Among people who travel and are involved in online business, Chris Guillebeau is well known for both his travel expertise and his business savvy.  So when he started The Travel Hacker’s Cartel (THC)  just a few weeks ago, I couldn’t throw money at him fast enough.  As the price of plane tickets continues to get more and more painful, I was searching for a way to cut back on my expenses — which made THC all kinds of appealing.  I soaked up every morsel of travel hacking advice that Chris had to offer.  Now I’m armed and, after only a few short weeks, I’m ready to save my hard earned cash while booking my next trip.

Travel Hacker CartelI have traveled to Europe (and other much more distant parts) for over 15 years, and never managed to rack up enough miles on a single airline to get any benefit from the miles.  So I gave up trying.  I’ll confess that years ago I was a travel agent, so I knew that with credit cards and other bonuses I could earn miles and work toward award trips.  But it felt too complicated, I didn’t use credit cards, and it was just easier to pay for the tickets.  In the past couple of years, though, the seasonal lower-priced airfares seem to have evaporated and my flights to my second country were costing me a small fortune.  Enter The Travel Hacker’s Cartel.

I was excited to discover that I had a fair number of miles on several carriers, and that it’s possible to recover expired miles.  Turns out my husband, who used to be a business traveler, had 43,000 miles just sitting quietly in an account at Continental.  So I got to work.  I applied for credit cards with travel points rewards (with a clear plan to track expenses and pay off  balances at the end of each month), checked all our existing frequent flyer memberships, and signed up for any that we were missing.  Time to plan the next trip to Spain.  That’s where the story gets a bit comical.

I review the rules and decide it’s time to book our trip, using as many miles as I can.  After all, those miles have just been sitting there collecting dust for 15 years. (Really, I’m not exaggerating.)  So I call Continental.  And hit the “kill” switch on my brain.  Continental agent is happy to book my husband on a flight from Denver to Madrid.  That’ll be $450 for the extra 12,000 miles you’re short, plus $100 for the taxes.  Fair enough.  I pay with my shiny new American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card, to earn even more miles (aren’t I clever?) and thank the agent for her help.  I’ve dropped a mere $540 on a flight that would have otherwise cost us $900.  Savings of $360.  Cool!  Especially since we’d forgotten about those miles.  I hang up the phone, and suddenly it hits me.  OMG!  I had 28,000 points in MY Continental account that I could have gifted to my husband, and then the net cost of his ticket would have been $100 (taxes).  So much for that little celebration.  I just squandered a chance to save an additional $300 or so.  I’m an idiot.  Make a note.  But it’s OK, those miles are still there, waiting for me to accumulate more for the next trip.  And, by the way, the agent assures me that there is award availability for my flight as well, as soon as I’m ready to book.  But I can’t yet, because I don’t have enough miles and I have to figure out how I want to do this.

My husband’s flight is booked and now it’s time to figure out the best way to book mine.  Through THC I learned that US Airways has a great deal right now – buy frequent flyer points and you get up to double the points. And you can use them to purchase tickets on partner airlines, so I can travel with my husband.  I think about it and consider the options.  If I buy my own ticket, I can get back and forth to Spain for around $960.  Trouble is, it’s not the itinerary I want, not the length of stay I want, and if I book the same itinerary as my husband, that ticket turns out to be $1400.  Ouch.  Not about to drop that much money if I don’t have to.  So I figure it’s worth the $800 to buy 28,000 miles on US Air and then I’ll use them to buy a ticket that matches my husband’s outbound flights, and I can come home on my preferred dates.  And I’ve saved $600.  Sorta.

BIG lesson – always call and check availability BEFORE you go buy points.  But I didn’t.  I thought I had it all figured out.  I know (because I asked the Continental agent) that there is still availability on the same outgoing flight as my husband.  Score!  But I totally forgot that I needed to check the return – because I wanted to come back a month later.  So I go buy the points, everything looks good (I got my bonus points, so I’m feeling pretty smug), and then I call US Air.  Oy vey.  “Sorry, there is nothing.  Absolutely NOTHING available to return in June.”  Oh crud.  So, can we check just one more date, in July?  “Well,” the agent snaps at me, “I’ll check ONE more, but I can’t just keep checking.”  For the record, we’d been talking for maybe 10 minutes max.  Now my blood is boiling, but rather than practicing my fluent Spanish cusswords (more because of my ignorance than her rudeness), I just say “Thanks for your help.”  And I hang up.

I do my own search (something about a cow and a barn door is rattling around in the back of my head), using all the tools and tricks from the Travel Cartel, to find that there appears to be availability on several dates. I call US Air again.  This time I get a nice woman who tries really hard.  But in the end, although I am LOOKING AT availability for frequent flyer rewards on the Continental site, the agent patiently explains that as partner airlines, they don’t always get the same available seats as Continental is showing available. So….  I’ve spent $800 on airline points that I can’t use (right now).  Thankfully there is a silver lining – but it’s an expensive silver lining.  It’s looking like I’m going to have to purchase a full fare ticket and let those $800 worth of frequent flyer miles just sit in US Air’s account until my next trip.  Which, by the way, I’ll plan a whole lot differently.

I always was a quick learner.  Too bad this time I learned just about every lesson of what NOT to do, in one fell swoop – Ouch!