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The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.
The majority of my nights are spent in beds that are not my own. And rarely do they belong to a hotel with a points program. Hostels, guesthouses, family-run pensions, campgrounds, Airbnbs and small, independent properties make up the vast majority of my nights, which unfortunately means I’m rarely redeeming points for stays.
This doesn’t mean points and miles don’t factor into these alternate accommodations, however. There are plenty of options to earn points, or get cash back, when staying at these types of properties, even though they rarely have an option to book directly online. Some of my earning strategies are straightforward and universal; others take a few steps for double or triple dipping.
I use one of four websites to book most of my accommodations, and each one has its own benefits or strengths. I’ll break down the best way to book on each site later. But first, we need to cover some basics.
Pick the Right Portals
We’ve talked plenty about using shopping portals, and how this can apply to online lodging reservations. There are a number of shopping portals out there, so getting started can be overwhelming, but one website greatly simplifies the process.
Cashback Monitor tells you how much cash back or how many points you’ll earn using different cash back or reward portals for a given website. It’s laid out simply, and will even link you directly to the portal you choose.
For cash back portals, there are many, but I personally use just two: Ebates and Top Cashback. Ebates offers a handy browser extension that will tell you when you are on a website where you can earn cash. You simply have to click the activate button, and you’ll earn for anything booked in that session.
However, rather than blindly use Ebates, I use the pop up as a reminder to check Cashback Monitor for the greatest return. Most of the time, it’s Top Cashback.
Airline, hotel and even credit card portals offer returns as well. Occasionally, British Airways or United have rates enticing enough for me to use them (remember to compare the full value of the points to the cash back values), but Top Cashback still gets most of my business.
Use the Right Credit Card
Generally speaking, the Chase Sapphire Reserve is the best choice to pay for your stay. With 3x Chase Ultimate Rewards points on lodging and points valued at 2 cents a piece, paying with the Chase Sapphire Reserve is the easiest way to earn a minimum return valued at 6% on your stays. Otherwise, you can use one of these other cards that earns the most value on travel.
One big exception is if the property can be booked directly online and you’re staying for at least four nights. In this case, the 4th night free benefit on the Citi Prestige Card can save you serious cash. Unfortunately, most of the properties I’m covering here don’t qualify.
You can also use Capital One miles to erase travel charges on your statement, which works great when redemption isn’t an option.
And those aren’t the only exceptions to using the Chase Sapphire Reserve.
If You’re Booking an Airbnb
Rumblings of an Airbnb loyalty program have been around for a while, but so far, nothing has materialized. However, there are several stackable options to earn a decent return on your stay.
Delta’s Airbnb Portal
All you have to do is go to this link, click through and enter your Delta SkyMiles number, and you’ll be taken to Airbnb’s website. Any booking made during your session will earn you one mile per dollar spent.
Buying Airbnb Gift Cards
If you’re planning to rent an apartment or home for your trip, be sure to check your local pharmacies, office supply stores or grocery stores for Airbnb gift cards. If you have cards that earn bonuses at any of these merchants, it can help boost your earnings significantly. Otherwise, purchasing Airbnb gift cards through the Mileage Plus X App will currently earn you 2 Mileage Plus miles per dollar spent, plus a 25% bonus, if you have a United card like the United Explorer Card, which you don’t actually have to use.
But if you’re seeking simplicity, Chase codes Airbnb as a travel provider, so you can still get 3x points using the Chase Sapphire Reserve.
Reserving Stays Through Hotels.com
Hotels.com has its own loyalty program that awards you a “free” night after 10 paid nights. The free night is worth the average value of the 10 paid nights (you pay any difference) so this works out to be a 9% return.
In addition to the rewards program, Hotels.com has a partnership with the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card through Jan. 31, 2020, which earns 10x now-transferable Capital One miles when you book and pay for the stay with the Venture card through Hotels.com/venture.
I’ve noticed that Hotels.com doesn’t always have the lowest prices on stays, and they don’t factor in many taxes and fees until a few steps into the booking process. They also don’t have as many alternate lodging options as other sites. Still, when a property is listed on Hotels.com, it usually ends up being the best value when I factor in the above returns.
When You’re Using Booking.com
This is probably my favorite site for alternate lodging. It has the greatest selection of independently-run guesthouses and pensions, and they’ve been increasingly offering hostels on their site, too. You can even reserve campsites, igloos and more.
Booking.com has a “Genius Loyalty” program that isn’t as great as the name makes it sound. After a few bookings, you’ll unlock savings of 10% or more, but only at locations that partake in the program, and there are no points earned for stays. While it doesn’t compare to the loyalty programs of traditional chains or even Hotels.com paired with the Venture card, it may still help you score a discount on properties that can’t be booked online elsewhere.
The real return for this site is through shopping portals. Ebates and Top Cashback usually offer 6 to 7% cash back.
Booking Shared Stays on Hostelworld
More and more hostels are appearing on Booking.com, however, which also has preferable cancellation policies. Hostelworld, on the other hand, charges a nonrefundable “down payment” (commission) at the point of booking, while Booking.com and Hotels.com typically allow you to cancel according to the accommodation’s refund policy, which is often fully refundable.
If you do need to book through Hostelworld, you can typically use Top Cashback to earn returns on this down payment (which is at least 15% of the price of the stay). With a 40% return on the down payment, it’s a return of at least 6% on your stay. The remaining balance will be paid directly to the property on arrival.
If you book any of these properties directly online, via email or through Hostelworld, you’ll usually owe a balance on arrival. Occasionally, these properties tack on a surcharge for credit card payments. Compare the surcharge to the value of your return to decide if it’s better to pay with cash or a credit card. For example, if the surcharge is 3% and you pay with your Chase Sapphire Reserve, you’re getting greater than a 3% return (since you’ll earn 3x points worth 2 cents apiece), so it’s still best to pay with the card. And for dealing with cash while abroad, see my full guide on avoiding fees on foreign currencies.
Feature photo of Chez Olga in Rangiroa, French Polynesia, booked through Booking.com, courtesy of the author.
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