This cool teenager learned how to travel the world for free
The best thing about researching my Top Travel Hacker post has been the chance to engage with some super bright, knowledgeable experts who can help you travel the world for free (or at worst for much less than you would pay for an off the shelf price!
Take for instance, James Larounis, who was fortunate enough to fly business class not once, but twice as a teenager, admittedly with a little help from his father. Before you start jumping to conclusions thinking he is some rich, spoiled brat, let me assure you this is not the case, but he does have a fascinating tale to tell.
So let’s find out James’s top tips to travel the world for free.
James, are you rich?
Not at all. In fact, in my full-time job, I work for a non-profit youth serving organization, which, as most people know, doesn’t pay as high as for-profit companies.
How did you learn how to travel the world for free?
Funny story, actually. In high school, I was attending an overseas trip with my school choir, and economy seats on the plane had sold out by the time I wanted to enrol. My dad had expiring US Airways miles at the time, and he used them to get me a Lufthansa First Class ticket on the flight, since availability had opened up.
He didn’t know much about using points and they would have gone to waste otherwise, so I actually was able to benefit greatly from him booking a ticket for me.
Several years later, I furthered my interest in travel hacking reading several blogs and online forums, which led me to attending Frequent Traveller University, a non-profit organization that teaches travelers how to travel the world for free (or cheaper) using their miles and points.
That’s when I honestly realized there were a lot “nuttier” people than me. I met people who took mileage runs to Europe for the weekend, did weekend trips back and forth across the country, and more. To make this story funnier — I’m now one of those people. Go figure!
I’d say my “hook” into first class travel really started though when I was in middle school and traveling with a Boy Scout group out to New Mexico for a week of hiking
Anne: wow James you really did some awesome trips as a kid!
James: My reservation was ticketed separately from everyone else and upon checking in at the airport in Philadelphia, I found myself upgraded to First Class aboard an American Airlines MD-80 to Chicago. It was a little thing that stuck in my head, and one of those experiences that I think fuelled the fire.
Anne: how cool must that have been?! The first time I was lucky enough to get upgraded I was well into my mid twenties. Mind you, at least that meant I got to enjoy the free champagne!
Where did you go on your first long haul trip using rewards, and how many points did you use?
Funny enough, I don’t know my very first trip, but I do have some very memorable trips that stand out in my mind — including New York to Brussels, via Moscow on Aeroflot in Business Class (not as bad as you’d think. Anne: oh boy you read my mind!)) for 62,500 Delta SkyMiles, and also Washington Dulles to Madrid, via Paris on Air France in Business Class for 67,000 and a small portion of taxes.
While not necessarily exotic beach destinations, they are trips that stand out in my mind as early adventures on miles and points.
Anne: James you are bringing back memories of my first long haul business class flight with Air France. I was so gutted that I missed out on the free champagne as I slept the entire journey, and that’s before flat beds were the norm!
James: Ha, admittedly I’ve had several flights where I haven’t slept the night before because I was so excited. Then, I would fall fast asleep on the plane and miss out on all the fun. Lesson learned: get a full night of sleep the night prior.
Anne: I could not agree more! It seems no matter how much I travel, I still get giddy as a kipper when it comes to those posh flights!
How long did it take you to accumulate the points, and using what methods?
In all honesty, it depends on the currency you’re accumulating. For me, earning American Airlines AAdvantage miles is easy because as an Executive Platinum member, I earn a 100% bonus on all flights (though that will soon change to a revenue based system).
Anne: don’t forget peeps, American is part of the Oneworld alliance so you can always redeem them for flights with any of the airlines within the group.
Other miles are usually earned in two ways — ether credit card sign-up offers, or what I call “bonused” spending, whereby I either spend strategically on credit cards to earn extra miles on dining out, travel, etc., or purchase things I need through shopping portals and take advantage of online offers to earn more miles.
Your top tips for others wishing to do the same?
Attend as many conferences and events as you can, because these are where you will really pick up new skills and learn new things. I now help organize the Frequent Traveler University, and we do several events each year in different cities, all devoted to helping people travel better.
We have one coming up in Berlin but haven’t done one yet in the UK. That’s not to say it’s not on our radar (Anne: well if you need a helper James….).
You’ll be able to network at these events, as well as take sessions specifically designed around your travel hacking goals.
Maximising airline programmes is generally an incredibly easy process once you learn the “method to the madness” and devote yourself to making sure you earn every mile you can.
Anne: I could not agree more although when you start out, it seems like a minefield trying to figure it all out!
What’s the best thing about travel hacking in the U.S?
To be honest, it’s meeting new people and experiencing new things. I’ve met so many new, friendly people in online forums and groups, and also while participating in conferences and training events. These new friends have a desire to travel, too, and you’ll end up strategizing new ways and methods to accomplish your travel goals.
Of particular remembrance to me is flying an American Airlines’ inaugural 787 flight from Dallas to Chicago with hundreds of other frequent flyer friends. It was truly a party in the sky!
In addition, I find that airline programmes take me to things I wouldn’t have seen otherwise — the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Wimbledon tennis in London, the French Open in Paris, the Vivid Sydney festival, spending Easter in Westminster Abbey, and more. There’s a whole ton of things to take part in and travel hacking makes those ventures cheaper, and more comfortable.
Can you tell us more about the Frequent Traveler University?
Frequent Traveler University is a non-profit organization that hosts several seminars a year dedicated to helping people improve their travel experiences. Each FTU is a bit different. Some are focused more on the introductory level, some are at the advanced level, and some focused on manufactured spending — a technique used to generate airline miles and points by spending money on credit cards and then getting all or most of that money back.
We vary the sessions at each event, but there’s always a mix of sessions on the specifics of airlines, upgrades, hotels, credit cards and useful tools to help find award availability and cheap fares.
Top travel hack tips from the Frequent Traveler University
So there you have it, some top tips to travel the world for free from the writer behind The Forward Cabin and also a Frequent Traveler University organiser. Wouldn’t that be a cool university to attend? I might even have considered getting out of bed for a 9am lecture if I was on a course that had taught me how to travel the world for free!
Have your say…
If you are an expert travel hacker and would like to be featured please get in touch. Alternatively feel free to share below any of your own top tips for other wannabe hackers! (Only legal tips please!) Don’t be shy now….we love to talk!
Photo Credits: James of The Forward Cabin unless otherwise stated