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How to Travel the World First Class When You're Broke

A travel hacker explains how to turn $49 cash into a $500 hotel room and how to book an international flight for free.

by Michaela Cross
Jun 16 2016, 4:39pm

Photo via Flickr user Traveling Otter

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For most people, travel is about an escape or a change of scenery. For Ben Schlappig, travel is a game. Schlappig knows how to turn $49 cash into a $500 hotel room in Paris or London, and a month's worth of groceries into a first-class flight across the world. He travels entirely in luxury, for about 5 percent of the sticker price.

Schlappig is part of a growing group of "travel hackers"—people who use credit card points for airfare—but Schlappig knows how to score cheap flights and hotels with cash too. As a kid, he spent his weekends flying nonstop around the country to rack up airline points for his parents, and since college, he's been traveling full-time while running a blog called One Mile at a Time.

I wanted to ask him how he does it, so I gave Schlappig a call during one of his brief stays in the United States. He'd only been in LA for a few days but was already antsy for his next trip. Over the phone, he told me about when and where to book the best flights, how to get deals on luxury hotel rooms, and how he manages living life perpetually on-the-go.

VICE: How much would you say you spend on travel in any given year?
Ben Schlappig: The retail cost of my travel would be over a million dollars. That's largely because first class is so overpriced. A first class ticket from New York to Hong Kong would cost $30,000 if you were paying cash, so obviously I'm not spending anything close to that. I don't know the exact number, but what I'll say is that the retail cost is a million, and I spend a tiny, tiny fraction of that. Less than five percent of the total value [or about $50,000].

And how many credit cards do you have open right now?
At any given point, I typically have about thirty to forty credit cards.

That sounds confusing.
Sounds confusing in theory, and it's certainly a lot to keep track of, but it's also extremely rewarding. People have a lot of misconceptions about how credit scores work, how credit cards work, so it ends up working out very well.

So basically you fly around the world and stay at hotels for a fraction of the price by manipulating credit card points?
I'm not always using points. I crunch the numbers with every trip to see if there's a better value, because sometimes there are extremely lucrative promotions. For example, there was a Hyatt promotion where you could spend two nights at any Hyatt in the world, and then you'd get one free night at another Hyatt hotel. So I could stay at the airport Hyatt in Tampa, which costs $80 a night, and book two nights. And then I could use that free night at a hotel like the Park Hyatt Sydney, which would be $1,000 a night.

Whoa. How do you find out about these deals?
I am obsessed full-time. I follow this stuff constantly, but I think for the average person, the best way to do it is to follow along with the blog that's best suited for you and your travel goals. For some people, the goal is to travel for free, and they don't really care about comfort, and other people want to fly first and business class and stay at five-star hotels at a fraction of the cost. I fall in that latter category.

So when you're hunting for cheap flights what are some of the strategies you've uncovered?
Something I often do, which might sound weird, is rather than having my tickets originate from the US I have them start elsewhere. For example, tickets are much cheaper if you are originating in Cairo, Egypt, or Colombo, Sri Lanka, or Casablanca, Morocco, or Cape Town, South Africa. So what I'll do is if I'm on a trip, I'll position myself there, and I will have my tickets originate in, for example, Cairo or Columbo. Those are the two I do most that literally knock the cost of my tickets down by about ninety percent.

Wait, what do you mean when you say "position yourself"? You mean just fly to one of those places?
Yeah. So for example the round trip ticket from Cairo to New York would cost $1,200 in business class. If you were to book New York to Cairo the other way—the same exact flight in the other direction—it would cost about $9,000.

Interesting. But you still have to find tickets from the US to those places, right? How do you find good deals?
So the key to finding cheaper tickets in general is knowing that there's a strategy behind how airlines price. Atlanta is the Delta hub, for instance, and Dallas is the American Airlines hub. So if you want to fly anywhere nonstop out of Dallas, American Airlines will have a flight. But if you're flying Delta out of Dallas, it's going to be so much cheaper, because they can't compete on the route network. So the key is to fly an airline out of the city where they don't have much of a presence.

There are certain markets—typically non-business markets—that are going to be cheaper. You're going to pay more to fly from New York to LA than you are to fly from New York to Oakland, purely because of the business market that they see there.

And what about timing? When do you usually book your flights?
I would say usually I book about sixty days out for flights. That's generally the cheapest time to book.

That said, the best time to book an airline award ticket is literally the day of departure, or within a few days of departure. I could right now redeem the miles [from my airline rewards programs] probably to anywhere in the world for a flight from LA because airlines open up all the seats last minute. In the past, I've booked a first-class trip to Hong Kong, for example, just two hours before departure.

