Travel Hacking in North America


Greetings from the road between Little Rock, Arkansas and Memphis, Tennessee … soon to be Oxford, Mississippi.

I’ve been on tour for five weeks now, and a number of people have asked, “What kind of travel hacking are you doing on this trip?”

The best answer is: Not much. The schedule is fixed. One day per city, with no flexibility on dates. I’ve done 32 stops over the past five weeks, usually back-to-back, and the priority is to structure everything around the meetups. In addition to that, I’ve done media interviews every day, all of the work I do on an ongoing basis, and some planning for two bigger projects that I’ll be announcing soon.

All that to say I haven’t really been hacking my way around America. I’m usually crashing at the Hampton Inn or Hyatt Place, and I’ve also had several late-night stops at the Motel 6 and Econo Lodge (fortunately, I have no elite status with either of those chains) before breakfast at the Waffle House the next morning.

U.S. Travel Hacking

Travel hacking, for anyone who is new to it, is my process of venturing out around the world on a low budget, using tools such as Round-the-World airfare, a big stash of Frequent Flyer Miles, mistake fares, elite status matches, and more.

My next business venture, the Travel Hacking Cartel (coming in early 2011), will provide an ongoing alert service of major hacking opportunities. But for now, I write about it occasionally here on AONC, and more frequently to owners of Frequent Flyer Master.For those who care, here are a couple of current opportunities.

First, the Chase Checking Accounts (U.S. only) offer a very easy 50,000 miles with Continental, which will then be converted into United miles in 2011 when the two airlines merge. Continental/United miles can be used to book flights on any Star Alliance carrier.

Here are the links, but don’t wait long—the offer will disappear for good in just a few days on October 31:

*Personal Account

*Business Account

(Anyone can have a business account; just use your name as the business name.)

50,000 miles is usually a very good return-on-investment. The worst case scenario is that you use the miles for two round-trip tickets within North America; a better scenario has the miles going towards a more valuable overseas trip. There’s not really any downside, but you have to sign up soon.

Next, the Grand Slam Promo from U.S. Airways is still open for the next few days. So far I’ve earned 30,000 miles from it myself, and have heard reports of many people earning 50k or more.

*Grand Slam Promo (overview and sign-up)

*Grand Slam Promo (list of current offers and how to rack up the miles)

On the tour I’ve been meeting a number of people who have taken trips all over the world thanks to travel hacking. I hope you’ll be the next success story.

Train Hacking?

The other day I met a guy at the gas station who needed a ride from Ft. Smith to Little Rock. I don’t always offer rides, but he had a good story—“I just don’t want to get a job”—so I invited him to hop in my rental car for a three-hour drive through non-stop pouring rain. It turned out that he doesn’t usually hitchhike; he usually hops trains all across America. He’s been back and forth across the country five times, usually from L.A. to New Orleans and up to New York.

He had a girlfriend in Canada, but that relationship didn’t work out when he was deported back to the U.S. for illegally entering the country. Apparently she had been deported from the U.S. for similar reasons, so now he can’t go north and she can’t go south. (Such are the consequences of international train-hopping relationships.)

For most of our drive together, I asked him how the train-hopping business works. I had lots of questions: How do you avoid the railroad employees? (Some of them are helpful, but others are rewarded for turning in stowaways, so it’s tricky.) How do you know the schedule? (Sometimes it takes a day or two before you find a good train. It’s especially difficult on the East Coast, where there are lots of trains but you can’t always tell which direction they’re going.) What do you eat on a long journey? (It’s best to self-cater when hopping trains.)

The conversation got me thinking… maybe for the next book tour, instead of rental cars I can hop on a train somewhere between L.A. and New Orleans. Or maybe not.

Running in Little Rock

After arriving in Little Rock and setting up shop at the Hampton Inn, I went straight to bed and somehow managed to get up early for a run the next day. From my hotel room, the weather didn’t look promising. The flag outside the hotel was whipping around like crazy, and all the trees were bending in the wind. I was expecting it to be freezing cold, but I learned long ago to never let the weather determine my exercise routine. (These days I don’t really have an exercise routine, so it’s all the more important to get out there whenever I can.)

I stepped outside and braced for the cold… but it wasn’t cold at all. Instead, it was perfect. The wind was just a nice breeze, and the temperature was much warmer than I expected. I ran along the railroad tracks (no sign of my friend from the night before) and down by the river. I ran past the Clinton Presidential Library and around the downtown area. I ran out on a quiet road for a while and thought about where I’d been and where I still had to go.

And after I ran about 20 minutes, which is my turnaround point for most runs these days, I realized I had also come to the halfway point on my tour. Thirty-two stops down, thirty-one to go!

