In the last 2 years, I've flown to at least 13 countries in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, all in first or business class.
Here's the catch: I never bought tickets to any of those places.
So how did I manage to do this?
It was a combination of "travel hacking" and "manufactured spend."
Here are 5 tips to help you travel around the world in style like I did, without spending a ton of money on flights: (So far, this has saved me at least $60,000 on flights for myself and my team!)
Tip #1: Racking Up Miles With "Manufactured Spend"
I spent years abroad as an expatriate in Asia in the Middle East, and so I would travel a lot for work and pleasure. However, when I moved back to San Francisco and started Salesfolk a few years ago, I didn't have the same budget or cheap flights from travel hubs like Hong Kong.
A few globetrotting friends of mine told me they were "flying around the world for free," which immediately caught my attention. They told me they were doing this by getting credit cards that had offers that gave them a large number of "points" that could be used as "miles" if they meant minimum spending requirements.
Most of the time these requirements were things like "spending $3000 in 3 months after opening your account."
And so I signed up for a handful of these credit card offers, including Chase Sapphire, Chase Ink, Delta Gold Reserve, and a number of others.
It's easy to spend a few grand a month in an expensive city like San Francisco, especially if you can pay rent on your credit card. However, after I had gotten a few awesome credit card offers with tight deadlines, it was hard for me to meet some of these cards' spending requirements in the early days of founding my company, when I wasn't making much money yet.
And that's how I got into "manufactured spend" (wracking up miles by buying things like gift cards), and discovered an underground online community of "travel hackers."
I would read all the forums like "The Points Guy" and other private forums, to learn everything I could about racking up miles by purchasing cash equivalents like gift cards, that I could then cash out and use to pay my credit card bills.
It seemed kind of sketchy at first, and my mom even got concerned that I had somehow fallen into some sort of criminal activity.
But before I knew it, I was flying back to Hong Kong and making trips to Ho Chi Minh City in first class, while eating lobster and drinking champagne, for free (other than the airport fees and local taxes).
A lot of the manufactured spending methods I once used have died out, but there's still some of them alive out there. If you do some research for yourself and test out a few things, you can probably find them.
Tip #2: Scamming Your Way To Airline Status With "Mileage Runs" And Credit Cards
As someone who has been broke twice; lived on her generous friends' couch, and actually had to walk everywhere to save money on bus fare, I never thought I'd become a person who was addicted to "airline status," and flying in first class.
But I'm hooked now.
So if you're a bootstrapped entrepreneur, how do you manage to become a "platinum member," (or some other equivalent airline status) without flying as much as a consultant who works for one of the big firms?
There's 2 ways you can get status with most airlines:
One is flying a lot, and racking up a certain minimum number of miles, and the other is meeting a minimum spending requirement with that airline's credit card.
If your company has enough expenses, you can probably meet most spending minimums just by putting everything on your company card, but you could also hit those by doing "manufactured spend."
Another trick is to do "mileage runs."
These are basically long flights that are cheap enough to give you a really good value in terms of your points to spending ratio. (Generally you want the cost per mile to be below $0.04.)
Yes, it's kind of ridiculous to take a long flight to just rack up status for miles, but if you can work well on a plane or actually want to go to that destination, it's not so bad.
I rarely still do these, but in 2014 I did several "mileage runs" across the United States for a few hundred dollars to get my status with Delta, but this helped me get free first-class upgrades on almost every domestic flight I took in 2015.
Tip #3: Don't Let Airlines Cheat You Out Of The Best Award Tickets
Many airlines will try to cheat you out of redeeming your miles for the best value, and so you have to find creative ways to find the best available flights that they are hiding from you.
These days I fly Delta a lot, but when I search Delta for flights, they rarely show the best available flights, and almost always try to get me to redeem my miles for 2-3x more points than the best available offers.
The way around this is to search for award tickets on other airlines and airlines alliance websites that are a little bit more honest, which will show you all available award tickets.
For Delta, I often search for my award tickets on Flying Blue (Air France) or other airlines that are in the same alliance as Delta, but you can do the same thing for any airline. All you have to do is search for which other airlines are in the same alliance as your preferred airline, and search for those with the best availability. (For flights on Star Alliance, I often use ANA to search for award flight availability, but there's more information on award booking best practices here.)
Tip #4: Always Make Sure To The Most Of Your Miles
Not all award tickets are good deals.
Before booking any award ticket, I always search for that flight and other comparable flights on Google Flight Search or some other search engine to check the value of the award.
Once you know the face value of that award ticket, divide the price by the number of miles you would have to use to purchase it.
It depends on your preferences and priorities, and how much you travel, but if you have miles on a number of different airlines and alliances, you might want to check and see which ones have the "best deals," in terms of spending your miles.
First class and business class tickets will often take 2x as many points as flying in economy, but the face value of those flights (especially international flights) is often 5-10x more, and so it's a good deal if you value comfort.
Tip #5: Look For Alternative Routes To Get Better Deals
Ever wondered why some flights are so much cheaper than others?
Different locations and airports have different taxes and fuel surcharges, and so switching your travel route can save you hundreds, and if you fly enough, thousands of dollars every year.
I usually start my flight research by looking at FlightMapper to see all available routes, and then test out booking different flights to see routes and availability using ITA Matrix's free software (the same thing most travel agents use).
Through some research and trial and error, I write down all the different combinations of flights to see which ones have the best routes, price, and availability for awards on the airline alliances I have points on.
Whether you fly occasionally for work or pleasure, or you're a globetrotter addicted to travel, this advice will save you thousands of dollars a year.
I've saved more than $60,000 on my flights in the last 2 years using this same advice.