Travel Hacking Our 2017 Vacation

Travel has to be one of life’s best activities.  Who doesn’t like to explore new places?  Travel allows us to experience the sights, the sounds, and the flavors of another part of the world.

With any luck, it creates new and (hopefully) lasting memories that enrich our lives…. but travel clearly doesn’t enrich our pocketbooks.

Traveling is (of course) still consumption…. just a different form of consumption than a physical object.  Travel is about consuming experiences, and it can be a major expenditure for any family budget.  

Attempting to minimize costs is almost a given when you have kids — in our case a family of four.  The usual suspects for keeping costs down include traveling at off-peak/off-season times, cooking your own food, and minimizing lodging costs.  

This year we’re going to take things a little further…


Last Year…

If you’ve followed this blog for awhile now, you know that our pattern is to take one big trip per year, and then a number of smaller road trips.  For people with small children, that’s plenty of travel.

Last year we went to Hawaii and lived it up in all that glorious sunshine.  We rented a house (with pool), ate some outrageously good food, and had a fantastic adventure … all for the reasonable low cost of $1,392.96 (not including airfare).  This worked out to be $174 per day, which was reasonably affordable, but higher than our regular budget.

Patio View
Last year we splurged on this fancy house with pool in Hawaii. Split two ways with family, it was fairly affordable.

The airfare of course was the really expensive part of the trip — We had to pay for 3 seats (Tako Jr. #2 was still a lap infant then).  At roughly $500 per ticket, airfare was the most expensive part of our trip, but we had a great time!


This year…

This year we’re going to change how we “do” travel, by trying a few new things….

This year we’re going to travel even further — We’re going to Japan!  

It’s been years since we’ve been to Japan, so we’re really excited.  Instead of spending just a week on vacation, we’re going to slow things down even more in 2017!  We’ll take a longer trip and we aren’t going to set agendas, activity lists, or even a rigid schedule.

This year we’re going to Japan!  The endless metropolis that is Tokyo is in our future.

Heck, the only hard dates we’re going to tie-down are the flight dates.   We’ll spend as much vacation time as Mrs. Tako’s work will allow … which should amount to 3 to 4 weeks of vacation.

The plan is to take the trip in early fall.  That way we can enjoy mild summer of the Pacific Northwest, and skip the ultra hot and humid summer of Japan.  By fall, it cools down considerably.

It won’t be our first trip to Japan, but it’s been years since we’ve been there in the fall.

On this trip, we’re going to skip the expensive rental house option.  We’ll be visiting family for much of the trip, so our lodging costs should be *considerably smaller* this time around.  We’ll still do all kinds of side trips to different cities, staying in ryokan, and enjoying an onsen (or two).  Lodging costs won’t be entirely free.

Instead of renting a car like we did in Hawaii, we’ll be using public transportation wherever possible — mainly trains and buses.  Given the length of time we’ll be traveling, I expect this cost to be significantly higher than what we spent in Hawaii.

Those bullet-train tickets don’t come cheap!

For example, a “Nozomi” bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka costs ¥13,620.  It’s fast and comfortable, with a travel time of 142 minutes to cover 553km (343 miles).  At today’s exchange rates that amounts to $120 per seat, and it’s only one-way.

Multiply that by four people and do a couple round trips — those costs really start to add-up.

Japan’s bullet trains may be cool, but it’s actually *cheaper* to fly to different cities in Japan thanks to low-cost airfare competition.

Despite all the hubbub about Japan’s awesome bullet trains, it’s frequently more economical to take a low-cost airline flight.  That same trip from Tokyo to Osaka on one of Japan’s low cost airlines, runs $99 round trip — less than half the cost of a bullet train.

Yes sir, I’ll take some of that please!

With names like Vanilla Air, and Peach Aviation, they may sound strange but Japan’s low-cost airlines really aren’t all that different from taking a regional carrier like Southwest or Alaska Airlines in the U.S.

Airlines with names like ‘Peach Aviation’ do sound a little goofy — but they’re a fantastic way to save money traveling around Japan.  Would you expect anything less from the country that brought you Hello Kitty and Mario?

But I’m getting WAY ahead of myself.  Before we even dream about inter-country travel we need to cover the big elephant in the room — Getting to Japan!

That’s going to be our biggest expense the entire trip.

So, (for the first time) we’re going to try our hand at travel hacking to keep the costs down.


Travel Hacking — Hype or Reality?

Unfortunately, I am not an expert when it comes to travel hacking.  This will be my first attempt.  Other bloggers like my buddies at Millenial-RevolutionRootOfGood, Mr. Crazy Kicks, and the MadFientist are masters at the travel-hacking game.  They seem to be able to fly around the world for mere pocket change.

