How the Travel Hacking Game Changed My Life

View from the wing
That title is beyond nauseatingly cheesy, but there’s really no other way to put it. Discovering travel hacking has had a huge impact on where I am right now. Three years ago, I was working in the research department of a health management organization. I was a year and a half into my first job out of college and though I had told myself I would be out of there in less than a year, I continued to wake up every morning before the sun was up and prepare for my 1.5 hour daily commute.

Standing on the platform at the BART station and waiting on the train every morning, I felt like a lamb being taken to the slaughterhouse. It was pure torture and because it was so depressing, it killed my spirit, my ambition, and anything else that would have motivated me to look for another job. I had a lunatic supervisor who worked out her middle school dodgeball complex on me, a lovely boss who exacerbated the situation by praising me in front of said lunatic, and this feeling of failure and defeat that is tough for someone who was as ambitious as I was my whole life.

My dad recognized my need for a change in scenery and called me at work one day, telling me to ask for time off because we were going to Kabul in less than two weeks. That trip completely changed my point of view. I had never felt so at peace as I did in Kabul. On the return, I knew I needed to make some change. I’ve always been fiercely independent and nothing has given me a greater sense of accomplishment than building something on my own. This 9-5 thing just wasn’t cutting it anymore.

Around the same time, I stumbled upon an NPR article about the US mint deal, which launched me into the travel hacking game. Being the hustler that I am, I was fascinated by the possibilities this opened up. People around me thought it was a scam, but when I pulled off a family trip to Afghanistan, Dubai, and Istanbul in the summer of 2012, they began to take notice and ask for advice. Yes, I’m one of those people who started blogging because I wanted to share my tips with friends and family. No, I didn’t realize how lucrative the credit card affiliate aspect was.

A company took notice of my new blog and offered me a guest posting gig on one of my favorite blogs, Frugal Travel Guy. Soon after, I was offered a job to manage said blog, which was unreal. A year and a half later, it’s my last day of work with no back-up plan – my own choice. I’m a hustler and I thrive when I’m out of my comfort zone. So what’s next? For starters, I’m not looking to become a full-time blogger and make a living from this. Not because it isn’t possible but because as a workaholic, my work needs to be meaningful on a bigger level. Plus, you know the saying, “When a man marries his mistress, he leaves a job vacancy”? Well, when a travel hacker turns her hobby into a job, she does the same. It no longer becomes fun.

For the time being, I’m going to take it easy and do some freelance writing and continue maintaining this blog. I’ve got a 20 page document on my desktop with ideas (products, businesses, books) I’ve been documenting for the past five years. It’s time to finally knock some of those things off my list, which I’m looking forward to doing.

Had it not been for my discovery of the travel hacking world, I would be in that same office building I was in three years ago, feeling hopeless and trapped. Now, I feel optimistic and at peace. Learning about this hobby, building this blog, writing, and having people be so supportive pulled me out of the depressed state I was in and gave me something to be passionate about. It’s because of that experience that I’m now confident and excited about venturing out on my own.

I’d love your feedback about how this hobby has affected you, if at all.

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  1. Ariana – Great post. I feel exactly the same way! Three years ago, I was wishing that I could take my kids to Europe, and now here we are, thanks to travel hacking. I am still amazed at how this is all possible.

    I’m looking forward to hearing about the next step in your journey. I know it will be interesting!

    • PointChaser

      Thanks Kendra! This may be a stretch, but travel hacking has almost become “the great equalizer.” I hope you have a fantastic trip with your family. I look forward to the hilarious posts that I know you’re going to write afterwards. 🙂

  2. I haven’t jumped in with both feet yet – partly because I’m well-established in the work world, in my 50s, working on retirement, big bills, not enough vacation time, etc., partly because I’m a wuss 🙂 – but I can definitely see ho w this would change your world-view. I do hope though that you will continue to write here, as this is one of my most interesting, most informative, and most well-written blogs to read. Thanks for being here!

    • PointChaser

      Thanks for the support! I will absolutely continue blogging as a hobby – I just don’t want this to be my career. If you’re happy where you are, there’s no need to get deeper into this hobby. Do whatever you can manage right now.

  3. I’m thrilled we got to work together and meet a couple of times. I can tell the “free spirit” in you is “driving the bus.” Follow it wherever it takes you. Glad you will still be contributing as well to


    • PointChaser

      Thank you Rick! I owe you a huge thanks for everything you did on my behalf. I loved working with you and look forward to crossing paths again in the future.

  4. It’s changed my life in huge ways.

    I fly 150k miles per year and have seen tons of the world and continue to see and experience amazing things. I just came back from a month-long trip with my family of seven where we visited Santorini, Istanbul, Koh Samui, Dhaka, Siem Reap, Sri Lanka, Dubai, and NYC in First and Business class while staying in five star and three star hotels and having a ton of great experiences together as a family. And it cost us very little. At the moment, I’m looking forward to an amazing trip to New Zealand in April in BA F and QF A380 F suites on the way and CX F on the return. I’m using points to stay in a neat little 3 star Holiday Inn on the North Island and then renting a campervan for the South Island. It will be my first time literally circumnavigating the globe in one continuous trip, which I’m also excited about.

