If you’ve been following my recent travels on Instagram and Twitter, you’ll know that I’ve been racking up the air miles lately in a bid to complete my 30 countries before 30 challenge. In the last seven weeks I’ve been to Cyprus, Mexico and Jordan, so now have just two countries left to visit before I hit the mega 30 milestone.
Unfortunately this sudden surge in travel has meant that my bank balance has taken a bit of a battering. And with my unemployed status (following my rapid return to Reading) and no wages coming in, I’ve had to use all my savings to fund my final few trips. Because of this, it was touch and go whether I’d actually complete my challenge. However, I’m happy to report that flights to those two remaining countries have now been booked. Hooray.
On Wednesday 21 June I’ll be flying out to the German capital, Berlin, where I’ll stay for a few days. From there I’ll head on to Budapest, making Hungary my 30th country (well before the deadline of Saturday 8 July, when I’ll turn 30). I’ll then fly back to the UK on Thursday 29 June, meaning I have a few days to relax before starting my new job in London the following week. Double hooray.
What’s not “hooray” however, is the cost of all this travel. Which would soon mount up if I wasn’t being super careful…
I’ve mentioned before on the blog that I used to work at MoneySavingExpert, one of the UK’s biggest consumer websites. Therefore money-saving runs in my blood, and over the years I’ve learnt lots of ways to keep travel costs (as well as other household bills and expenses) as low as possible. I constantly look for deals, price glitches and loopholes so I can get cheap flights, cheap package holidays and cheap hotels. I even look for the cheapest airport parking and research where to get the cheapest travel money before I head off.
With all my money-saving prowess in force, so far these last two countries have cost me £102 in flights and £48 in airport parking. I’ve yet to book my accommodation in Berlin (if you have any suggestions, please leave a comment below), but my 4-night stay in a hotel in Budapest has cost me absolutely nothing.
That’s right, I’ve not paid a penny to stay at the Soho Boutique Hotel – saving me a whopping £607 according to Booking.com.
How did I manage to book a stay at this 4 star hotel in the centre of Budapest, with excellent transport links and a complimentary buffet breakfast?
Well, it all goes back to my MoneySavingExpert days, where I worked with this money-saving fanatic, Jenny. Jenny was amazing, an inspiration to me. She would save money on everything, rarely paying full price for anything. You name it, Jenny had a coupon, a discount code, a sale or a deal for it.
One day back in 2011, when she started talking about TopCashback and how great it was for saving money on things, I thought I’d look into it more. If you’re not familiar with cashback websites, essentially they use affiliate links to track sales online, and when a purchase with a retailer is confirmed, you earn back a percentage of the money spent. It doesn’t always work (sometimes there are tracking issues, for example), so the cashback is never 100% guaranteed, but it is a potential way of getting money off products and services that you would buy online anyway.
I was apprehensive at first; I didn’t like the idea of a third-party tracking what I was buying over the internet (not that I was buying anything dodgy, more that I didn’t want them knowing details about car insurance and the like). But I joined anyway, and after chats with Natasha (the PR lady and TopCashback guru), I found quick and easy ways to start building up my cash balance.
In my first year as a member on the site I made over £100 cashback. But rather than withdrawing my cash into my bank account, Jenny had a better idea…
Heeding Jenny’s expert advice, instead of withdrawing my balance I converted my cashback into Tesco Clubcard points (a shopping reward scheme in the UK). By doing it this way I actually got a “bonus”, so got more points than I would have done if I’d just taken the cash. It didn’t stop there though.
I then began to build up my Clubcard points balance. Again, hanging on every word Jenny said, I waited for Tesco Clubcard points exchange events to change my points into Avios air miles with British Airways. This made them worth 4x what they would have been as standard Clubcard points.
Those Avois points could then be used to pay for flights, hotels, package holidays and days out. It sounds complicated, I know. Here’s an illustrative example to show how it worked:
- Spend £100 on ASOS online via TopCashback, earning 10% cashback = £10
- Withdraw £10 cashback as Tesco Clubcard points (back then TopCashback offered a point for every penny converted into Clubcard points), and given a 5% bonus = 1,050 Clubcard points
- With Tesco Clubcard, every point is worth a penny, so 1,050 points is £10.50 of vouchers. Back then £2.50 worth of vouchers would get you 600 Avios points. But…
- Use the vouchers in the Clubcard exchange event (happened twice a year) to get 4x what they were originally worth. So £2.50 of vouchers becomes 2,400 Avois points, and therefore £10 of vouchers becomes 9,600 Avois points.
In this example, with a single purchase of £100 on ASOS, doing it Jenny’s way, I’d collect enough points for a one-way flight from London to Paris with British Airways (minus taxes, as these still have to be paid).
Fast-forward six years to today, and I’ve earned over £600 of cashback, simply from going via TopCashback every time I shop online. I’ve earned cashback from hotel bookings, insurance policies, food shops – I’ve even earned cashback from signing up for a free trial to a dating website.
By converting at least two-thirds of this cashback into Avios points (as well as collecting air miles the traditional way by actually flying with British Airways), by the beginning of 2017 I had a balance of over 42,000 points – enough to get me return flights to LA.
I used some of these to pay for tickets to the Guinness Storehouse when my (now ex) boyfriend and I went to Dublin for the weekend in February. But other than that, I’ve never spent any, hanging onto them for a special occasion. That is until now.
In light of Hungary being my 30th country in my mission to visit 30 countries before I’m 30, I’ve gone all out and used 35,000 points to pay for my stay at the super swanky Soho Boutique Hotel, saving me a mammoth £607 on accommodation costs. And if the pictures in this post (all taken from Booking.com) are anything to go by, I think it’ll be a stay worth every point.
Unfortunately the “TopCashback to Tesco Clubcard” points route is no longer available (perhaps the bods in charge wised up to what Jenny and I were doing?), but there are still plenty of other ways you can save and earn money using TopCashback.
If you’d like to find out more and join the scheme, please use this referral link: www.topcashback.co.uk/ref/beccajtalbot. This will earn you a £5 Debenhams gift card, and me £10 cashback (which I can put towards further travelling).
Have you ever used air miles or reward schemes to pay for your travel? If you’ve got any tips or tricks on how to get great discounts on hotels, flights and other travel related costs, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.