transfer those Ultimate Rewards points to any of Chase’s 13 partners (United, Southwest, Marriott, Hyatt, etc.).”
You’ve probably heard tales of people reaching that covetable goal of one million frequent flyer miles or points. And while it depends on the individual and their spending and travel habits, McNutt says that goal is theoretically not impossible. “It’s all about maximizing your [expenses] for what’s best for you. For example, if you spend a lot on dining, maximizing that [expense] with a card that earns bonus points for dining makes the most sense.” Of course, we’re not advocating for anyone to go out on a shopping spree just to accumulate points, but again, when you do spend money, make it count for more than making a dent in your savings account.
How to find the best travel deals (even at the last minute)
To look for the best flight deals, McNutt recommends using Google Flights. As you’d expect from the world’s largest search engine, the site is lightning fast. It also identifies the best flight deals, money-saving alternatives (e.g., different airports and dates of travel), additional fare restrictions and baggage fees, and which airlines are likely to be delayed (using historical data and specific algorithms). One major advantage over other travel aggregators is that Google Flights also allows you to research destinations with its Explore Maps feature. Say you want to take a vacation but don’t have a specific city or country in mind. With the map tool, you can get an overview of flight prices across the world based on your departure city and dates, and you can drill even further down to destinations based on your interests (like architecture, food, nature, or shopping). Says McNutt, “This is the best search tool for spontaneous travelers. You might even be surprised that oftentimes international long-haul flights are cheaper than domestic getaways.”
Other ways to take advantage of last-minute travel deals are to monitor flight deal sites like TPG Alerts, The Flight Deal, and Airfare Watchdog. And that’s only half the equation. “Don’t be afraid to pull the trigger on purchasing a ticket,” says McNutt. “Once you see something appealing pop up, buy it!”
Where to travel this year
1. For Low Fares: McNutt recommends looking at Europe and Iceland, which “have seen a tremendous boom in low-cost carriers traveling transatlantic.” Caveat emptor: A cheap ticket doesn’t mean a cheap vacation. “We often see round-trip travel for less than $250. And while that may seem appealing up front (who can say no to a $220 round-trip ticket to Oslo?!), know that some of the destinations are more expensive than others. Iceland is notorious for its high prices when you get to the island nation, as are many of the Scandinavian countries.” Do your research before you travel.
2. Best Bang-for-Your-Buck Countries: McNutt recommends looking at Thailand or Vietnam, as they, along with many Southeast Asian countries, are “famous for their crazy low costs for everything from food to lodging.”
3. Off-the-Radar Countries to Keep an Eye On: With an increasing number of nonstop flights from the US to Africa, there are more and more opportunities to explore the continent. Notable destinations include Namibia, Madagascar, and Rwanda. (For the record, McNutt’s favorite country she’s traveled to is South Africa).
4. Money-Saving Travel Trends: Good news for people who want to satisfy their wanderlust this year: Low-cost carriers are offering more routes from the US, offering travelers an increasing number of international options. In addition, two-in-one trips will be in the mix: McNutt says, for example, “IcelandAir is an airline known to offer its passengers a free stopover in Iceland on their way to Europe, the perfect way to see two countries in one trip.”
(Photo via Getty)