Photo courtesy Sean Flanigan.
Photo courtesy Sean Flanigan.

2014 is just around the corner, which means a brand new year of travel hacking is at your fingertips. You have 365 days to organize this year’s big vacation, and with a few tips and enough advance planning you’ll be able to fly to your dream destination for free –– and even get major discounts for accommodation and activities. Travel hacking takes time and patience, but it’ll be worth the effort when you’re standing in front of the Eiffel Tower nibbling on a freshly baked croissant.

With that in mind, check out these tips for planning this year’s big trip!

Rack Up Those Miles

Photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons.
Photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons.

Round trip economy class tickets to popular travel destinations like Europe or Hawaii can cost upwards of $1,000—which doesn’t always fit in most people’s budgets. Luckily, there’s more than one way to pay for a ticket. Instead of using your hard earned cash, buy your entire airfare with miles. Don’t have miles? Don’t fly much? No problem, most airline miles are actually earned on the ground by taking advantage of promotions and credit card bonuses – and you have an entire year ahead of you to accrue them.

The quickest way to earn a lot of miles fast is by opening a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. It’s hands down our favorite piece of plastic –– offering a whopping 40,000 bonus points and double points on all dining and travel (which means you’re earning miles every time you inhale your favorite burrito). Plus, the points can be easily transferred to hotel and airline partners across a number of chains and alliances through Chase’s flexible Ultimate Rewards Program.

If you’re up for earning more bonuses and can carefully manage your spending, you can apply for more cards. Visit CardsforTravel.com for an updated list of bonus offers, or hire the Travel Hacking Cartel to keep you informed of additional opportunies each week.

Spend Smartly

Once you have 40,000 bonus points, you probably need another 10,000 or so (depending on which airline you choose) to purchase your ticket. Easy! Not only will you rack up miles by using your card to buy the occasional dinner out, you can earn miles without spending a dime by doing short surveys on websites like e-rewards.

You can also make your money work for you by registering your card in the shopping and dining programs of your choice airline. Every time you shop at one of their participating stores or restaurants, you’ll be earning one to five miles per dollar, or more! After a year or less of strategic shopping and dining, you’ll likely have enough miles saved up to land that free ticket. Actually, chances are you’ll have extra, which brings us to….

Use Your Extra Miles To Your Advantage

It may be nice to stay in a luxury boutique hotel while traveling around Europe, but it certainly isn’t cheap. Instead, save money by earning flexible points that can be transferred into the hotel program of your choice. Once you’ve accrued enough Ultimate Rewards points to buy your ticket, you can easily transfer them to a participating hotel chain like Hyatt, which has accommodations all over the world. If you don’t have extra miles, don’t panic. There are plenty of budget hotels, hostels and alternative options like AirBnB that won’t cost you an arm and a leg.

Another great piece of plastic, the Platinum Card from American Express, allows you to earn points that can then be transferred into your choice of more than a dozen airlines or hotel chains. The Platinum Card comes with a hefty $450 annual fee, but it also provides a free $200 statement credit to the airline of your choice (every year), free Global Entry application ($100), lounge access in the U.S. and throughout the world, and—in a brand new benefit—a free year of Amazon Prime membership ($79).

Plan Your Activities In Advance

Photo courtesy Flickr Commons.
Photo courtesy Flickr Commons.

You probably have a mile-long list of expensive activities you want to do on vacation, from snorkeling lessons to city tours. The good news that some of these can be moved into the “free” column of your to-do list. Many museums (like New York City’s Met) are donation based or even free one day per week, and you can give yourself a tour by talking to locals and taking time to research the region in which you’re traveling.

You can also take advantage of free-to-the-public events by checking out local papers. By saving on a few key activities, you’ll have money to spend elsewhere on your trip. Don’t think you have to defer 2014 travel… with careful planning, it’s well within your reach.