I don’t expect results quite that good, but maybe we can score some cheap flights this year.

Recently the MadFientist wrote a great primer on how to get started with travel hacking — How to Travel Around The World for less Than $1000.

I admit to being skeptical because $1000 is *really damn cheap* for that much travel!  Is that just clickbait, or can it really be done?

We’ll find out by using the tools and sites Mr. MadFientist suggests to see if it’s possible — Let’s get started!


Using The Tools

Step 1.

First off, we need to find out how much in travel rewards such a trip might cost us.  So we’ll punch our departure city and destination city into AwardHacker.  Here’s what we get:

Award Hacker
Award Hacker tells us we need a minimum of 50,000 points for a ticket to Japan on ANA.

Is that even possible?  The tool tells us that ANA Mileage points can be transferred from either Starwood Preferred Guest Rewards or Amex Membership Rewards programs.  OK great.


Step 2.

Next, we need to determine which cards have the best sign-up rewards.  That’s usually how this travel hacking game is won.

Using the Madfientist’s own tool CardRatings, we can see the biggest rewards come from the Starwoods Preferred Guest Amex card rewards. It scores a sign-up bonus of 35,000 points:

Card Ratings
MadFientist’s CardRatings tool lets us know where the best bang for our buck is…. but the results weren’t great.

Redeemed for ANA Mileage at 1.25 miles per Starwood Preferred point, that would give us 43,750 points.  We’d also have the standard reward points for spending $5,000, netting us a total of 48,750 points.  Not quite enough.

That’s not going to do it….especially when you consider we have to spend $5000 in six months to score those rewards.  Our family only has enough spending to put $1,200 a month on a credit card.  We intend to take this trip in six months — meaning we only have $7200 worth of spending to work with.  At most we could only spend enough for one card reward bonus.

Houston, we have a problem.

Result?  Travel hacking FAIL

Clearly this travel hacking thing isn’t as easy as the experts let on.


Other Options

So that option was a complete bust.  But I wondered — What if there were other less obvious ways to cut costs?

So I dug around.  The results were interesting.  Within the United States, there is one airport that almost always has the cheapest direct flights to Japan — LAX.  Taking a quick flight down to LAX amounts to a savings of $300 per ticket.  Multiply that by 4 people and we’d save ourselves $1200!

But how do we get down to LAX for free or really cheap?

Using AwardHacker again, we can see that either Delta or Alaska Airlines mileage programs are the best bets, requiring only 15k miles per ticket.

With Alaska Airlines offering 30k points on their AlaskaAirlines Visa Signture Card ($1000 in required spending), this looks like a decent deal.  On top of that, the card offers a companion fare for $121….which is slightly less than the cost of a ticket to Los Angeles.  Unfortunately, the visa card does have an annual fee of $75 (charged immediately).  

What would our potential cost be for 4 people?

2 X $75 in card fees

2 X $121 companion fare

= $392 for the family down to LAX

All that to save around $1200.  That seems like it’s worth doing, but not the gigantic win that more experienced travel hackers say is possible.

Hmm.  How do they do it? We’d still have to pay around $3000 for the four of us from LAX to Tokyo, making the total airfare about $3400.  Aaaargh!


Can You Do Better?

OK, so I freely admit that given enough time and spending (years) we could earn enough rewards points to earn a free ticket or two.  But we aren’t big spenders, and we aren’t going to purchase a new car on the credit card.

I’m really excited about this trip, but that’s really expensive for 4 people.  It’s been years since we took a vacation this long, but I’m disappointed by the high prices and poor results from my attempt at travel hacking.

So I’m going to ask you guys in the personal finance community — is there’s something glaringly obvious I’m missing?

Can you find a way to generate 50k points, given our spending of $1200/month and 6 remaining months until the trip?


[Image Credit: Wikipedia]

34 thoughts on “Travel Hacking Our 2017 Vacation

  • March 4, 2017 at 4:59 AM

    You forgot a travel hacker on your list 🙂 We will soon be going on our all inclusive vacation to Jamaica for free – value $6,000. And are working out our trip to Barcelona now.

    Usually, 6 months is cutting it close to try and travel hack, but I think it’s still doable. Your best bet is probably going to be using Chase Ultimate Rewards points. You can get 50K points with a Chase Sapphire card, or 100k with a Chase Reserve card – only available at Chase branches until March 11. The Chase Reserve does have a significant fee but also has a bunch of extra benefits that make up for it. You could transfer your 100k Ultimate Rewards points to Virgin Atlantic which I believe you can use to book ANA rewards.

