How to Make Travel Actually Free

Before miles and points, I thought travel was “free” as a concept of, you are free to roam where you like. I’ve pontificated on why travel really is free in great depth. You can bike or walk somewhere if you really wanted to.

Then over night, “transport” became free as well. Airline tickets fell from the sky it seemed. We had earned over a million miles before ever booking an award flight.

Still, I’ve gotten a lot of slack from people who’ve dropped tons of money in fees, and from… well running out of points and using cash. Or using a cash and points option. But in my opinion, this is only necessary is you are more concerned about luxury and don’t know basics like fuel surcharges.

Don’t think travel is “Luxury”

But from day 1 I avoided airline “fuel surcharge” fees. Why use your AA miles on a flight with someone like British Airways that does have fuel surcharges, instead of using them on AA or Air Berlin? It makes no sense to me. That is, unless you want business class on the specific airline of your choice.

It’s incredible, people drop 50,000 points a night for a week of entire vacation instead of a way cheaper option in town. Then pay for the second week with cash. Why? Luxury or wanting your way “just so” can cost money. Sometimes it doesn’t, but being flexible on a 3 star hotel instead of a luxury 5 star hotel, can save you points and money.

Your ego is not your amigo.

“Did he just suggest a 3 star hotel? I’m hitting the back button!”

No, ok, wait. Let me actually give some practical tips.

Always choose no fuel surcharges

If I’m using airline miles that do pass on fuel surcharges, I will not use them on airlines that have fuel surcharges… ever.

If you’re not quite familiar with all this let me explain this real quick. You have an airline’s miles, and those miles can be redeemed for any airline within the same alliance.

Some airline miles pass on “fuel surcharges”. This is a mysterious fee that airlines build into the price-determining algorithm. The funny thing is that it has nothing to do with the price of fuel it’s just a base fee on every ticket for that airline. For whatever reason, many airlines pass on this fuel surcharge when using their miles.

However, a number of airlines do not pass on fuel surcharges. For example:

United, US Airways, and American (except when redeeming on British Airways).

But some airlines don’t have fuel surcharges to even pass on in the first place.

  • In Star Alliance, the following airlines do not have fuel surcharges to pass on:
    Air New Zealand, Avianca, TACA, TAM, United (within the Americas), and US Airways
  • In OneWorld, the following airlines do not have fuel surcharges to pass on:
    Air Berlin, American Airlines (within the Americas), and LAN
  • In SkyTeam, the following airlines do not have fuel surcharges to pass on:
    AeroMexico, and Saudia

Therefore, when you aren’t using United, AA or US Airways miles (the mileage programs that don’t pass on fuel surcharges), you need to book on one of these airlines (the airlines that don’t have fuel surcharges to pass on).

For example, if you are using British Airways miles (aka Avios) and use those miles on a British Airways flight, you end up paying $516+ in fuel surcharges. Instead use your BA miles on an Air Berlin flight.

I take this so far as to say that I will never use my Avios internationally on any of the airlines that pass on fuel surcharges. That limits me to domestic usage, or Air Berlin or LAN. Really, if I’m planning a trip to Asia, I’d use other miles, like AA miles.

There is really no reason for me to use my BA miles to Asia and my AA miles to Europe. It’s completely backwards if you think about it. It’s the one route BA miles can’t avoid fuel surcharges, and with AA miles, Europe is the one route that could possibly have fuel surcharges.

Although, I should clarify, AA miles to Europe is a great use, just not on British Airways.

Actually get a good Cash Back card

It’s something I was too pretentious to recommend earlier but I was convinced of the value of the Barclay World Arrival card by my friend Jason recently.

The concept is simply, if you only care about extreme luxury, it’s a terrible card. But if you care about saving money, it’s a great card. Simply put, this card will reimburse travel expenses.

Because even when airline miles don’t pass on fuel surcharges, they still pass on taxes. Okay, for a US flight, that’s $2.50 or something. But for a flight out of some European airports, that can be $100!

