Over the last 20 years, I’ve traveled across six continents, 42 states, 84 countries and more than 500 cities -- mostly for free. Here are my top five tips for you to travel for free (or almost) while building your business or career:
1. Find jobs that pay you to travel.
Before you quit to start your business, apply for jobs that pay you to travel and rack up points. One of my first criteria for applying for a job is whether I am working with clients or team members in another region.
My first job out of college entailed meeting with key influencers to launch products in every major city in the U.S. That’s 30 states conquered in one year, along with 200,000 frequent flyer miles, which paid for my first trip to Italy and France. Now, I have more than 500,000 miles at my disposal for business trips to pitch my startups.
2. Be loyal to the major airline alliances.
My next job required regular meetings with strategic partner companies in Germany and Denmark. Rather than randomly picking airlines when I traveled, I chose the Star Alliance network with a hub at Newark Airport. This enabled me to fly direct from my home base in New York for meetings in Frankfurt and Copenhagen, or any other destination. I was able to keep accumulating points using my Star Alliance membership across member airlines.
To choose between Star Alliance, OneWorld, SkyTeam or AsiaMiles, find the ones that flies most to the region you are focused on conquering. By choosing Star Alliance partners, I was able to keep accumulating points in one account and "level up" to platinum elite levels for free upgrades, executive lounge access and bonus points (100 to 200 percent more).
This applied at my next four global jobs, when I was flying more to Asia or the Middle East. I was still able to choose flights from the top two most extensive airline networks, OneWorld and Star Alliance, and earn upgrades on almost every flight. Loyalty certainly has its privileges.
3. Use business credit cards with membership points -- especially when they first first launch.
Every business and reimbursable travel expense should be charged on the credit card with the most valuable and versatile membership points. For example, American Express Gold allows you to transfer points to airlines or hotels clubs or to buy tickets directly using your membership points. Some credit cards, like British Airways or Chase Sapphire Reserve, offered a launch bonus of 100,000 points and no/reduced fee for the first year; these points are worth a few trips to Europe or Asia. More than eight years later, I still haven’t used up all my points from these bonuses yet.
Chase Sapphire Reserve has the added bonus of a $300 travel credit per year, $100 off the Global Entry application fee and complimentary access to more than 900 airport executive lounges with Priority Pass Select, all of which offset its higher annual fee. Along with the 100,000 points bonus, that's worth over $2,100! Always jump on those launch incentives.
4. Always tack on a side trip to your primary business trip.
Most of the time, flights are more expensive coming home on Friday because everyone else wants to go home as well. Take the following Monday off and fly home off-peak or on a red-eye on Sunday. This way, you can visit a neighboring country or city over the weekend or fly a low-cost regional airline to some place you haven’t been yet. Using points for regional flights is much cheaper than from your home base.
For example, flights on British Airways all throughout Europe to its Asian neighbors can be as low as 5,000 to 10,000 points. When I was a management consultant working in the Middle East, instead of expensing the weekend in the hotel there, I chose to use my Avios points (earned on my British Airways credit card and flights) to fly to and stay in Sri Lanka, Dubai, Egypt, Maldives, Jordan, Oman and Lebanon for free or much cheaper than flying from New York.
5. Choose free stopovers at airline hubs.
Many airlines offer free stopovers in their hub city. According to the airline rules, you can stay one to five days without additional fees in Iceland on Icelandair, Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific, Dubai on Emirates or London on British Airways. Typically, you can see most of the major sites in 48 hours in those cities. In Iceland, the Blue Lagoon has a 10-minute bus shuttle to take you from the airport to the famous milky blue hot springs for a massage while floating on a foam mat -- and it gets you back in time for your flight five to eight hours later.
For subsequent trips, you can use your points to book a flight to another country during the stopover period. For example, Macau, Tokyo, Osaka, Taipei, Kaohsiung and Singapore are easily accessible for the weekend from Hong Kong during the stopover. Hong Kong has a convenient Airport Express check-in that enables you to send your bags onto your flight 24 hours in advance while you take a ferry to Macau for the rest of the day and then another ferry straight to the airport.
On my way to Bali, I chose Korean Airlines, which enabled me to stop over in Seoul and enjoy a spa day, Korean barbecue, walking tour of the old town and karaoke, for 24 hours before continuing my journey.
While these may be whirlwind opportunities to see nearby countries, you’ll get a pretty good sense of whether you want to go back. With the points you are accumulating on business, you can always go back for personal vacations for free. Through all these ways, the world can be conquered for free, one point at a time!