Travel hacking for EU officials: 9 tips and tricks

All of us know about the travel hackers that manage to travel the world for (almost) free. Their feats are hard to copy, as firstly you have to really dedicate lots of time to this, secondly, you have to have access to the US credit cards market as it’s way more generous than the EU credit card free flyer miles offers. But don’t fret – as an EU official you are uniquely place to get at least your next holiday fully or partially paid for by frequent flyer miles. Or at least finally get that coveted upgrade to business class.

Here are 8 tips on how to achieve this. Did I say all of them are completely legal, no “gray hat” stuff? 🙂 Let’s proceed!

01 | Collecting frequent flyer miles by flying

As a person working for EU institutions, you are well qualified to rack up serious frequent flier miles. At least in most positions. Don’t let this work benefit go to waste.

Effort level: EASY.

What to do? All you have to do is to sign up for any frequent flier miles programme you encounter. If the airline gives you a choice of what miles to accumulate, you should go for the more popular ones like ‘Miles & More’ as you can use these in most larger EU airlines.

If you are already a member of a particular frequent flier miles program, register the number each time you fly. As your tickets will usually be booked by a travel agency, you won’t be able to enter your number at the time of purchase. However, no worries, you have several times register for frequent flier miles: at the time of purchase, during online registration, at the airport check-in desk (even if you have already checked in online), after the flight completes.

I advise against registering for frequent flier miles after the flight. It’s the most manually intensive process and requires detailed information from your ticket. If you lose some part of your ticket, you won’t be able to register for the miles. If you haven’t registered your frequent flier number for a particular flight, it’s a good habit to take pictures of any tickets you get for easy reference later.

What benefits do you get? People often scoff at the frequent fliers programmes as a marketing gimmick. Let them do this at their own cost!

Even moderate amounts of travel for work will let you accumulate enough miles to get your annual holiday flights to most European destinations for free.

As an example, you can fly one-way for free from Germany to many European destinations for just 15’000 frequent flier miles. Lufthansa often has deals where you can get to the US for 30’000 miles. Check out some of the current Lufthansa offers here.

Let’s do the math, shall we?! How much to you have to fly to get a free one-way holiday flight?

Lufthansa has a very simple calculation for their award miles, and most airlines do something similar:

TICKET PRICE + SURCHARGES) X 4

A practical example:

IF YOUR TICKET COSTS 250 EUR, YOU’LL GET 1000 MILES. IF YOUR TICKET COSTS 500 EUR, YOU’LL GET 2000 MILES.

Conclusion: in order to get a free holiday flight, it might require as little as going on 7 to 10 missions in the previous year. If you fly often, you can take your family to holidays abroad for free. See the tips below to find out how to boost your miles balance more quickly.

PRO TIP 1: If you are not a member of a frequent flyer programme yet, sign up to get your participant number ahead of the next flight. Even if you don’t have your plastic card yet, you can just tell the airline clerk your number at check-in or enter it when checking in online. I personally don’t carry any of my frequent flier cards. I store all the numbers, passwords and PINs in a Google Drive Document along with pictures of the cards. My wallet likes me for this!

AwardWallet.com dashboard

PRO TIP 2: the easiest way to keep track of all your frequent flyer miles is by signing up to the Award Wallet website. You have to enter once all your airline account details, but after that you see all your frequent flier miles and their expiration dates in one neat dashboard.

02 | Collecting free nights in hotels

Effort level: EASY.

What to do? All you have to do is stay at the same hotel chain and give your customer number at check-in.

What benefits do you get?

Some examples:

  • The most obvious service is free nights. You can usually get a free hotel night for every 4 to 7 paid stays. Of course, these accumulate and you can use them during your annual holidays.
  • Late check-out.
  • Free room upgrades.
  • Free breakfast.
  • 2nd guest stays for free.

There are many hotel chains that offer loyalty services. As an example, let’s check out Hilton Hotels. Hilton is a good choice in Europe as you can exchange Miles & More points against Hilton Hotels points and vice versa.

To take a look at all the benefits Hilton Hotels offer, see this page.

Relevant hotel chains

In the travel hacking community the following hotel chains present in Europe have the best reputation based on their generosity to customers (in alphabetical order):

  • Best Western Rewards
  • Choice Privileges
  • Club Carlson
  • Hilton Honors
  • IHG Rewards
  • Le Club AccorHotels
  • Marriott
  • Marriott Rewards
  • Radisson
  • Starwood Preferred Guest
  • World of Hyatt
  • Wyndham Rewards

03 | Collecting frequent flyer miles by shopping

Effort level: Intermediate to Jedi.