    Either way, I would recommend going for the Ultimate Rewards points first. Good luck!

    • March 4, 2017 at 12:13 PM

      Interesting ideas Mr. CK. I’ll add a mention to your site. Apologies!

      • March 4, 2017 at 1:45 PM

        My husband and I each got a Chase Sapphire Reserve card in the last two weeks. I was going to chime in about that too – but I haven’t booked any overseas travel with UR points. The $450 fee is steep but $300 travel credit is great and shows up right away on your statement. We will have about 210,000 UR points in another month or so. We don’t have any trouble meeting the minimum spend (we have a $7,000 tax bill to pay!) and we own rentals, etc.
        Vicki@MakeSmarterDecisions recently posted…Make Smarter Decisions – Saturday Share Day 2017, Week #9

  • March 4, 2017 at 7:03 AM

    Without going into too much detail as I am on my phone, have you looked into a topic called “manufactured spending”? It would help you meet minimum spending requirements.


    • March 4, 2017 at 12:14 PM

      I’m very aware of how manufactured spending works. We’ll do some of that, but at some point it just gets silly.

  • March 4, 2017 at 7:51 AM

    I wish I had something to add, but I am new travel hacking myself. I thoroughly enjoyed your Hawaii posts and look forward to posts from your Japan trip. It sounds like it’s going to be an awesome trip.

  • March 4, 2017 at 9:34 AM

    Hey Mr. Tako,
    We’re kind of on the same boat as you: all these other people are doing it, why can’t I?! We’re giving it a whirl this year as well. We’re in Denver, and taking 2 trips: 1 to NYC in May and a second to London in the fall. Our attempt: I opened the Chase Sapphire card last month. Spend 4k in 3 months, get 50k bonus rewards. Anything spent on travel & dining = x2 points. 4k, like you, is a bit higher than we usually spend on cc’s BUT, we booked the NYC flights and lodging (for the x2 points) which isn’t in our “normal” spending, and then pre-paid a couple of bills for the year on it to get it up to the 4k. Once we are done with that, my husband will open a second Chase Sapphire card for the same bonus. This time we will put our taxes on it – we owe about 4200 (ouch!), but it will make us meet the requirements (yay – !?! – mixed emotions here on this one 🙂 The US treasury will charge us a fee to pay w/ cc, but I just have to keep reminding myself that the fee is cheaper than tickets to London and we have to pay the dang thing anyways. So, in the end we should have 100k in rewards + whatever we end up with for the 2x extra for booking flights/food with it. Thanks for sharing the AwardHacker. I hadn’t seen that one yet and will have to look into it a bit more. Good luck on your booking adventures and hopefully through everyone’s tips/tricks we can all figure out a couple of hacked trips.

  • March 4, 2017 at 9:54 AM

    That’s insane that it’s cheaper to take a flight than it is to ride the bullet train! I wonder why that is. I suppose it’s still worth the hassle of the airport though, especially when traveling with a family! Thanks for the travel hacking ideas. We hope to visit Belgium once we pay off our student loans, so we need to get an action plan in place. 🙂

    • March 4, 2017 at 12:22 PM

      Crazy isn’t it? There is some additional hassle going to the airport and going through security, but the plane also goes *twice as fast*!

  • March 4, 2017 at 10:04 AM

    I’d pick up a chase reserve card for you and then later one for your wife. If you use their website to book travel the points are worth about 1250 dollars on travel. Also on travel purchases like hotels you get 300 cash back. It does have a fee of 450 but you obviously offset here. Even if you don’t use their website combining the two carsds gives you 1400 in one shot on a purchase of airline tickets and 300 left for other travel tickets. You also might even work out better converting chase points to airline points. Try booking in a Tuesday via a travel aggregator and watch the pricing trends.

    • March 4, 2017 at 12:21 PM

      That’s interesting…but still a more expensive route. $800 for flight tickets is still cheaper.

  • March 4, 2017 at 12:48 PM

    Hey Mr. Tako,

    If you have are bullet train a lot, it might be worthwhile to get a JR Rail Pass as it’ll be a set price for 7, 14, or 31 days. However, you won’t be able to ride the better and faster trains like the Nozomi train.

    With 6 months and a monthly spend of $1,200, it might be stretching it to get the miles, but just like Mr. Crazy Kicks said, you can get the Chase Sapphire Reserved in-branch for 100,000 or possibly the Chase Sapphire Preferred in-branch for 75,000 (this is targeted as far as I know) to transfer to Virgin Atlantic and then ANA. Additionally, ANA is a Star Alliance member, so you can also view ticket prices on United Airlines as well, which is a 1:1 transfer from Chase UR to United Airlines.

