Maybe it’s wrong to look at a university education as your ticket to more money — unless you’re attending Frequent Traveler University.
I was one of about 200 people who spent a fall weekend absorbing info from travel experts at a “Frequent Traveler University,” at its makeshift campus of conference rooms at a hotel near Chicago's O'Hare airport. Students came from as far as Singapore and paid $249 to hear savings ideas from “teachers,” most of whom usually dispense their wisdom by way of their blogs.
After more than 14 hours of presentations (“Post-Merger Hacks and Opportunities with SPG [Starwood Preferred Guest] and Marriott,” “Advanced United Airlines MileagePlus”), I came home with new strategies and a notebook full of pointers. Here are some for almost any traveler looking to save money and miles:
Make the bargains come to you
Opportunities for cheap flights and hotels can appear suddenly and disappear quickly, sometimes within hours. Let the deals come to you for free using Twitter notifications.
First, follow accounts that post deals. Then, set Twitter's mobile app to send push notifications to your smartphone when these accounts send a new Tweet.
I’ve been using this technique and can vouch for it, having pounced on some solid bargains, including an upcoming nonstop round trip from LAX to Auckland for $533 and a recent round trip to Taipei for $402.
A world of confusion means savings
Airlines don't always agree on world geography, Richard Kerr of Award Travel 101 reminded me. For instance, most people with a grasp of geography know that the Caribbean islands are easy for those on the Eastern Seaboard to travel to (the Grand Cayman Islands are just 450 miles southwest of Miami), while and that Hawaii is a little more than 2,500 miles southwest of Los Angeles.
But Flying Blue, an Air France and KLM program, lumps them in the same region, allowing travelers to cover a long distance for few miles, including 12,500 miles to fly from Honolulu to St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.
This also can work to your advantage when paying for tickets with stopovers. Some airlines consider some far-apart cities to be in the same region, allowing you to add another destination to your trip for little (and sometimes no) extra cost .
For instance, even though Tokyo and New Delhi are more than 3,600 miles apart, Alaska Airlines considers both in its “Asia 1” region, allowing you to visit both (on partner Japan Airlines) from the U.S. for as few as 35,000 miles one way, significantly less than carriers who put India into its own region.
Shorter can be better
Although airline loyalty programs seem to change for the worse from the traveler’s perspective, one category of mileage redemption in United's MileagePlus has improved, said Matthew Klint of Live and Let's Fly. He told us that if you needed to fly one way outside the United States, some of United’s airline partners in the Star Alliance Network offer trips of 800 miles or fewer outside the United States for as little as 8,000 miles.
This is especially handy if you find a great deal on a long-haul flight that gets you close but not quite to your desired vacation spot.
A reward atop a reward
Hotels.com has a rewards program that gives you one free night after booking 10 nights. That’s a nice bargain in its own right, but using Hotels.com gift cards can increase your savings even more.
Here’s how: Buy a Hotels.com gift card from a third-party seller at below face value. Gift Card Wiki lists many reputable companies that offer gift cards, including for Hotels.com, at a discount.
After you get your card, search Hotels.com for a room that can be paid for with its gift card (an easy box to check on your search criteria) and enter the card number at checkout.
Another way in to savings
Some other sites act as a portal that help you earn airline miles or cash back when you stop at their sites first, then click a link to take you to the site where you make your purchase.
Though portals can get a little complicated (setting up an account, waiting for your rebate to post), it can be worth it. TopCashBack, for instance, can earn you a 9% rebate on your Hotels.com purchases.
How do you get an upgrade when checking into a hotel? The tip from Jon and Ben Nickel-D'Andrea of No Mas Coach requires nothing but a smile: Be friendly and ask.
No upgrade? Ask for lounge access.
No lounge access? Ask for free Wi-Fi.
I can attest that being polite and not arguing if you get turned down has worked for me, as has politely asking for compensation when something goes wrong. That’s how I scored 5,000 points from Hyatt after a window shade fell down and a repair didn't happen when promised.
The next Frequent Traveler University is Feb. 23 and 24 in Seattle, followed by sessions in Brisbane, Australia, and London.
Now that I've graduated, I can't wait to try what I've learned in the real world. I'm fairly confident I'll get more practical value out of it than my bachelor’s degree.