What to do? You can also get frequent flyer miles by shopping. Most likely your current credit card doesn’t collect you frequent flyer miles so consider changing it or getting an additional one.

Remember, the point is not to spend the extra credit, but to buy things with the credit card and restore the balance right away or at least within the grace period. I personally simply transfer my monthly disposable income to the credit card and use it as a regular card. That way I never or rarely “dip” into the credit amount and don’t have to constantly check whether I have to repay anything.

You can get a credit card that gives you frequent flyer miles from your home country. That might be easier to get. However, check whether you’ll get miles for purchases outside the particular country.

Alternatively, get a credit card in the country where your EU institution is located. To do this, however, you might have to jump through quite a few loops, such as:

  • Getting a local ID (sometimes the card issues by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is enough, but most often not).
  • Get a rental contract.
  • Get a part of your salary transferred to the local bank.
  • Be a client for one to six months before you qualify.

If a bank clerk doesn’t want to give you a credit card that gives frequent flier miles, check whether your institution has a contact person/client manager in the particular bank (or go through the person as a first point of contact). For larger EU institutions HR or Finance usually have set up such a person at most banks, and s/he will know what the institution does and that you’re not an ‘average schmo’ from the street.

So, the effort level is higher, but there’s a reason why most serious travel hackers use these cards. They provide an opportunity to acquire frequent flyer miles even if you don’t fly often, far or expensively enough.

What benefits do you get?

Usually there is a sign up bonus. In most of Europe it is nowhere near as generous as in the US, but still better than nothing. Most cards give you a sign-up bonus of 500 to 5000 frequent flyer miles.

Be sure to check how many miles you get for one euro or unit of local currency. It might be anything between 1 and 6 frequent flyer miles for one euro spent. If you have a choice between several credit cards in the chosen bank, try to go for the more beneficial one. Remember, even if the difference is “just” 4 miles against 5 miles for every euro spent, that’s a 20% difference right there.

If the credit card has a high minimum spending limit for a certain initial period and you are worried that you might not spend enough, there are ways around it. You might be the person who offers to pay for a team lunch and get reimbursed by colleagues later. You might pay for relatives’ larger purchases. In a worst case scenario you could transfer money through PayPal to your spouse. You’ll incur a 3% commission, however, that’s money well spent towards a significantly cheaper holiday.

One of the main benefits of getting frequent flyer miles through credit card purchases – they usually don’t expire. Whereas the frequent flyer miles you get from actual flying have an expiration date between 18 and 36 months, credit card miles last you a lot longer.

Jedi level efforts and rewards

When you go on missions (business trips) from your EU institution, everything is usually arranged for you from the flights to hotels by the hired travel agency and some colleague in HR.

If you’re serious about getting frequent flyer miles, you should check the mission management rules and find out what parts of the mission you can arrange yourself. As far as I know, most EU institutions (European Commission and agencies) allow you to purchase your own hotel or AirBNB as long as it’s within the price ceiling for the particular country you’re visiting. However, you should also check whether you can arrange and pay for your own flight.

Why do this? The reasons are obvious. This way you not only get the frequent flyer miles for flying, but also get miles for spending on mission costs that you get reimbursed afterwards. The difference can be huge: 1000 miles for just flying against 5000+ miles for paying for everything yourself.

To be honest, I probably wouldn’t want to arrange the mission flights myself due to the complicated procedure (as you have to provide comparison flights, etc.). However, seriously consider booking the hotel on your own as the only thing you have to do is to remain within the cost ceiling.

Relevant services:

  • Just Google “Credit card frequent flyer miles NAME OF COUNTRY” and you’ll get good suggestions.
  • Alternatively, just go to the website of the airline you fly with most often and find the appropriate section. Airlines might both offer their own cards (affiliated with a bank) or directly advertise bank credit cards.

04 | Free travel insurance for family

Effort level: EASY.

What to do? Check whether your credit card gives you free travel insurance. If not, consider getting a credit card that does.

What benefits do you get? Even though credit cards come with monthly or annual fees, often these are more than compensated by you not having to buy travel insurance.

