After retiring at age 34, Brandon traveled around the world for three months, visiting 14 countries on four different continents — and he paid only $947.91 for his flights.
What’s his secret to traveling so cheaply?
Frequent flyer miles, scored through free credit card signup bonuses.
Brandon, who goes by his first name only on his blog, Mad Fientist, for privacy reasons, traveled to Central and South America with United, stopping at Mexico City, Mexico, Bogota, Colombia, Cusco, Peru, Quito, Ecuador, and Panama City, Panama, using only 20,000 United miles for each flight between cities (usually 24 hour layovers).
He also utilized the Asia to Middle East redemption with American Airlines, which allowed him to travel from Japan to Amman, Jordan for 30,000 miles (about $77). Among the layover cities he visited were Taipei, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, Bangkok, Thailand, Muscat, Oman, and Abu Dhabi.
He acknowledges that his own travel hacking plan took hours of research and a lot of knowledge, but writes on his site that level of dedication isn’t required to find a travel deal. “If you’re just starting out though, you don’t have to go crazy like me,” he writes. “It’s possible to drastically reduce your travel costs with very little work.”
Here’s the “ridiculously simple” advice he gives to beginners. One thing to keep in mind: If you’re in credit card debt, or otherwise unaccustomed to paying off your entire credit card balances every month, this is not the strategy for you. Simply having a lot of credit cards won’t hurt your finances, but using them to spend money you don’t have will.
Brandon’s advice comes down to using two tools:
First, figure out where you want to go, and then plug that into AwardHacker, a search engine which allows you to find the most valuable frequent flyer programs. Let’s say you want to travel from New York to Rome. Enter your destination and search for any frequent flyer program, and the results will show you the number of miles you need to fly with a particular airline. If you enter in dates, you can calculate the price per mile.
Brandon, whose day job was in software development, created his own search tool in 2011 geared toward travel hackers to search for the best credit card sign-up offers.
For example, he writes on his site, American Express and Citibank offer flexible points which can be transferred to multiple airline and hotel programs. His ‘Card Ratings’ search tool allows you to find the best combination of location, miles and cost, allowing you to choose flexible points or cash miles, finding you what he calls a “sweet spot,” which optimizes credit card signup bonuses.
For instance, if you want to fly Delta and stay at a Hilton you can select those options, search, and find the credit card with the best signup bonus, which in this case turns out to be the Business Platinum Card from American Express. The results include how much you would have to spend on the card to get the signup bonus and any annual fees.
On Mad Fientist, Brandon includes a few more pieces of advice for beginning travelers:
- If you don’t have a specific destination in mind, accumulate flexible spending points to use when you want without risk of point devaluation.
- Sometimes it is cheaper and more advantageous to pay for flights in cash. Brandon recommends using Google Flights to search because it is fast and allows you to search for multiple airports at once.
- Travel with carry-on luggage only, to keep things easy and simple.
- Use Uber or Lyft instead of taxis to take advantage of free rides and promotions.
- Book your accommodations with Airbnb for a homier stay and cheaper rates than hotels.
Brandon is used to putting some serious thought into his money — in fact, he previously shared the spreadsheet he used to document and calculate the savings he’d need to achieve financial independence with Business Insider. While at one point he was saving 70% of his income (which he keeps separate from his wife, who still chooses to work as an optometrist), he cautions others not to get absorbed in saving money to the point where you aren’t enjoying your days.
Brandon writes that after returning home, he’ll probably stay put for a while. “At the end of it all though, I realized how much travel helps you appreciate home.”