As you may know, I only write about things I’d actually use. Thus, I don’t alert my readers about every deal to buy miles at “only” 2 cents a mile “so you can get a business class ticket for only $2,000″ (instead of economy for free). Thus I’ve shunned many Discover cards and cash back cards.

So why the Barclay World Arrival Card?

First of all, the bonus is 40,000 points or $400 toward travel. Nowadays, that’s a fair sized bonus. And the spend requirement is $3,000 in 90 days… and nowadays that’s a low requirement.

(You can click here to use my link and sign up for the card).

And the other thing about this card is that it earns 2 points per dollar. My friend is stocking up on these points for his next big trip. His plan is to pay for hotels with these points. And if you combine that with some of the Hotel Site Best Rate Guarantees, that’s a killer deal. You get a free night, and earn credit.

The downside is that you could get a card that gives Chase Ultimate Rewards, transfer to United and book a Caribbean Hopper ticket for the same bonus. But I guess I’d recommend this card after my top 8 Travel Credit Cards.

But at some point, it’s just a way to cover fees and get free rooms. And those rooms earn more rooms.

Look it’s basically a way to cover the expenses you would have anyways. I’m sure there are other good cash back cards that I could push, but honestly, I don’t use them so I wouldn’t know.

Learn some other skills

Signing up for the right credit card is good, but having other skills is better. Here are some readings/tips:

And the number one thing you can do to up your skills is sign up for the newsletter. Simply put.


Free ain’t always easy, but it’s completely possible. It’s totally about priorities.

One time I got two different comments on two different posts. The one guy commented how annoying it was claiming that travel was free, ignoring fees (which you can get reimbursed) and fuel surcharges (which I never ever pay).

Then this other guy commented on a post saying how ridiculous it is that I tell people to sometimes pay for flights and hotels. He commented on how he makes profit every month on his “spends”.  And it’s true, some people make thousands a month in profit, just maximizing rewards. I know these people personally.

It’s not my thing, but good for them. But it goes to show; where there’s a will/skill, there’s a way.

Related Posts:


  1. Pimp pimp pimp go go go 😉

    • ?
      Yea, next week, top 10 credit cards for cat owners… Same same.

  2. I do like the Arrival card for the signup bonus and for use on nonbonused spend for one year. I’m not sold on renewing it, however. I value UR points conservatively at about 1.8 points, so a cash back card with 2.2 cpm cash back generates an extra .42 cents on nonbonused spend. Useful, but at that rate I’d need to generate over $10,000 in nonbonused spend over a year to make up for the annual fee. That seems highly unlikely, so I’ll probably cancel the card when the annual fee comes due.

    • I know some people really work this card, but it’s definitely not within my style to keep it. So it’s not on my keep list either. But for some, 10k not unreasonable to do in a week.

  3. Thanks for the info!

    • De nada.

  4. I think the problem is that a lot of people who read these sites ARE awed by the luxury thing. When I talk to a lot of people about how I travel, and share that I stay in hostels and do couch surfing just as much (more, actually) as hitting up IHG point breaks or BRG’s, it turns out they don’t actually feel comfortable doing that, they want to stay in a 4-5* hotel, and they hate flying, want it to be as direct as possible, with business class luxury setup. Me, I just want as many experiences for as cheap as possible.

    Please keep doing what you’re doing on this blog, since you take it from a perspective that a lot of the other bloggers aren’t coming from.

    • I agree, and it is awing. Even for me, I never came from that, and it makes you feel “elite”. But it certainly is not what makes travel travel. It’s just a way to feel elite. imho.

      Anyways, thanks for the encouragement. Always good to hear from you.

  5. I totally agree with just about everything you said. That was one of the reasons I started blogging (even though there are a ton of blogs already out there). So many of the bloggers focus on the luxury part of travel, which is just not the way I work (especially given since as a family of 8, it’s just about impossible).