Remember to read the conditions carefully before choosing a card. It’s also advisable to do a quick google search “NAME OF CARD + REVIEW” to see what has the experience with actual claims be. Some banks/insurance companies are more client-oriented than others.

If the bank/insurance company has no good reviews or mostly poor reviews, look into what competition offers.

Pay attention to qualifying criteria. Most often, you have to either buy the flight tickets with the particular card or spend some amount in the holiday destination for the insurance to take effect.

Increasingly credit cards that offer travel insurance also offer short-term electronics insurance, provided that you’ve paid for the items with the credit card. This can totally save your wallet if you drop the recently purchased phone or it simply gets stolen.

Relevant services: just review the offers of the largest banks.

05 | Free (or cheap) airport lounge access

Effort level: EASY to MEDIUM.

What to do & what benefits will I get?

If you fly often, you’ll soon graduate to the next tier of your frequent flier programme that usually gives you free access to a particular lounge network. For those of us who do not fly often enough in one year, there are other ways to get free or cheap lounge access.

The most common one is getting a premium credit card. Sure, the monthly or yearly fees could be higher than for a regular credit card, but you have to evaluate if it’s worth it. The premium credit cards often also come with other perks like not only travel and electronics insurance, but also rental car insurance.

You also can exchange frequent flyer miles for lounge access.

Until you accrue sufficient frequent flyer miles balance you can just buy your way into an airport business lounge. Of course, you can just walk up and check the price, but it also happens that there’s an app for just such a purpose. Enter Lounge Buddy.

To pay for lounge access makes sense if you, for example, are stuck in a 9-hour layover in Vienna from/to Balkans to some European city? Yeah, you could go to the city, but you could just as well chill in comfort at an airport lounge. The financial expense will most likely be the same or even less, as you’re bound to buy something while city-trotting. Unfortunately Lounge Buddy is available only on iPhones.

TIP: If you’re travelling with a colleague that already has an advanced frequent flyer status, chances are his entitled to free lounge access. Most often these programs allow their members to take along a buddy in the lounge with them for free. So – don’t be shy, ask around!

06 | Cashback for hotel bookings and other purchases

Effort level: EASY to MEDIUM.

What to do? When making any purchase online, make a habit of checking if you can buy the goodie or service through a cashback portal.

What benefits do you get? You usually can get between 2% and 10% of the purchase value back to your bank account. Simple online purchases give less cash back, however, some hotel booking sites will give you up to 10% or your money back.

It works the following way:

  1. You go to a cashback portal and find the online store, airline or hotel booking portal.
  2. If it’s there, click on the link. You’ll be redirected to the particular retailer, however behind the scenes it will register that if you make a purchase, some of the profit has to paid back to the cash back service.
  3. After some period (can be days or a month) the cash back service will deposit a share of the money to your account on the platform. Usually there is a minimum balance you have to attain before cashing out.

Relevant services

The most popular cashback services are Ebates.com, BeFrugal.com and TopCashback.com.

As the services regularly change their terms of service and cashback rates, it’s best to do a google search on “cashback comparison” to get the best deal.

07 | Payment card with free cash withdrawals and no/low foreign payment fees

Effort level: EASY.

What to do? Not all debit and credit cards are created equal. Some are just plain better for travel and handling money abroad. When getting a debit or credit card, enquire about the terms for money withdrawals abroad:

  • Do you have to pay a commission for each withdrawal?
  • What exchange rate does the bank use on purchases abroad?
  • Whether they slap a commission on top of every purchase?

It’ll most likely turn out that most large and established banks in your country do all three of these things. Fortunately there are solutions to at least partially work around these charges.

Firstly, explore if your bank offers payment cards especially made for travellers. These might include especially favorable currency conversion rates for purchases abroad and even reimbursement of commissions from ATM withdrawals. However, such cards are a rare breed in the EU.

You are much more likely to get a better offer from services like Revolut and N26. These and others are what is called ‘online banks’ or ‘banks 2.0’. As a rule, signing up for these banks is done completely online, and there are no sign-up or recurring fees for the basic accounts (that are still really competitive compared to the ‘old’ banks).

If you’re one of those people who are worried about trustworthiness of the ‘new’ banks, read some online reviews about a particular service you are interested in and their FAQ section. While you can get your salary transferred to the online bank’s account, most people just top it through a mobile app when necessary.

What benefits do you get?