Much of this adventure has gone by in a blur, without a lot of time to reflect. At the end of the U.S. portion in December, I’ll go on vacation for a week and think more about it then. But for now I keep going: to Oxford, Mississippi and Birmingham, Alabama on Tuesday and Wednesday for two smaller meetups before heading on to a big event in Atlanta on Thursday night. The schedule is posted here and everyone is welcome to come out to the stops.

Here’s wishing you well from the road, and I hope all is well wherever you are.

– Chris


Image: Paul

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  • rob white says:

    Congratulations on the halfway mark, Chris. I love you running anecdote… the mind will come up with all sorts of stories when left unchecked (it’s too cold, windy and rainy). The reality is often far different than the story we have running around in our head. When we let mechanical thinking run our lives we miss all kinds of wonderful experiences and opportunities. The world voice will tell you that you can’t run in bad weather… says, who? You’ve realized that it is just an opinion and you free to run no matter the weather at any time day or night. It may sound small, but of course the implications run far and deep.

  • Cara says:

    I clicked the links for Chase/Continental, but all I’m seeing is 25k bonus miles and 1 mile/$1 spent, not 50k miles. What am I missing? Or is the promotion you mentioned already over?

  • Chris says:

    25k each – one personal and one business = 50k total.

  • Don says:

    My niece used to train hack all the time. Her daddy did too, though I’m not sure she ever realized that.

    It was great to meet you while you were here in Dallas. Enjoy the south!

  • Edward says:

    I live in Munich, Germany and was just getting into serious travel hacking when I read your fantastic book. It is nice to see that there are other travel hackers.

    My speciality is trains. Here in Europe each national railway has its own special deals. Soon I have to go to Berlin, which costs about €100 ($140) from Munich in second class.

    By going to the Austrian railways and getting THEIR special online deal from Innsbruck to Berlin, via Munich, I’m going FIRST class for a mere €39 ($55). The Terms and Conditions say nothing about where I have to get on – if anything, I should be getting money back, as I’m losing the Innsbruck-Munich bit. Online-Tickets from European Railway companies offer the most unbelievable hacking opportunities – I hope this comes in handy for you next time you’re here.

    I love your work and couldn’t sleep for excitement after reading your book.

    Thank you very much for it.

  • Todd Schnick says:

    Just a quick word of thanks for making the time to appear on our radio show this morning. Much appreciated!

    See you in Atlanta!

  • Jenny says:

    Congratulations on making it over half-way on your tour. I really enjoyed reading about your train hopping friend. I recently helped a couchsurfer who requested to meet me at the skate park. He told me about how he was ticketed for hopping trains and had a good story to tell. Since I was young I’ve always wanted to hop on a train, just like that, just one time to see where it took me.

  • Leah McClellan says:

    Thanks for these tips, Chris! I think I’m going to start a travel hacking program. It’s been ages since I’ve been anywhere, which is fine because that’s been my plan, but I’m getting itchy. Maybe, if I start collecting some miles (and see if anything I collected before is still valid), maybe at the end of my emperor-in-training year (or thereabouts, sometime in 2011), I’ll be due for a reward. Hey, I have a tent and a backpack, what else do I need? 🙂

    Congrats on the halfway point!

  • Jeff says:

    How can Chase give away 25,000 or 50,000 miles? Doesn’t that translate into thousands of dollars in airline tickets just for signing up for a checking account? It seems too good to be true. When I see offers like this I figure there is a catch.

  • Chris says:

    It’s legit. Chase pays Continental for the miles at a discounted rate, and they use the incentive to get people to open new accounts. The same is true of airline credit cards or any other mileage incentives – a discounted payment to the airline in anticipation of acquiring new business.

  • Pam says:

    When I first started reading your blog a few months ago, I didn’t think I would ever want the information about travel hacking. When I do travel (in the past), I prefer the “long route” by automobile to see the sights along the way. Since reading your book, re-examining my life, setting goals and looking toward the future, I’ve come to realize there is definitely a use for it in my life. I’ve always had an open mind, and I haven’t worked for anyone else in many years. What I failed to realize is that I’ve limited myself far too much. Thanks for helping me see what I’ve been missing.

  • Amelia says:

    Congrats on the half-way point, sounds like a total whirlwind!

    As per train hopping, from experience, I do not recommend it unless
    a) you like being really cold (super windy with no shelter ever)
    b) you like to be totally deafened (trains are loud, loud beasts)
    c) you like the thrill of maybe being completely lost, completely hurt or completely screwed, or a combination of all of these.

    I traveled hacked north america for two years: trains, buses, hitching and I have many friends who still do this. Train hopping is by far the strangest one of them all. Some really love it or more love the freedom associated with it.
    I don’t travel anymore (have a glorious child at home) but if I did again, I would definitely choose passenger rail travel. 🙂

  • Gretchen says:

    Your commitment to running during busy travel reminds me to do the same. Loved having you in Dallas. I was so honored to be “The Colorer” of North Texas. Your visit really boosted my efforts toward a perfectly unconventional life.