    I hope to teach some of that stuff to my kids too – you don’t have to always have the super nicest “stuff” in order to have fun and have a great life

    • True.

  6. It’s nice to get your perspective on the Arrival card. I was tempted to get it but other luxury chasing bloggers didn’t think it’s valuable. I mean, I like fancy places too, but sometimes, free (or close to free) is good. That’s why I like your blog. You guys can stay in an IC once night, and trying to save $ and do a DYI tour the next day. That’s my kind of travel!

    • Thanks Angela.
      Don’t get me wrong, I think miles are still more valuable. So depending on how often you fly, maybe miles will save more money. So I always get enough miles first.

      That being said, $400 is a good sign up bonus. No reason to pass it up. :-p

  7. I have to say I like you Drew, but I have absolutely no idea what this post is about… How many drinks did you have before writing it LOL.

    • You’re making me wonder if I’m still jet lagged.

  8. While I am still a newbie, I do find that the Arrival card suits my needs quite well. It gives great flexibility for smaller hotels, boutiques, or foreign chains that are not part of the rewards network I have. Places like Vegas or Disneyworld can also be a great use for this card. It’s a nice little Swiss knife!

    • Sure, and it’s combinable with other deal skills. Like BRGs, Priceline/Hotwire, etc… But yea, sometimes the big chains aren’t even in the towns I travel in.

  9. I appreciate your practicality. Not every deal out there will be for a flight or hotel night. I see this type of card as a good gap filler for the other travel expenses that can add up quickly. A free $400 is always welcomed!

    • Right, like airport taxes add up in Europe. Sometimes deals cost money too.

  10. Thanks so much for all your helpful research Drew! I’m curious as to how often you sign up for credit cards and then cancel them within the same year before the annual fee kicks in. Right now I have the Chase Sapphire Preferred card and have been considering the Barclay Arrival one as well. My thought has been to transfer my Ultimate Rewards point to United, then purchase the actual ticket using the Barclay Arrival card in order to use those points as well. Does that make sense?

    I’m just not looking to take on too many credit cards with annual fees attached, but not wanting to damage my credit score by cancelling within the first year either. Your advice would be great!

  11. Dude, when it comes to content, you are in a league of your own. Bravo!

  12. Hi Drew. No flak, 😉 but I do have a sincere question, re. IHG points earnings esp. this year. First, thanks largely to you, we did rather well with new IGH membership, card, Big Win, & “steroids” hunting last fall. 200k pts — great start.

    Yet this year has started off very slow. Almost every one of the codes I’ve tried (from Flyertalk and other sources, as per your tips, again) haven’t registered. (get the mysterious message, “according to our records, you’ve already registered for this promo” — or “system error.”) Yes, followed your tip to “move on” to the next…. and the next, and the next…. But haven’t found anything “new” to work since beginning of January. (and they were minor one time use bonuses.)

    So how are you doing with the IHG points codes this year? Still raking them in a fast as you burn ’em? 😉

    Noticed you too splurged on the Davos stay — glorious place to be sure, and “cheap” at just 50K (PER NIGHT) — compared to the cash one would need for the same stay.

    Yet am wondering if such stays are “burning through” your IGH point stash(es), or if you’ve managed to keep adding as much as you’re spending. If so, fill us in when you get a chance.

    PS: On a related note, I was never yet able to score a BRG with IHG….. have all but given up. (and I saw recent reports apparently noting that IGH has been “caught” price-fixing with on-line competitors…. which would seem to ‘splain why the BRG strategy rarely, if ever, seems to work anymore…) Look forward to any insights on that too.


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We have spent the majority of our marriage traveling full time, living out of hotels.   All the while, we list our expenses publicly, budgeting $25,000 a year for our nomadic life while still staying in mostly 4 or 5 star hotels across ~20 countries a year.
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