Most of us will never get paid to surf. Fortunately, you don't have to be a pro surfer to travel like one. I have been traveling full-time for the past eight years, and have visited more than forty countries—all without any form of sponsorship, and on a yearly income that would easily qualify me for the federal welfare program. This obviously would not have been possible if I were paying full price for airline tickets and other expenses, but by working the system I have found ways to travel for free—or at least at a fraction of the normal cost. For those who are tired of breaking the bank every time they travel—or who want to turn that yearly surf trip into two or three—here are a few tricks to help you get the best bang for your buck:
Become a frequent flyer: The first step is to find an airline(s) with a program that caters specifically to the destinations you frequent. Next, study the program's system until you are more knowledgeable than the representative booking your reward travel. Things like "mandatory layovers" and "open jaws" might sound complicated and frightening, but an intimate understanding of how they work can mean the difference between chasing a swell and staying home. Also, take advantage of partner credit and debit card signing bonuses, which can score you free trips for doing practically nothing—sign up for the card, book at ticket with your bonus points, and promptly close the account. For more creative ways to work the frequent flier system, check out www.thepointsguy.com.
Use low-cost carriers: Budget airlines can save you a surprising amount of money—especially on regional travel. Australia's Tiger Airlines is often cheaper than taking a bus, and Air Asia has occasional fare specials that are downright ridiculous (I once flew round trip from Singapore to India for $70 plus taxes—an $800 ticket for less than $75!). Most budget airlines will not show up on an Expedia.com search, so you'll have to go directly to their websites. Another great tool is www.independenttraveler.com, which has a page dedicated to all of the fare sales currently available on most major airlines.
Be flexible: You may be lusting after a trip to the Mentawais, but if you can get a ticket somewhere else for a third of the price, that means you can afford to do three trips this year instead of one. Eventually, tickets to Indonesia will go on sale too—and when they do, you'll be there to scoop them up. If you can be flexible with both your destinations and dates, you'll be surprised at how much you can save.
Make friends in high places: Some businessmen travel so much that they can't possibly use all of their frequent flyer points, and they may be convinced to share the love. Airline employees are also great friends to have, as they are often allocated a certain number of buddy passes each year. And then there is the holy grail of free travel—United Airlines' "Enrolled Friend" program, which allows each employee to sign up two friends or family members for unlimited standby travel.
Check wisely: When comparison-shopping for tickets, make sure you factor the cost of checked baggage into the equation. Also, memorize your airline's baggage policy, and never pack your luggage over the weight limit—the less excuses you give the agent to question your board bag, the more likely you are to get it on for free. If possible, check in online and then try to print your own baggage slip at the baggage-drop kiosk. Finally, minimize the number of check-in bags by overloading your carry-ons—and then hiding them during the check-in process. While agents can still force you to check an oversized carry-on as you board the plane, gate checks are free.
Couch surf: The more you travel, the more like-minded people you will meet—and the more free places you'll have to stay on your next trip. It pays to be friendly.
Work mobile: Travel costs extend beyond airline tickets and hotel rooms. Missed work means a loss of income, so if at all possible, find a job that you can take on the road with you. Crowd sourcing has become increasingly common, and websites like Elance.com are a great tool for picking up virtually any type of freelance work—from writing and editing to programming, accounting, and transcription. When you call your clients from the "office," they don't have to know that you're on a yacht in the Maldives.