In October, Brad Barrett flew to Greece to gather with fellow enthusiasts of a lifestyle often known by the acronym FIRE, for “financial independence, retire early.” Barrett co-hosts one of the movement’s most popular podcasts, ChooseFI, often discussing how to maximize travel rewards.
Travel is a major component of the early-retirement conversation.
On their Instagram accounts, the group’s adherents post pictures of roaming through Thailand on a Tuesday or sailing the Caribbean.
Many of the people chasing FIRE, whose lifestyle combines living on less, earning more and saving as much as they need for the rest of their lives as soon as possible, are driven by a desire to see the world, so the community is a wealth of information about how to do just that, even if you still have a day job.
Build up your rewards
What Barrett, 39, calls maximizing points others call travel hacking, but either way, it’s about making the most of reward points offered by credit cards and other loyalty programs to book free or deeply discounted travel. That’s a topic Barrett covers on one of his sites, Travel Miles 101.
When he knew he wanted to go to Greece, he first priced flights on traditional travel sites to get a sense of how much it would cost to pay cash, which might be a better deal than paying with points.
“Being FIRE doesn’t mean I have to do anything,” he said. “It doesn’t mean paying cash is a bad decision. It means I want to maximize value. I think that’s what permeates my life: How do I maximize value?”
He compared the costs of flights in dollars and points.
If he found, for example, a flight for $600 or 60,000 points, cash would be the better option. He divides the cost in dollars by the cost in points, and if the result is less than 2 cents a point, he’s unlikely to go for the deal.
Maximizing rewards requires understanding the system, which can be complicated.
“It does require some level of organization, there’s no question about it,” said Barrett, a retired CPA. “You have all these logins, you have these credit cards and you have to spend a certain amount.”
He uses a spreadsheet to organize his accounts and the necessary information, and takes advantage of the site awardwallet.com, which alerts him to expiring points.
Barrett, who lives in Richmond, Virginia, said a financial background was not required.
“Anybody could do this. Anybody,” he said. “If I’m loosely organized, and I’m somewhat aware, I can take one to two free vacations a year. To me, that’s just such an obvious choice.”
But, he cautions, the game is not for everyone.
“Clearly, anyone who has issues paying their credit cards on time or in full every single month should steer as far from this as they possibly can.”
Save here, splurge there
Sylvia Hall says she hasn’t paid for a hotel room in five years.
The 38-year-old Seattle resident, who could afford to retire today if she’d like to, is working a few more years, just in case. She uses strategies to stay for free, as she just did for a week in the Dominican Republic.
“Hotels are different from flights because there are different systems you can work to get deals on hotels,” Hall said. “The three strategies are points, free nights or cash back.”
First, she often redeems points from the 11 credit cards she has open. As with flights, you can redeem points for hotels, but some companies have direct partnerships allowing you to transfer points to hotels for better deals. For example, some of Capital One’s cards offer 10 times the points if you book at their partner site on hotels.com.
Hall, who is happy to fly coach and stay free in modest hotels, said she looked for the best deal.
“The workhorses on free stays are my Chase cards, IHG cards and my hotel-branded cards,” she said. “I’m sort of brand agnostic. I just go where I can go for free.”
Part of what made her Dominican Republic trip free was paying quarterly estimated taxes from her work as a self-employed lawyer by using a credit card through the site plastiq.com, which allows users to pay with a card any bill that accepts a check or bank transfer. It does so for a fee of 2.5 percent, so you have to make sure paying that fee is worth it.
For Hall, it was, because she got enough cash back to cover her full stay at the resort, including the $60 daily food and drink fee. As someone pursuing FIRE, she usually feeds herself on about $65 a month.
“I was like, wow, every day is like my monthly budget,” she said. “You just have to know that part of why you save money for one thing is so you can spend it on something else,” she said “It helps to just get a good deal on your flight and your room so that you know when a mango is five bucks, you can roll with it.”
Flexible times and places
Tanja Hester, 39, author of the Our Next Life blog and the coming book “Work Optional,” and her husband, Mark Bunge, 42, became travel experts during their working years in political and social cause consulting before surprising everyone by retiring in December 2017.
After flying more than 1 million miles, she said, “The stuff that I really have down is about being opportunistic and thinking about timing.”
To travel this winter, she and her husband looked at Google Flights for opportunities from their home airport in Reno, Nevada, to almost anywhere in the world, and found a flight to France for about $700 per person.
Their rental car for 15 days of the 22-day trip cost $300, “which is kind of unheard of,” Hester said. “You can’t get that deal in peak season. It’d be like four times that.”
Overall, she said, if you can find a time you can go when most people won’t and be open to visiting places you hadn’t thought of, you can save 30 percent to 50 percent on your trip.
Hester and her husband visited Taipei, Taiwan, in January and Tokyo in February last year.
There’s an added bonus: the joy of being free from crowds.
“That’s the thing I just can’t overstate the value of: being able to enjoy things in peace instead of fighting to see the Mona Lisa through a crowd of 800 people,” Hester said. “It’s just a way nicer way to travel.”
Live like a local
“I do believe in traveling like a local,” says Elizabeth Willard Thames, 34, aka Mrs. Frugalwoods and author of the book “Meet the Frugalwoods,” who lives in rural central Vermont.
When she travels, she takes public transportation or walks and, rather than looking to guidebooks for restaurants, she finds unassuming places where locals gather.
Lunchtime often finds her in a grocery store, enjoying the game of trying to figure out what everything is in the local language.
“I love strolling a city, walk around, getting coffee, strolling some more, getting a glass of wine,” she said. “It’s much more interesting, I think; you get to experience it like a local, and it’s so much cheaper.”
She find creative ways to experience a city’s sights. In Paris, she and her husband wanted to see the Eiffel Tower, but they balked at paying about $28 each to ride the elevator up.
“So we took a picnic and sat on the lawn and looked at the Eiffel Tower,” she said. “We felt like we totally had the Eiffel Tower experience.”