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I have been traveling for business a lot over the past number of years. And although I travel for work, I still enjoy traveling for pleasure as well. What I love even more is being able to travel for free or very inexpensively.

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When I first began traveling for business, it wasn’t that often. And what I realize now is that I missed many opportunities just because I didn’t understand the secrets to making travel work to my advantage. So whether you travel rarely, occasionally or quite often, these same tips for low-cost travel can work for you.The main secret is simple: sign up for the various free loyalty programs or cards offered by the various businesses in the travel industry. Get one for each hotel chain, airline and rental car company; there is never a fee for signing up. The “cost” is providing your contact information, but you can streamline this as well by setting up a separate e-mail account specifically for these programs.

Loyalty Cards

Once you get the card, store it with all of the similar cards that you might use while traveling.  I have a separate card case for all of them and when I hit the road (business or personal) I throw the case in my bag. If I haven’t made my own reservation or didn’t have the number when I did, I just provide the card as I check in and they add my travel points to my account for me. And in some cases, you can double-dip in order to earn points in multiple programs for a single transaction. Most of the programs now have points that don’t expire, so over time the points will add up.

Although providing the travel companies with an alternative e-mail address helps segregate and organize your regular inbox, don’t ignore it completely. Often there are special programs or deals that you have to sign up for to participate in. Depending on your travel plans, these special e-mail rewards can greatly speed up your point accumulation.

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Also, being loyal is another way to significantly speed up the process of earning rewards. When I first started traveling I flew on all the airlines, trying the find the best combination of schedule and cost. But then one year, I had flown enough on Delta that I reached their first status level. That was kind of cool in and of itself, but on the next flight I was upgraded to first-class – for free!!

“A luxury once tasted quickly becomes a necessity.” – Ken Davis

As I looked closer, the difference between the cheaper flight and the flight on my preferred airline was relatively small. But more importantly, what I discovered was that loyal program participants often earn rewards faster.

This really hit home a few years ago when I discovered I was able to provide airline flights for four people and a pair of hotel rooms for two nights as a donation to our church so members could attend a conference in Kansas City, all for an out-of-pocket expense of $40! The following year I was able to do the same thing again, we just had to use a different hotel chain.

So take some advice from these tricks for low-cost travel: sign up for loyalty programs the next time you travel. Before you know it, the rewards will start building up. And then that dream vacation may be possible for very little cash!