    If you have absolutely no miles and can manufacture spend to generate the miles, then it’s still possible to get 4 roundtrip tickets to Japan. I’ll be using American Airlines as my example, as I usually like to fly with them and have my majority of points with them.

    Currently, a roundtrip ticket on American Airlines from Seattle to Tokyo would be around 65k to 70k in miles in October. That means for four people you would need 260k miles in total!

    To get 260k miles, there will be three cards total that you and your spouse will apply to:
    1. Barclay AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite – 40,000 miles after $95 AF and 1 purchase (can be $0.01 purchase)
    2. Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select – 50,000 miles after $3,000 minimum spend, secure message for an additional 10,000 points
    3. Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select – 50,000 miles after $3,000 minimum spend, secure message for an additional 10,000 points (apply for this 8-10 days after the first card).

    If we total it all up, we would have 140,000 for each you and your spouse, totaling 280k points, which is more than enough to book the round-trip tickets (you can put the same frequent flyer mile on all the cards so the points accumulate at one place). The total spend you would need to do is $12,000 + $190 AF + 2 Purchases. Total time estimate would be 4-5 months with manufacture spending, so you’ll have the miles just in time for fall.

    And finally, if you want to go the cash route, it is only $779 + tax roundtrip from Seattle to Tokyo per person.

    Cheers and I hope you get to go to Japan on the cheap,
    Smart Provisions
    Smart Provisions recently posted…The Power of 50,000 Miles

    • March 4, 2017 at 3:03 PM

      Thanks SmartProvisions, I will study your suggestions in detail. Spending of $12,000 would be a huge stretch for us. I can manufacture maybe $1000-$2000 of additional spending. We just aren’t big spenders.

      • March 5, 2017 at 3:20 PM

        Sounds good, let me know if you have any questions!

        I recently traveled to Japan for two weeks and spent a total of $850.00 going from Otaru (start) all the way to Hiroshima with stops in between (Sapporo, Sendai, Tokyo, Kyoto, etc). It was a fabulous trip and most of my cost was mitigated/reduced through credit card points and airline miles.
        Smart Provisions recently posted…The Power of 50,000 Miles

  • March 4, 2017 at 6:45 PM

    “That same trip from Tokyo to Osaka on one of Japan’s low cost airlines, runs $99 round trip — less than half the cost of a bullet train.”

    Yup. That’s what we did to save money in Japan. Just an FYI that you’ll need to take a bus from Tokyo to the the airport (so there’s some extra cost there). And if the plane is delayed, you might miss the last train into Osaka city from the Osaka airport. Hopefully you are on an early flight. It’s a bit more hassle than the train but since you have a family of 4, you’ll end up with BIG savings.

    Enjoy your time in Japan! It’s one of our favourite countries in the world! (Oh and eat lots of sushi (we found this awesome conveyor belt restaurant where each plate is around $1), ramen (we like Ishiran), and “pablo mini”…this little “melty, yummy” cheese tart that we LOVED.

    Can’t wait to hear all about your trip and see the pictures!

    • March 4, 2017 at 8:29 PM

      Tokyo has two airports. To get to Narita, you’re right … you have to take a bus or train to get there. Haneda is much more convenient.

      Same situation for Osaka. Two airports, one in the city and one a ways out.

  • March 4, 2017 at 8:11 PM

    Ditto on the rail pass (especially if you can squeeze all your travel together, sandwiched with longer stays somewhere). They are such good value only non-residents are allowed to use them 😉

    You basically get a week-long pass for the price of a couple of train rides.

    Also, if you end up in Sendai let me know -I’d love to make your acquaintance and take you to an awesome sushi place 😀

  • March 4, 2017 at 8:33 PM

    There are also airline ‘passes’ (JAL and ANA). Low set price for internal flights, also only for non-residents. Like the rail passes, it’s a scheme to promote tourism.

  • March 5, 2017 at 5:13 AM

    Think my comment probably got sent to the spam bin -twice- for having links…

  • March 5, 2017 at 7:37 AM

    My sky miles card, it takes a few months for the points to show up. I got the car last year to be eligible for a free checked bag for our family trip. I also don’t spend a lot per month. In Jan I was looking at flights to Florida, and definitely did not have enough points. I went with a different airline with the lowest fare, put it on the sky miles card, and will just keep racking up point for a trip next year.
    Wishing you luck and success planning your travel.