The main benefits of services like Revolut and N26 are the following:

  • Free currency withdrawals abroad, but up to a certain limit. As an example, Revolut’s basic card with no fees let’s you withdraw an equivalent of 200 EUR per month with no Revolut charges (you might still be charged by the local ATM’s bank). If you want to double the fee-free cash withdrawal limit, you’ll have to get the premium fee-based plan. In contrast, with a regular debit or credit card both your and the local banks charge you for withdrawing money abroad.
  • Excellent currency exchange rate and no fees for purchases abroad. Both Revolut and N26 boast that they give something that’s called the interbank rate when you pay in currencies other than your own. In contrast, regular banks usually have a less favorable rate for clients, plus they often slap smaller fees on each purchase.
  • Very user friendly and useful mobile app that lets you top up your account quickly and has other useful functions such as daily reporting about expenditure and immediate alerts about each purchase.

Relevant services:

If you travel often, you should seriously consider getting a card from one of the new online banks like Revolut or N26. There are many more of these banks, but these are two I’ve tested, including on my gap year trip with family and they work as advertised.

Revolut

Here’s a brief video introduction to Revolut by the company itself.

Get Revolut shipped for free. Revolut usually charges around 6 EUR for the regular card’s shipping, but you can get the shipping cost waived if you sign up through this link. The link is from a programmer who’s a Revolut “ambassador”. Otherwise, you can follow Revolut’s social media accounts as they offer free shipping there from time to time.

N26

This bank is relatively similar to Revolut, but is available in fewer European country. If you are going on a longer trip, it pays to get both (as there are no recurring fees). This way you can double the amount of money you withdraw for free.

EXTRA TIP: See the ATM screen picture above. When encountering an option to choose to convert your home currency to local currency before money withdrawal, ALWAYS choose “Without conversion”. Don’t give the local bank a chance to make money of you twice: by charging a commission for the money withdrawal and also by converting your money at a rate that’s set up to rip you off.

08 | Taxi and other loyalty programmes

Effort level: EASY. You can set this up while commuting or taking the taxi somewhere, and activate the next time when you use the service.

What to do? When you move to a new city, you usually get a new phone number and work email. This is an excellent opportunity to invite yourself to a service you were already using back home. If you want to further maximize this, set up accounts from the phones of your spouse and kids.

What benefits do you get? Basically, you’ll usually get a free ride or at least a significant discount for both your home and the new account. If you involve family members, you and them will each get the discount.

Relevant services:

  • Taxis: Uber, Bolt, Yandex, Kapten, Lyft, etc.
  • Electric scooters: Lime, Bolt, Bird, Spin, Scoot, Skip, Dott, Troty, Scooty, Tier, Flash, CityBee, Blinkee, etc.

09 | More frequent flyer miles from hotel bookings through RocketMiles.com

This tip will only be useful to those living or working in a few European countries. While the RocketMiles.com programme can be very generous with miles, unfortunately they do not offer Miles & More points accumulation.

If you are interested in getting frequent flyer miles from the below airlines, read on:

  • Turkish Airlines Miles&Smiles
  • British Airways Executive Club
  • Eurowings Boomerang Club
  • Finnair Plus
  • TAP Miles&Go
  • Aegean Airlines
  • Vueling Club
  • Alitalia MilleMiglia
  • For a full list of loyalty programmes, consult the RocketMiles.com website. Maybe there’s one I haven’t mentioned but you are interested in like Etihad Guest or Emirates Skywards for your holiday to SouthEast Asia or Arab countries.

Effort level: EASY. Just book a hotel through RocketMiles.com and get your preferred frequent flyer miles.

What to do? When going on a mission, opt for booking your own accommodation and then just look for a deal on RocketMiles.com. Plan to spend close to the EU upper hotel allowance limit to get deals.

Always sort by the number of ‘Miles’ you can get. Afterall, that’s the chief reason you’re using the service!

What benefits do you get? For every booking you make through the platform you get frequent flyer miles. The more money you spend, the more miles you get.

If your 3-day, 2-night mission is to Brussels, here’s a realistic scenario. Hotel allowance for one night in Belgium is around 148 EUR, so you can spend 296 EUR in total on hotels. This easily gets you 2000 to 3000 thousand frequent flyer miles. See the pic above.

