I often get the question how I afford my travel habits and have the luxury travel perks without breaking the bank. I wrote this article to explain my personal experience as a Belgian with hotel and airline loyalty programs, credit cards, cash-backs and great travel deals. If you’re a beginner in travel hacking or want to know more about my experiences, read on!
1. Frequent flyer programs
A. Earn miles & spend miles
Some people enrol in a random frequent flyer program they get recommended by the airline they book their flight. However, choosing the right frequent flyer program is crucial when starting out the points and miles game. I often see that most Belgians choose to register to the Miles & More program because it is advertised by Brussels Airlines, the main carrier of Belgium. Miles & More is a good program but your miles will expire within 36 months. If you don’t accumulate enough miles to actually use them, you might end up losing your earned miles due to expiry.
Miles & More however is an interesting frequent flyer program if you own one of their credit cards as they prevent your miles to expire as long as you use the card. I have an extended post about choosing the right frequent flyer program for Belgians but also how you can earn miles through credit cards as a Belgian. The Miles & More Brussels Airlines card has a current promotion, 5.000 award miles for signing-up and spending enough money during a certain period. This will boost your earnings and return of investment. In the posts I linked to above, you’ll find calculations on how much spending you will need to make profit from those credit cards, as they charge you an annual fee.
Long haul business class cabin with LATAM Airlines I booked with Miles & More miles
Your earned award miles can be used for hotel bookings, shopping and even rental cars, but the most obvious and profitable way to use your miles is by booking flights. Business class or first class flights are the most interesting as you still pay taxes and fees on your bookings. For example, a flight from FRA (frankfurt) to SIN (Singapore) in economy class may cost you over €250 in taxes, which is close to the retail price of the economy ticket. €250 however, is a very good deal for a business class ticket and an amazing deal for a first class seat. Some airlines are known for their low taxes and fees such as Singapore Airlines, Air India, Thai Airways, Ethiopian Airlines,… . Make sure to check out those airlines out when you want to avoid high taxes and fees. Business Class is especially amazing for long haul flights. You’ll get a lie-flat seat and you’ll be able to sleep during the flight, take some breakfast and/or dinner and arrive refreshed at your destination!
My starter on a Brussels Airlines flight to FNA (Freetown) in Business Class
B. Travel in comfort with your airline status
A frequent flyer status with your favourite alliance can give you great advantages. The greatest benefit is definitely lounge access. A gold status allows you to invite one additional guest to the lounge. Getting a status is generally not very easy, but with some tricks it might be much easier than some people think. I chose Miles+Bonus as it is the easiest program to get a Gold status for me. Flying 4 times with Aegean Airlines each year lowers the threshold by half to attain and retain the status. I have written an extended post about the best ways to get frequent flyer status as a Belgian, however my list is not exhaustive.
The bar at The Loft by Brussels Airlines – Free drinks and food in the lounge!
Lounge access is not the only perk of being a gold status holder. I can use priority check-in, fast lane at the security and enjoy priority boarding. Altogether these benefits make air travel less stressful and the time you need from the check-in desk to the gate reduces tremendously.
If your flight is overbooked, you are guaranteed a seat at the plane as a gold status holder. If you’re lucky, you might even get a free upgrade to premium economy, business or first class because gold members are the first in line to get an operational upgrade.
Operational upgrade with Ethiopian Airlines business class. Lie-flat seats so I can sleep during the flight, for the price of economy!
2) Hotel Loyalty Programs
Staying loyal to a certain hotel chain can give you a lot of benefits. There are many options on the market but the main hotel chains are Hilton Honors, Marriott Bonvoy and IHG (InterContinental Hotels Group). I have made an extensive post about hotel loyalty programs for beginners. My go-to hotel chain is IHG, as I have the highest status with them as long as I refresh my paid-to-have Ambassador status. I have tried different hotel chains by using status matches so I can enjoy benefits over multiple hotel chains without having to stay 75 nights a year in hotels. All this is well explained in the linked post I have mentioned above.
My way to maximize my IHG Ambassador status is by booking a room with lounge access. With the annual weekend certificate I can book a weekend trip for two nights for the price of one. The lounge access gives me access to breakfast in the morning and hors-d’oeuvre or canapés with (alcoholic) drinks in the evening. This is a perfect way to enjoy a luxury get-away.
InterContinental Berlin – Club Lounge drinks selection during the evening
The ambassador status also gives me a room upgrade to the next available room type on my InterContinental stays. For example, I booked the basic room in Geneva and my hotel status got me upgraded to a suite with amazing lake view.
InterContinental Geneva ambassador upgrade to a suite with lake view and welcome amenities
While enjoying all those benefits you will also earn hotel points. Those award points can be used just like air miles for shopping, flights and free hotel nights. You can get the best value for your hotel points by booking free hotel nights. Hotel points are extremely valuable as they get you free nights without any additional costs except the occasional city tax of a few euros. For example, I used a part of my points for a booking of 3 nights at the luxurious InterContinental Danang Resort.
InterContinental Danang Resort with large bathroom and huge private terrace on points
3) Get the most for every euro you spend in life
Air miles can be earned through flying. Hotel points can be earned through hotel nights. All purchases whether they are travel related or not, earn you air miles. Changing the way you spend your money on a daily basis can boost your air miles earnings drastically. Try to do your daily shopping, fuel stations payments and travel bookings with your air miles credit card. When you are moving or if you have a period where you have to spend a lot (e.g. your first time buying furniture), it would be a waste to not have an air miles credit card on hand. To get the most out of every euro you spend, you can use online cashback websites to earn back a percentage of your money. MobileVikings has something called Viking Deals where you earn cashback in mobile credit. Other websites allow you to cash out the earned money. To read more about cashback websites, check how to book cheap hotels (4.).
This is my quick personal guide when I spend money in daily life:
- Compare prices online until you find the cheapest offer
- Look if the website accepts PayPal, American Express or Mastercard to earn miles
- Check if the website is mentioned on any cashback platform (Topcashback, Shopbuddies or Mobile Vikings)
- Make the purchase.
- If air miles credit card is not accepted as payment option, find a loophole: for example buying Ikea gift cards in Carrefour to use in Ikea when American Express was not accepted in Ikea.
Result: paid the lowest price for the product, earned air miles during the transaction and received a cashback on the purchase. A win-win.
My personal cashbacks from the cashback platform Topcashback.com
When I book a flight, I make sure that I:
- look for the cheapest flight that fits my travel plans (see how to book cheap flights)
- earn miles through flying according to one of the frequent flyer programs
- pay the ticket with a credit card that earns me air miles
- use a cashback website to earn back money whenever possible.
I have covered the basic topics about maximizing your travel budget for luxury travel in this post and linked to several other posts on my blog. Make sure to read all the details before enrolling into something. Credit cards are a great way to earn air miles but they require financial planning as you will have to pay your expenses weeks after the actual spending. You will also need a minimum amount of spending to profit from those credit cards as you have to pay annual fees. Some topics I covered are linked to additional expenses, such as the Ambassador status at IHG Hotels. If you plan wisely and inform yourself about the IHG program and Ambassador status and ways to maximize the use of the status, you can benefit a lot from it.
Spend, but spend smart.
4) Scout the internet on a regular basis for exceptional deals
One of my most valuable experiences I managed to book was an exceptional deal, where a great fare was bookable from Düsseldorf to Madrid with various stopovers in business class. During that time, a Cessna Citation jet was flying twice weekly from Düsseldorf to Luxemburg, which could be incorporated into this booking. I managed to book a ticket during low season and was able to have a private jet experience, including two business class flights all for about 160 US dollars!