  • March 6, 2017 at 7:18 AM

    I think travel hacking works better if you don’t have children. DINKs are more flexible and they can fly at weird hours and do stop overs. At this point in our lives, I’d rather pay a bit more and cut the travel time. The kid can’t handle really long flights. We went to Thailand last year and didn’t go with travel hacking. We’ll try to put everything on reward points when we go to Cancun this year. It’s a lot cheaper to travel to central/south America with points. Traveling to Asia cost a lot more points. Good luck.
    Japan is awesome. We’d love to visit again.

    • March 6, 2017 at 9:58 AM

      I think you’re right Joe. Obviously my results at looking for travel hacking were pretty poor. *IF* I was willing to spend a whole bunch of extra/unnecessary money, I could see how it might be possible. Or, taking one of those silly flights that takes DAYS to get there with multiple stops, is another possibility…but with kids? Probably not worth it.

      We love Japan too, but the flight cost is the biggest barrier for us. I wonder why Asia costs so much more on points?

  • March 6, 2017 at 10:15 AM

    I’m with Joe on this one. I have a bunch of Ultimate reward points but often use them for hotel stays rather than flights. Like you said, when I’ve tried to book flights I’ve run into the same problems with lay overs and stuff like that. With two little ones, I don’t want to deal with that headache, especially for a long trip. Not as big of a deal if it was 2 adults.
    As someone above mentioned “manufactured spending” I never got into that with the prepaid cards and stuff because it seemed like too much hassle but I’d be willing to use the credit card to make mortgage payments (not sure if you have one) via one of those services and pay the fee to get the bonus.

  • March 6, 2017 at 10:44 AM

    Hi Mr Tako,
    You should look into the Hyatt Chase Credit card for you and Mrs. Tako. After reaching a spend of $2,000 each for card in the first 3 months, you will get 2 free nights at any Hyatt hotel. That will give you 4 free nights at ANY Hyatt hotel in Japan. (i.e. Park Hyatt Tokyo, Andaz Tokyo, Grand Hyatt Tokyo, etc.)

    • March 6, 2017 at 1:36 PM

      Thanks for the tip. It’s unlikely we’ll be staying at a Hyatt, but you never know! I’ll keep it in mind!

  • March 6, 2017 at 1:02 PM

    Very interesting! Thanks for putting one of the travel hacking “myths” to the test 🙂

    I have tried travel hacking using credit cards and bonus point programs in the past few years. While it is definitely possible to cut some costs, I haven’t been able to cover the transportation costs solely with points. We do the exact same as you with one big trip and several smaller ones each year – and I often want to go overseas for the big one.

    To justify the transportation costs, we usually make longer trips (since our cost per day becomes lower) and save on housing, walk around on foot and eat at cheap, local restaurants or street food stalls (I often get surprised with how good the food can be!).

    Recently, we have used “alerts” to monitor flight prices for several different destinations at a specific point in time (Skyscanner, Airfarewatchdog, Hopper (an app) and potentially others have this functionality). We have made a shortlist of countries we want to visit for our big trip and then we watch the prices over a few months and buy when one of the destinations is at an all-time low.

    For all our trips, we track and compare cost per day with and without transportation costs. This makes it easy for us to see and compare what the actual cost of visiting a destination is per day.

    Have an amazing trip to Japan – it is on our shortlist as well!


  • March 7, 2017 at 6:23 AM

    We went to Japan last year with a family group of seven and we’ll be back for a month this spring with a smaller group.

    Last year we got the JR rail passes because we were moving around a lot and they were worth it, and we stayed in Airbnbs which were great and very affordable.

    This year we won’t as we are not moving around as much (same house in Osaka for a month for $1500 Can) so we’ll use a discount bus pass for foreigners for some longish day trips:
    Not sure if it works for you with small kids but it is pretty inexpensive.

    As for flights, we got them on points both times, and I don’t have tips for the US except maybe prepay your expenses such utilities by credit card if you can and buy gift cards like rootofgood does?, but my son traveled to Japan on a flight he found on skyscanner that was about 600 US return.

    He also took a flight Tokyo to Osaka and there is about 30 dollars extra on either end to get to and from the airport.

  • March 7, 2017 at 11:35 AM

    You should take a look a some of my Japan articles.

    JR rail is very much worth it if you do longer distance travels. I typically try to rack up the travel points years before we actually go on the trip so it’s not so last minute. In general I think Americans get way better credit card sign up bonuses than us Canadians.

    • March 7, 2017 at 2:50 PM

      Years before? So six months is “last minute”?


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