By the way, you can get extra 4000 frequent flyer miles with your first booking, so if any of the frequent flyer miles programmes offered by RocketMiles suit you, you should make at least one booking through this website to cash in on the introduction offer. That could be 7000 miles for one mission right there, half or third of the quota towards a free holiday flight in Europe.

BONUS | Most useful mobile apps for EU officials’ travel

Essential apps

CheckMyTrip

The ultimate travel app by the Amadeus, the company that runs many airline ticket systems.

No matter what travel details you throw the apps way (in fact, send to the dedicated email trips@checkmytrip.com), they all get organized in a neat overview with all the details just a few clicks and swipes awa.

Some of the features the app boasts:

  • Direct access to many airline check-in systems and seat maps
  • Real-time notifications
  • 5-day weather forecast for each point in your journey
  • Taxi and parking options in 40 countries

TripIt

A close contender to ‘CheckMyTrip’. After you sign up, just forward all your travel logistics to plans@tripit.com and it will be automatically organized in an itinerary and checked against any real-time changes. If changes are detected the app will alert you, for example, about a gate change in an airport, delay or a cancellation. The app often has information before it appears on the airport screens.

Available for both iPhone and Android.

Miles & More

If you’re serious about collecting frequent flyer miles, you’ll like this app. It lets you easily check your Miles & More balance, alerts you about expiring miles and available bargains.

Available for both iPhones and Android.

Revolut & N26 apps

If you have any of these cards, it basically impossible to use them without the mobile phone app. Besides allowing you to manage the card and transactions, the apps have a multitude of other features.

Revolut, as an example, offers travel insurance for just a euro per day. You can set it to become active if the app detects you’ve left your country. A nice way to free up your mental bandwidth and focus on more important things than fretting about forgetting to buy travel insurance.

Apps can be found by their name in both the AppStore and Google Play.

Elk (currency converter)

If you’re travelling to a country that hasn’t joined the Eurozone yet (and there are quite of few of those in EU), you’ll want to know how much does stuff costs in euros. This is where Elk comes in.

The app is visually nicely done and does not only give you the immediate conversion but nearby values in logical increments by ones, tens, hundreds, etc.

For Android the XE Currency Converter appears to still dominate the market. If they’d have Elk for Android, I’d switch immediately though.

Maps.me

With the free roaming in EU usually Google Maps will help you just fine no matter if you’re commuting with public transport, walking or even driving a car in your mission destination.

However, if your mission takes you outside the EU, Maps.me is indispensable as it’s main feature is working offline maps. Even the Maps.me navigation works offline. This is a feature that Google Maps still doesn’t have. True, you can download a city map in GMaps, but it’ll only allow to understand where you are. Why is this important? Because outside of the EU any internet-related activity will quickly accrue a hefty phone bill for roaming services. If you can remember to download a map of the city you are going to in advance or through your hotel wifi, that will greatly increase your comfort when moving around.

Available for iPhone and Android.

Nice to have

Google Translate

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/reByRERtHWA” frameborder=”0″ allow=”accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture” allowfullscreen></iframe>

Most people are aware that the app and web service translates text. But did you know that you can also snap a picture and get the text in the pic translated as well?! You can even do whole documents without access to an editable version, just scan, mark the part that needs to be translated and, voila, translation is ready.

And now the app has become even more powerful. While the results may vary, you may now:

  • Ask a person to say something and record it in the app. It’ll play the translation back to you.
  • There’s even a rough “Translation” mode now where the phone app acts as a real-life interpreter.

Available on both iPhone and Android, but has better results on the latter.

AirHelp

Even if you fly for work, you’re entitled to compensation if your flight gets delayed or cancelled. For long-haul flights the compensation can be up to 600 EUR. Within the EU compensations usually are up to 250 EUR.

This app helps you take care of the paperwork. You can claim compensation for flights that took place in the last three years. If the compensation claim is successful, the company takes its 25% cuts and transfers you the remaining amount.

Available for both iPhones and Android.

TripAdvisor

Remember those missions where you really want to go out of the hotel for dinner, but don’t know where. And you really don’t want to end up in some tourist trap with lousy food.

TripAdvisor has probably the most trustworthy and most powerful review and ratings system for restaurants in the EU and most European “neighbourhood” countries. Just select your price level from ‘economy’ to ‘fine dining’, rank the restaurants in order from high to low and review the top 10. You’re almost guaranteed satisfaction.

Available for both iPhones and Android.

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