  • Katana Barnett says:

    This appeals to me on so many levels- the romantic train car trope, the time i spent hanging out on train tracks with my best friend in first year university, the sword-sharpening noises that trains make and the amazing views along the California coast.

    I so badly want to do this.

    Not sure if the consequences are worth it, but if ever the opportunity dropped in my lap, and the stars aligned, I wouldn’t think twice about it!

  • Ken Apple says:

    I call my current routine the ‘Dog’ program. If I don’t get out with the dog twice a day she annoys the hell out of everyone in the house. She never backs down, it’s never too early, she’s always ready to go. Works like a charm.

  • Gary Wilson says:

    Cool writing. Can tell this is a tough journey.

    And thanks Edward for the comment about Munich.
    I live in Munich too and that travel tip is a really good one about getting the train from Innsbruck. I really want to go to Berlin but the fares as you note are outrageous.

  • Lauren says:

    Good luck with your tour, sounds like it could be draining, so I admire that you’re able to run and get some exercise. It’s a good reminder for me to exercise as well lol. Thanks for the links to the free airline miles, I’ll definitely need them for the summer, when I plan to be traveling.

  • pablo roux says:

    Hi Chris!

    Have you planned to come to Europe at the end of the U.S. portion? If travelling overseas, please include in your schedule Mallorca. Regards

  • Brett says:

    Useful advice on the travel hacking stuff. My method is to almost always sign up for the free mileage credit card offers when I receive them, and then cash in on the free flight and cancel before they hit me with an annual fee. It’s worked for probably five flights or so in the past year. In one instant, instead of canceling the card (Citi AAdvantage), I simply downgraded to a bronze level which carried no fee, and also wouldn’t have impacted my credit score.

  • Vinny says:

    Any way to get in on this Chase checking offer if you don’t have a Chase bank anywhere near you?


  • Chris says:


    I’m not sure about that; maybe someone else will know.


    I’d love to do a European tour too, but that depends on European publishers and distribution – if they buy the foreign rights and assure me the book will be available, I’d certainly consider it.

  • Emily says:

    I hope you love(d) Oxford! I went to college there — it is charming and unique and the square is the perfect stop for the Mississippi leg of your book tour!

  • Will Hutchens says:

    Thanks for keeping us informed! I just spent an hour signing up for the Chase offer at the local branch. It was pretty simple. I showed the woman the printed coupon and she knew exactly what to do. I was only going to open the personal checking account for the 25k miles (I’m a new hacker and I wanted to keep things simple for now), but then she offered me 25k more miles just to sign up for a Chase Continental Credit card too (with the $85 annual fee waived for the first year). So I ended up with 50,000 new miles anyway. Not bad for an hour’s work!

    A couple things that I learned from the experience:
    1. Make sure you have a Continental mileage plan number before you go. They can register you for one from the bank, but it will be quicker if you can just tell them your number.
    2. You have to have a direct deposit each month (>$500 after February 2011) or use your new Chase debit card five times in each billing period. Otherwise, they charge you a fee of $6.

  • Kyle Constantin Canton says:

    I’m in the process of trying to do the Chase travelhack to get home for New Years from China (or around that time because it might take a while to credit the miles). Are you sure you can do both the business and the personal? It seems like there are a lot of hoops to go through for the business account- ($14 monthly service fee and $65 annual debit card fee) but I thought that your 50k came only from the business account.

    If you can get both the business and personal miles then it will make life much easier!

  • Chris says:

    Yep, you can do both – that’s what I’ve done for three years now. You have to pay for the debit card but not usually a monthly fee.

  • Kyle Constantin Canton says:

    because there are no physical branches near me, I was only able to do the first promotion for the personal account because it seems like you need to show up in person to use the promotion for the business account–HOWEVER if you go to the continental website and sign up for the onepass credit card as a poster above noted, you can get 25,000 miles and then an extra 5,000 miles if you add a second user to the card.

    I was able to do both of these online and so it seems like without the business account I will be able to get 55,000 miles (fingers crossed!).

    Thanks Chris and Will!

  • Mike Ziarko Musing says:

    I love the fact that you gave the guy a ride based on the fact he told you he didn’t want to get a job! At least he’s honest. Us entrepreneurs have soft spots for the unconventional lives don’t we? Great story.

  • Ramblings of a Woman says:

    Thanks for the travel hack info. This is something my hubby and I want to learn more about, so we’ll be looking forward to your upcoming project!

  • Sara says:

    So FYI to anyone who comes back to this blog past the expiration date of those offers – the link still works for the chase account program, they have just changed the expiration to December 31st. Perhaps they keep running it monthly or something…

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