"You could do a vacation for virtually nothing if you approach it correctly." — Ben Schlappig

Does it help to patch together trips using a combination of large and local airlines? Like, if you're going to somewhere in Asia, does it make sense to first fly to somewhere in the continent and then book a ticket from a Turkish or Indian or Chinese airline to get to your specific destination?
Absolutely. There are so many low-cost carriers globally that the cost of flying from continent to continent is often the same price as the cost of your taxi to the airport. Because of all these airlines, there are so many opportunities to fly long distances for very little cost.

There are two cautions, though. First of all, keep in mind these airlines typically nickel-and-dime the hell out of you, so you want to look at the full cost of flying with them. You want to know what are their bag fees, their seating fees. In most cases, you'll still come out ahead—but double-check and be sure.

And then, along similar lines, you want to make sure you know which airlines operate in the markets. If you go to Orbitz or Expedia, you won't see Southwest flights. So if Southwest is cheaper, which they often are, you wouldn't see that there. The same is true of Allegiance. The key with these low-cost airlines is that you typically have to go to their website directly to look at their pricing. Don't rely on the common online travel agencies to show you all the prices.

What sites do you generally use?
If I'm trying to generally compare, I use Orbitz, but that won't show you the low-cost carriers. There's not a website that consolidates everything because these airlines don't give them access to their inventory. The airlines don't want to have to pay Orbitz a commission on the booking because they try to have a lower-cost structure, and that's why they don't show up there.

Back to the credit cards: For you, they're a lifestyle. But for those of us who don't want thirty cards in our wallet, what's the best option? Say I want to go to Mumbai and spend hardly anything on hotels.
On the most basic level, there are a lot of credit cards that offer bonuses of fifty thousand points. So what you would do is you apply for two cards and spend the minimal amount of about $1,000, usually, within a few months. Typically there's no annual fee the first year, so getting two cards and just completing that minimum spending requirement you would have a hundred thousand miles, which is more than enough for a free ticket to India. That makes your flight taken care of for literally nothing. You don't pay a dime. And then for hotels, there are hotel credit cards, so you could get a credit card that offers you free hotel nights after spending a certain amount, which is often very minimal. You could do a vacation like this for virtually nothing if you approach it correctly.

And this is something anyone can do, for any vacation?
Yes, anyone. I would say that is the most common question I get is, "Doesn't it ruin your credit score to apply for a lot of cards?" and that is not the case at all. When you apply for a new credit card, the downside effect is that your credit gets hit with an inquiry, and the inquiry knocks down your score two or three points, and that lasts for up to twenty-four months. But what people don't realize is that every other aspect of your credit score improves when you get more cards. Last year, I applied for about fifty cards, and my score went up during that time. The reason is the much more important metric is whether you're paying everything on time.

Another metric is how much of your credit you're using. So let's say you have $100,000 credit available if you have twenty cards with $10,000 credit each. If you spend $1,000 per month, you're using just one percent of your credit and to the banks that's very secure because you're using money responsibly.

So say you're a broke kid coming out of college with shit credit. What's the card you get?
For somebody just out of school, get either an American Express EveryDay Preferred card or a Chase Sapphire Preferred or a Citi ThankYou Premier. The reason is you get a big sign up bonus, and it brings you a lot of points for everyday spending. For Chase Sapphire Preferred, you earn double points on all dining and travel purchases, which for the average young person he or she is probably spending a lot on dining or food. And the Citi ThankYou Premier gives you triple points on all travel and gas purchases, double points on dining and entertainment.

So what are some of the great hotel loyalty card deals out there?
One that I think anyone should get is the credit card for Intercontinental, which gives you a free night valid at any Intercontinental hotel in the world. So for a $49 annual fee, you can use it at a $500 Intercontinental in London or Paris or even Bora Bora. I think just about anyone would get value from getting to stay at a five-star hotel for just $49 anywhere in the world, which is realistically within anyone's budget.

What are some of your other travel tips?
This might sound crazy to people, but airlines often sell miles directly to consumers, and they often have promotions. It can make a lot of sense to buy miles directly from airlines and then use those for free tickets. That's a great way to get discounted first- and business-class tickets.

I would also say always sign up for loyalty programs. Even if you're not going to be loyal to a chain, there's no reason not to earn miles or points for a stay or flight you're making anyway. You often don't need a lot of miles to redeem them, and often they even have shopping portals, so you can at least redeem smaller increments miles for something versus getting nothing.

Does it ever get tiring—living in hotels full-time, flying around constantly? You seem weirdly energetic.
In a very twisted way, I am. It's an addiction. When I was a kid and would get home from flying every weekend for thirty-six hours without even a night in a hotel, just red-eyes, I would get home and be dead, thinking, I don't know if I ever want to get on a plane again. But the next morning, I'd wake up and think, Man, I want to be on a plane. It's an addiction, and any addiction is probably not a great thing. But the truth is I'm happiest with a view of the window looking down at the Earth.

Follow Michaela Cross on Twitter.

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