    However, most importantly I met my business partner on FlyerTalk and we used our travel hacking skills in building a successful business on the foundation of miles and points and cashback. This business would have never even occurred to me before I became a FlyerTalker. In short, it’s been amazing!

    Keep up the great work with content posts, Ariana! I’ve greatly enjoyed both your reviews of unorthodox locales (Afghanistan!) and your great hotel redemption series. I love your and Drew & Carrie’s (TravelIsFree) focus on content posts. I have to believe that that will make you successful long term. I also enjoy your focus on under-reviewed, “rougher” destinations. I know I loved both Iraq, Bangladesh, and Syria, which most FlyerTalkers look askance at.

    Best of luck as you follow the entrepreneurial life! There’s nothing more rewarding and exciting, in both good ways and bad! 🙂

  5. I came to love travel hacking in a very roundabout way. My parents are the original travel hackers. They’ve been booking all of our travel with points & miles for decades and have some obscene legacy Amex Rewards program that is unreal.

    But because when I was growing up I only remember the annoyances of award travel–having to overnight in Zurich because the ticket had been booked a year ago when I really just wanted to get home, having to jump on and confirm all the travel for the holiday season to second tickets opened up–I was felt very proud and free to buy cash tickets for a long time when traveling on my own. It’s only in the last few years that last minute $400 round-trips to Europe and >$100 domestic flights have become laughable artifacts that I have begun to really embrace and enjoy traveling on points.

    Just yesterday, I got an invitation to a friend’s baby shower in Dallas on labor day weekend. I have a work trip the day before, so my options for flights were very limited, but because we keep a big SPG and Chase stock on hand, I was able to get two BA tickets for my husband and I an book us into the Sheraton with no stress and some pocket change. Being able to do things like that–I’m now in Seattle to help my sister settle in after a move and my husband was able to take a 6pm flight first class after work today–to me is what award travel is all about now. Being able to do both the things you need and want anywhere in the world without having the be “rich.”

    • PointChaser

      Thanks for sharing your story, Gabi! I definitely see how it can seem less than ideal when your itinerary is so inconvenient. I personally don’t mind it in premium cabins – in fact, I’ve booked complicated itineraries to maximize the premium travel experience more. 🙂

  6. Nice post. Wish you the best from this point forward. I am linking to this post in Monday’s TBB. I have more but you will just have to wait…

  7. I also learned about this “hobby” a few years ago. For the last several years, it really helped to reduce our travel costs; thus, I was able to use the extra saving for investment. I enjoy reading your posts. Thanks Ariana.

    • PointChaser

      Thanks Nguyen, I enjoy writing them (most of the time). Paying less out of pocket for travel is definitely a huge upside.

  8. Stories like this always seem cheesy to the person writing them, but they’re fantastic for people just getting into the hobby. That’s exactly why I make a point to read the interviews on MMS.

    After collecting miles the hard way for about 5 years and just using them for domestic flights, we went to Europe last fall using AA off-peak on airberlin. Then starting in March I began aggressively collecting. i’ve done 525,000 in bonuses alone since then, including the 150,000 amex bonus b/c of your help, and literally just 2 days ago i realized how my life Can be changed when playing around with the British Airways avios booking. I don’t travel for work except for a few conferences I pay to attend, but I learned I could pretty go anywhere i want completely free….

    • PointChaser

      I’m glad you think so Brenton. Those numbers you’re pulling seemed unreal to me early in the game, so I love reading about people like you pulling it off.

  9. Honestly, I feel like I’ve just won the lottery. Because winning the lottery to me meant the means to travel far, wide and, frequently. I discovered this hobby in mid-June and in this past month and a half, I’ve become obsessed with it, having read extensively every blog out there on the topic – including Frugal Travel Guy and Point Chaser, of course. I’m happy to report that I’ve already put into practice the knowledge I’ve received from all of you, pioneers of travel hacking, and I’ve booked a trip for my parents to Rome in October and a trip for me and my husband, also to Rome/Naples, in April. Currently, I’m focusing on getting enough hotel points to cover our stay while over there. Now, I’m going places, baby! Yeah!

  10. Congratulations, and my best to you!

  11. Thanks for sharing, Ariana!
    Sometimes the biggest risk is not taking one. Keep evolving and succeeding, all in ways that make you happy. Best!

  12. Wow. I’m quite surprised to learn that you’ve decided to leave FTG position. We haven’t always agreed on everything, but there is no question that you have done a great job managing that blog.
    This hobby has allowed me to see my parents in Europe more often, the most important thing, really. It has also helped us get closer as a family, to be able to afford travel, even if not the fanciest kind.
    I don’t think the title was cheesy at all. This is a really touching post, from the heart, just the way I like it! I have no doubt that you will succeed in whatever you decide to do. All the best, Arianna!

  13. Good luck with everything! I know you are going to do awesome!

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