After Brad Wilson, 30, went on his honeymoon to Hawaii several years ago, he realized that as a traveler, he was pretty unsophisticated. He got stuck in middle seats on airplanes, ended up in sub-par hotel rooms, and paid full price plus extra fees for everything from baggage checks to Internet access. “After this trip, I knew I didn’t know what I was doing. I came home and I was determined to get better,” says Wilson.
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He did get better—a lot better. Wilson, the founder of the coupon site Bradsdeals.com, signed up for membership rewards, hotel promotions, and other perks that allowed him to go on the trip of a lifetime to Australia and New Zealand, valued at around $40,000, for almost nothing. And he did it using strategies that anyone, not just frequent travelers, can do themselves. “It turns out there are a lot more opportunities than people realize,” he says.
Here’s how Wilson earned his trip—and how you can, too:
Step One: Scout for deals.
Wilson found a deal through Hyatt Hotels that allowed him to earn one free night at any Hyatt for every two nights he notched as a paying customer. He took advantage of that policy by staying at relatively inexpensive Hyatts near his home. (He paid about $50 for the night, then went home without even staying overnight.) Combined with discounted gift certificates, he paid about $1,700 for 40 nights, which netted him 20 free nights at the luxurious Park Hyatt Sydney, where rooms can cost as much as $1,500 a night. (More on that below.) Because he became such a frequent Hyatt customer, he also accrued loyalty status, which meant he got free breakfasts, room upgrades, and Internet access.
Step Two: Layer those deals on top of each other.
Meanwhile, Wilson also earned miles on United Airlines for those hotel stays, which eventually allowed him to purchase a first-class ticket from Chicago to San Francisco, then an executive business-class seat from San Francisco to Auckland and then Sydney. That meant Wilson and his wife sat in a private row in the nose of the plane and dined on five-star fare—for free.
Step Three: Stay organized.
Once you start signing up for rewards programs and earning points, staying on top of the paperwork becomes essential, along with keeping your eyes peeled for any new deals. His strategy, explains Wilson, “involves consuming a lot of information … This stuff is out there, and a lot of times it’s just a question of pulling it all together.” Even when the economy is struggling, these types of offers still exist, because hotels and airline companies always need to compete. “We’re seeing [offers] coming back more right now. There’s a lot out there,” says Wilson, but most people tend to overlook the best deals because they’re not always easy to find or navigate.
Wilson adds that some risk and upfront investment is involved. After all, he paid about $1,700 for those Hyatt stays without even staying in the rooms. And credit cards can quickly become expensive if you start paying fees or interest on balances, which brings up step four.
Step Four: Don’t fall into credit card traps.
“You have to find a way to use a credit card so it’s not adding any incremental expenses,” says Wilson. That means paying off the balance in full every month—no exceptions. (Once you start carrying any debt at all, no amount of free airline miles or other rewards justify the price.) Wilson suggests doing some comparison shopping for the best credit card, because they vary greatly in the types of services (such as travel insurance, for example) and rewards (such as cash back or airlines miles) they offer.
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As long as you avoid debt and master the art of credit card rewards, Wilson advocates heavy credit card usage. “This is a way of turning the tables on them. There is a way of playing the credit card game to your advantage,” he says.
Step Five: Enjoy the rewards of your labor.
Eventually, all that hard work pays off, like it did for Wilson in April 2010, when he and his wife took their big trip Down Under. They stayed at the Park Hyatt Sydney with free breakfast and free Internet as well as a Hyatt in Auckland (total value for both hotels came out to about $15,000, more than $1,000 a night) and got free airline tickets valued at about $12,000.
“I’ve never had such a nice trip in my life,” says Wilson. He urges others to similarly work the travel system: “There’s a lot of this stuff floating around. It will really change your life, how you spend, and how you travel.”
Kimberly Palmer (@alphaconsumer) is the author of the new book Generation Earn: The Young Professional's Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.